Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Hellhole
March 24, 2009 4:02 PM   Subscribe

"The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?"
posted by Joe Beese (91 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sometimes its a safety issue.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 4:11 PM on March 24, 2009


Hi, all. Please take the time to read the article before commenting. Thanks very much.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:13 PM on March 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


Okay, but first: the way the United States does long-term group confinement comes pretty close to torture its ownself.
posted by box at 4:16 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Under CAT, torture is:
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

So yes, it's torture. America's insistence to the contrary are attempts to redefine by bizarre definition.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:18 PM on March 24, 2009


Seriously, people, read the article. It's really well written and argued.
posted by billysumday at 4:21 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Previously discussed on the blue.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:21 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

So it's torture unless the legislature says it isn't?
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:24 PM on March 24, 2009


Hi, all. Please take the time to read the article before commenting.

Or BP will throw you into the hole.
posted by everichon at 4:29 PM on March 24, 2009


Ah yes, U.S. prisons, the pride of the city on the hill. Ssshhh, don't tell anyone.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2009


It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Did you read this part, 1adam12? It's an exception that I think makes that definition useless.
posted by The World Famous at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2009


Absolutely YES, no question. I've long said that all those preachers in the streets yelling "repent" to college kids really need to address the biggest human rights travesty in our country. Go visit people in prison. Seriously. It is cruel and inhumane to keep people locked away in isolation for years and years.
posted by Catblack at 4:31 PM on March 24, 2009


This was, in fact, a great piece.
posted by boo_radley at 4:32 PM on March 24, 2009


There's lots of things that happen under cats which could be considered torture. Perhaps you're talking about the Committee against Torture? If so, it's an international group, so whatever the legislature says doesn't really mean anything (except trying to get anything done to those who perpetrate state-sanctioned torture is another issue).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:32 PM on March 24, 2009


BrotherCaine:
This seems to be America's position. The American government tried to evade its responsibilities under CAT by pushing everything except treatment causing near-death or permanent insanity outside of the definition of "torture." The problem with this is that CAT doesn't allow this kind of nonsense, but America doesn't respect its commitments and responsibilities under international conventions and treaties.

If you have a lawful sanction, such as imprisonment after conviction for a crime, that causes some incidental discomfort then according to CAT it isn't torture. If being in prison makes you sad, then CAT doesn't help you. The violation starts when putting the prisoner into solitary confinement, a condition known to cause long-term psychological damage, becomes part of the prisoner's officially-sanctioned punishment.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:33 PM on March 24, 2009


If you have a lawful sanction, such as imprisonment after conviction for a crime, that causes some incidental discomfort then according to CAT it isn't torture.

Moreover, if you have a lawful sanction, such as imprisonment in solitary confinement after conviction for a crime, that causes some pain and suffering that is inherent in that punishment, then according to CAT it is not torture. The CAT definition is useless.
posted by The World Famous at 4:36 PM on March 24, 2009


Guy gets Life sentence...kills a prisoner while serving time. Kill him then or simply put him in same situation he was in previously or do you put him in solitary...Say, now, you are a guard. What would you want done? Want to see how prisons were once run like? Go to site for Eastern Pa State prison site. Prisoners were not allowed to talk to anyone and were isolated at all times one from the other so they could focus upon what they had done wrong. Charles Dickens visiting that prison noted how the treatment" drove many insane.
posted by Postroad at 4:39 PM on March 24, 2009


Awwww poor widdle man, broke into a house to steal some Atari video games, broke into an abandoned building and made off with paint cans, irons, and other property, got into fights and screamed obscenities at the reform school staff, tore a pillar out of the ceiling, a sink and mirrors off the wall, doors off their hinges and began attacking counselors, then got sent to Joliet, where he continued to misbehave. Then when he got out he beat a man severely over $10, went back to prison, got into vicious fights over insults, was caught with a shiv in his cell, got put in solitary, banged his cup on the toilet for hours, assaulted the staff at least three times, threw his food through the door slot, repeatedly set his cell on fire, repeatedly flooded his cell, ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth, and began throwing his feces around his cell. Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault. Big meanypants America.
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 4:40 PM on March 24, 2009


@Hovercraft Eel: Not saying you feel this way (but this is a similar issue to one I care about), but that is exactly the attitude that allows abhorrent conditions to continue to perpetuate in U.S. prisons. It's pretty much widely accepted that if you break the law your punishment includes rape. Nice.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:43 PM on March 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault. Big meanypants America.

Without excusing his behavior outside prison, do you think, having read the article, that perhaps some of his behavior inside prison may be due to the way in which he was imprisoned?

Or was this another of your rants?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:44 PM on March 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


A good read, but no great surprises. Of course isolating a social animal constitutes torture. Even the most misanthropically reclusive among us require opportunities for social intercourse. The second message of the piece is that the US legal and prison system is much more about punishment and retribution than it is about prevention of crime and rehabilitation of criminals. Politicians ignore all evidence showing that prevention and treatment (for example, in drug offenses) are both cheaper and more effective than incarceration. It is easier to grandstand and rabble-rouse about being "soft on crime" (how about white-collar crime guys?) than to actually take measures that have been proven to work elsewhere.
posted by binturong at 4:51 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is generally a very good, and deeply disturbing article. This, howver:

Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.


is very poor. Of COURSE reform is going to be slow. "went nowhere, of course" reads like it was written by a petulant 14 year old. And who are these disbelieving "people?"
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:51 PM on March 24, 2009


It is a core tenet of Americanism that each man has, at each moment in his life, the power to choose to live with dignity. It's a shame to see that the first country ever to throw off its tyrannous colonial masters for the right to pursue happiness should come to such effete whining and declarations of impotence. No, the behavior in prison is not "due to way in which he was imprisoned." His choices may be influenced by his conditions, but they remain his choices.
posted by jock@law at 4:52 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is a really important article that should be read by everyone concerned with justice. Solitary is torture, we've known it for ages and Britain has discovered ways to avoid its use while maintaining prisoner safety. We could both save money and lives if we followed their example. I hope this is widely picked up and amplified so that Obama's justice dept and Congress at least considers some form of action.

Meanwhile, we use it to drive people insane and make them both more violent and less productive so that when they return to the streets, they require lifetime public support and may take others with them if they go off the rails.

I once interviewed a former prisoner who had a religious awakening in solitary: he was sociopathic prior to going in, but now had an exalted sense of his mission. It was extremely frightening and I often wonder what happened to him.
posted by Maias at 4:53 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is a core tenet of Americanism that each man has, at each moment in his life, the power to choose to live with dignity. It's a shame to see that the first country ever to throw off its tyrannous colonial masters for the right to pursue happiness should come to such effete whining and declarations of impotence. No, the behavior in prison is not "due to way in which he was imprisoned." His choices may be influenced by his conditions, but they remain his choices.
posted by jock@law


I can guaran-damn-tee that you did not read the article.
posted by billysumday at 4:55 PM on March 24, 2009 [15 favorites]


Hovercraft Eel- do you want to be right? Or do you want to be effective? I prefer effective, and solitary is demonstratably not effective.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:57 PM on March 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


It is a core tenet of Americanism that each man has, at each moment in his life, the power to choose to live with dignity

Well, we wouldn't want your philosophy to be challenged by, you know, facts or evidence, now would we? Like, say, another country with similar culture and crimes successfully dealing with the problems caused by solitary confinement. Or psychiatrists observing that the conditions themselves cause insanity.
posted by fatbird at 4:59 PM on March 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


His choices may be influenced by his conditions, but they remain his choices.

When you have a process that dehumanizes someone, are their choices really their choices any longer?

Because the article discusses firsthand evidence from former POWs and hostages, as well as behavioral research that suggests that these people may not in fact be in control of their faculties.

I would ask that you please take the time to read the article, because it really seems like you have not read it. It is well written and worth the time, even if you don't agree with the premises.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:01 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's a shame to see that the first country ever to throw off its tyrannous colonial masters for the right to pursue happiness

what's really a shame is having to watch other folks offer simplistic renderings of complex historical events to bolster specious & self-righteous arguments
posted by jammy at 5:05 PM on March 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


This was an excellently written article. I'd really like to take a look at the brains of folks who are kept in solitary for extended periods of time. I would imagine that being deprived of human contact correlates with significant neural changes.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:07 PM on March 24, 2009


Jock, I'd like to see you make reasonable decisions after spending months in solitary confinement with a history of mental illness. We all underestimate the effects that the environment has on our thoughts and behavior but there is reams of research showing that even completely normal people go rather nuts in solitary. Consider McCain and the guy held hostage by Iran in the story. They weren't especially vulnerable before they went in-- but even they were devastated by the experience.

Now think about it being mentally ill. A great deal of mental illness results from traumatic stress acting on a sensitive biology-- and one of the most traumatic stresses a human can experience is isolation. There's a reason most tribes considered banishment a worse punishment than death.

I urge you to read the literature on persuasion and on how people can be influenced by very subtle events such as being exposed to particular words or being asked certain questions. Then, consider solitary in light of the fact that teeny things can have a big influence-- and solitary isn't a small thing.

It's all well and good to consider ourselves completely responsible and resistant to influence. But when you read the literature on influence, you realize that our choices are much more constrained than we like to believe and it is only luck (or, for the religious, the grace of Gd) that we don't wind up in situations that make good decisions nearly impossible.
posted by Maias at 5:11 PM on March 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


and, where are my manners?

thanks very much for this post, Joe Beese. it is well appreciated. i would favorite it more if i could.
posted by jammy at 5:35 PM on March 24, 2009


If anyone's interested, info from IDOC about Robert Felton (the inmate in the article) can be found here It wouldn't link with the image so here he is. In case these links are temporary you can search for him by last name here.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:51 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


So we've got the studies, the various research that has been done on the subject over the years, along with any papers derived from it all; yet the policies that are applied to the corrections industry so seldom seem to respond to any of this knowledge.

You'd almost think that the government and prison industries are run by a bunch of sadistic bastards or something, as if there is some kind of benefit to be gained (for somebody) from cultivating yet more madness in the populace than is already there.

No, that couldn't be it . . .

Good article.
posted by metagnathous at 5:53 PM on March 24, 2009


Did you ever watch that endless series of prison documentaries MSNBC used to run? (It still does, just much less frequently these days.) People get locked up in solitary for sometimes minor things, and under horrible, horrible conditions. Often they're locked in their cells 23 hours a day with NOTHING--no tv, no radio, no reading material. I'm not going to defend criminals but most certainly, treating people this way can't be moral. T You can practically feel their rage through the TV screen.

And, though I wish all kinds of hell on Bernie Madoff, I was surprised to see the treatment his jailers are giving him now--a light that stays on 24 hours a day, isolation, constant video surveillance, etc. I wouldn't blink if one of his victims whose lives he's ruined shoved him down a flight of stairs but the American legal system should not torture him or anyone else.
posted by etaoin at 5:58 PM on March 24, 2009


It's amazing how crime and punishment has changed in the last 30 years. I've been reading a criminology book called The Culture of Control for a research project and it presents a very well supported argument that the US and UK took an outright punitive turn to crime control and imprisonment after the 1970s political watershed. Given how much has changed since then the punitive turn of criminal justice probably seems like small fry, but what amazes me is that the public expression of shame and retribution was itself considered shameful and "uncivilised" in the heyday of penal welfarism. The very term "punishment" was almost absent from UK government publications between the first world war and the late 1980s, used mostly in the instance of repealing corporal or capital punishments and a similar prohibition seems to have existed in the US too. We're so used to the politicisation of crime and the moral absolutism it invokes that it's impossible to believe law and order were irrelevant and apolitical issues only 30 or 40 years ago.
posted by doobiedoo at 6:02 PM on March 24, 2009


Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault

From your lips to God's ears, Hovercraft Eel.

Did you read the part at the beginning about how solitary confinement causes physical changes in the brain, and makes people insane? No?
posted by jokeefe at 6:12 PM on March 24, 2009


And here's the New York Times' newest columnist on Gawande's piece. More from Douthat on this New Yorker piece. (Read his links).
posted by IvoShandor at 6:15 PM on March 24, 2009


I noted the bit about folks with impulse control being more vulnerable to breakdown in solitary confinement; I wonder how schizoids do.
posted by adipocere at 6:30 PM on March 24, 2009


Fascinating article.

And I'm shocked, shocked to find the Usual Suspects dropping their usual shit in the thread.
posted by rtha at 6:48 PM on March 24, 2009


"The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement."

c.f. Carthusian monks, solitary since 1084.
posted by stbalbach at 6:58 PM on March 24, 2009


I wish that the people who most needed to understand the concepts contained in this article were capable of accepting the truths it details.

(yes, it's torture)
posted by batmonkey at 7:02 PM on March 24, 2009


c.f. Carthusian monks, solitary since 1084.
The Carthusian monk leaves the cell daily only for three prayer services in the monastery chapel, including the community Mass, and occasionally for conferences with his superior. Additionally, once a week, the community members take a long walk in the countryside during which they may speak; on Sundays and feastdays a community meal is taken in silence. Twice a year there is a day-long community recreation, and the monk may receive an annual visit from immediate family members.
Not quite the same thing.
posted by fatbird at 7:24 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I once worked as a legal secretary in a metropolitan public defender's office. One of the three lawyers I served was their senior felony attorney. I don't think she actually did march on Selma - but she's the type of person who would have. She spent some her own not impressive salary to buy books for a client who was in 23 hour solitary confinement during the slow legal grinding that would, in all probability, end with him spending the rest of his life in prison.

She told me that she had asked him once why he always seemed so cheerful on court days - even when it was for a scheduling matter that wouldn't improve or worsen his chances either way. He said it was because getting to listen to the driver's radio in the prison transport van heading to and returning from the courthouse was the highlight of his month.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:28 PM on March 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


c.f. Carthusian monks, solitary since 1084.

Yeah, the monks can leave whenever they want without any legal penalties. Voluntary seclusion is completely different.
posted by jedicus at 8:35 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fine article, thankyou joe Beese.

If only there were a treatment for pathologically aggressive criminals that avoided the futile cruelty of solitary confinement, the injustice of comfortable UK-style rehabilitation, and the public hand-wringing sparked by summary execution.

Can anybody think of one?
posted by magic curl at 8:43 PM on March 24, 2009


Atul Gawande for Surgeon General!

Please?
posted by washburn at 8:46 PM on March 24, 2009


the injustice of comfortable UK-style rehabilitation, and the public hand-wringing sparked by summary execution.

what in the fuck is wrong with you
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:02 PM on March 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, Joe Beese.
posted by homunculus at 9:13 PM on March 24, 2009


Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault.

Yes, in fact it is America's fault. Americans could have demanded that their justice system be pragmatic. They could have demanded that it attempt to teach this man how to handle his ADD, how to realize the American dream and how to conduct himself in society. And when they released him as a productive member of said society they could have made him pay restitution to the people he wronged. But America didn't. Instead they tortured him until he went crazy and is now incapable of being productive. There will always be people unfit for society but we have a moral imperative to treat them humanely.
posted by captaincrouton at 9:22 PM on March 24, 2009 [7 favorites]


Thanks, Joe, great article. You know, I don't think it's soft-hearted to see widespread use of solitary as a pretty basic violation of our common humanity. And if you can read that article and still come away sneering, well, I just don't get it. Something's broken, and not just in the guy locked up.
posted by bepe at 9:31 PM on March 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


Jesus. I know everyone has already said it, but that was a really engaging, well-written article. I knew isolation was bad, I mean, really bad, but this explores the whys-and-wherefores and sheds light on exactly why it's so horrific. Forget rehabilitation, this is fucking people up beyond repair.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:49 PM on March 24, 2009


the injustice of comfortable UK-style rehabilitation

Injustice? Really? So, do you want justice or revenge? There's a difference.

One of the questions raised in Douthat's piece is this: a large part of the population believes that criminals deserve punishment simply as an end in itself-- in other words, that suffering should be inflicted upon them with no possibility of rehabiliation or second chances. Douthat misreads the objection to this attitude (an objection which he ascribes to liberals) as being that criminals don't deserve punishment at all. (He argues that punishment should be incremental, to fit the nature of the crime.) I believe that the idea of punishment without support and rehabiliation is nothing but sadism, and that the majority of criminals would be well served by a system like the UK's, which certainly can't cost more than the current state of affairs in the US.

'Poor widdle men' are human beings too.
posted by jokeefe at 11:18 PM on March 24, 2009


One of the things that I think is really interesting about prison reform is that by and large, most people (and particularly politicians and other right winger types) don't give a shit about it until they, or somebody close to them, gets a taste of the old porridge themselves.

After that happens, they immediately start squealing like stuck pigs about how unfair and inhumane the system is, how the blinkers have finally fallen from their eyes, and how committed they are to righting this injustice.

So I have a tip for those people: folks, do yourselves a favour and don't wait until after you've served a prison sentence to prove your hypocrisy to the world. Get on the right side of this issue now, and when the day arrives that you finally end up serving well-deserved five stretch, at the very least you'll have the satisfaction of intellectual consistency on at least one issue.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:19 AM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault. Big meanypants America.

We're Number One! We're Number One!
(Especially when it comes to locking people up.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:30 AM on March 25, 2009


Outstanding article. Thank you.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:49 AM on March 25, 2009


There are a vast variety of ways to keep a person unable to physically harm others without also keeping them socially isolated. It seems to be the consensus that even one-way social access, like the radio and the TV, moderate the effects of physical isolation. Physical isolation with two-way social access, ie able to make phone calls, exchange mail, use the Internet etc seems to do very little psychological harm at all - periods of this can even be beneficial to some personalities.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:50 AM on March 25, 2009


A couple of comments at the end. There is a whole class of prisoner who are placed in solitary from the start as punishment for their crimes, E.g. Aldrich Ames, Ted Kaczynski. This has nothing to with potential physical harm to others. it's about extracting a pound of flesh.

When he described the feelings of isolation through solitary confinement, I thought I feel this everyday, alone in my house in rural Vermont. Nothing but me, the computer, and MeFi. How's that for punishment?
posted by Xurando at 4:11 AM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying the article doesn't do a good job of making solitary confinement sounds like hell--and something we should probably avoid doing if at all possible--but, really, it's pretty simple: if you keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble you will not end up in solitary confinement in some prison (in the US).

Granted some of the people described in the article ended up in in solitary simply for breaking some small, insignificant rule--but they still broke a rule, which could have been avoided.
posted by Autarky at 5:23 AM on March 25, 2009


Why do we have prisons? We have them for two reasons so far as I can tell probably a couple other reasons but two big reasons. The first is to keep us safer. There are some people that are dangerous to other people so you imprison them so that they aren't a danger to other people anymore. This makes us safer. The other way that prisons make us safer is by creating a cost of getting caught committing a crime. To do this prisons need to be worse than the lives of pretty much everyone. No one should have an incentive to do something to be sent to prison. Now prisons serve another role important role. Revenge. People have a deep desire for revenge.

Why was hell invented? It's easy to understand why people might have conjured up the pretty lies of eternal life and heaven. Hell doesn't make much sense until you realize it's for other people. I know people who are deeply suspicious of the supernatural but think there must be some kind of primordial force like the conservation of matter that governs Justice. It strikes them as incoherent that someone as bad as Hitler could just die and that would be the end of it. It seems wrong to them not just in the good or evil sense but in the answer on a test sense. This desire explains a lot of what's wrong with prisons. It explains why our culture seems to find prison rape amusing.

If we want a humane prison system we would need to put aside a lot of the satisfaction of vengeance. We would also have to live with the fact that a humane prison isn't as effective a deterrent as an inhumane prison. You can fix the second problem by making the lives of the poorest people better (via a strong social safety net and welfare state) to the point where a humane prison still imposes a serious cost on breaking the law. Having humane prisons would require some pretty serious and far reaching changes to American culture such that I don't see it happening.
posted by I Foody at 6:03 AM on March 25, 2009


This desire explains a lot of what's wrong with prisons. It explains why our culture seems to find prison rape amusing.

Yeah, 'They had it coming to 'em' sounds just fine and dandy to a lot of people. The problem is that many of those who are raped and brutalized in prison will end up back out on the street one day, and will most likely have been changed for the worse, no matter how bad they might have been when they went in; but they'll just bring all of the additional damage that has been done to them in the name of 'corrections' and drop it right back in society's lap, and the cycle will continue grinding merrily along.

Having humane prisons would require some pretty serious and far reaching changes to American culture such that I don't see it happening.

Sadly true. The first and most effective step in rectifying this situation would be to remove the profit motive from the prison industry - no more private prisons. But as with anything else that turns a profit in this country, it's unlikey to happen, regardless of how ineffective or outright damaging the results may be. Just like the War on Drugs.

There will always be people who are a threat to others, and who should be dealt with in no-nonsense terms for the sake of society at large. This is indisputable. Also indisputable is the fact that it is only too easy to be railroaded in a culture as punitive as that of the U.S. Unfortunately, our ability to judge just who is a threat and who has been unjustifiably incarcerated often leaves a great deal to be desired.
posted by metagnathous at 7:00 AM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Poor widdle man went cwazy, and it's all America's fault.

Look, I know McCain can be a douche sometimes, but he's not 'cwazy' in any sense that I know of.
posted by mannequito at 7:34 AM on March 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Granted some of the people described in the article ended up in in solitary simply for breaking some small, insignificant rule--but they still broke a rule, which could have been avoided.

I suppose blaming the victim for causing their own torture is one way to accept the status quo of the American prison system.
posted by Mavri at 8:49 AM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


it's pretty simple: if you keep your nose clean and stay out of trouble you will not end up in solitary confinement in some prison (in the US).

Granted some of the people described in the article ended up in in solitary simply for breaking some small, insignificant rule--but they still broke a rule, which could have been avoided.


Never known anyone who's done time, huh?
posted by jokeefe at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Douthat misreads the objection to this attitude (an objection which he ascribes to liberals) as being that criminals don't deserve punishment at all. (He argues that punishment should be incremental, to fit the nature of the crime.) I believe that the idea of punishment without support and rehabiliation is nothing but sadism

I think you may have misread Douthat's post. He quotes another blogger who argues that punishment should not be an end in itself, and then he says the following:

"I also wonder about Isaac's broader premise: Is it really the case that most liberals - or 'liberal writers,' at least - reject outright the notion that lawbreakers deserve punishment for their crimes? Obviously, left-wingers tend to emphasize rehabilitation more than right-wingers do, but my assumption has always been that most liberals would agree in some sense with the premise that punishing criminals is a matter of justice as well as deterrence. But I suppose could be wrong."

I think he's probably right that almost everyone thinks imprisonment ought to serve a variety of goals -- deterrence, incapacity, rehabilitation and, yes, retribution.

It's especially important to note that lengthy solitary, summarily imposed by prison bureaucrats, actually violates the retributive principle, as it is punishment not befitting the crime.
posted by palliser at 11:41 AM on March 25, 2009


Never known anyone who's done time, huh?

I have. They committed a crime. Which is the point I was trying to make. I'm not saying that solitary isn't inhumane, only that it's not like perfectly good, upstanding citizens were turned into zombies by it. You don't just happen to end up in solitary, you do something to get put there.
posted by Autarky at 12:53 PM on March 25, 2009


wow.

that did not end the way i thought it would.

i seriously got tears in my eyes.

i'd like to know more about the system England has going on, that sounded interesting. wonder it how works recidivism rates, etc.

thanks for posting.
posted by sio42 at 1:01 PM on March 25, 2009


it's not like perfectly good, upstanding citizens were turned into zombies by it

This guy has spent quite a bit of time in solitary..
posted by mannequito at 1:03 PM on March 25, 2009


autarky - i recently read a report about prison violence. guards (unfortunately) are often not the just human beings we expect them to be. they are sometimes expected to keep an eye on 120 people at once. sometimes people do end up in solitary for the wrong reasons -- or try to get into solitary to get away from other inmates who seem them as a punching bag or sex toy.

i'm not trying to be down on prison guards, who definitely do a hard job, but like cops and public officials and heads of nonprofits, those we expect to have a greater good at heart do not always have that. sometimes they screw up.
posted by sio42 at 1:06 PM on March 25, 2009


If we want a humane prison system we would need to put aside a lot of the satisfaction of vengeance. We would also have to live with the fact that a humane prison isn't as effective a deterrent as an inhumane prison.

Evidence, please! All the evidence I see shows that inhumane prison systems aren't any more of a deterrent than humane ones. If they were, America should have less drug use than Europe to a massive extent-- for most drugs and countries, we have more;in some cases, it's about the same. If this was the case, we should also have a much lower murder rate: ours is dramatically higher.

Punishment only works as deterrence if people a) can control their impulses b) believe they are going to get caught and c) have a good chance of being caught and punished rapidly and not too severely. If punishment is rare, unpredictable and harsh, it has virtually no deterrent effect. Hence New York state's 15-life for cocaine dealing sentences were already in place when New York became the capital of crack. No deterrence there whatsoever!

Severe punishment tends to backfire because it prompts rage not submission and because if you get 15-life on a first nonviolent offense, you don't exactly get much of a chance to learn from your mistakes. By the time you get out, you have no life skills and lots of rage and no greater knowledge of impulse control.
posted by Maias at 1:12 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


You don't just happen to end up in solitary, you do something to get put there.

It's entirely possible to end up in solitary because of vindictive guards with scores to settle. You were arguing that nobody goes to solitary without some reason, or a broken rule; but in fact you can end up in solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way.
posted by jokeefe at 1:13 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is it really the case that most liberals - or 'liberal writers,' at least - reject outright the notion that lawbreakers deserve punishment for their crimes?

Palliser, I think I read it correctly, if by 'punishment' what is meant is not just a jail sentence, but retribution, and the infliction of suffering.
posted by jokeefe at 1:15 PM on March 25, 2009


but in fact you can end up in solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way.

Then you shouldn't have done that. Why is personal responsibility so difficult for you to grasp?
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 1:38 PM on March 25, 2009


By the time you get out, you have no life skills and lots of rage and no greater knowledge of impulse control.

If you haven't grokked impulse control by the time you get out of grade school you'll probably end up in solitary, and everyone will be better off for the fact.
posted by Hovercraft Eel at 1:42 PM on March 25, 2009


Eel, on the small chance that you're arguing in something approaching good faith, and with some general approximation of human empathy, perhaps you'll share with us how "everyone" is "better off" when we lock a person in long-term solitary confinement. Why not just execute them summarily and save all that trouble? Seriously, what's the point? And pray tell, for a bonus round, how does "personal responsibility" square with mental illness and physical brain changes brought about by long term forced isolation?
posted by bepe at 2:15 PM on March 25, 2009


bepe, he's not. He just likes to stir shit up. At some point, it may result in a banning, and hey - the consequence is all up to him, isn't it?
posted by rtha at 3:07 PM on March 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


Thanks, Joe Beese, for posting this thoughtfully written, well-researched article. After perusing what passes for a newspaper around here this morning (don't know what I was thinking, I know better), I really needed this.

I'm ignoring the trolls, and just want to say that it was a real eye-opener for me. The horrors of forced isolation--the loss of the ability to think rationally after awhile, the head-banging, rage and psychotic breaks--were just chilling to read about. I can't imagine going through them.

I wish the country would focus more on rehabilitation, getting help for those with mental illnesses, and trying to assimilate people who are imprisoned back into society. I can't see how that could make things any worse than they are right now, with our prisons so backed up anyway, and each person incarcerated costing tax payers money (so you would think that even the Hovercraft Eels out there would be for reform).

It makes me think, too, about the people who are isolated, though certainly not to the same degree, in their own lives, and how it is affecting them. And I think we have seen the results of some of that in this country, for sure. I can't count how many posts I've seen here in AskMe by people who are lonely and can't seem to make friends and feel depressed and hopeless as a result. We just had a post today by a young woman who cannot communicate her problems with her husband, and sure enough she is filled with rage and even creating, in her mind, a companion to help her through the situation, so she won't feel so alone.

I personally know women, once active in the workforce who, when they became Moms, decided not to work outside the home, and just felt like they were stagnating intellectually from the lack of adult companionship day after day (and maybe they were, after successive months of this combined with the lack of sleep new parents go through).

And the list goes on and on.

Great FPP. Thank you.
posted by misha at 3:12 PM on March 25, 2009


Thank you for posting this!
posted by dydecker at 3:18 PM on March 25, 2009


Is it really the case that most liberals - or 'liberal writers,' at least - reject outright the notion that lawbreakers deserve punishment for their crimes?

Palliser, I think I read it correctly, if by 'punishment' what is meant is not just a jail sentence, but retribution, and the infliction of suffering.


He does not attribute a strong-form anti-retributivist attitude to liberals, as you stated ("an attitude which he ascribes to liberals"). Quite the contrary, he doubts that many liberals are so strongly anti-retributivist that they would believe crime does not "deserve" punishment.
posted by palliser at 3:19 PM on March 25, 2009


palliser-- I got caught up at work and didn't finish a comment I intended to post, noting that Yeah, I think you're right. Correction accepted.
posted by jokeefe at 5:45 PM on March 25, 2009


but in fact you can end up in solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way.

Then you shouldn't have done that. Why is personal responsibility so difficult for you to grasp?


I don't expect to change your mind, or get you to see my point of view; it's just not going to happen, judging by your responses. So I will just say that people like you generally do not change their rigid beliefs until forced to do so-- i.e. by living the experience themselves. So I'll just say I hope that you are spared that; of finding out the hard way just how unjust the prison system can be, and that there is this thing called nuance in human behaviour, and that in many situations cause and effect don't neatly match.
posted by jokeefe at 5:49 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


And don't you dare lecture me about personal responsiblity. You have absolutely no idea.
posted by jokeefe at 5:50 PM on March 25, 2009


The loss of liberty is the punishment.
posted by fullerine at 6:08 PM on March 25, 2009


but in fact you can end up in solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way.

Then you shouldn't have done that. Why is personal responsibility so difficult for you to grasp?


You're being deliberately obtuse, Eel. "Looking at someone the wrong way" doesn't mean breaking a known rule, it means that your innocuous actions are arbitrarily and capriciously treated as grave infractions, solely at the discretion of the person looked at. It means the guard decides you were looking at him funny, regardless of what you were doing, and by God, boy, you'll learn some respect in solitary!
posted by fatbird at 6:35 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't know if he's just trolling; I think there are a lot of people who think this way, judging from the comments on major newspaper sites when some prisoner-abuse incident makes headlines.

Anyway, this actually ties into why I thought the Douthat post was important (I wasn't correcting for the sake of looking correcter-than-thou); retributivists should be even more concerned about excessive punishments imposed summarily by bureaucrats, since it could result in, for instance, a check-kiter receiving a worse punishment than an armed robber.
posted by palliser at 6:55 AM on March 26, 2009


It's entirely possible to end up in solitary because of vindictive guards with scores to settle. You were arguing that nobody goes to solitary without some reason, or a broken rule; but in fact you can end up in solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way.

You can also end up there for being mentally ill.

I'm not saying that solitary isn't inhumane, only that it's not like perfectly good, upstanding citizens were turned into zombies by it. You don't just happen to end up in solitary, you do something to get put there.

Aside from the fact that this isn't true (for example in the cases of vindictive guards, mistakes, mentally ill prisoners), I still don't see how this is relevant to the issue at hand. Are fine, upstanding citizens the only people who have a right to be free of torture?
posted by Mavri at 8:11 AM on March 26, 2009


I'm surprised this thread has gone on so long without a chorus of "What's so bad about solitary? I'd LOVE to be all by myself. sounds like my apartment lol!"

On preview: well... more or less.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2009


Sen. Jim Webb takes on next challenge: Nation's prison system
posted by homunculus at 12:48 PM on March 26, 2009


That was a lengthy and well written article; and it is nice to see more than the same thing in different words for page after page as a change.
With prisons as they are, and the 'professionals' that work there paid what they are; go figure recidivism is as high as it is. Not to mention the stigma of ever being in prison. Ahhh... greatest nation on earth. WTF happened.
posted by new and improved buzzman IV at 4:24 PM on March 27, 2009


An astounding piece, and one that really makes me fear. Torture is an objective standard: it doesn't matter what horrible things you've done (been accused of doing) to someone else. We preserve moral authority by protecting the basic humanity of others, even in the face of their transgressions against that humanity. Forgiveness? No. Protecting our own dignity as a species? Yes.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:33 AM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


ya it must suck to be in prison.
posted by patnok at 7:04 PM on April 1, 2009


Anyone ever read I, Lucifer by Glenn Duncan?

There's a part in the book where the Devil is addressing the reader and talking about where he sows his seeds of evil. He points to a shot from the evening news of a pedophile/murderer being hauled into a police car after he's been found guilty. The Devil isn't in the kiddie rapist, he points out, he's in the eyes of all the people who want to smash that police line and...

Justice, real justice, is cold and calculating. It's unemotional and, ultimately, unsatisfying because we aren't wired to really like it. It's the only way to run a civilized country though and extended solitary has no place in it.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 12:18 AM on April 2, 2009


« Older Antipode Map....  |  After the Crisis... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments