George Will Discovers Solitary Confinement
George Will declares solitary confinement tantamount to torture.
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.
Ah, yes, George Will.
It’s interesting that now apparently he fancies himself as a legal scholar. Postulating about the 8th Amendment and such. Of course if you sat Will down and gave him a MBE-level exam on criminal law and criminal procedure he’d need a puppet show and a flow chart maybe to get about 10% of the questions correct.
In any case, whenever I see siren songs like Will’s I’m reminded of when the ACLU a few years ago got themselves all verklempt about the proliferation of Taser guns and suspects frequently being tased into submission in connection with arrests. The ACLU was concerned that the absence of gunshot and baton wounds would make it far more difficult for them to prove police brutality in connection with Sec. 1983 cases. Seriously. No, seriously, that was their concern. They’re that loopy. They’re that liberal. BIRM.
Prisoners don’t get into solitary by accident. There is the category of incorrigibly violent people who must be held in solitary to prevent them, you know, from killing their fellow inmates. The “Pelican Bay” demographic. So there’s that. Then there are those who manufacturer reasons to get themselves into solitary for strategic purposes, so to speak. If your choice is get shanked or raped by your cellmate solitary would be the better option, no? Or if a contract has been put out on your life, for one reason or another, obviously solitary is your only realistic option. So you pick a fight or intentionally get caught with contraband to get yourself into solitary.
There are those who are put into solitary protective custody because otherwise they’ll nearly instantly be killed by their fellow inmates. The pedophile demographic. Then there are a small number of those who are kept in solitary because even if solitary was “torture” so be it. The Jose Padilla demographic.
We could eliminate tomorrow the entire concept of solitary confinement. And then George Will and his ilk would feel good about themselves and would be able to preen and pose at cocktail parties. Then literally that same day a whole bunch of prisoners would be sodomized and then strangled and stabbed to death. And the left not only would not be able to connect the obvious dots they would not be able even to grasp the obvious irony.
It was only 18 years ago that the movie ‘Murder in the First’ came out. Reportedly based on a true story, it delved deeply into solitary confinement (3 years) and the psychological impact of institutional torture.
But it is good George has noticed even the so-called appropriate use of solitary has its torture issues.
Tsar, there is a difference between administrative segregation and solitary confinement.
@Tsar Nicholas: “Prisoners don’t get into solitary by accident. There is the category of incorrigibly violent people who must be held in solitary to prevent them, you know, from killing their fellow inmates.”
Fuck you and your inability to actually understand issues, Tsar.
People get placed in solitary confinement because they come from the wrong neighborhood, previously belonged to a gang, were in the system before, aren’t Christian, or are gay. People have died in solitary confinement for no reason other than they crossed a guard. Prisoners placed in solitary have no way to force a review of their status, and solitary is used to torture people for months, years, even decades. Indeed, people have spend decades in solitary confinement placed there because they were “dangerous killers” who therefore needed to be segregated from the rest of the population only to be found innocent of any crimes.
On behalf of those people, and on behalf of everyone who has a damaged psyche because people like you are too chickenshit to understand what prison is like and have an “I got mine!” attitude, go fuck yourself.
That’s the system we’ve embraced, and it’s largely because we’ve decided to outsource imprisonment rather than face crime and punishment as the social issues they are. It’s horrific that the only gubernatorial campaigns willing to discuss prison are the ones presenting the same backwards and discredited “tough on crime” bullshit that’s been around since the ’30s, where prisoners “learn their lesson” by doing “hard time.”
I think it’s pretty obviously torture. Torture of the mind (as well as the body, if you’re locked in a dark room for 23 hrs a day, that can’t be good for your phsyical state either).
And yes, James, it’s definitely a neglected issue. It’s not quite just you & Greenwald (and Balko, I have to think as well) but it’s certainly a minority position. That minority is split between ideological extremes. Seems to me it’s hard to actually form a working alliance between far left and right. They need more people like you and me (but not really me – a more influential me) to bridge the gap. Hence your praise of Will, I know. So I shall join you: bravo, George Will.
American Exceptionalism, baby! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Great post, James, on a much neglected issue.
Anytime you get to write a post and pull a quote from “Cool Hand Luke” it’s a winner.
We have to be better at something, don’t we?
Fine points, and your comment regarding how America treats prisoners is spot on. Two points:
1. Americans – liberal, conservative, the lot – must expend some intellectual energy and courage to buck the insidious encroachment of incarceration as punishment only. This is mighty tough to do, especially considering some of the truly despicable actions committed by awful human beings – but (as you point out) not all prisoners fit that description and are good candidates for rehabilitation. “Rehabilitation” = “mollycoddling” is facile and all-too-accepted by broad swaths of society.
2. There have been several recent reports regarding prisoner labor schemes that provide perverse incentives to an already troubled system. Yes, great, have prisoners perform work for pennies – – that will really help out law-abiding Americans looking for work!
It’s another neglected issue. Why do we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners? It’s insane. You can get locked up in the United States — that bastion of freedom and liberty — for more things and for more time than in almost any other country on Earth.
Hey, jail for downloading a song. Jail for unlocking your phone. Obama had to give something to his Hollywood and big business supporters.
Which is why we need smaller, less intrusive government especially on the federal level. And we don’t need anymore major legislation. What until they get working on the crimes against Obamacare.
Oh, and as I’ve said repeatedly, bureaucracies are evil.
@Tsar Nicholas: “The ACLU was concerned that the absence of gunshot and baton wounds would make it far more difficult for them to prove police brutality in connection with Sec. 1983 cases. Seriously. No, seriously, that was their concern. They’re that loopy. They’re that liberal. BIRM. ”
And since then, how many citizens have been tortured by Taser for the offense of not giving cops sufficient respect? Have many have died from Tasering?
The use of Tasers by cops is a national disgrace. Of course, to you it’s “loopy” to care about such things.
There’s a good point lurking in there somewhere, but you diminish it when you rail against things that don’t really happen (jail for unlocking your phone? Really?) and place the blame at the foot of the guy elected in 2008.
From Andersonville to Attica, the US has been fairly consistent in treating its prisoners like dirt. It’s just now we have so many more of them.
Solitary confinement was used extensively on prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan along with stress positions. Will would have a lot more credibility if he called it torture then. Still, I will take it. It will still be needed for the most violent offenders, but using it casually like it was for Manning should not be allowed.
@Rafer Janders: It’s called the war on drugs!
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.” — Charles Dickens
Like all of Will’s work…this is more BS. He has a PhD in it…Piled Hire and Deeper.
More than 3 people were waterboarded…that claim doesn’t even pass the giggle test.
Let’s just stipulate that the number of people tortured does not lessen the charge of torture.
Let’s just stipulate that waterboarding one person 183 times does not satisfy the “ticking time-bomb” excuse.
I fear Will is part of a dying breed of conservative – moving toward the right side of history, albeit painfully slowly.
Today’s conservative leaders are, shall we say, far less likely to evolve their positions.
Remember the phrase about justice-delayed being justice-denied? I cannot imagine somebody coining that phrase in the current environment.
You do realize that Will has both an MA from Oxford and a PhD from Princeton (a real PhD, not an honorary one), yes? Say what you will about his opinions, he’s not stupid.
I read somewhere, don’t remember where so no link, that we have a higher percentage of our black population in prison than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
You do realize, the same can not be said for Tsar?
Ha! Of course, Tsar realizes that. How do you think he knew about Will’s desire to “preen and pose at cocktail parties?”
Unfortunately, any politician who tries to fix the problem will be immediately attacked from the right as “being soft on prisoners!”
We’ve been using prison as our dumping ground for the mentally ill for years.
Until both of these issues are addressed, we won’t be able to solve anything.
@James Pearce (Formerly Known as Herb):
It’s true, even NPR laments the impotence of Obama on the matter:
But it is true, you can now go to jail for unlocking your phone
Here’s a more complete video discussion
Has there been any polling on this? I would guess prison reform is relatively uncontroversial on the left. While the Dem politicians mostly still run scared from drug decriminalization efforts, I seriously doubt implicit / explicit support for prison rape as an unofficial part of criminal punishment has any real support on he left. Under the current admin, DoJ & DHS has issued tougher prison rape & sexual assault prevention guidances / rules.
Right. And prison reform aside, if we were serious about gun violence we’d shut it down.
Do you think it will magically become something other than moronic if you repeat it often enough?
The one thing we all seem to agree on is that the war on drugs is a tragic mistake. I know that Obama’s embrace of it has been, for me, the single biggest disappointment of his presidency.
How can we move forward towards an America without the failed “war on drugs”?
@anjin-san: He only objects to government bureaucracies which are clearly evil. Corporate bureaucracies are quite alright with him as they are in service to the Great and Moral God called Profit.
I say we slip all the WoD warriors a tray of brownies. That oughta do the trick.
I discussed corporate bureaucracies with JKB. Not surprisingly, his answers suggested that his conception of the business world is largely shaped by Atlas Shrugged and right wing rant sites.
What exactly is the alternative when dealing with individuals who demonstrate that they are a danger to other inmates or prison staff?
DRUGS! And if that doesn’t work…. MORE DRUGS!!!
More seriously, Will addresses that question, at least obliquely, here:
He recognizes that it can be necessary for the “protection of other inmates or prison personnel.” What he is saying is that what we have here is way beyond that.
Ugh. You must be possessed of a saintly patience…. either that or you were just possessd.
So, it’s ok to torture the incorrigibly violent?
@Septimius: Like I said: DRUGS! and if that doesn’t work MORE DRUGS!!!
But seeing as you so obviously want to catch me and other liberals here in a moment of hypocrisy, let me turn that question around: Is it OK with you to inflict the incorrigibly violent on the rest of a prison’s populace? Because what is the real world alternative? And take note, I am looking for real world alternatives, not Randian fantasies.
It’s possible to physically isolate the “incorrigibly violent” without socially or sensorially isolating them. You could put them in a single person holding area while still allowing them to communicate with other prisoners as well as accessing media/recreation.
@Septimius: “What exactly is the alternative when dealing with individuals who demonstrate that they are a danger to other inmates or prison staff?”
It’s clear that these people need to be removed from the situation, but:
1) The very name lies about the reality of solitary confinement: it’s not just being confined alone, it’s being denied human contact in all forms. Implementation is highly relevant in these situations. It’s inarguable that a violent inmate needs to have no access to the means of implementing violence on others; it’s also inarguable that denial of further human contact goes well beyond that condition.
2) Solitary confinement is treated in this country as “the only option”, and you make the same mistake with the assertion above. Places like the UK have prison systems, they have dangerous inmates, and they almost never use anything even analogous to the US version of solitary confinement. There are many, many, many other ways of managing inmate violence and dangers; the US just leans on the cheapest option because it’s good for business.
Man…..I knew you were going to link to that Reason video.
It’s stuff like this that makes Reason the magazine for weak minds. They really do think you’re stupid. And I dunno….maybe they’re right. Do us all a favor and look into this one a little more, ignoring the sources that think you’re stupid, and then come back and explain how rulings from the copyright office are insufficient cause to worry about jail time.
A. Antipsychotic drugs only work on people with psychoses. Most violent criminals in prison are not psychotic in that sense. They often have a very rational (at least in prison culture) reason for committing violence against other inmates or staff.
B. Keeping violent inmates sedated in a drug stupor would certainly limit their propensity to harm others, but would also make them a target for other inmates. Also, I’m sure it would be argued that keeping someone drugged up all the time is torture as well.
My question is legitimate. George Will didn’t offer any alternative. He just declared that solitary confinement is torture without offering any solution for what you do with the incorrigibly violent. If it’s torture, it’s torture and should be banned. Again, what do you do with these people? I’m not sure that there is any alternative.
Your question is definitely legitimate. Pray tell, where is your alternative?
In truth I fully expected you to offer the alternative of the death penalty. The fact that you didn’t means you saw the trap I laid for you. Fair enuf. I saw the trap you laid for me. Turnabout is fair play.
Hat tip 😉
Look, I am not a psychologist. I do not know the ins and outs of what we are talking about. I do not have a f*ckn clue how one “physically isolate the “incorrigibly violent” without socially or sensorially isolating them”. Maybe you can explain it to me?
This is rather rich coming from someone who claims to be a lawyer but who has amply illustrated that he can’t legally argue his way out of a paper bag, much less in an actual courtroom…
…followed a little bit later with this…
…only showcases that JKB is nothing more than an anti-Obama hack who appears to be as confused as Tsar Nicholas…
And let me double down on my sarcasm:
@Septimius: I have to say “thank you”. I have not listened to that in almost 30 years…. maybe more… Damn…. I’m getting old.
One column does not a transformation make. I see Will has a new column up on WAPO this evening. His usual mix of exaggeration, obfuscation, misdirection, and gratuitous Global Warming denial.
@ptfe: Dude, Tsar is retarded. Notice how he consistently manages to get the first comment in new posts? He’s an unemployed douche getting his only kicks in life from trolling blogs twenty-four hours a day (althoug he himself has claimed to be a lawyer/trade expert/constitutional scholar/singing princess/astronaut.
Ignore him and he’ll go away.
George Will was a terrific writer in 1980´s. At that time, it was possible to pay the bills being a national syndicated columnist, and writers like Mike Royko, Tom Wicker and Garry Wills enriched newspapers(Today, Garry Wills writes for the New York Review of Books).
So, George Will could afford to attack Republicans – in 1988, he was pretty warm to Dukakis, he attacked Reagan due to the deficits. He could not do the same thing today because he would be labeled as a RINO.
In part, that´s a problem of market. Any well-reasoned and anti-doctrinaire Conservative has no space today.
And I think that age also matters a lot.
just think if we legalized weed, how many of these prisoners would never have been there? one seemingly bad choice can easily lead to many more down the road, and the cycle never stops for them.
@Ben Wolf: Alas, ignoring him has yet to successfully remove the guy from our midst, and it’s pretty clear that he actually relishes the 30+ downvotes to every comment. He obviously truly enjoys banging on keys to make words, breaking up the word jumble with sentence and paragraph indicators, and ultimately producing a modestly long comment with less content than a blank page.
@Andre Kenji: You’ve apparently read a lot more George Will than I have. I still remember the first time I ever read a George Will column, in the 70s. I read it by mistake. I glanced at it and thought the byline was Gary Wills. If you don’t know Gary Wills, he was trained as a Jesuit, his research is thorough and his arguments are tightly reasoned. Three paragraphs in I’m thinking, “WTF, did Wills go senile?”
Early in his first term Obama had dinner with several conservative pundits. George Will hosted at his 1.9 million dollar home in Chevy Chase. JK Galbraith had a line to the effect that shilling for the rich pays a lot better than crusading for the truth. Will has been very well paid. Given how strained his AGW denialism is, you have to assume he’s getting something under the table from the oil and coal industries.
@ptfe: really, a few miscues don’t make the entire system bad, and it does take some work to actually get sentenced to “hard-time”. aside from our terrible “war on drugs” and the victims of it that are in prison there’s also those who profited from it with extreme violence & depravity, and those people would find some other means of getting in either way. they’re the sociopaths who will never be able to live within any kind of functional society.
as far as solitary confinement goes, prisons need to protect their prisoners too- it’s a liability to allow known and repeat offenders to prey on the rest.
maybe if they could form chain gangs or allow them to do some menial work aside from body building and filing appeal upon appeal then they wouldn’t be so bored? that wouldn’t go over well with the unionized sector though, taking jobs from them is even more criminal.
You can put them in a single person cell, while still allowing them to talk and see prisoners in the surrounding cells, as well as to have access to books, tv, magazines, arts and crafts supplies, a light, a window, etc.
@Andre Kenji: “So, George Will could afford to attack Republicans – in 1988, he was pretty warm to Dukakis, he attacked Reagan due to the deficits.”
Sure he did — at exactly the same time he was coaching Reagan for the debates using a stolen Democratic playbook, and then writing about Reagan’s great performance without mentioning his own role.
He was a hack and a whore then; he’s a hack and a whore now.
The fact that we’re all pleasantly astonished that this piece was written by George Will proves he should have been kicked off his post a long time ago. There are many other insightful commentators who could, in their sleep, compellingly argue that solitude is torture. And none of those commentators would say anything nearly as idiotic as George Will’s comments on climate change, energy policy and a host of other issues.
How about a higher standard for our most prominent columnists? How about we give those prime positions to people who have a better track record of being right?