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Bradley Manning and the Torture That Is Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement will slowly wear down the mental and physical condition of Bradley Manning, held in 23-hour isolation in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Quantico, Virginia, the same facility that held John Hinckley, Jr. That is my assessment after talking to David House last weekend. House is the only person, besides Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, who sees the prisoner regularly since he was locked up at the Quanitco brig in what the Department of Defense calls “maximum custody” conditions.

Manning was arrested last May for his alleged role in downloading videos and documentary files for transfer to the muckraking Internet site, Wikileaks. The “maximum custody” conditions include a Prevention of Injury (POI) order which, according to House, “limits his social contact, news consumption, ability to exercise, and places restrictions on his ability to sleep.” As Glenn Greenwald noted last week, the brig regimen is essentially that of a Supermax prison. They are also similar to the “Special Administrative Measures” or SAMs imposed on Syed Fahad Hashmi by the Bush administration, and renewed by Attorney General Holder under President Obama, which kept Hashmi in 23-hour lockdown and isolation before trial for three years.

Indeed, the conditions of solitary confinement are so onerous it led the International Committee of the Red Cross in a 2004 report to state, in regards to the CIA’s detention of so-called high-value detainees, that “strict solitary confinement in cells devoid of sunlight for nearly 23 hours a day constituted a serious violation of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions.” While Bradley Manning is not being held as an “enemy combatant,” the conditions under which he is being held are redolent of the torture inflicted upon U.S. “war on terror” detainees, or suffered under the terms of the military’s Army Field Manual Appendix M, where such detainees are held in conditions of isolation, including significant limitations on sleep and certain forms of overt sensory deprivation.

The deleterious effects of solitary confinement have been copiously documented. A literature review on the subject, and an excellent discussion of the effects of isolation can be found in a 2003 article by psychology expert Craig Haney.

Solitary confinement is an assault on the body and psyche of an individual. It deprives him of species-specific forms of physical, sensory and social interaction with the environment and other human beings. Manning reported last weekend he had not seen sunlight in four weeks, nor does he interact with other people but a few hours on the weekend. The human nervous system needs a certain amount of sensory and social stimulation to retain normal brain functioning. The effects of this deprivation on individuals varies, and some people are affected more severely or quickly, while others hold out longer against the boredom and daily grind of dullness that never seems to end.

Over time, isolation produces a particular well-known syndrome which is akin to that of an organic brain disorder, or delirium. The list of possible effects upon a person is quite long, and can include an inability to tolerate ordinary stimuli, sleep and appetite disturbances, primitive forms of thinking and aggressive ruminations, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, agitation, panic attacks, claustrophobia, feelings of loss of control, rage, paranoia, memory loss, lack of concentration, generalized body pain, EEG abnormalities, depression, suicidal ideation and random, self-destructive behavior.

In fact, while the Defense Department claims that “maximum custody” and POI are meant to protect Bradley Manning from harm, or mitigate possible agitated or aggressive behavior by the prisoner, the very conditions they have placed him under are known to break down individuals and bring about the very kinds of aggressive behavior the POI orders are supposed to prevent. Indeed, it appears the government wants to impress upon Manning its immense power, and induce in the prisoner a feelings of utter futility and helpless dependence.

A number of courts have found solitary confinement to be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. According to a report by Physicians for Human Rights (PDF, bold emphasis added):

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas… found solitary confinement to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment and even called it tantamount to torture. In a case concerning the prison system in Texas, the court found that inmates in administrative segregation “suffer actual psychological harm from their almost total deprivation of human contact, mental stimulus, personal property and human dignity…. The wounds and resulting scars, while less tangible, are no less painful and permanent when they are inflicted on the human psyche.” (Ruiz v. Johnson. 37 F. Supp. 2d 855, 913. S.D. Tex. 1999)

What are the effects of isolation on Bradley Manning?

Having experience with assessing the response of individuals held in abusive conditions, or even torture, in my capacity of having conducted forensic psychological evaluations for ten years on asylum applicants, and having spoken to David House, I have been considering Manning’s situation and the effects upon his likely mental and emotional status. While an accurate assessment of a person would mean direct access to them, and the application of psychometrically valid psychological instruments, experience allows me to make some general statements.

From what can be ascertained, the effects of solitary confinement are having some effects already on Bradley Manning. His concentration and thinking processes appear somewhat slowed. He avoids certain topics. He has little access to humor. His color is pale, and his musculature is starting to look soft and flabby. It is unknown what stress Manning had prior to his arrest, but if one can believe the published logs between Manning and Adrian Lamo, he suffered from some amounts of stress in the military.

From a number of accounts, Manning appears to be trying to adapt as well as he can. Those people do best in isolation who are able to draw upon deep reservoirs of inner meaning and commitment, and Bradley Manning seems to be that kind of individual. But no human being is impervious to the degradations of isolation.

Manning is not suicidal, though it appears he has trouble sleeping due to various mild to moderate impediments (no pillow, uncomfortable “suicide” blanket, low-level light in the room during sleep hours, being woken up if he sleeps in certain positions that impede the guard’s observation). This is not traditional sleep deprivation, but seems meant to make him uncomfortable and keep him from getting a restful sleep. However, he has asked for and received sleep medications. He has not been forced, either, to take any medication against his will. He has not been subjected to overt sensory deprivation techniques, although isolation itself is a form of sensory and social deprivation.

The brig officials do not appear to be practicing environmental manipulations of temperature, or diet, though Manning felt the cell was a little too cold at times when he first arrived. He may have suffered more traumatic conditions of confinement or abuse while held in Kuwait. I don’t have enough information to determine that, except Manning appears reluctant to talk about it much.

Even if Bradley Manning is not being held in conditions as horrific as those CIA black site prisoners suffered in the early days of the Bush administration, his situation, like those of thousands of Supermax prisoners in the United States, are onerous and destructive enough. We must ask that the unnecessary POI orders be lifted, and Manning allowed social time with other prisoners, according to normal prison rules and safeguards. He should have full access to mail and the ability to write to others, and to exercise unrestricted by shackles and chains. He should be allowed normal bedding, and greater rights of privacy.

Isolation is a technique well-known to break down individuals. Why does the U.S. government wish to break down Bradley Manning? Is it to get him to confess, to force a plea bargain, to implicate Julian Assange or other people, or to make an example of him to those who would choose a higher good over the machinations of the U.S. government in a senseless and criminal war?

Manning’s case should also be a wake-up call to Americans as regards the on-going practice of soul-crushing solitary confinement in America’s prisons. It is unlikely that the government could get away with the kinds of cruel and unusual punishment meted out to prisoners like Manning or Hashmi or Jose Padilla, or to the “war on terror” detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere, if isolation hadn’t been allowed to flourish in the prisons of this country, despite the occasional judicial rebuff.

Such treatment has also gained traction through the policies of the current administration which has turned a blind eye to prisoner maltreatment and even torture by agencies of the U.S. government, policies and actions which organizations like Wikileaks have tried to expose. And so the circle comes round and we have the case of a man who tried to expose such policies, whistleblower Bradley Manning, a man held in chains and what the English poet Lord Bryon called “the damp vault’s dayless gloom.” It is our obligation to demand humane treatment for him, and by extension, all prisoners held in U.S. custody.

See also:

. Petition to the Commanding Officer of Bradley Manning’s brig urging that his harsh conditions be lifted
. Bradley Manning/Wikileaks Timeline
. Michael Whitney on GritTV with Laura Flanders on Bradley Manning’s detention

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, where he works with adults and couples in psychotherapy. He worked over 10 years professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus. He has published previously at Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record.

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