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The Horror of Solitary
March 15, 2011 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Dickens condemned it over 160 years ago: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree." But this very moment, over 25,000 prisoners in the U.S. are being subjected to it. Its horrific effects are well known.

Recent events have helped put a spotlight on it. But wider outrage is missing.
Previously (1), (2).
posted by storybored (60 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
The NatGeo link claims "more than 80,000" while Wired claimes "at least 25,000" which, while not mutually exclusive, paint a confused picture. Is this a question of varying definitions for "solitary"?
posted by fartron at 2:20 PM on March 15, 2011


The New Yorker article says:

"America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures."

That seems to be the best interpretation of the numbers.
posted by theodolite at 2:23 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


So it's 25,000 that the jailers are willing to admit to then.
posted by fartron at 2:26 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn, that quote from Dickens is awesome. Where's it from?

Thanks for this, storybored. Solitary is a hell like none other.
posted by jammy at 2:27 PM on March 15, 2011


So it's 25,000 that the jailers are willing to admit to then.

Yeah, it seems odd they "only admit" there are 25,000, because they really love to show off their isolation units on TV in shows like Lockdown.

I hope some day solitary is determined to be cruel and unusual punishment. And Mr. Warden, your "rehabilitation argument" is bullshit, too. We know it.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:30 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


That New Yorker article really changed my thinking on the subject. Now it seems clear to me that solitary confinement is torture. It's incredibly fucked up that prisoners are subjected to this for long periods (that includes Bradley Manning.) Yeah he committed treason. Does it mean we have to torture him? If so can we at least be honest about it and include 'torture by solitary confinement' is his sentence? Wait, has he even been sentenced?

Anyway not to make this about Manning. Even prisoners doing life for heinous crimes shouldn't be tortured unless we're willing to make it part of the sentence. We should least be honest about it.
posted by jcruelty at 2:36 PM on March 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have a client right now who has been in jail awaiting trial for three and a half years. He has apparently always been a bit difficult, and, in turn, the jail has made his life more difficult. He probably had some mental problems to begin with, but he was fairly functional. He had a difficult time getting along with his lawyers, so he kept firing them. After a year and a half or so, his case went to trial and he represented himself. It was a hung jury. The DA announced her intent to retry him. He has yet to be re-tried.

I was appointed the case by the judge three or so weeks ago. I am his eighth lawyer. He believes that I -- like the seven lawyers before him -- am conspiring with the judge and the DA to work against him. He has been given a plea offer to plead guilty, be given credit for time served, and be released. He has turned this down.

By everyone's account (judge, DA, lawyers, jailers, clerks, etc.) he is far less stable and healthy than he was when all this started. He has lost sixty pounds. He is so incredibly paranoid that I can barely talk to him. Whatever mental health problems he has were greatly exacerbated by his time in confinement. His resulting mental health state is now being used by the judge to keep him in jail longer and be evaluated. It is being used by the DA as a reason to withdraw a plea. "He is too dangerous now to be released."

Maybe, but it was the jail that made him too dangerous.
posted by flarbuse at 2:37 PM on March 15, 2011 [56 favorites]


A form of punishment within the system that goes against not just the values but even the goal of said system
posted by notionoriety at 2:42 PM on March 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow. This makes me feel despondent. I don't know how anyone can justify torturing anyone in a way that will destroy mental health and then releasing the person back out into the public.

Yes, do let's torture people who are capable of criminal activity and make sure they are as insane and full of pain and rage and utter misery as can exist in a human and then release them. That'll make the public safe.

WHAT THE FUCK.

I don't want anyone to be tortured. I agree with jcruelty that if we are going to do it we should say "tortured with solitary confinement" as part of the sentencing. Of course they are also using this on people who are difficult while in confinement so they would have to say "torture for bad behavior in prison"

Jesus. This makes my heart hurt. I know that people who work in prisons have a really hard job--- one that is by nature going to make them desensitized to the feelings of prisoners--- but should we as a society just say "Ok well I know prisoners can be assholes so just torture them however you like if they piss you off?"

Can that be an ok policy--- to add torture to the menu as stress relief for prison employees? Couldn't there be other ways to relieve prison worker stress?
posted by xarnop at 2:43 PM on March 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Damn, that quote from Dickens is awesome. Where's it from?

Seems to be from American Notes for General Circulation (a winner of a title if I ever heard one). Here's the Wikipedia article on it.
posted by jedicus at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah he committed treason.

Minor point, but if he hasn't been tried, let alone convicted, then no he didn't commit treason.

Oh wait, did I say "minor point?" I meant "basis of our justice system." My bad.

jcruelty: I'm totally on your side here -- my barely-suppressed rage is at our awful prison system.
posted by rusty at 2:54 PM on March 15, 2011 [26 favorites]


Odd logic that a deeply disturbed person will be cured by isolation from any ameliorating influences.
posted by Cranberry at 2:57 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


May 22, 1:39:03 PM, Manning (Wired): i cant believe what im confessing to you :’(

May 22, 1:40:20 PM (Wired): ive been so isolated so long… i just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life… but events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive… smart enough to know whats going on, but helpless to do anything… no-one took any notice of me[21]

isolated for so ling indeed. Fuck you Wired
posted by the noob at 2:58 PM on March 15, 2011


Damn, that quote from Dickens is awesome. Where's it from?

Thanks for the feedback, jammy. See jedicus' link above. The whole piece is a great read.
posted by storybored at 3:05 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Forgot to add, Dickens put his finger on why the general populace is willing to turn a blind eye: Solitary confinement just doesn't "sound" so bad, as he says: "its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear".
posted by storybored at 3:08 PM on March 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's very hard to find accurate statistics for this (partly due to confusion about what exactly constitutes a supermax prison, since there are over 50 possible definitions). The most recent article I found was this, but it's unfortunately paywalled (as are this and this - ask a librarian to help with obtaining a copy). This paper from 2007 is freely available, but only addresses the statistical question peripherally.

Can that be an ok policy--- to add torture to the menu as stress relief for prison employees?

I think it's more complex than this, just as crime is more complex than 'evil people gonna do evil.' Certainly some prison officials from the top down down impose punishments like this with the intent to torture, or indifference to the kind of psychological effects that result. Others use it for lack of a better idea about how to deal with inmate violence against staff or other prisoners. While one might point to the information from Britain discussed in the New Yorker article, having grown up in that part of the world I can assure you that prison conditions over there were also a human rights disaster for a very long time, and even now have not been fully reformed. Same thing with Ireland, to a somewhat lesser degree. Also, the US is that much bigger than Britain, and change doesn't happen everywhere at the same time. The problem is that most people with authority over or within US prisons probably believe in the viability and morality of what they're doing. It seems rational to them, and while they might lend an ear to experience gained abroad, nobody wants to experiment with an alternative that may fail and result in the death of another prisoner or guard (with inevitable ruinous lawsuits against all involved).

The problem in the US is that while some people are violently and criminally insane, confining such a person against their will in a mental hospital (even temporarily) is very difficult and has been since the 1970s because of two supreme court cases addressing abuses in the mental health system. So there are a lot of mentally ill people who don't get proper treatment but aren't able to function in society, and end up becoming involved in crime to survive, or being mistaken as criminals by a law enforcement system that doesn't handle mental illness well. add in things like drug laws, and politicians who are afraid to be seen as soft on crime, and you get an authoritarian bias towards continually increasing levels of punishment. And when you throw the economic interests of police and prison officers' unions, and the corporations that supply the law enforcement establishment, it adds up to a ton of political money. The California Correctional Peace Officer's Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state, and funds things like victim's rights advocacy groups and documentary films as well as electioneering. California's prison system is a disaster on wheels, but proposals for reforming usually generate vociferous opposition and go nowhere, despite being mandated by multiple court orders.

It's hard to see where or how to force changes in the system in the short term.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:34 PM on March 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


I worked at the Eastern State Penitentiary for their haunted house last year and found out the origins of solitary confinement. I learned a lot about our history of imprisonment. Also that place is seriously creepy.
posted by Ansgar at 3:35 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


remembering The Royal Game
Why do we have to go though all this again and again?
posted by mumimor at 3:36 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dickens visited Eastern State Penn, in Philly--in fact there is a stature of him in that city--and explored the system that was then used. The place still exists and you can learn a good deal by googling it or actually visiting it. The ideas was that by not allowing a prisoner any chance to exercise, eat, or talk with any other person, the prisoner would look inward and come to better understand his evil ways. And perhaps correct them. NY later opened a prison and was a bit more liberal, allowing prisoners to gather together in a common outside area (within the prison though) but they were not allowed to talk to each other.

Prisons were so much nicer in the time Dickens knew. His family was in one. Debters allowed to have their families with them till such time--catch 22--they paid what they owed (with of course no job so no income). The idea here was to make things so appalling that one would make sure to pay debts rather than go to prison.

If man is a social animal, then full solitary would clearly be very destructive. Every one you know, unfriended.
posted by Postroad at 3:39 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


DOD Gives Manning Caveman Gown, Says They’re Not Humiliating Him

DOD Continues to Stall on Kucinich’s Request to Visit Bradley Manning
posted by homunculus at 4:01 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Give him another 30 days to think about it."

Is it even possible, I wonder, for humans to incarcerate other humans without it being a total shit-fest? Especially not in as selfish a country as the United States. I know I read of that Swedish (?) prison which actually seemed to have rehabilitation as a genuine goal with good outcomes, but it seems so far away.

You only have to read threads here where seemingly decent mefites want to throw away the key, and despair that "humane" treatment is even possible.
posted by maxwelton at 4:07 PM on March 15, 2011


Seems there is change afoot in Canada, at least for women.
posted by absentian at 4:07 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


If so can we at least be honest about it and include 'torture by solitary confinement' is his sentence?

No! because

i) It is not constitutional (cruel & unusual), and thus requires a new amendment, not just an 'admission'

and

ii) If we gave this (or in fact most other countries) the vote, with the issue cast in the 'right' way, a significant %age of people would vote for torture, and a smaller but no-negligable number of people would vote for torture no matter how it's portrayed.

It's been going on forever. See Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People
posted by lalochezia at 4:27 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had folrgot: the word penitentiary of course comes from "penitent," the notion behind the early solitary confinement, as I noted earlier.
posted by Postroad at 4:33 PM on March 15, 2011


I don't know, I pretty much long for this. Out of every week I spend about 3 days alone, either reading or using the internet, not seeing or speaking to live people at all, and I prefer it that way. I dream about being posted in the arctic at some station by myself, or being on a one man mission to Mars. You hear me, NASA? I'm okay if it's only one-way, just beam me some video games and e-books occasionally.
posted by Menthol at 4:50 PM on March 15, 2011


Amazing how Dickens never really comes out and says what he is talking about.
posted by Ardiril at 4:55 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know, I pretty much long for this.

Methinks you underestimate the difference between doing this voluntarily, playing video games and reading e-books a couple days a week, and doing this involuntarily in a concrete box with no direct sunlight, when all you have is a pencil and a piece of paper for a few hours in the afternoon, and maybe 1 hour out in a cage to walk in a circle.
posted by chimaera at 5:16 PM on March 15, 2011 [7 favorites]


wow, ardiril, i wonder if you are going to get away with that.
posted by kitchenrat at 5:17 PM on March 15, 2011


I don't know, I pretty much long for this.

I was in an earthquake once. it was a lot of fun - the house was shaking, everything was moving. Then it got kinda old, and I was ready for it to stop. But it didn't stop, and I realised that there was nothing I could do to make it stop, that I was utterly powerless, that I was utterly, utterly at the mercy of something to which I didn't even exist.
Suddenly it wasn't fun any more. Suddenly it became very scary.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:17 PM on March 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


It's a horrible thing. Denying prisoners humanity diminishes our own.
posted by agregoli at 5:21 PM on March 15, 2011


I see nothing wrong with very limited solitary, as long as the time frame is carefully defined for the prisoner and doesn't last longer than let's say, a week, in the absolute very worst cases. Sometimes people need to cool the hell out, and I imagine in a prison with violent and dangerous offenders that's not such a horrendous thing.

Especially if it's structured with educative elements or some stuff to do that enriches the mind.

There should be natural light and decent enough conditions.

But indefinite solitary is torture and is barbaric. What is being done to Bradley Manning: Beyond barbaric. Disgusting and it makes me despise this country...
posted by Skygazer at 5:33 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


What do you do when more than half your country utterly believes that torture, solitary confinement, and suspension of habeas corpus are utterly deserved by anyone that...well...you disagree with or don't like, basically. Or is different. That is the problem I think we have. Our government might well be representative in this matter. The country is more LGF than MeFi. I know perfectly reasonable people who think torture is a tragic, tragic thing, if it comes to that, but certainly not something they would rule out with if it involved terrorists or nukes or cute little kids or something. Or even if it MIGHT. Better safe than sorry, eh? I think people would cheer and volunteer to help and televise it if you let 'em....
posted by umberto at 5:49 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


The whole POINT of solitary is you. don't. get. anything. No "educative elements" or "stuff to do that enriches the mind." You get nothing at all.

You're not describing the current reality, just constructing something that all prisoners should have as basic prison conditions.
posted by agregoli at 5:51 PM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't know, I pretty much long for this.

I'm fairly introverted myself, but most people are a lot more social and feel lost without frequent human contact. In any case, those in solitary confinement in prison don't have internet, a heap of books to read, or the freedom to wander off to the kitchen and make a sandwich or whatever. For that matter there's a lot of people in prison that can't read.
posted by anigbrowl at 6:01 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I cherish solitude as well...I think having someone else lock the door, from the outside, puts a whole other light on it. Actually - I know this.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:26 PM on March 15, 2011


I don't know. I pretty much long for this.... - Menthol

With any due respect, you have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by jammy at 6:31 PM on March 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


I don't know, I pretty much long for this.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in solitary don't get an internet connection or video games. More importantly, choice matters. Whether you decide on your circumstances or have them forced on you at length is the difference between sex and rape, travel and exile, charity and theft, fasting and starving. It's the difference between washing your face and getting waterboarded, and it's the difference between taking time for quiet reflection and suffering the very real alienation of solitary confinement.

And to equate any of those things, or make light of them, is really repugnant.
posted by mhoye at 7:55 PM on March 15, 2011 [12 favorites]


Extended stays in solitary confinement, especially in "control-unit isolation," now known as SHU or CMU; usually require lengthy stepdown programs to re-socialize inmates so that they can better function in a regular high security prison unit. Last I checked there was a one-year program for guys (California) coming out of SHU's at places like Corcoran or the Bay- essentially having to relearn how to deal with all this "freedom" they had now that they were "just" in a maximum yard at a state prison. I met one guy in an AZ state prison who'd done 6 or 7 years in a SHU, and others when I was i prison myself, like if they were just in a certain block until they went to some hearing or something. As for myself, the longest I ever did in disciplinary segregation (known on TV as "the hole") was 9 days, that was enough for me, although I did have to go more than once. Some people can do the SHU, at least for a few years, for whatever reason some people just adapted to it better than others. But even those guys changed after a while, you'd see them whenever they finally got reclassified and let out, or for whatever other reason; and in some ways it would be like they were a shade, like a ghost of their former self (or at least noticeably different). My friend in there did a few years on his own like that, until he reclassed and came to the tier with the rest of us, he was a little 'off' because of it but eventually came around. He's still in there, or some other place- he's never getting out.

The thing about it, is that we're a lot better at suicide-proofing and -prevention than in years past, so even the guys who can't do that kind of time don't have that as an escape. So even the ones who really flip out, just have to endure it; and when they act out they just get made to stay in the SHU for longer and longer, over and over.

The stepdown thing may not even apply, in California (and many other states) they have indefinite solitary. It used to be that if you acted out, killed your celly or whatever, then you'd have to go for a certain number of months or years; and there were rules as to how long that could be, what kind of due process, etc. Now though, especially if they call it "administrative" instead of "disciplinary" they can just put you in- no hearing, no discussion, they just come and take you one day and you stay in there indefinitely. In Louisiana they put Robert King (he of the "Angola 3") in solitary for 36 years. He eventually got out and now he's a famous prison reform advocate.

In California they call this "The Forever."

So it does take some getting used to after you get out of SHU and come back to the tier, that also applies to getting out of prison and coming back to the World. It took me a while to get used to being out, and for a while I didn't leave the house much. You notice a lot of things too, things like, wtf is this apartment door going to do for me, this is nothing, how can i ever sleep with only this between me and whatever is out there? Eventually I got used to it, and was back to being my old social-butterfly self- but then I was gone for less than 3 years. Talking to a lot of ex-offenders in re-entry programs and the like, it's a common thing. That's why so many guys get busted on a weapons charge while on parole. You'd think, this dude just went down for 12 years and then finally got parole, why is he going to fuck that up carrying a knife or a pistol? But there's the other side of it, the other side is: "Bro I just spent 12 years in one of the most secure facilities ever designed by man. Feet of steel and concrete, gun towers, electronic gizmo's and electric kill-fences between me and whoever. Roided out cops in tactical gear were standing by at all hours, waiting to break up a fight. But now? Some dude jumps on me in the walmart parking lot and I'll be dead before anyone even notices or calls the cops. Well, I will be or *he* will be..."
posted by Hiding From Goro at 8:52 PM on March 15, 2011 [33 favorites]


I actually met some former H-Block people and they went through some stuff. There was a lot of physical torture and there was solitary confinement I wonder how well those guys actually re-socialized. There were women prisoners in similar circumstances. Some things never go away.
I have no problem with putting people who commit rape, particularly against small children, or mass murderers in forever. But the reality is most prisoners are coming out at some point. Even the scariest ones are coming out some day.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:29 PM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Seems there is change afoot in Canada, at least for women."

Well that's all to the good, but at the same time we seem to be buying in to the whole "we need more prisons" mentality, and finding unreported crimes (can the criminals be far behind?) to justify it.

Justify isn't even the right word, because our politicians seem to believe that we're somehow missing out on this wonderful business opportunity by not incarcerating more folks. You get the impression that it's working great in the US, and we really need to get on board.
posted by sneebler at 9:48 PM on March 15, 2011


Unreported indeed, Sneebler:

Sorry, this story is not available.

posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:36 PM on March 15, 2011


Oh - the link came through on the third try.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:36 PM on March 15, 2011


Even the scariest ones are coming out some day.

As long as they are released into your neighborhood and not mine.
posted by three blind mice at 11:31 PM on March 15, 2011


I have no problem with putting people who commit rape, particularly against small children, or mass murderers in forever.

So you support torture, over an indefinite period of time then ? I agree that the crimes you mention are horrific and deserve grand punishment, but surely torture is the wrong side of the line ?

Your only concern being what happens when they are released. Way to go. I'm real glad you're thinking this through from an objective position.

When the liberals support torture you need to realise that something very very wrong is happening.

(maybe you aren't liberal of course - I assumed so because you are posting here, if you are not then I'm still not apologising because i find your viewpoint repugnant, liberal or not)

I do understand your emotional response to these kind of crimes. If someone committed such crimes against people I love I might very well plot a range of illegal and indefensible revenges, but that is a) illegal and something I would have to face justice for and b) completely different from the state handing out formalised torture, for which it seemingly faces no censure of any kind.
posted by Boslowski at 3:05 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sometimes, the horror of population is far greater than the horror of segregation, and so too, solitary is less a horror than the alternative. (sometimes?) You might be surprised how little it can take to make something entertaining. A styrofoam cup can become a game. But I was 13 and clever. YMMV.

I've said it before, i'll repeat it. Perhaps because I learned to enjoy beating my head against cinderblock walls: Prison ought to be the safest place on the planet. The fact it is not is testimony to utter bullshit of the system that puts people there.

I confess though, I am a strong believer in rehabilitation. If all you wish to accomplish is punishment, you ought to see a therapist about that, before you do something and land in prison.
posted by Goofyy at 6:15 AM on March 16, 2011


What do you do when more than half your country utterly believes that torture, solitary confinement, and suspension of habeas corpus are utterly deserved by anyone that...well...you disagree with or don't like, basically. Or is different. That is the problem I think we have.

Excellent point, if a bit overstated. I don't think that's it's more the half, though. (even if it is still less than half, it was enough to get me the fuck out of there the first chance I got ) I think that what the powers that be want us to think, so one doesn't bother to even consider changing things.


"The dark side of American exceptionalism". Likewise well put.

An accurate measure of how civilized any given society is could be how it treats it's most vulnerable, it's most damaged.

By this metric, it's heartbreaking to know how merciless and ignorant America has become.
posted by Hickeystudio at 6:26 AM on March 16, 2011


Article containing a short history of the practice. The intentions were, not surprisingly, of the best.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:34 AM on March 16, 2011


I happened to be in a psychiatric facility for teenagers in Texas in the late nineties. Well, more than one. They all contained solitary confinement rooms. Cement walls, one window in the door to look in from the outside, and one wood bed frame with no mattress. This was punishment for patients who misbehaved. Sometimes, you could be in there for two days. It was truly horrible. Certainly not as bad as what those prisoners go through though.
posted by Malice at 7:24 AM on March 16, 2011


jcruelty: "Bradley Manning... Yeah he committed treason."

Allegedly.
posted by Bonzai at 9:06 AM on March 16, 2011


An accurate measure of how civilized any given society is could be how it treats it's most vulnerable, it's most damaged.

Perhaps in Biblical parlance you could phrase that as "the least of these my brethren."

"Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me."

The part in the New Yorker article about the prison administrators receiving pressure from legislators is the part that makes me the most discouraged. People whose job it is to manage the system, who have close experience, and who you might think even have adversarial relationships with prisoners -- many of them think that solitary is overused and want to limit it. But our elected officeholders won't lead and won't let them lead out of fear of the electorate's apparent passion for abuse.
posted by weston at 9:35 AM on March 16, 2011


Been reading a lot of Dickens lately, and am astonished at how (a) perceptive he was about the miseries inflicted upon the poor; (b) intent upon social justice as the driving force of his art. If all you read is Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, you miss out on a lot of really driven, passionate, beautiful propaganda for reform.
posted by Erroneous at 11:12 AM on March 16, 2011


Why astonished? He grew up poor. That sort of thing tends to stick with one.

On the other hand, as a successful adult he treated his own family abominably, so go figure.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:38 PM on March 16, 2011


I visited East State prison museum in Philadelphia a few years ago, and one of the shocking things was how ubiquitous solitary confinement was. Apparently, in the 1800s thru early 1900s, the predominant criminal rehabilitation theory was that prisoners needed time alone with God, without distractions, to contemplate their misdeeds and change their ways. They not only were in a solitary cell and fed through a slot, but some of them had EYELESS MASKS affixed so they wouldn't be distracted by, um, their windowless cell.

I really can't imagine how anyone could stay sane through a few weeks, let alone years of that.
posted by LordSludge at 12:55 PM on March 16, 2011


Perhaps in Biblical parlance you could phrase that as "the least of these my brethren."

I'm not usually given to biblical parlance, but the passage you subsequently quoted is also known as the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity, and is far older than the gospel according the Matthew.

I felt the same about the New Yorker article, particularly that section regarding any mention of reform being crushed by the cowardice of legislators. However I don't think it's public wrath guiding political cowardice, I think it's being cut off from corporate campaign money that the more decisive factor.

Prisons are big business for the ruling class. Particularly if they're privatized, then filled with newly created criminals to justify their existence.

Regarding solitary confinement, it ties into the torture debate. Despite the fact that it's proven that it's not only immoral, illegal and doesn't fucking work, it still doesn't matter to those who argue so vociferously for it. As long as enough people remain willfully ignorant and passionately misinformed enough to argue against common sense, nothing will change.
posted by Hickeystudio at 1:39 PM on March 16, 2011


Can't let them mix with the general population, because they're too violent, whether for mental illness or any other reason (exceptions like Bradley Manning aside)

Can't put them in solitary, because it's unremediating torture.

Can't put them to sleep, because.

Any other ideas?
posted by magic curl at 8:25 PM on March 16, 2011


And to put the 25,000-80,000 into perspective -- there are about 400,000,000 battery hens, presumably innocent, who are locked up in much more confining cages across the U.S. today.
posted by magic curl at 8:26 PM on March 16, 2011


I'm not usually given to biblical parlance, but the passage you subsequently quoted is also known as the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity

The Golden rule would be enough if that's what it was, but this passage isn't actually what you're describing (the passages I can think of most closely tied to the reciprocity ethic are instead found in bits of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7 and Luke 6). Rather than encouraging a reciprocal standard of behavior, this text actually places both service and neglect of others (including the lowest among us) as equivalent treatment of God. And it implies eternal rewards directly depend on this behavior.

Now, I recognize a lot of audience reading metafilter are happy godless heathens who aren't going to read that literally. But rhetorically, that's a pretty heavy underscore, there -- arguably heavier than standard admonitions of reciprocity. And seeing that prisoners are cared for and not isolated and forgotten is specifically mentioned. That's what brought it to mind as I was thinking about the apparent preferences of our electorate, including a large number who are ostensible Christians of one stripe or another.

is far older than the gospel according the Matthew.

No argument from me -- my elementary school introduction to it sourced the Greeks, and from other things I've read, it's scattered all over various cultures and history.

However I don't think it's public wrath guiding political cowardice, I think it's being cut off from corporate campaign money that the more decisive factor.

That explanation would certainly allow me to feel better about my fellow voters, but I'm not sure I buy it. I believe prison industry has influence, but I don't see what the incentives are to lock prisoners in solitary -- how would they make more money that way?
posted by weston at 9:55 PM on March 16, 2011


magic curl: all sorts of other countries have criminals, including violent criminals, and yet don't seem to need either execution or huge quantities of solitary confinement - for example, Europe.

Searching doesn't seem to find a magic bullet but instead a range of techniques - therapy, drugs, limited amounts of solitary confinement, but mostly, a focus on rehabilitation instead of endless punishment.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When using your hammer turns everything it touches into a nail, you find you have to use it over and over and over.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:18 AM on March 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


And, hoping this isn't a repeat, here's an excellent article on the effects of solitary confinement - which include, commonly, suicide.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:33 AM on March 17, 2011


Can't let them mix with the general population, because they're too violent, whether for mental illness or any other reason (exceptions like Bradley Manning aside)

Can't put them in solitary, because it's unremediating torture.

Can't put them to sleep, because.

Any other ideas?


magic curl: I know it often seems like there aren't any alternatives to things like prison as it stands, but there are: Restorative Justice, for example.
posted by jammy at 4:18 PM on March 17, 2011


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