Via Andrew Sullivan, Mother Jones has one of the most disturbing articles I’ve read in a long time: Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.. The article is by Shane Bauer, one of the US hikers detained in Iran. It sheds light on the appalling nature and scale of solitary confinement throughout the US, especially California.
The first thing to note is just how bad an experience solitary confinement is. Solitary confinement is considered by many to be a form of torture and one judge’s ruling said “[solitary confinement] units are virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.” 77% of inmates are diagnosed with a mental illness. But these numbers don’t do justice to the experience. An anecdote that gives a better idea is Bauer’s own memory of being confined in solitary for about 4 months in Iran. It grew so bad that he hoped to be taken in for interrogation — meaning that even torture was a welcome form of human contact when compared to solitary. The human brain doesn’t do too well with a lack of stimulation (when people are blindfolded they often start hallucinating after 2-3 days). Solitary confinement is this lack of stimulation squared, and the chances of developing a mental disorder are overwhelming.
Interestingly the California penal system does not consider its solitary confinement as solitary confinement. The reason being is that the guards enter the prisoner’s room on occasion, the prisoners have access to some books, a TV, an hour’s exercise a day (by themselves in an indoor facility) and so on. This classification is incredibly self-serving, and requires you to accept some Count of Monte Cristo stereotype of the solitary prisoner who’s completely abandoned for years or decades. This reminds me of people who are invested in portraying torture as having your genitals electrocuted, in order to frame something like waterboarding as not torture.
The problem with the conditions is obvious by the fact that the suicide rate in this prison population is an astounding 557% times higher than the general prison population. (Which is likely to already be much higher than the general population.) People see a therapist but are only allowed to do so once every 30 days — an eternity if you’re in solitary. Phonecalls to the outside world are not allowed at all.
All of these are expected with solitary confinement. What I found most disturbing was the process to get into (or out of) one of these things. In California, most people in solitary are there not because of crimes commited inside the prison (eg. killing a guard which gets you 5 years). They are there because they were validated as members or associates of prison gangs (for which you can be in solitary indefinitely). This is essentially a rubber-stamp procedure with very low chance of a validation being overturned. Now, isolating the most violent prison gang members for the safety of the prison is probably a good idea. But what counts as evidence is laughable and flimsy. You can be validated if you are seen with a suspected gang member. Or if a gang member sends you correspondence (something you don’t have control of). Most frighteningly, possessing symbols the wardens consider to be relevant to one of the gangs can also get you in solitary. For example, newspaper clippings about black rights in the US have gotten people validated as Black Panther associates. And so on.
The catch 22 is that since most people are there for being gang members, the best way to get out is to give information about your gang, which is impossible if you’re not actually part of a gang. Not to mention that the system is ripe for abuse in terms of false validations and so on. One inmate in California has been in solitary for over 40 years.
Now, I’m quite sensitive to Godwin’s Law (also known as the argumentum ad Hitlerium). But having read a lot about Stalin’s purges and labour camps, the similarities are uncanny. Not in terms of the extent or severity of the punishments — although perhaps those in solitary would prefer to starve in a GULAG in the company of people — but in terms of the way you can get punished. Both systems blatantly employ thoughtcrime. In Stalin’s case you could go to jail for treason for praising anything about a capitalist country (eg. saying that the UK had good aircraft). That in itself is evidence for who but a traitor would praise UK aircraft? In California’s prisons, you can get validated as a gang member and end up in solitary for about black history. That in itself is evidence for who but a member of the Black Panthers would read about black history?
If that doesn’t make you shudder then you’re even more cynical than I am.