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So you thought torture ended when President Obama came into office and casually said, using the past tense, “Yeah, we tortured some folks.” Please, please think about this subject some more, uncomfortable though it might be. The first thing to know about torturers is that they will never, ever acknowledge that what they do is torture. They will create finely drawn arguments about what counts, and what does not. You will never win an argument like that. No matter what definition you propose, torturers will explain why their practices do not count.

Let’s see if we can do better with a milder word. We don’t want to load the discussion down with a word like torture, if the terms we select make it impossible to communicate. Suppose instead we talk about mistreatment of prisoners. Would that solve our communication problems, and help us reach agreement about what treatment is cruel and not permissible?

Solitary confinement is a good case for analysis, although I’ll say right now, before we go further, that solitary confinement is plainly torture. I’m careful about the way I use words, too – I don’t use them loosely or rhetorically to make accusations. I do liken torture to cruelty. All torture is cruel. One may want to imagine cruel treatment that is not torture, but the overlap between the two categories is large.

The interesting thing about modern cruelty is the care taken not to leave any marks on the body. Cruelty in the medieval torture chambers did not rely so heavily on these non-marking techniques, as victims were probably headed for death anyway. Norms against cruelty existed – we know that because cruelty as a concept existed. Nevertheless, people enjoyed public executions. Victims were drawn and quartered, crucified, burned, strangled, drowned, whipped, cut, speared, castrated, blinded – and people cheered. Torture was a type of entertainment.

Now we hide it. Torture doesn’t happen in public anymore, and we don’t applaud torturers in public. Generally torturers plan to keep their victims alive, although deaths do occur. Without a doubt, torturers favor techniques that do not leave marks on the body: sleep deprivation, waterboarding, hypothermia, confinement in tiny cages, compliance positions, extremely loud music, mock executions, and so-called isolation cells. Some of these techniques cause extreme physical discomfort, but no marks. Others cause horrific mental and emotional discomfort, but no marks. If you can break the victim without breaking any bones, you have found an effective technique.

The thing about solitary confinement is that it’s so easy to inflict. You stick prisoners in cells by themselves and forget about them. They’re out of sight and out of mind. Of course if you’re on a dull shift and you want to entertain yourself, you can go out and cause trouble for the unfortunates in the segregation ward. They might even be grateful to see you, no matter how you treat them! When you put someone in solitary confinement, you don’t actually have to do anything to the person. You lock them up and that’s it. Someone else made the decision to do it. That person sits in an office far from the cells.

No one in the prison’s entire chain of command feels a sense of responsibility for the practice of solitary confinement. That’s just how things are done. The prisoner’s routine involves twenty-three hours a day alone in a small cell. People administer the routine. You can’t change it. Some prisoners are in isolation, some are not. Some prisoners are in isolation for years and years. If you were to ask guards on the floor how they got there, or why they are still there, no one would know for sure. No one would be able to say why the prisoners deserved mistreatment.

Some years ago, journalist Christopher Hitchens bravely proposed a way to assess whether or not waterboarding is torture. He volunteered to undergo the procedure himself. Afterward he wrote an article about his experience, where he could explain exactly why waterboarding was in fact torture, not just some useful interrogation technique we picked up from our friends in China and North Korea during the war.

Let’s ask prison administrators who routinely assign prisoners to isolation cells to undergo the same treatment. Let them go into a cell like that without knowing when the treatment will end. Hitchens knew that the water treatment would end in about thirty seconds. That’s half a minute of simulated drowning. A prisoner in solitary confinement does not know when it will end. That is part of the punishment.

You remember Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, right? He broke the prison camp’s rules, and the Nazis sent him to the cooler for thirty days. When his time was up, he would come back out. That’s not how it works in U. S. prisons. There you can get sent to solitary for a minor infraction, and administrators don’t let you out until they feel like it. You don’t know if you’ll be in there for two days, two months, two years, or two decades. That’s exactly how the prison administrators want it. Psychological pain is part of the punishment.

Read about the effects of solitary confinement. Reach your own judgment about whether this practice fits our definition of cruel and unusual punishment. Prison authorities in the United States have made the punishment usual in their institutions. No country in the world – even China – holds more prisoners in isolation cells. Making total isolation a common practice does not make it less cruel. People who administer this punishment know it is cruel, but they will not acknowledge it.


Chelsea Manning could be in solitary confinement for most of thirty-five years. The government wants retribution, and it wants to make an example of her. Department of Justice authorities invite Edward Snowden back to the United States, to face what they say would be a fair trial. They have already announced the outcome of their fair trial. Edward Snowden would receive the same treatment as Chelsea Manning. They are both conscientious citizens who love their country. They saw people breaking the law, and they called attention to it. And they both face extended solitary confinement from a super-secret national security state.

Related articles

Lawyer: Chelsea Manning faces possible solitary confinement

Solitary confinement is a torture unworthy of U.S. prisons

Solitary confinement: inside America’s dreaded isolation cells

This Is What Happens When We Lock Children in Solitary Confinement

Related sites

Solitary Watch

Solitary confinement (Wikipedia)