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Torture in US Prisons


The corrosive, solitary confinement being inflicted upon PFC Bradley Manning in the Quantico, Va., brig is no exceptional torture devised exclusively for him. Across the length and breadth of the Great American Prison State, the world’s largest, with its 2.4-million captives stuffed into 5,000 overcrowded lock-ups, some 25,000 other inmates are suffering a like fate of sadistic isolation in so-called supermax prisons, where they are being systematically reduced to veritable human vegetables.

To destroy Manning as a human being, the Pentagon for the past seven months has barred him from exercising in his cell, and to inhibit his sleep denies him a pillow and sheet and allows him only a scratchy blanket, according to Heather Brooke of “Common Dreams” (January 26th.) He is awakened each day at five a.m. and may not sleep until 8 p.m. The lights of his cell are always on and he is harassed every five minutes by guards who ask him if he is okay and to which he must respond verbally. Stalin’s goons called this sort of endless torture the “conveyor belt.”

Not surprisingly, Manning is attracting global attention to the Pentagon’s sadism. If anyone did not believe the Pentagon’s ruthless treatment of Iraqi prisoners when the Abu Ghraib torture photos were released, they believe it now that it is torturing one of its own. In this assault upon the body and mind of a 23-year-old American soldier, all of the Pentagon’s arrogance and clumsiness is revealed to the world. Perhaps not even the French military—when its frame-up on treason charges of Jewish Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was exposed—attracted to itself the global searchlights of opprobrium now bathing the walls of a Marine Corps brig at Quantico.

The kind of isolation torture Manning is enduring in recent years has spread itself quietly throughout U.S. correctional facilities like a deadly gangrene. According to one reliable report, by 2003 between five and eight percent of the prison populations of Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia were rotting in isolation. In some federal prisons the cells are referred to euphemistically as “Communications Management Units” and are, incidentally, “disproportionately inhabited by Muslim prisoners,” according to an American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) law suit challenging them. In another suit, the ACLU has accused the Texas Youth Commission of “throwing children (girls) into cold, bare solitary confinement cells…” and told the TYC bluntly its “reliance on solitary confinement has to stop.”

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a veteran of 25 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, wrote in a law school journal of his interviews with prisoners in solitary. He said almost a third of them experienced impaired brain function. They “described hearing voices, often in whispers, often saying frightening things to them.” In an article published in “The Long Term View” magazine of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Grassian wrote that about a third succumbed to “acute psychotic, confusional states” in which they saw objects “becoming larger and smaller, seeming to ‘melt’ or change form.” And this was only one of the syndromes experienced.

In a related article published in the same issue (Volume 7, No. 2), Dr. Atul Gawande of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, cited the findings of psychology professor Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz on isolation’s impact. Some inmates in the Pelican Bay supermax, Haney found, even after just months of isolation, suffered “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result…In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving, becoming essentially catatonic.” This, of course, is what the Pentagon apparently seeks to inflict on Manning. In June, 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended ending long-term isolation of prisoners but the so-called “House of War” wasn’t listening.

In the 2008 presidential race, Gawande wrote, both Obama and McCain came out firmly for banning torture and closing Guantanamo Bay prison where hundreds have been held in years-long isolation, yet neither “addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture.” McCain spent two of his five years as a POW in Viet Nam in solitary, later stating: “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

The U.S. willingness to hold prisoners in isolation for years “made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world,” Gawande wrote, adding, “In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, our (generation) has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison…”

“This conduct (solitary confinement) by the U.S. Federal and State governments constitutes torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which are treaties to which the United States is a contracting party,” says international legal authority Francis Boyle, professor of the subject at the University of Illinois, Champaign.

Boyle believes, “As citizens of America and human beings in the world, we must do all in our power to terminate such illegal and criminal practices that are daily perpetrated by our own governmental institutions in our name against our fellow citizens and human beings.” Boyle is the author of “Defending Civil Resistance Under International Law”(Amazon).

Those supporting Manning need to recognize he is an icon for the bizarre, systemic destruction of tens of thousands of other human beings locked away in perpetual silence by their tormentors, often for mere infractions of prison rules, without the review of any judge or jury. As the ACLU told the TYC, this must be stopped. What action will you take in your community to put an end to it?

SHERWOOD ROSS is a Florida-based public relations consultant for good causes and director of the Anti-War News Service. Disclosure: he was editor of “The Long-Term View magazine cited in this article and is a media consultant to the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover. To comment or contribute to his Anti-War News Service contact him at



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