Solitary Punishment

I was just reading this editorial from the LA Times. It describes the conditions in which Pfc. Bradley Manning is facing during his detention. For those who don’t know him, Bradley Manning is the person suspected of providing classified documents to Wikileaks.

Nevertheless, Manning is in “maximum custody.” Also, under a “Protection of Injury” order, he is confined to his cell for 23 hours a day, even though his lawyer says a psychologist has determined he isn’t a threat to himself. His lawyer also says that Manning is denied sheets and is unable to exercise in his cell, and that he is not allowed to sleep between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he is made to sit up or stand by his guards.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue of solitary confinement since Mr. Manning is spending 23 hours out of the day in isolation. Scott Allen from Brown University describes with Live Science here the “typical protocols” involved with solitary confinement. They include “23 hours’ lockdown in a very small cell with limited natural light and no outside exposure except for an hour a day, usually in a cage” and “extreme isolation” that “also involves some level of sensory deprivation.”

Dr. Allen, along with his colleagues also published a paper about the effects of solitary confinement. Here are their results:

Solitary confinement causes psychological harm consistent with torture. In order to be legally classified as torture, however, the intent must be proven. For cases such as Manning’s, intent is not obvious, Allen said. Instead, this is typically referred to as cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, he said.

While the intent may not be obvious, subjecting someone to “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” is a violation of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Dr. Atul Gawande also spoke of the effects of solitary confinement when he spoke to Democracy Now! here.

Dr. Gawande reported that “people experience solitary confinement as even more damaging than physical torture” citing John McCain as example:

John McCain had two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, had his legs and arm broken during his imprisonment, but described the two-and-a-half years that he spent in solitary as being the most cruel component and the most terrifying aspect of what he went under.


The people who become psychotic in solitary confinement are people who often have attention deficit disorder or low IQ or issues of prior mental illness. Well, guess who is in our prisons? And there’s a very high rate of psychosis and people flat-out going crazy under the confinement conditions. And so, then what I puzzle over is, does it actually reduce our violence in our prisons? The evidence from multiple studies now is that not only that it has not reduced violence, it’s increased the costs of being in prison.

Keeping someone in total isolation for most of the day–regardless of the crime–seems like a brutal and harsh form of punishment, considering the effects and damage it can have on an individual.

6 thoughts on “Solitary Punishment

  1. This sounds horrible! I do not think the punishment fits the crime at all. I do think there are certain prisoners who belong maybe not in solitary confinement but kept away from general population. I bring up Charles Manson. To my knowledge he has been in isolation because they worry because of his certain “charm” he will cause inmates to do things, they also worry about his safety. In prison your status among the inmates increases if you kill a high profile criminal (think Dahmer.)

    With that being said I feel there are certain criminals who deserve the psychological torture solitary confinement offers. For those out there who murder, rap, and are pedophiles I think they should be punished. Furthermore I feel in this country we make our prisons far to “cushy.” Most criminals do not fear the repercussions of committing crimes therefore have no real reason to not commit the crime. I think if we castrated all those who commit sexual crimes against children I would imagine we would see a drop in crimes against children. The pedophiles would still be there, but they sure would control their urges over the fear of castration.
    Just my two cents

    1. thank you for your comment. i do see your point about charles manson. i never thought of looking at it that way. something to ponder while i wilt away at work.

  2. I have to disagree with you on this one. Isn’t treason punishable by death? He’s in solitary confinement. It isn’t quite the same as capital punishment.

    1. one of the concerns is private manning has not even received a premilary hearing. i don’t know if he has even been charged with anything. there is speculation that he is being kept in solitary confinement in order to break him so he will implicate julian assange.

      i think it speaks volumes that men who have been kept in solitary confinement would rather be put on death row so “they’ll get better treatment.”

      i believe you are right that treason is punishable by capital punishment. i will say that i don’t think it (capital punishment) deters people committing heinous crimes. if it did, then people would cease to do horrible things to each other. i actually read a good writing that argues against the death penalty–sorry, i can’t find the source for you at the moment but will email it to you later when i have time to search for it. as for the solitary confinement, i think it exacerbates the problem. as dr. gawande mentions, the chances of psychosis increases, especially for those who already mentally ill.

      the prison system is an interesting thing to me. is it there to deter people from committing crimes, or is there to help rehabilitate people? that’s one thing i never quite understood about it.

  3. Prison does nothing but create better criminals. The problem with rehabilitation is when the offender comes out of prison he/she is shackled by their felony. No one will give them a fair shake so they have no choice but to become a repeat offender. Our prisons are revolving doors. As more and more prisons become privately owned the powers that be are chomping at the bit for repeat offenders because it means more money, it is sad. As for capital punishment, like I said before if castration was the penalty for sexual crimes you would find less and less. Look at other countries with “harsh” penalties. These countries have lower crime rate. It is my understanding that America has the highest crime rate of any other country

  4. Yes, prison is a great place to be for a criminal. It is common knowledge that several criminal groups are actually run from prison, most notably, the Aryan Nation. Pontificate on this, when you go to prison, you immediately have to choose a gang, usually based on race, latino, white, or black. Prison is an entirely different set of social norms. I think the real deterrent is that for the mildly professional, intellectual, or morally conservative, prison would be a horrible place to go. Of course its about money, like usual. But I have to say, solitary confinement is a benefit to some (prisoners knowing they have a hit out on them for a reciprocity death), but very mentally torturing for someone else. I think, that some prisoners become more adapted to the prison environment than regular society, therefore they feel relatively better of inside prison. This is similar to the army, if you operate well inside that system you decide to make it a career.

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