"Is long-term solitary confinement torture?"

(Photograph contributed to the BB Flickr Pool by Alexandra Jones)

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was released from a London prison this week, after spending ten days without his freedom over allegations of sex crimes.

The presumed Wikileaks leaker believed to be responsible for the organization's most damning disclosures, Bradley Manning, has spent many months in military detention. He remains in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. His case has not yet gone to military tribunal, and he has not yet been convicted of a crime. But we now know that for most of his months in detention, both in Virginia and in the military facility in Iraq, Manning has been held in solitary confinement.

Now seems like a good time to revisit the question of whether solitary confinement constitutes a form of torture, as Glenn Greenwald wrote in his piece earlier this week on Manning's brig conditions.

To that point, here's a New Yorker piece from 2009, which focused on whether holding "enemy combatants" from the "war on terror" in long-duration solitary is morally justifiable. It's worth a re-read today with Manning (and an untold number of civilians in the US prison system) in mind:

"It's an awful thing, solitary," John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam–more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

Annals of Human Rights: Hellhole, by Atul Gawand (newyorker.com)

(via Alexei Mostrous)