February 5, 2016

Don’t kid yourself, solitary confinement is torture

Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’Ammassa is a writer, theatre artist, and founder of the Deming Zen Center.

We do not torture,” said President George W. Bush. Recently President Obama stated again: “The United States does not torture.” Actually, we have and we do.

Algernon D'ammassa

Algernon D’ammassa

Not just in war, but in our federal and state prisons. In government prisons and prisons run by for-profit corporations, we torture prisoners. Tens of thousands of them.

Solitary confinement is torture.

It is possible to segregate an inmate, for their own and others’ safety, for a short period of time; and necessary, when an inmate presents a danger to staff. Yet these measures do not require torture. There is nothing pragmatic or humane in subjecting a human being to months or years in a cell the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours every day, warehoused like hogs in gestation crates, deprived of human contact of any kind, deprived of physical or mental exercise, deprived of sunlight.

Under these conditions, a human being exhibits signs of psychological damage within days. Half of the suicides in American prisons are in solitary cells.

Solitary confinement is torture.

Besides being recognized internationally as torture, prolonged solitary confinement is also a stupid policy. It does not reduce violence, and may actually increase it. It increases recidivism rather than rehabilitation. A study by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center estimated the annual cost of one solitary torture cell at $75,000 compared to $25,000 per cell in prisons that are not designed to torture inmates with the use of extended or indefinite solitary confinement.

This policy only makes sense to the few who enjoy the profits of the booming prison industry, which makes money by holding lots of people, keeping them subdued, having repeat “business” and expensive government contracts without cease.

New Mexico Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel, speaking to NPR for a 2015 report on the use of this torture in our prisons, admitted its institutional appeal. “For a guy like me, it’s safe,” he said. “If these prisons are quiet, I don’t get fired.” For corrections officers at the front lines, extended solitary confinement enhances their safety at work.

These are legitimate pressures, though they do not justify torture; and Secretary Marcantel’s work has been commended by President Obama for reducing the use of solitary confinement and assaults on prison staff simultaneously.

Torture is also wielded for sadistic and authoritarian purposes. Its cruelty and the permanent damage it does are well understood.  This is why it has been used as a means of extra-judicial punishment against political prisoners or prisoners who use the law to challenge the conditions of their confinement.

Punitive solitary confinement is a frequent complaint among detainees at the prison-like “residential centers” (that look more like internment camps)  where immigrants seeking asylum are held like prisoners. It is a tool of oppression and terror (or “aggressive deterrence,” in federal language). Solitary confinement is torture, demeaning the oppressor as well as the victim, and demeaning all of us represented by such a system.

As President Obama takes executive action to reduce torture in our prisons, Senator Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Representative Moe Maestas of Albuquerque have introduced a bill that would merely curtail the use of torture on juvenile inmates and the already mentally ill.

It seems odd to be parsing which prisoners we allow to be tortured, but stranger still is that absent public pressure, in the name of fiscal responsibility to say nothing of human decency, even this bill is fated to die in a Roundhouse session more interested in harsh criminal measures.

Algernon D’Ammassa is Desert Sage. Write to him at DesertSageMail@gmail.com.