Atul Gawande asks: what’s the difference between solitary confinement and torture?
“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. … “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again. …
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. … “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.
He also debunks the idea that solitary confinement reduces inmate violence.
The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.
Isaac Chotiner responds:
This makes sense, of course, but Gawande never considers the idea of punishment as an end in itself, and it is here, I think, where liberal writers tend to miss a major motiviating factor in our crime policy. There are numerous historical and religious reasons for this belief, and without getting bogged down in too many details, it is worth pointing out that many people believe wrongdoers “deserve” punishment for bad deeds. Others like, I would assume, Gawande, see no value in punishing people unless it serves distinct ends (keeping criminals off the street, deterring crime, etc.). Now, I happen to agree with Gawande, and I see no value in punishment for punishment’s sake, but it is probably safe to say this is not a majority opinion in America.
I don’t think it’s necessarily clear from the piece that Gawande sees no value in retributive justice. And in any case, you don’t have to reject the idea that wrongdoers deserve punishment to accept the argument than solitary confinement is much more cruel and unusual than you might think if you’ve never experienced it, and thus probably shouldn’t be meted out as often as it is. Just because a criminal deserves punishment doesn’t mean that he deserves any punishment. Indeed, if you want a legal system in which punishments are designed to fit crimes, then that’s arguably all the more reason to want a prison system that metes out punishments as they’re designed to be meted out, and that doesn’t permit or practice cruelties above and beyond what legislators, judges and juries have asked for.