George Will Discovers Solitary Confinement
I’ve been quite critical over the years of George Will. While he was my favorite columnist for many years, and I still enjoy watching him on the “This Week” roundtable, he’s written quite a few stinkers in recent years (cf: blue jeans, man boys, judicial activism, and anything he’s every written about climate change). But his latest, “When Solitude is Torture,” demonstrates why he should still have space on one of the country’s most important editorial pages.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” a nominee for Sunday’s Oscar for Best Picture, reignited debate about whether the waterboarding of terrorism suspects was torture. This practice, which ended in 2003, was used on only three suspects. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Noting that half of all prison suicides are committed by prisoners held in isolation, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has prompted an independent assessment of solitary confinement in federal prisons. State prisons are equally vulnerable to Eighth Amendment challenges concerning whether inmates are subjected to “substantial risk of serious harm.”
America, with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners. Mass incarceration, which means a perpetual crisis of prisoners re-entering society, has generated understanding of solitary confinement’s consequences when used as a long-term condition for an estimated 25,000 inmates in federal and state “supermax” prisons — and perhaps 80,000 others in isolation sections within regular prisons. Clearly, solitary confinement involves much more than the isolation of incorrigibly violent individuals for the protection of other inmates or prison personnel.
Anyone who’s seen “Cool Hand Luke” knows that much:
Them clothes got laundry numbers on them. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends a night in the box. These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There’s no playing grab-ass or fighting in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playing grab-ass or fighting in the building spends a night in the box. First bell’s at five minutes of eight when you will get in your bunk. Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends the night in the box. There is no smoking in the prone position in bed. To smoke you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smoking in the prone position in bed… spends a night in the box. You get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top… the top sheet on the bottom… and the bottom sheet you turn in to the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one’ll sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sitting on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don’t bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud talking spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me. I’m Carr, the floor walker. I’m responsible for order in here. Any man don’t keep order spends a night in…
While Will’s a little late to the party here, it’s good to see him coloring outside the lines here instead of hammering away at forty-year-old cultural tropes.
It’s not so much that I agree with him, although I do (see my December 2010 post “Solitary Confinement as Torture“) as that he’s willing to take on an important issue that gets very little attention, do so in a way that’s likely to offend the sensibilities of his core readership, and yet reap little reward for bipartisan comity since most liberals ignore the issue, too.
Our horrendous prison conditions–where rape and sodomy are the effective sentences for even minor drug offenses–should be a national outrage. Instead, like the drone issue, they’re hardly debated at all and share wide, bipartisan support with Glenn Greenwald and myself being odd allies in opposition.
If Will can use his soap box to get people to care about this issue, I’ll forgive him his droning on about the good old days when men were men and only boys wore blue jeans.