Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Training in torture

Atul Gawande's long look at solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, Hellhole, asks, "is solitary confinement torture?" and provides overwhelming empirical evidence that the answer is yes. Solitary confinement brings on psychosis and hallucination; it makes the mind effectively disintegrate; it causes lasting psychological damage.

In addition to documenting this torture's effects, Gawande also chronicles its explosion in the U.S. prison system since the early eighties, the same period in which the prison population as a whole has exploded:
The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all.
Reading this made me think that like most disasters, the Bush Administration's embrace of more physically abusive forms of torture in its treatment of hundreds if not thousands of detainees from Bagram to Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib had no single simple cause -- say, a rogue Vice President and Secretary of State -- but came at the end of a chain of systemic failures. In some sense that needs to be explored further, we have trained ourselves to accept brutal treatment of those we deem to have forfeited their rights. A politics and society that embraces ever more punitive measures against prisoners and illegal immigrants is part and parcel with one that removes regulatory restraint from elites, from Wall Street to the executive branch, that gleefuly redistributes wealth upwards, and that plots to privatize and eviscerate our common measures for sharing risk.

We have changed course. How successful, lasting and thoroughgoing will Obama's counterrevolution be? For better and worse, we're living in interesting times..

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