Friday, April 17, 2009


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.


steventhomas said...

I agree that you can't make food and water a universal right (as some members, but not all, of peace and love organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch seem to think.) In a society that doesn't have the means to prevent hunger, then it is meaningless to assert that they have a right not to be hungry.

But I think you're right in the sense that it certainly ought to be a historically situated right, since our society today has the means to prevent hunger. In other words, in today's world of globalized capitalism, IMF, and the WTO, all land is owned and all owners are subject to the rules of the UN, WTO, and IMF (whereas this wasn't the case before), and as a result, regular people have been deprived of the means to even try to get food and water.

Maybe that's what you mean by "weak" right -- that is, not universal. But "weak" has so many other connotations that I'm not sure I like it as a descriptor there. And perhaps for you "historically situated" is too weak. So, I doon't know what a better term would be.

As for solitary confinement, that just seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me. A different case than food and water.

And I didn't have a chance to read the New Yorker article (which sounds really interesting... much more interesting than the crap that magazine usually prints), but let me add that the land of the free, home of the brave United States has a larger percentage of its people in jail than any other country in the world, except Rwanda. That's a fact I learned from the Economist magazine. We just broke the 1% line last year. In other words, right at this very moment, more than 1% of Americans are in jail. And a disproportionate amount of them are black and hispanic. So, yah, um... America sucks at the whole "justice" thing in a lot of ways. I think Angela Davis's recent book on capital punishment and the genealogy of the U.S. penal system's relationship to slavery is relevant here.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Let me apologize for a somewhat tangential comment --- I've just been teaching Appiah's "In my Father's House" ("In my Fairy's Home" as Elena sight-read it) --- and he has a long discussion of the role of something like enlightenment style humanism in post-modern discourse about and within Africa --- I've been meaning to tell you it reminded me of your discussion of weak humanism...

Kristin said...

Alfred McCoy has a book that traces the spread of the practice of solitary confinement (and particularly solitary confinement with various forms of sensory deprivation) in the United States-- A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. It sounds like you've read some good histories, but it was in this book that I read about the psychological studies performed at McGill (funded by the CIA) that developed this practice as a means of torturing people without leaving bruises and marks on their bodies. So, I'm not sure that this should be labeled a "humane" form of punishment even if general opinion seems to accept this logic.

The McGill professors who oversaw these studies performed them on undergraduate students, most of whom experienced something like a severe psychotic break after just a couple of days. It was an effort to emulate the Soviets, as the countless "confessions" made it apparent that they had perfected the practice first.

Interesting bit of information: The American Psychological Association has since apologized for its participation in these kinds of studies, but the Canadian one never has. The psych department at McGill is actually named after one of them.

I'm looking forward to reading some of the books you've mentioned here... Well, not exactly looking forward to it as much as... I've noticed there's a dearth of good literature on the topic, and I'm pleased to see that more books are coming out.

By the way, just in case you don't know about the Guantanamo Testimonials Project:

The Clapp said...

I think that the most important thing to point out with the American correction's use of solitary confinement is that it is intended as a way to treat these people. These are not death row inmates and rather just high risk or violent individuals. Somehow, these different prisons think that putting these people in solitary is what will make them less violent and less at risk.....and allow them to reenter society when their time is up.

It is not supposed to just be punishment, it is supposed to rehabilitate these people so that they can reenter society. Obviously isolating them from the world is failing to do this, and if anything is probably making a bad concoction of serial killers. I am interested to read research that follows US prisoners who were held in S.C. and how their re-entry into society went.

Also interesting is that these people are not allowed books, spiritual guidance, or other norms of prison life.

And though books are becoming more commonplace in the prison system, there is still a shortage. (though we somehow are able to equip them all with great weight training facilities, which bewilders me) Why not sell the weights, buy books, and educate rather then dissociate these criminals?