George Will

George Will: Solitary Confinement Is Torture



In his Washington Post column today, George Will argues that the solitary confinement currently being forced on tens of thousands of prisoners in the United States "probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishments.'" Excerpt:

Federal law on torture prohibits conduct "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering." And "severe" physical pain is not limited to "excruciating or agonizing" pain, or pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions, or even death." The severe mental suffering from prolonged solitary confinement puts the confined at risk of brain impairment.

Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.

Will's conclusion:

Americans should be roused against this by decency — and prudence.

Mass incarceration is expensive (California spends almost twice as much on prisons as on universities) and solitary confinement costs, on average, three times as much per inmate as in normal prisons. And remember: Most persons now in solitary confinement will someday be back on America's streets, some of them rendered psychotic by what are called correctional institutions.

Reason on solitary confinement here. Watch Reason.TV's interview with James Ridgeway: "Is Solitary Confinement a Form of Torture?"

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  1. We all know that what happens in prison stays in prison. People don’t seem to care much what happens to convicts, regardless of the offense, despite that so many people locked up means odds are the outside world knows someone behind bars.

  2. I always thought being put in with the prison population would be torture. The grass is always greener.

    1. Yeah, there are days when solitary looks attractive.

      1. I don’t know if it ever looks attractive, but there are certainly days when it doesn’t look like much of a deterrent.

  3. Give them some Cymbalta, they’ll be fine.

  4. When we hear stories of prison rape and other horrors we imagine that if we were in prison we would prefer solitary. But solitary is not being by yourself with a stack of books, an iPod, and an X-box. It’s you and a cockroach (if you’re lucky) discussing the meaning of life for 12 hours a day. Smart people would go bonkers under those conditions. People in prison are usually not that smart.

    1. No books? I’m Shawshanking his place!

    2. It’s you and a cockroach (if you’re lucky) discussing the meaning of life for 12 hours a day.

      So it sounds like H&R regulars would be fine.

      1. Possibly, I’ll go ask my little insect friend, Charley. Doesn’t he have the perkiest antennae you’ve ever seen? Who is the best little roach? You are Charley! Good Blattidae!

      2. That’s fucking funny! Even if it is aimed at guys like me.

  5. I think John McCain, or any other former POW, would affirm that, even under the best conditions, solitary confinement is torture.

    1. So… being held captive by people you were recently trying to kill (and vice versa) is under the best conditions?

      1. Depends on the people. Anglo POWs held by Germany were treated with respect and decency because of Hitler’s nutty racial theories. Soviet POWs were murdered or starved to death because of the same ideology.

      2. So… being held captive by people you were recently trying to kill (and vice versa) is under the best conditions?

        What? You deny Hogan’s Heroes was a groundbreak serial documentary?

        1. I see nothing. NOTHING!

      3. McCain volunteered to kill people who were not attacking his country. He freely chose to drop death and destruction upon little boys and girls who posed no threat to him.

        1. Totally bro. He had to special order flight suits to contain his throbbing erection.

        2. Yes, but McCain is opposed to water-boarding their corpses so that makes him a HERO.

  6. “Americans should be roused against this by decency ? and prudence.”

    Oh, those days are long gone.

    Americans are only roused by whatever Obama tells them to get roused about now.

  7. I know three guys who have gone to prison. They were dumb jerks before they went in but when they came out they were completely fucking nuts.

    “conduct “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

    That is the definition of torture. That is what killed me about those defending waterboarding. Their defense amounted to changing the definition of the word torture. Between the end of WWII and 9/11 waterboarding was portrayed in the movies as a sinister torture employed only by the Nazis and their sadistic ilk. After 9/11 it’s defenders said “Nah, it isnt torture, it isnt so bad.” .

    Fuck that. It is torture. So is solitary confinement.

    1. When they do it it’s torture. When our guys do it it’s not. See the difference?

    2. “That is what killed me about those defending waterboarding. Their defense amounted to changing the definition of the word torture.”

      That was my favorite topic around here for a long time–back after the Schlesinger Report came out showing Rumsfeld’s and Alberto Gonzales’ fingers all over their “enhanced interrogation methods”.

      Their legal defense tortured the definition of “torture”, but that wasn’t why average people supported waterboarding, etc. There were two interrelated reasons they supported it:

      1) They were scared (of terrorists) and and the American will support anything (including TARP and invading Iraq) when they’re scared.

      2) It was about supporting the president.

      When Bush elevated Gonzales to Attorney General–after the Schlesinger Report came out?…..Aug26.html

      President Bush completely lost every last shred of moral credibility he had with me. From that moment on, it was clear to me that Bush was never a mere dupe of his advisers. If you elevate Gonzales after the Schlesinger Report came out, then your intentions are evil.

      1. Eh, then there was that show 24 with all the nonsense about ticking time bombs and WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR PROCEDURE GARGLE GARGLE. Again, pop culture is how people see the world. So Glocks have a safety, and cops don’t lie, and waterboarding is just Kiefer Sutherland trying to get to the truth before LA is destroyed by a nuke.

        1. It really is a moral argument.

          I have arguments to counter the efficacy of torture too, but ultimately, the advantage of living under a government that doesn’t torture people is that you get to live under a government that doesn’t torture people.

          Which another way of saying it’s a moral argument with qualitative advantages–that just aren’t accounted for in the utility argument.

          People used to get mad as hell at me around here when I said that they’d have to do another 20 9/11s before I’d willing give up any of my Constitutional rights, and responding to the suggestion that they were torturing people to keep me safe with the observation that I’d rather take my chances with Al Qaeda than live under a government that tortures people was consistent with that principle, too.

          There are qualitative benefits to living in a free society–for which there are no good substitutes. The Bushbots hated us for standing on that.

          It’s the same thing with the Second Amendment. Even if guns DID cause more violent crime, I’d rather live in a free society that lets people own guns, anyway. Being consistent on those principles I hope that’s why Progressives hate me, too.

          1. The solution for terrorism is the same as the solution for any other kind of violent crime: a well armed population.

          2. If a 9/11 scale attack occured every month, you’d still be more likely to die in a car accident then a terror attack. So I find a useful way to avoid letting my emotions get the best of me is when evaluating any anti-terror proposal, consider how I would respond if someone proposed the same solution as a method for dealing with bad drivers.

            1. It’s not the same though. Car accidents are just that: accidents. What has prevented other 9/11 attacks is the vigilance and quick thinking of ordinary people. The shoe bomber. The underwear bomber. Both of these plots were foiled by ordinary people using common sense: tackle the guy lighting the bomb.

              Hell, 9/11 only worked because people thought it was a normal hijacking. Once the people on Flight 93 learned what had happened to the other planes, they organized themselves, improvised weaponry, and counter attacked.

              The militia of the United States was, is, and will always be the proper way to respond to threats to national security.

              1. The vigilance and quick thinking of ordinary people is what prevents most car accidents to.

                What I meant that if, say, someone proposed that we need to let the police arrest people they think are bad drivers and hold them indefinitely without charge in order to protect the public, they’d clearly sound like a raving nut.

                The guy proposing the same solution to terrorism is just as much of a raving nut, but our fear prevents us from noticing that.

                1. Exactly. And people say “BUT WHAT ABOUT TERRORIST PLOTS??” and you say “If a group of people is planning to bomb a building, they are conspiring to commit murder, which is already a crime. We don’t need to make it a double secret crime.”

              2. The chances of Al Qaeda getting their grubby little hands on me personally are pretty slim. The question isn’t whether torture is going to save me, personally; it’s whether torture might save another 3,000 random Americans. And I’d rather take my chances that I won’t be one of those 3,000 than live under a government that tortures people.

                Other people are like that with a lot of things–although people don’t usually talk about it in such explicit terms.

                I’d rather people weren’t forced to testify against themselves–rather than live under a government that forced people to testify against themselves. …even if that means guilty murderers sometimes go free.

                Freedom tends to generate superior outcomes, but in a lot of ways, that’s just the icing on the cake. It isn’t just the outcomes that I’m judging by. I’d rather live under a government that doesn’t engage in cruel and unusual punishments–regardless of whether cruel and unusual punishment generates superior outcomes.

                The utility calculation is just a small part of my judgement call on these things, and the enemies of freedom have very little of substance to say against these qualitative arguments in favor of freedom. …our enemies have very little to say that isn’t demeaning to our ability to make the best choices for ourselves, anyway.

    3. “That is what killed me about those defending waterboarding. Their defense amounted to changing the definition of the word torture.”

      To be fair, a lot of people believe water-boarding to be torture, but they think the people who get water-boarded are getting what they deserve. Other people think torture is a continuum: from solitary or water-boarding on up to pulling out fingernails and shocking genitals. We do the former and therefore are superior to those who do the latter.

      This is not my position; I’m just saying a lot of people aren’t dishonest, just depraved as shit.

      1. Eh, there is a continuum. Because if you’re interrogating someone at all, you are holding them against their will. Which according to libertarian theory is a coercive, and thus immoral act. So a by the book, totally aboveboard Miranda protected interrogation with counsel present is still immoral, but it is less immoral then Guantanamo Bay, which is in turn less immoral then Auschwitz.

    4. And this is the crux of the entire American Problem for the last century: they want to change the definitions of everything to suit their purpose legally, while retaining the common usage in the general public so that no one knows what the fuck is going on.

      Go get a law dictionary and compare it side by side with a common English dictionary. . . it’s perturbing to say the least when you consider how very, very, very few people don’t understand that our entire legal system operates on an artificially constructed vocabulary.

      Should you be able to find a dictionary more than 15 yrs old you will also note that violence is no where in the definition of terrorism. It still isn’t in many dictionaries now, but i’m sure that if you check again in a couple years the OED will be the only one left with the original definition and etymology listed.

  8. Yeah, well they’re like drug dealers and stuff. It’s not like they’re human beings.

    O.T. Stupid college station left this song stuck in my head.

  9. Depending on the prison, I would rather be in solitary confinement then in the general population. I’m not a big fan of dry, anal rape.

    1. You’re making the argument that the baseline prison experience is cruel but not usual. Apparently society still enjoys its rack.

      1. Unusual

    2. Have you given dry, anal rape a chance? Let’s try not to be so judgmental, okay?

  10. So what do you do with the inmates such as the fellow in GA who was going to be executed for killing a fellow inmate? If you blanket label solitary confinement as “torture” then they must have a cellmate? Or are you going to have 24/7 coverage by the $120K a year CA prison guards right outside the cell – would that not vitiate the savings argument Will makes?

    I think solitary should only be for the too violent to play nicely with others. But if you label it torture/unconstitutional, then get ready for more expense or more blood.

    1. If you blanket label solitary confinement as “torture” then they must have a cellmate?

      Not necessarily. It’s the sensory deprivation that is cruel and unusual. Even monks get to read when they are cloistered.

    2. I used to work in a full lock down mental hospital.

      We managed to segregate people who violent and out of their minds without locking them into solitary confinement 24/7.

      I understand that a Pelican Bay, you’re in your cell for 23 hours a day–and then for one hour you’re out. …but even when you’re out for that hour, you’re all alone.

      Even if it’s somebody that can’t be trusted not to act out violently, people should at least have the opportunity for social interaction. If you behave yourself for some period of time, you should get an opportunity for some kind of closely supervised interaction with other people. If you consistently can’t even handle that, then that’s one thing. But there’s no reason why solitary confinement should be the default setting for every prisoner that shows up at Pelican Bay–for the whole time they’re there.

      1. Been there, done that too. The mental hospital I mean.

        It isnt hard to imagine a cell structure that would keep prisoners seperate yet still allow them to communicate/see each other.

        Pelican bay was designed specifically to be a torture device.

        1. Heck yeah!

          There are some other policies that could be implemented in jails (around California) to make prison more humane–and safe.

          1) Why do they have to throw everyone together in County? Why do you have to throw people accused of check kiting in with gangbangers there on assault charges? I know they’re all waiting for trial and haven’t been sentenced yet, by why can’t they hold people there on violent charges separately?

          I’ve heard people who’ve been there say they’d rather plead guilty and do six months in the state pen than plead not guilty and wait six days for a trial in the LA County jail.

          2) For the guards’ safety? Last I heard, they don’t break up fights anymore until the fight is over. It’s basically like NHL rules. If you hurt somebody really bad right in front of the guards, they’ll make sure you’re charged with something after the fact, but they aren’t gonna interfere with what you’re doing until you’re done.

          To my eye, that starts to look like Thunderdome. I’m sorry being a prison guard is so dangerous, but protecting your wards from violence when they’re getting the crap beat of ’em seems like it should be part of the job.

    3. Christ, quit spinning it- this isn’t Breitbart. What you ‘think ‘solitary confinement should be used for is fucking irrelevant since it is a proven fact that solitary confinement is utilized to destroy the will of prisoners who’ve committed even MINOR offences against the prison system.

      This is torture- pure and simple.

      1. So opinions should not be expressed on H&R, Agile?

        I guess the difficulty arises from the label – “solitary confinement” is not the same as “sensory deprivation” – which is what the article describes. That should never be used/done.

        1. You expressed your opinion. I expressed mine. Grow thicker skin if my view unsettles you. I didn’t call you nasty name. I simply said you are spinning a serious topic relating to justice and punishment like posters on a Breitbart page.

          Solitary confinement is torture. You need to spend some time researching this topic a bit. I have and I’ve come away from it absolutely convinced that American prisons are hell houses full of people who don’t belong there. MUCH LESS spending months or years in a metal box completely isolated over a minor trifle committed within prison walls.

          We have the insanity of the drug war and harsh federal sentencing to blame for much of this.

          1. I don’t need thicker skin, it is fine. I am not butthurt or such, just wondering why you are saying “spinning” – you did see what I said in that comment before replying, yes? (“sensory deprivation” – which is what the article describes. That should never be used/done.)

            I don’t need to research the topic – I fully understand that people are being subjected to conditions they do not merit. It was simply a labeling issue I was wondering about, plus the side issue of is segregating someone from others because they are violent “torture” – it would be if it follows the “sensory deprivation” described in the article.

            I suspect your (proper) anger over this has you overreacting a bit.

            1. Insert a period between ‘violent’ and ‘torture’.

                1. No one needs more than ten punctuation marks.

                  1. +1 well played

    4. You end the drug war and stop locking up non violent offenders because the state has bitten more than it can responsibly chew. The back door approach to ending mass incarceration is by making it expensive.

  11. A billion churches in America will praise Jesus, Mary, and Allah, smash sexual immorality over the pulpit, pound indignant spiritual fists into those who don’t pay enough tithe, and elevate an other-worldly submission based on delusion.

    A billion rags will be printed glorifying the muscular, magnifying the joys of state paternalism, lauding the corporate achiever, and focusing on the mundane, trite, and suburban.

    All this while thousands of people who have committed minor trifles rot in metal and concrete pens and even more thousands lose their minds under the tyrannical boot of solitary confinement.

    Humanity makes me retch. It’s all a big fucking macabre facade, man, and the people running the system are intellectually-bereft snakes and parasites voted in by the same.

    1. I feel the same way man.

    2. Oh jesus please either extract yourself from our own ass or suffocate in there.

      1. I am passionate about the destroyed. I apologize not a whit for this.

  12. The core issue is the many victimless crime laws dovetailing into over sentencing guidelines and abuse of prosecutorial discretion. Then we end up with a prison industrial complex no less dangerous than the military industrial complex, which includes an expensive engorged prison system, over crowding, violent and non-violent criminal mixes, and serious issues with prison inmate population management. You exasperate everything with a corrupt judicial system, corrupt police, and corrupt prison administration and staff and we end up with so many issues that population management issues like the one in the article become not just common place, but perhaps the least of the inhumane abuses in the system.

    We will make no credible headway on these issues without a top to bottom reform of our laws (drug war anyway), our police/prison state, and judiciary.

  13. Not an expert but from what what I have seen watching prison documentaries is that most of the people in solitary are there because they have been identified as senior members of prison gangs. They put them there to try and prevent them from running their organizations. Yet, not only are they able to run their prison operations from solitary, they’re able to run operations in the street. So it is all for naught. As is the WOD that put them there in the first place.

    1. I have a close family member that visited county jails for a year, different than the federal prison system – but I wouldn’t say significantly. Human rights abuses are common. But also, you have dangerous and evil people that are nearly impossible to handle humanely – they are force and only understand force. They are dangerous to everyone around them, one moment they seem perfectly reasonable, the next they are assaulting a nurse that was helping them. I’m not a bleeding heart that believes there is no place for a criminal justice system (yes, I’m Statist by some measures). But the criminal justice system is too expensive and too large. I’d be nice to spend more time on how to incarcerate dangerous criminals as safely as possible, but from what I can tell we have a bad system adapating as best it can. Doesn’t mean the article isn’t worthwhile, but those that want to do something about it need to address the issues I raised first. You solve those issues and how we deal with the societies violent extrement becomes much clearer.

    2. This is incorrect. In California, for example, there are Security Housing Units (SHUs) that hold a bit over 3,000 inmates in solitary confinement or double-bunking inmates in cells suitable only for one (though the majority are in solitary) are there for being deemed members or associates of a select group of prison gangs. One may deemed a member of a prison gang without significant due process, and you don’t need to be placed in solitary for necessarily illegal activities. For black inmates in California, they may be held/kept in the SHU for an indeterminate period of time based on certain reading materials. References to George Jackson or “New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalism” leads prisons to deem you a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, for example.

      In many cases that I have investigated and read about, there are people in solitary for reasons including: drug use, refusing to cut hair, having more than x amount of cash (as little as 5), yelling at a prison guard, not moving fast enough (“disobeying an order”), and often times because the prisons simply don’t have room in the psych units for mentally troubled inmates. Minor rules violations often lead to placements in solitary confinement.

  14. I’ve done my share of time. Frankly, I’d prefer solitary than the day-to-day politicking of racial gangs. I think the bigger issue here is access to physical and mental exercise or recreational tools and materials. . . .
    We don’t need to do away with solitary confinement and I would even encourage it as an incentive system. What we need to do away with is Punitive solitary and “SuperMAX” conditions in general.

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