Several months ago, there was a story in the New York Times entitled "Two Decades in Solitary" recounting the story of Willie Bosket, who has spent 23 hours a day for the last 20 years in a 9x6 cell... all alone. I had intended to write a post about that story then, because I was doing a lot of research on torture and I was struck by the similarities between the experience of torture victims and the experience of people who spend extended amounts of time in solitary confinement. But, I got sidetracked and never did.
However, the issue was brought to my attention again recently by Atul Gawande's (author of the must-read Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which I highly recommend!) excellent piece in the New Yorker entitled "Hellhole." Gawande's article points out that the United States currently holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement, and Gawande wants to know: is this torture? Interestingly, he quotes people (like John McCain) who have endured both torture in the traditional sense and extended isolation. Those people report without exception that solitary is tortuous, and produces the same effects in its victims that torture does: the breakdown, disintegration, and utter dehumanization of both the mind and the body of the prisoner.
Philosophers have been speculating for some time that the human is an essentially social animal, and social scientists have confirmed this in a number of ways over the past couple of centuries. Gawande begins his article "Hellhole" by calling attention to just this fact. He writes:
Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.
You can read the article to familiarize yourself with the battery of experiments and experiences that Gawande cites to justify this claim, but my interest here is what sort of argument one might construct to defend the essentially human rights of prisoners against those who might not be willing to concede that solitary confinement is torture. I hear objections (to the humane treatment of prisoners) like this all the time, in which detractors effectively say something like: "But it's PRISON! It's not supposed to be comfortable. It's punishment!" In my more generous moments, I assume that 9 times out of 10 these people are simply unaware of the true horrors of the American penitentiary system, that they wouldn't in good conscience approve of the conditions therein if they really knew, and that they probably do have an otherise resolute moral conviction against torture in the traditional sense. Their argument, such that it is, usually appeals to some version of the social contract, in which criminals are presumed to have surrendered their rights in the commission of their crime, thereby excusing the rest of society from the responsibility of keeping offenders in its custodial care.
Here is an ideal case, I think, for my weak humanism thesis (which I've referenced before in a series of posts on this blog). If we assume that rights are accorded to human beings on the basis of their strengths-- for example, in this case, their right to be "free"-- then we can easily excise lawbreakers from the population of people to whom those rights obtain, because those lawbreakers are (according to the conventions of the social contract and the juridical systems it traditionally engenders) no longer free. On the other hand, if we view the fundamental role of human rights to be the protection of human beings when they are the most vulnerable and weak, then we would be forced to admit both the moral and the legal impermissibility of something like solitary confinement, which intentionally (and unnecessarily) exploits an elementary human weakness (the need for social interaction) for the express purpose of coercion, subjugation and control. The truth is, we need other people as much as we need food, water and air. It is a vulnerability that cannot be ignored without sacrificing not only the well-being, but the life, of the person who is isolated.
Pace the logic of social contractarians, "weak" rights cannot be surrendered. I may be able to freely sacrifice my right to participate as a fully rational and autonomous member of a law-governed society-- either by breaking the rules, or selling myself into slavery, or any other number of things-- but I cannot make myself immune to hunger or thirst, to pain or loneliness. Because these rights (if they are rights) cannot be surrendered, they ought to be protected. And they especially ought to be protected in the cases in which their violation is an unjustified (and unjusitifiable) superadded element to a justified (and justifiable) punishment.