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Solitary = Torture

The front page of this morning’s New York Times features an in depth report on the permanent damage this country inflicted on people it tortured in Gitmo and secret prisons around the world in the aftermath of 9/11. The article details the severe mental problems people continue to experience years after the torture ends. What the article does not mention is that we don’t need to look to our secret prisons to find torture. We are torturing people every day, right here in the US, in our state and federal prisons.

We hold approximately 100,000 people in solitary confinement—locked in their cells involuntarily 22-24 hours a day, with no meaningful social contact. And solitary is torture. Five years ago, I would not have said that—I thought that sentiment denigrated “real” torture, was inflammatory, and would alienate potential allies who thought solitary wasn’t a good idea but would be turned off by charges of torture.

Then I started to spend time—a lot of time—with people who had survived solitary; sometimes over a decade of solitary; sometimes “only” a year or two.

Every one of them—literally every single one—suffered from severe after effects of solitary. I am not a psychologist and have no mental health credentials. But they reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks, acute sensitivity to certain sounds, smells and visuals. They uniformly had a terrible fear of being in situations where they had to interact with many people in uncontrolled circumstances (e.g., public transit, large public meetings).

For most, when they spoke about their time in solitary, it took days to recover, days before they were able to function again. So they didn’t talk about their personal experiences of solitary very often. Despite the self-inflicted pain, some of them were brave enough to speak out in support of those still caught in solitary and still being tortured. Survivors’ voices are the most powerful indictment of solitary imaginable, but for them the cost of speaking out is extremely high.

Working alongside these survivors convinced me that solitary confinement is torture. There is simply no way to avoid this conclusion: solitary causes permanent damage to people’s mental health. Being locked alone in a cage 24 hours a day, day after day, sometimes for over a decade, takes a toll on one’s body and mind. It destroys people’s very souls. It is torture.

If you are not for abolishing solitary confinement, then you must not believe that solitary is torture. And if you don’t believe that solitary is torture, you need to take some time and really listen to survivors of solitary describe their pain. Good places to start are The Gray Box, a short documentary which depicts the effect of solitary on a half dozen or so survivors; and the website Torture Survivors Against Solitary, which collects testimonials from survivors, those still in solitary, and family members.

Once you accept that solitary is torture, then there is no moral alternative to supporting the fight to end solitary. It must be abolished. Torturing other people is never justified—not by budgetary problems, or concerns with overcrowding. And definitely not because some people may be offended. We must stop torturing people now. UPLC has been dedicated to fighting solitary confinement since 1982. We will not stop now.


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