Thursday, December 16, 2010


Glenn Greenwald's recent post on the appalling conditions prison conditions being endured by suspected WikiLeaks leaker Private Bradley Manning was a public service -- but I don't expect it to make much difference, for reasons to which Greenwald refers:

From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day -- for seven straight months and counting -- he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he's being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs. Lt. [Brian] Villiard [an official at the Quantico brig] protested that the conditions are not "like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole," but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.

In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America's Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig's medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.

(Emphasis added.)

This is the problem: not very much of the country is going to be upset at this torture because
we've been torturing common criminals this way for years, and hardly anyone thinks it's a problem.

It's widely known that this kind of treatment makes prisoners literally crazy; Greenwald notes that among those who have testified to this is John McCain. And, as a nation, we once actually seemed to know this:

The Supreme Court's 1890 decision in In re Medley noted that as a result of solitary confinement as practiced in the early days of the United States, many "prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition ... and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better ... [often] did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community." And in its 1940 decision in Chambers v. Florida, the Court characterized prolonged solitary confinement as "torture" and compared it to "[t]he rack, the thumbscrew, [and] the wheel."

But we do it now routinely and we don't care. We haven't cared even in recent years of prosperity and low crime rates. I don't know if we've just concluded, regretfully, that this is the price we must pay to stay safe, or if we really don't give a crap, as a nation, about avoiding cruel and unusual punishment, and wouldn't have a problem at all if that pesky provision were amended out of the Constitution.

I suspect the latter -- and no, I don't blame this exclusively on evil wingnuts. Just a couple of days ago I was reading this at the lefty blog Norwegianity, in response to a story about an Iranian court's decision to sentence a man who blinded his wife's lover with acid to be blinded the same way himself:

Call me a crank but I've never understood why "an eye for eye" horrifies people. I understand that the folks who actually practice it tend to overapply it, but if your premeditated actions cost someone their sight, isn't the loss of your sight an appropriate penalty?

...See also: What's the matter with Kansas? [part 2, part 3] Then leave a comment as to the appropriate punishment for that father and son rape team.

The crime cited in that last paragraph is horrifying. But the point is that we, the good people, are supposed to be better than the bad people. Isn't it? Or don't we care?

As for wingnuts, I give Mr. Confederate Yankee credit for agreeing with Greenwald about Bradley Manning's prison treatment -- bu he says that that's only because he hasn't been convicted yet. If and when he is, incarceration of this kind is just fine. (The readers of CY ither don't believe Greenwald or don't much care.)

As a nation, we don't care about this stuff. If we ever do, it will be because we've had a perfect benign storm: simultaneously, an extremely low crime rate, a thriving middle class that feels secure, and a high-profile Supermax torture victim who’s (a) incontrovertibly innocent and (b) mediagenic and appealing (and -- somehow -- able to become a figure profiled by the media).

Then again, we've had a number of Death Row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence and we still don't have anything resembling a national groundswell on, say, allowing inmates to appeal whenever physical evidence might reasonably prove them innocent. So I'm not getting my hopes up, for Manning or any other prisoner treated this way by American jailers.

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