A Culture Of Cruelty

Atul Gawande’s long article on prisons and solitary makes for disturbing reading:

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

Prison reform is a serious sleeper issue in this country and it’s a cause I’m glad to join Glenn Reynolds in supporting. We have become unbalanced between necessary punishment and casual cruelty. And no fight against torture of terror suspects can ignore the culture which allowed it to seem almost unexceptional. Ross takes a few shots at fellow conservatives:

…as you might expect, a policy turn undertaken during a period of emergency will eventually produce diminishing returns – as Steven Levitt puts it, "the two-millionth criminal imprisoned is likely to impose a much smaller crime burden on society than the first prisoner" – even as it imposes substantial moral costs. And precisely because the tough-on-crime approach was largely vindicated by events, it’s extremely difficult for elected officials to walk back from some of the dubious practices that have grown up around it – like, say, the possibly cruel-and-unusual use of long-term solitary confinement.

In Prison In Texas

A double-whammy:

Long-term solitary confinement produces an assortment of psychological reactions. Few prisoners are unaffected … Many prisoners have been placed on antipsychotic drugs. Most of these individuals are not suffering from the normal, or common, mental issues. They are developing stress, depression, and psychotic behavior that is a product of the treatment, conditions, and isolation they are forced to live with. Many people are unable to cope.

The prison responds in a two-fold manner. The warden and his administration handle the prisoner’s physical placement and respond to any security concerns. The medical staff, which is under different management, deals with the mental complications that result from whatever the administration inflicts on its captives.

The guards walk the runs, provoking, harassing, and subjecting the prisoners to often idiotic enforcement of petty rules, and new, or otherwise never-before-enforced policies that are ever-changing and designed to torment. The psychological staff makes occasional rounds, or walk-throughs, with clipboards, inquiring in an uncaring way about each prisoners’ well-being. “How are you doing today?” to which most people normally just tell them to get the fuck on, or “bump it on down.” …it is obvious to even the most seriously mentally ill inmate in this prison that they are calloused and uncaring concerning our circumstances and the way we are being treated.

Solitary Confinement for the Innocent

The Bush administration does it again. Many detainees at Gitmo have been released – because they were never guilty of anything, merelky subkect to bounty-hunters in Pakistan. Among these victims of circumstance are thirteen Chinese Uighurs, none of whom ever intended any terrorist activity against the U.S. The government knows they are innocent so what does it do? it does what one has come to expect from the Bush presidency – it has locked them up in round-the-clock solitary confinement, something that, according to their lawyers in an affidavit earlier this week, is "rapidly degrading their mental health." Money quote from Obsidian Wings:

These men were captured by bounty hunters nearly five years ago. They are in all likelihood innocent of any crime, and of any act against the United States; they have certainly never been tried and convicted of any. We have held them in captivity since then, away from their wives and families. If they returned home now, their children probably wouldn’t recognize them – and as those of you who have kids will surely recognize, those are some of the saddest words there are.

And now, for some unfathomable reason, we have decided to lock them up in solitary, where we are driving them insane. Even if they were guilty, this would be wrong: having your mind and your spirit broken apart should not be the penalty for any crime. Our government is doing it to the innocent.

Hey, they’re terrorists. Because … er … we say so.