Robert McCartney writes common sense for the Post: "it’s no help if prison doesn’t help [prisoners] adjust to society but rather makes them more hostile toward it.

His logic is so simple it’s almost banal, but the reality of the US attitude towards incarceration demands banality. Not only are educational and vocational programs absent from the majority of our correctional facilities (nullifying the name itself), but we pursue strategies that explicitly maladjust prisoners. In other words, in our effort to stop crime we only perpetuate it.

If that reminds you of our prosecution of the War on Terror, you get points for being a dot-connector. If you drew analogies between our treatments of prisoners in that war and prisoners of our "war on drugs/crime/poverty/decency," the picture’s probably pretty clear by now.

We torture both at home and abroad, and not to serve any practical ends. Rather, we do it out of some motivation that I hesitate to name.

The most immediate link between Abu Ghraib and Riker’s Island is our use of isolation. Scientific studies have found that it pushes even the most balanced individuals to the gates of madness. It effect on those already touched is predictably horrifying.

Contradicting our coupling of modernity and progress, the Supreme Court was a hair’s width from declaring isolation unconstitutional as long ago as 1890.

Attitudes have only degenerated in the time since.

A recent New Yorker piece presents the issue in startling relief, picking up with the first intensive study of isolation’s effects – done by Harry Harlow, working in the 1950s at the University of Madison. Isolating monkeys from birth, his findings both reinforced and refined our understanding of humans as social animals.

…the researchers found that the test monkeys, upon being released into a group of ordinary monkeys, “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by . . . autistic self-clutching and rocking.” Harlow noted, “One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later.” After several weeks in the company of other monkeys, most of them adjusted—but not those who had been isolated for longer periods. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow wrote. They became permanently withdrawn, and they lived as outcasts—regularly set upon, as if inviting abuse.

And us humans are equally susceptible:

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.

What, then, are the conditions found at places like Illinois’ Tamms Super Max Prison meant to guarantee (other than a persistent need for jails and men to administer them, of course)?

Conditions are harsh—and meant to be. For at least 23 hours a day, prisoners sit in solitary confinement in 7-by-12-foot cells. There is no mess hall—meals are shoved through a chuckhole in cell doors. Contact with the outside world is sharply restricted. For a rare visit from relatives or friends, inmates are strip-searched, chained to a concrete stool and separated from visitors by a thick glass wall. There are no jobs and limited educational opportunities.

Proponents will tell you that it’s meant as relief for guards dealing with the most problematic prisoners in a general population. I certainly don’t envy them the task, but as the New Yorker article points out, there are more productive, more efficient ways of curbing violent behavior:

…the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data…The results have been impressive.

Fortunately there are politicians in the US attempting to steer us away from the barbaric practice, albeit in baby steps; reps in Illinois are backing reform of Tamms. Civilians are supporting it. So are international human rights organizations.

It’s naive to think that the closure of Guantanamo and the revision of interrogation tactics is enough to adequately burnish our record on human rights. Any talk of moral leadership will ring hollow until our correctional retributional facilities are also reformed.

Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall

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