11 January 2010

Prison Policy in the U.S. ~ Politically Sanctioned Torture

Recently I was listening to npr on my way into the office and heard part of this interview with Atul Gawande, a surgeon who also writes regularly for The New Yorker. (I guess that traveling in that media universe tags me as a 'liberal.') In any case, I had read an essay or two of Gawande's in the past. The one that sticks in my mind aimed at debunking the notion of cancer clusters caused by 'environmental' (as opposed to, say, occupational) sources. The basic argument was that the etiologies of different cancers are quite diverse, making it very unlikely that one source of environmental contamination (at typically low levels of exposure) could account for an array of seemingly related cancers in a given geographical area. Probably not the last word, but it was a smart and well-written essay.

Gawande has a new book out - The Checklist Manifesto ~ How to Get Things Done - that deals with the task of overcoming not human ignorance but human ineptitude in the face of the "extreme complexity" that our successes in overcoming ignorance has exacerbated. It seems quite smart and well-written. That is a topic for another day.

Here I want to mention another essay that Gawande published last spring and that he mentioned in the interview I heard. It appeared in The New Yorker last spring, was entitled "Hellhole" and asks the very simple question: "Is long-term solitary confinement torture?" The short answer - supported with evidence and reasons - is "yes." But in the U.S. those who run our prisons have come to rely, increasingly over the past quarter century, on extended solitary confinement as a way of dealing with 'problem' prisoners. There is plenty of evidence that this is cruel and psychologically debilitating. There are alternatives. And Gawande suggests that even most of those at the top of state prison systems know all this and themselves oppose the policy of long term isolation.

This leads to the obvious question: "If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?" And here is Gawande's equally obvious answer
"This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door."

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