Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Solitary Confinement a Form of Torture?

Today's question is from someone else: Atul Gawande asked, in an essay in last week's New Yorker (here), whether solitary confinement is a form of torture. His answer, following his review of the practice and its effects on prisoners, is a fairly unqualified yes.

Gawande's evidence shows that some individuals who undergo long-term solitary confinement suffer brain damage; some of them become near-catatonic. Most of the article is anecdotal, but Gawande also relies on scientific studies:
"EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests.

The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury."
Gawande discusses both Terry Anderson and John McCain in the essay, along with other lesser known prisoners who reveal how the experience of solitary confinement damaged them permanently.

165. Do death penalty opponents (I am thinking specifically of the group that's active in Virginia and, more specifically, Charlottesville) also advocate against solitary confinement?

166. In light of all of the discussion about torture the past several years, is anyone in the Justice Department (or elsewhere in the federal government) arguing for a US ban against solitary confinement, at least in its extreme form?

167. Gawande asserts that a number of prison administrators are actually against solitary confinement but do not feel that opposing it is politically acceptable ... is this accurate, or did he just find a few administrators who supported his position?

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