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.