On April 7, a year after his groundbreaking piece on solitary confinement, “Hellhole,” appeared in the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande spoke about the issue at Harvard Law School. Gawande reiterated many of the points made in his article about long-term isolation in U.S. prisons, citing evidence of its ineffectiveness as well as its cruelty. Worth repeating here, however, are Gawande’s comments on how apathy and complicity among the American public allow a torturous practice to continue.
According to the Harvard Crimson, Gawande said:
“The public is outraged at some level, but not deeply enough…The prisoners are not connected to our society due to racial, socioeconomic, and educational disparities….The average inmate is not a person you would run into in daily life. I think it would disturb us or be difficult to stomach putting people we grew up with in solitary isolation.”…
“When we consider legalized torture, we consider Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib…But solitary confinement in our state prisons is the legalized torture of our own people within our own communities.”
The Harvard Gazette reported that Gawande “wondered aloud” how prolonged solitary confinement can be so widespread, when clearly it is “so intrinsically cruel.”
In the United States, the continued practice of solitary confinement in prisons across the country is directly linked to the public’s acceptance of the practice, he said.
“We learn very quickly that public sentiment is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded here,” said Gawande, adding that the support of such isolation is a “generational” construct.
“These are ideas that previous Americans have not found acceptable. And in much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, I think that ours has countenanced legalized torture.”
And according to the Harvard Law School site, Gawande depicted public sentiment driving prison policy rather than the other way around, saying that some prison administrators would like to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement, but “fear of public reprisal” keeps them from doing so. “‘The reason is us,” he said.