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Solitary Confinement as Torture

Glenn Greenwald‘s essay touting “The inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention” has been linked just about everyone and garnered 15k Facebook likes.   The piece is rather long but the essence is that the accused WikiLeaker has, for the past seven months, been held “under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture.”  To wit:

Manning been held in intensive solitary confinement.  For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell.  Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.  For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).  For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.

My initial reaction to this, roughly, was Boo Frickin’ Hoo.   Manning has, to a high degree of probability, violated his sacred trust as a custodian of the secrets of the United States and committed crimes for which he will almost surely spend the remainder of his days in prison.

But Amanda Marcotte turned my attention to Atul Gawande’s March 2009 New Yorker piece arguing that long-term solitary confinement constitutes torture.  After exploring the psychological literature a bit, powerful anecdotal evidence of the deprivations of loneliness sufferred by sailors, astronauts, hostages, and others are put forth.  This one in particular is salient and pithy:

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

Solitary confinement has its uses.   Protective custody is the most obvious case: sometimes, a prisoner is in danger and segregating him from the rest of the population is the lesser of evils.  Punishment for severe transgressions of prison rules is another; a short stint in solitary can serve as an effective attitude adjustment.   And, of course, segregating high value intelligence assets so they can’t conspire with their fellow inmates to concoct lies is standard procedure.   But these are all short duration, controlled situations.

But Manning has reportedly been a model prisoner.  Whatever intelligence he hasn’t already leaked has surely been ascertained by now.  So, on the surface, this just looks like he’s being screwed with to be taught a lesson.

Now, again, Manning is a less than sympathetic figure.  But month after month of solitary confinement and deprivation well beyond what we give convicts on death row strikes me as cruel and inhuman punishment.  And Manning merely stands accused of crimes.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Jonathan Pollard = seven years in solitary.

    Is Jonathan Pollard now insane?

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  2. Ugh says:

    So, on the surface, this just looks like he’s being screwed with to be taught a lesson.

    That and it looks like they’re hoping the prospect of better treatment in custody (before any kind of trial or conviction, mind you) will get him to incriminate Assange, whether or not there is any truth to that.

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  3. mantis says:

    At least Pollard was convicted. Manning hasn’t even had a trial yet.

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  4. John425 says:

    I read that somewhere along the line Manning has admitted to being the WIkiLeaker. Am I correct on that?

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  5. Trumwill says:

    Manning is about as bad example as you can come by for eliciting sympathy. That doesn’t change the deleterious effects of solitary confinement, though.

    (I find it a bit ironic that you broach this subject on the same day you cite the “hell is other people” quote on Twitter. Intended?)

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  6. george says:

    Has he been convicted? Its hard to believe they could keep him in solitary for seven months without a trial.

    And why forbid exercise?

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Trumwill: Nah, it was just a natural response to Pearson’s observation. A pithy and famous catch-all beats bitching about specifics.

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  8. Crust says:

    @George:

    Has he been convicted?

    No.

    It’s hard to believe they could keep him in solitary for seven months without a trial.

    That just seems to be how we roll these days.

    And why forbid exercise?

    The same reason he is denied a pillow and sheets. Presumably to try to get him to be more cooperative in going after Assange and/or simple vindictiveness.

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  9. davod says:

    I believe the Haditha Marines were kept in solitary. Mind you, they were also getting the third degree from whoever was investigating the alleged crimes.

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  10. Brian Knapp says:

    If the account is true, it is below the standards we give to any other US citizen, even if they are a child rapist, serial murderer, terrorist, etc.

    Even disciplinary segregation or administrative segregation (23 hr lockdown) allow reading material (not necessarily news), phone calls, legal material, paper, pencils, showers, soap, hygiene materials, exercise (in-cell all you want!) pillow, blanket, mattress, and sometimes special food items (candy, snacks, etc.), and visitation (particularly for those who haven’t been tried). Showers, phone calls, and outside-the-cell exercise happen on the 1hr rec time.

    Of course, this is based on my experience and study for non-military detention.

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  11. mike says:

    he may get a lot of Article 13 credit for this which is credit for any type of inhumane or degrading treatment – the judge could give him any amount of credit he or she deems worthy

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  12. Al Bullock says:

    Sob sisters are in full attack. In as many countries he would have been taken outside and shot..

    He should be convicted of treason and sent to the military wing of Leavenworth. After several momths of gang rape he will be crying for solitary.

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  13. An Interested Party says:

    “In as many countries he would have been taken outside and shot..”

    Yes, of course, because we should aspire to the great heights of places like Iran, China, or Russia…

    “After several momths of gang rape he will be crying for solitary.”

    That sure would teach him, wouldn’t it? Nothing like a little gang rape to serve as “justice”…

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    Bullock:

    I don’t know if you’re just some sniveling teenager trying to sound like a man, or just a pathetic, faux-macho douchebag, but either way, if you want to live in a country where the government executes people without trial or arranges gang rape as a punishment for crimes, then by all means move to Iran.

    All you’re doing in the United States of America — the land of the free, the land of law — is stink the place up.

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  15. TG Chicago says:

    Mr. Joyner, why did you need to go to Amanda Marcotte’s twitter to learn about the Atul Gawande article? Greenwald links to and quotes from the exact same article.

    Did you not bother to read the Greenwald article that you’re commenting on? I know his article was “rather long”, but that’s because he likes to put forth an airtight case. He includes substantial evidence to back up his claims. He’s a lawyer, and he blogs like a guy who’s always trying to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.

    If you want to rebut someone’s article — especially someone as thorough as Greenwald — you’d be wise to actually read the whole thing. Otherwise you might look a bit foolish.

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  16. TG Chicago says:

    @Trumwill: “Manning is about as bad example as you can come by for eliciting sympathy.”

    Really? We share a world with murderers, rapists, child molesters, people who kidnap others and keep them in their basement for years to torture them, war criminals, etc etc,, yet you really think Manning is the “worst of the worst”?

    It’s fine to criticize him, and of course the government is entitled to prosecute him. But even if he’s guilty, you have to consider the fact that his motives, at least, were quite noble.

    Let’s not forget that he released the “Collateral Murder” video and other information which showed the governmental malfeasance in regards to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, he showed that US tax dollars were funneled into an Afghan pedophilia ring. And that American officials were aware of it, but were keeping it quiet.

    You really can’t think of a less sympathetic person than a guy who helped to expose a pedophila ring? He’s worse than the actual pedophiles?

    I hope you’ll reconsider.

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  17. Trumwill says:

    We share a world with murderers, rapists, child molesters, people who kidnap others and keep them in their basement for years to torture them, war criminals, etc etc,, yet you really think Manning is the “worst of the worst”?

    Evidently, I erred on the side of brevity.

    He’s not a bad example because he’s the worst person ever. He’s a bad example because a lot of people believe what he did is okay (or heroic, even). In that sense, a more despicable person is a better example. Use a pedophile-murderer and (unless you have a history with NAMBLA) I know you’re just making the case that nobody – however bad – deserves this. Use Manning as an example and I don’t know if you’re outraged that this is happening (to anyone) or if you are suggesting that Manning deserves leniency because what he did wasn’t all that bad.

    Thus, he is a really, really bad example.

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  18. Franklin says:

    There are parallels here with the sensory deprivation that we’ve applied to terrorism suspects. The permanent psychological damage is quite real – even if some Internet Tough Guys like Mr. Bullock don’t believe it.

    Anyway, if Manning hasn’t had his day in court yet, he may not be fit to do so when it arrives.

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  19. I find this situation problematic (to put it mildly) on a number of levels.

    The fact that he is being subjected to such treatment prior to trial and sans conviction makes it all the more unconscionable.

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  20. george says:

    Bullock: “Sob sisters are in full attack. In as many countries he would have been taken outside and shot..”

    Sure saves money on trials and the like. If we applied it to everything we’d save a fortune right? I bet the number of jay-walkers would decrease exponentially.

    “He should be convicted of treason and sent to the military wing of Leavenworth. After several momths of gang rape he will be crying for solitary.”

    Curiously enough apparently he hasn’t even gone to court, let alone been convicted of anything … not that that’s any reason not to punish him. America was founded on the idea that its authorities had the kind of infallible judgement that made things like trials and the justice system unnecessary.

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  21. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago

    Did you not bother to read the Greenwald article that you’re commenting on? I know his article was “rather long”, but that’s because he likes to put forth an airtight case. He includes substantial evidence to back up his claims. He’s a lawyer, and he blogs like a guy who’s always trying to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.

    If you want to rebut someone’s article — especially someone as thorough as Greenwald — you’d be wise to actually read the whole thing. Otherwise you might look a bit foolish.

    First off, I’m not refuting Greenwald but agreeing with him. All I said was that my initial reaction was to be unpersuaded.

    Second, I read Glenn because he provides a different perspective in a manner that’s thoughtful. But he’s incredibly verbose by blog standards. A blog isn’t a jury trial and I feel no obligation to spend half an hour reading every post. I read as far as necessary — the title, the first paragraph, halfway through, the whole thing — to quench my interest. If the portion of the argument that would have persuaded me is seventeen paragraphs after I hit ABORT, that’s too bad.

    Matt Yglesias has a good dictum: One point per post. I don’t always follow it but I do keep it in mind.

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  22. Franklin says:

    But he’s incredibly verbose …

    Understatement of the Year.

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  23. TG Chicago says:

    “First off, I’m not refuting Greenwald but agreeing with him.”

    Right, but if not for the Marcotte tweet, you’d still be disagreeing with him.

    “All I said was that my initial reaction was to be unpersuaded.”

    And what I’m saying is that it’s a shame that you were unpersuaded since the evidence that persuaded you was right there in his post.

    Do you think Greenwald is unaware that there would be critics who would respond unfavorably to the idea of solitary confinement being inhumane or torturous? Do you think he failed to realize that some people would respond with “Boo Frickin’ Hoo”? Of course he knew that. So he made sure to combat that notion.

    You say that one point per post is a good dictum. The point to Greenwald’s post was “Bradley Manning is being held under inhumane conditions”. Everything else flows from that.

    “If the portion of the argument that would have persuaded me is seventeen paragraphs after I hit ABORT, that’s too bad.”

    The first four paragraphs of Greenwald’s post were his reporting about the basic facts of Manning’s detention. The explanation for why solitary confinement is torture — including the link to (and quote from) the Gawande article — is in paragraph 5. Given that you managed to post *eight* paragraphs on the subject (six written by you, two quoted), I would think getting to paragraph 5 of original reporting on the subject would not be such a chore.

    I want to stress this (at risk of causing you to hit ABORT on this comment): the first four paragraphs are *original reporting* — new information that has not been published elsewhere. Did you get all the way through them? To the point where Greenwald reports that “the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.”?

    If you did, then you only had to go two more sentences to get to the Gawande quote. If not, then you missed out on important new information about a matter upon which you chose to publicly opine.

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  24. James Joyner says:

    I’m not writing a thesis about Bradley Manning’s incarceration. A couple paragraphs of reading about it and my basic thought was, “Meh, what’s the big deal?”

    Marcotte managed to convey the persuasive bit in under 160 characters.

    At that point, I linked Glenn’s post and quoted from the intro. But, really, it’s not that we’re treating Bradley Manning per se badly that bothers me but rather that we’re subjecting a man merely accused of a crime to inhuman punishment. So, again, reading another 10,000 words on Manning’s plight really wasn’t necessary.

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  25. TG Chicago says:

    “A couple paragraphs of reading about it and my basic thought was, ‘Meh, what’s the big deal?'”

    Your question — “what’s the big deal?” — would have been answered if you’d read the 5th paragraph.

    It really never occurred to you that Greenwald would explain why solitary confinement is so bad? That part of the reason his post was long was because he wanted to clarify exactly that point?

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  26. James Joyner says:

    Again, if you haven’t piqued my interest four paragraphs into the post, that’s not my problem. There are hundreds of posts and articles on my plate every day. My instinct is to skip the ones that I’m not going to use as quickly as possible and move on to ones that I might.

    (The secondary use of my Google Reader account, though, is as a customized search engine. So, if I’m going to write about a topic at length later, I may well come back and read a post I only skimmed earlier.)

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  27. matt says:

    Wow James major props for taking on this issue and being on the right side :p

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  28. Stan says:

    Kudos to James Joyner for this thoughtful, humane post.

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  29. TG Chicago says:

    “Again, if you haven’t piqued my interest four paragraphs into the post, that’s not my problem.”

    The first four paragraphs were original reporting — completely new information about this subject. If they didn’t pique your interest, then this subject doesn’t interest you. Which raises the question of why you read his post in the first place, and why you posted about it yourself.

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