Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cruel and Unusual

Hilzoy has a very important piece on the psychological ravages of prolonged, acute solitary confinement and how the Bush administration is imposing this form of punishment on certain prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. These prisoners are not the "baddest of the bad" or the upper echelon of al-Qaeda mind you, at least not in the present example. Rather, they are a group of Chinese Uighurs that were turned in by Pakistani bounty hunters during the initial stages of the Afghan campaign.

Then again, the Bush administration instituted the same form of punishment on an American citizen who wasn't even convicted of a crime, Jose Padilla, so arbitrary application of cruel punishment might not be as remarkable as it should be. The effects on Padilla's mental health were consistent with clinical data on such extreme applications of solitary confinement, and consistent with the symptoms exhibited by the the Uighur prisoners.

In layman's terms, they are being driven insane. Please go read about the pathologies and anguish created by such depravation of human contact at Obsideian Wings and elsewhere, and then try to tell me that this is somehow justifiable, moral or in our interest as a nation.

Hilzoy provides an excerpt from a clinical assessment of the effects of prolonged solitary confinement of this nature:

"In my opinion, solitary confinement - that is confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all or nearly all of the day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction - can can cause severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a specific syndrome which has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings, all of which have in common features of inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.

In addition, solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition, or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before. Even among inmates who do not develop overt psychiatric illness as a result of confinement in in solitary, such confinement almost inevitably imposes significant psychological pain during the period of isolated confinement and often significantly impairs the inmate's capacity to adapt successfully to the broader prison environment."

While that excerpt is couched in the somewhat sanitized language of a clinician, she provides balance to the detached tone of the scientist by giving Charles Dickens a platform:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.

While she is, herself, self deprecating, Hilzoy was also rather eloquent in summing up the central issues involved.

These men were captured by bounty hunters nearly five years ago. They are in all likelihood innocent of any crime, and of any act against the United States; they have certainly never been tried and convicted of any. We have held them in captivity since then, away from their wives and families. If they returned home now, their children probably wouldn't recognize them -- and as those of you who have kids will surely recognize, those are some of the saddest words there are.

And now, for some unfathomable reason, we have decided to lock them up in solitary, where we are driving them insane. Even if they were guilty, this would be wrong: having your mind and your spirit broken apart should not be the penalty for any crime. Our government is doing it to the innocent.

This is torture, plain and simple - no need to parse, dissemble or obfuscate. Call it what it is. And it is torture of the innocent, or at the very least, those that have been accused, but denied a hearing to determine their innocence or guilt. And it is official Bush administration policy - from American citizens, to foreign nationals. You can't attribute this to "a few bad apples" at Abu Ghraib.

I am deeply repulsed.

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