A solitary hope?
Torture has written some of the bloodiest lines of history. The heretic’s fork, the Judas cradle and other medieval devices might be museum curios now, but Amnesty has evidence of torture in 141 countries during the last five years. It remains a global problem.
The use of water boarding at Guantanamo made headlines. Yet a more pervasive and ingrained form of torture receives little media attention but can last months, even years (even decades) and is suffered by tens of thousands of Americans each year. The practice in question is known as solitary confinement.
Can solitary confinement produce the severe mental pain or suffering that represents torture in the eyes of the UN? Inmates in Secure Housing Units (SHUs) spend twenty three hours each day in coffin-like cells. They are denied access to health care and educational programmes. Even their brief recreation time is spent alone. Isolation is associated with psychological problems (e.g. confusion, insomnia and hallucinations); research has shown that positive social interactions are required to activate growth factors that enable brain cells to regrow. So, yes, it does meet the UN definition of torture.
Does solitary confinement produce any benefits within the prison system? Unruly inmates are kept away from trouble. Yet any psychiatric conditions of those placed in isolation are likely to be exacerbated by this treatment, and prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement are more likely to be reconvicted of violent crime upon release. If solitary confinement is intended to rehabilitate then the SHU doesn’t fit.
Three percent of the US prison population are estimated to be in solitary at any time. One of the most infamous cases is that of Albert Woodfox. He is the final member of the Angola 3 left in jail. His conviction was yet another to be based on witness testimony alone. The most shocking aspect of his case, however, is that he has been in solitary for more than forty years. He said: “I am not sure what damage has been done to me, but I do know that the feeling of pain allows me to know I am alive.”
America’s detention system falls far short of the minimum international legal standards for treatment of prisoners. In its continued reliance on solitary confinement, the US system is becoming increasingly isolated.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.