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For the past few weeks, progressive online media sources have been alive with outrage against the conditions in which accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning is being held. Manning is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, denied sunlight, exercise, possessions, and all but the most limited contact with family and friends. He has now been in isolation for more than seven months. The cruel and inhuman conditions of his detention, first widely publicized by Glenn Greenwald on Salon and expanded upon by others, are now being discussed, lamented, and protested throughout the progressive blogosphere (ourselves included). Few of those taking part in the conversation hesitate to describe Manning’s situation as torture.
Meanwhile, here at Solitary Watch, we’ve been receiving calls and emails from our modest band of readers, all of them saying more or less the same thing: We’re glad Bradley Manning’s treatment is getting some attention, but what about the tens of thousands of others who are languishing in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails? According to available data, there are some 25,000 inmates in long-term isolation in the nation’s supermax prisons, and as many as 80,000 more in solitary in other prisons and jails. Where is the outrage?even among progressives?for these forgotten souls? Where, even, is some acknowledgment of their existence?
A few of the writers who champion Manning have, to be fair, mentioned in passing the widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States. A very few have gone further: One powerful piece by Lynn Parramore on New Deal 2.0, for example, uses the Manning case as an opportunity to document and denounce the brutal realities of solitary confinement. She urges readers to “remember the thousands of people being tortured in American prisons, including Bradley Manning, and let us send our own message back to our government: We are Americans?Most assuredly, we will not accept torture in our name. Not of the accused. Not of the mentally ill. Not even of convicted criminals.”
But Parramore’s piece is an anomaly. More often, progressive writers?and their readers, if comments are any measure?have gone to some lengths to distinguish Bradley Manning from the masses of other prisoners being held in similar conditions. Whether explicitly or implicitly, they depict Manning as exceptional, and therefore less deserving of his treatment and more worthy of our concern.
Frequently, writers and readers make the point that Manning is being subjected to these condition while he is merely accused , rather than convicted, of a crime. Perhaps they need to be introduced to the 15-year-old boy who, along with several dozen other juveniles, is being held is solitary in a jail in Harris County, Texas, while he awaits trial on a robbery charge. He is one of hundreds?if not thousands?of prisoners being held in pre-trial solitary confinement, for one reason or another, on any given day in America. Most of them lack decent legal representation, or are simply too poor to make bail.
We have also seen articles suggesting that the treatment Manning is receiving is worse than the standard for solitary confinement, since he is deprived even of a pillow or sheets for his bed. Their authors should review the case of the prisoners held in the St. Tammany Parish Jail in rural Louisiana. According to a brief by the Louisiana ACLU, “After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3? x 3? metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet?Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers?People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months.” The cells are one-fourth the size mandated by local law for caged dogs.
There is, rightly, concern over the damage being done to Manning’s mental health by seven months in solitary. Seldom mentioned is the fact that an estimated one-third to one-half of the residents of America’s isolation units suffer from mental illness, and solitary confinement cells have, in effect, become our new asylums. Witness the ACLU of Montana’s brief on a 17-year-old mentally ill inmate who “was so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein.” During his ten months in solitary confinement, he was tasered, pepper sprayed, and stripped naked in view of other inmates, and “his mental health treatment consists of a prison staff member knocking on his door once a week and asking if he has any concerns.”
Finally, many have argued that the nature of Manning’s alleged crimes renders him a heroic political prisoner, rather than a “common” criminal. Those who take this line might want to look into the “Communications Management Units” at two federal prisons, where, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights, prisoners are placed in extreme isolation “for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.” Or they might investigate the aftermath of the recent prison strike in Georgia, in which several inmates have reportedly been thrown into solitary for leading a nonviolent protest against prison conditions.
All of these cases are “exceptional,” but only in that they earned the attention of some journalist or advocate. Most prisoners held solitary confinement are, by design, silent and silenced. Most of their stories?tens of thousands of them?are never told at all. And solitary confinement is now used as a disciplinary measure of first resort in prisons and jails across the country, so its use is anything but exceptional.
All across America, inmates are placed in isolation for weeks or months not only for fighting with other inmates or guards, but for being “disruptive” or disobeying orders; for being identified as a gang member (often by a prison snitch or the wrong kind of tattoo); or for having contraband, which can include not only a weapon but a joint, a cell phone, or too many postage stamps. In Virginia, a dozen Rastafarians were in solitary for more than a decade because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, in violation of the prison code. In many prisons, juveniles and rape victims are isolated “for their own protection” in conditions identical to those used for punishment. And for more serious crimes, the isolation simply becomes more extreme, and more permanent: In Louisiana, two men convicted of killing a prison guard have been in solitary confinement for 38 years.
Moreover, if solitary confinement is torture?or at the very least, cruel and inhuman punishment?it shouldn’t matter what a prisoner has done to end up there. As Lynn Parramore writes, “The placement of human beings in solitary confinement is not a measure of their depravity. It is a measure of our own.”
The treatment of Bradley Manning, which has introduced many on the left to the torment of solitary confinement, may present an opportunity for them to measure their own humanity. They might begin by asking themselves whether prison torture is wrong, and worthy of their attention and outrage, only when it is committed against people whose actions they admire.
Jean Casella and James Ridgeway edit Solitary Watch, where this essay originally appeared.