Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Condemned as 'Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment'

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Posted Dec. 25, 2013

Excerpt of speech by Hope Metcalf, director of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus


Prison solitary confinement is considered a form of torture and prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. initiated and has signed onto. Yet, the U.S. has employed various degrees of segregation in prisons, both at Guantanamo Bay and inside America's prison system. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has taken up this issue, and in mid-December, the Washington, D.C.-based organization held a public forum in New Haven, Conn., presenting an update on the treatment of the prisoners remaining at Guantanamo. Hope Metcalf, another speaker at the event, is director of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale University Law School and a lecturer there.

Metcalf has spent years researching the effects of solitary confinement and has visited prisons, spoken with correctional officers, wardens, inmates and their family members to learn more about the practice. In testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights in June 2012, Metcalf and her colleague Judith Resnick, Arthur Liman professor of law, cited the following conclusion made by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment in a 2011 report.

The Special Rapporteur stated, “…fifteen days is the maximum period prisoners can spend in solitary confinement without suffering permanent mental harm. Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause when used as a punishment … it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Here in an excerpt of Metcalf’s talk in New Haven, she describes her years of working on the issue of solitary confinement – and the conclusions she's drawn about the practice.

HOPE METCALF: I wanted to just take a moment to think about what it is when we talk about solitary confinement. Many times in the media the way it's described is a total sensory deprivation. It's that image of the Count of Monte Cristo. It's what I described to you when I said I left Florence ADX and I'd been in the land of the dead and I'd returned. That does happen, but that total sensory deprivation is in fewer prisons than – that is not the full 80,000 people when we talk about who's in "solitary." It is a horrible, horrible thing but it is relatively rare. However, equally damaging and horrible is something I think might be better termed "total control and total submission." That is to say that you might or might not have a cellmate of your own choosing; you might or might not be able to communicate with the person across the wall. So I've had clients, for example, who have played chess games across the wall, because people are creative and they have urges to be in contact with each other. You might be able to talk through the vent that goes up to the person above you or the sink that the plumbing connects to the sink next to you. People are amazingly creative, including in prison.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that you may be able to communicate a little bit, and despite the fact that you may have access to a radio or books – it's not the total sensory deprivation that we might think – it is nonetheless one of the harshest environments that you could devise for a human being, and it's characterized not so much by its isolation but by its hostility, and by the systematic efforts to break you down and to control every single aspect of your life.

So why does this exist and why is it so pervasive? There is a similar doctrine that lays at the foundation of the Supermax boom of the mid-90s to what we then saw in its most extreme, perverse version post-9/11. And that is what's called in military documents, "learned helplessness." So the point of these interrogations – and they used sensory deprivation – we hear about water-boarding, but one of the most effective means of torture was, in fact, sensory deprivation, because you would render the prisoner totally dependent and you would psychologically debilitate them. And Supermax institutions, likewise, were designed to control every aspect of the prisoner, and in the words of one corrections officer with whom I've spoken, his understanding, what he was taught, was that the purpose of the institution was to break them down. To break them, because they are causing problems, perhaps they've been violent, perhaps they've just been obstreperous, or causing problems in the prison system.

As a prisoner, you're in your cell for every hour of the week except for three times when you get to shower, five times when you're taken out to an exercise cage. You're in the exercise cage by yourself. You may be in the cell by yourself, or with somebody not of your choosing, whom you may fear. You might be terrified and you may very well prefer to be by yourself. All your food, medicine, reading materials, comes through a steel trap at the bottom of the door. You're under constant surveillance. There are checks of your cell every 15 minutes, including at night, when a flashlight will shine in and wake you up. You may experience friendships with other prisoners; you may experience friendships with corrections officers. You may also experience serious harassment by other prisoners or other corrections officers, and you will have nowhere to go, because retreat is not an option, because you are there and you are literally hostage to whomever might be trying to make your life miserable.

So, the very bad news is that institutions shape people, but the very good news is that if we change the institution, we change the people. So my experience in Connecticut, and what we've been able to do in cooperation with the Department (of Correction) and other advocates – not to mention the incredible courage of our clients – I have a few observations. The first is that to make lasting change, we can't wish away the fact that prisons can be dangerous places. We have to acknowledge the very real challenges that corrections officers face in their daily lives, as well as prisoners: prisons must be safe for all who live and work there. So, we need more and less isolating forms of separation, so the idea that people should be separated and treated according to their needs. There may be people who are violent and who are also mentally ill,and they need to be dealt with, but dealt with in a way that actually works.

This segment was recorded and produced by Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus.

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