On Torture

In the March 30th issue of the New Yorker Atul Gawande has written a disturbing article about the effects of extreme sensory deprivation or what is more commonly known as solitary confinement. The issue looms large in current discussions of torture, as well as reform of the prison system in this country.

When I was doing undergraduate work in psychology, the research on sensory deprivation was already well known. The work of Harry Harlow on isolating infant monkeys (Gawande notes they “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by…autistic self clutching and rocking.”) had been published, as had the earlier work of John Lily on isolating individuals in salt-water tanks without light or sound. It was clear from the research that the effects of prolonged periods of isolation caused extreme anxiety, hallucinations, anti-social behavior, and depression.

Gawande asks: “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?”

He describes the cases of prisoners who have spent several years in isolation, as well as the experiences of hostages, such as the journalist Terry Anderson and the war prisoner John McCain, all of whom described their experience of total isolation as nothing less than extreme torture.

My main interest in this article is not so much the profound effects of such an experience, but rather the efforts to provide an alternative form of treatment for potentially dangerous prisoners. Gawande describes an approach adopted in Great Britain designed to prevent “prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it.” The program assumes that violence within a prison setting is largely a function of the conditions of incarceration.

Some of the conditions introduced in this program include: (1) work opportunities, educational programs and training in social skills, (2) mental-health treatment programs, (3) more social contacts—visits, phone calls, joint meals, (4) a procedure for airing grievances, etc.

According to Gawande: “The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in extreme custody than there are in the state of Maine.” However, he says nothing about the other effects of the program—the frequency of prison violence, the overall behavior of the inmates, the likelihood of early parole or anything else about the effects of the work or educational programs, or the recidivism rate, if any, of the prisoners released from the prison.

We do know, however, from other studies that prisoners who have been subject to solitary confinement without other support programs have an extremely high rate of recidivism. Other studies have indicated that the introduction of so-called “supermax” prisons (there are now well over sixty in this country) where solitary confinement is widely practiced does not reduce the levels of inmate violence.

According to Gawande efforts in the United States to adopt a similar program in place of long-term isolation and other punitive approaches “went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.” He says any elected official or prison commissioner in this country who advocates the abolition of solitary confinement would be committing political suicide.

Has the public mood change of late? We do know that there has been a reversal in the stated government policy concerning torturing captured “terrorists.” Perhaps that will eventually generalize to the prison system itself.

Near the end of his analysis, Gawande concludes: “The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.” It is safe to say that this type of punishment is doing nothing to reduce the overall level of violence within or outside of the prison system.