Tolerating Torture

by | March 29, 2011

A noteworthy piece on solitary confinement appeared yesterday as a guest column in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The column is by George Hunsinger, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and is the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). It is noteworthy, too, that NRCAT, which previously focused its work largely on U.S.-sanctioned torture abroad in the post-9/11 world, has now taken up the issue of torture in U.S. prisons. Its 2011 agenda includes, as one of seven major initiatives, a call on religious leaders and people of faith to “advocate for the end of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.”

Under the title “Torture Here at Home Cannot Be Tolerated,” Hunsinger begins with the case of accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning, now in his tenth month of soltiary confinement in a military brig, and then writes of the tens of thousands of other Americans who live in similar conditions.

The conditions under which Manning is being held are deplorable. No individual, whatever crime he may have committed, should be held in prolonged isolation or be routinely shamed through the use of unnecessary forced nakedness. And that’s the key point — no prisoners should suffer cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — no matter who they are or what crime they may have committed.

I’m not qualified to speak for Bradley Manning. What I do know, however, is that there are thousands of prisoners throughout the country who face conditions that are similar to, or worse than, those Manning may be enduring. Unfortunately, however, those poor souls are almost completely ignored.

Many prisons contain units in which prisoners are held in isolation for prolonged periods of time (months or even years). The lack of human interaction is profoundly damaging to many of these prisoners — some suffer sufficiently to cause actual physical changes in the makeup of their brains.

Long-term solitary confinement is torture. It has been known to cause prisoners to go insane. And it is unnecessary. In many cases, prisoners are held in solitary confinement to punish them for minor infractions, because of the severe overcrowding of our prisons or other administrative reasons, or because they are mentally ill.

We need to think about what sort of people we want to be. Do we want to be a people who ignore torture that occurs here? Do we want to sit comfortably at home, knowing that somewhere not far away someone is being broken, his mind shattered, by a severe loneliness that has lasted for years?

It is one thing to punish a criminal. It is another to abuse him or her — to strip away his very humanity by denying him contact with all other humans. Solitary confinement can cause permanent damage. And let us remember that under the law, Manning, an American citizen, is still innocent until proved guilty.

It is our urgent responsibility to create a prison system where there is no place for such enforced suffering and where the rights of all citizens are upheld.


James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Joshlyn

    well said this is what i have siad for years we need more who thingk like you my frend you are the true light in the darknes of justice we have to be thare sens are nashion will not may thare be a dasy when we do not have to be the light baring but that we all will hold a light as one nashion for hunmane justice till then we keep fighting may thare be light in the darknes of justice

  • Where are all of the Chaplains?
    The only one we have been blessed to study Dr. Stan Moody – we are seeking funds to provide his profound books to our Veterans Incarcerated –

    And as we have requested before, any Veterans Incarcerated who received their combat disability (Dept of Defense/VA) prior to offense – so many times such untreated PTSD/Traumatic Brain Injury/Survivor’s Guilt, etc., response for such offense –
    The War Widows
    Mary Murphy, former VA/Prison Chaplain/Marshal Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals

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