Mark P. Lagon – Centennial Fellow: Global Justice Blog

mark-lagonAmbassador Mark P. Lagon is a SFS Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar. Lagon most recently served as President of Freedom House, an international nonprofit devoted to research and programs advancing human rights and democratic governance.

The Global Justice Blog addresses ethics, international law, and human rights in today’s fractured world. Centennial Fellow Mark P. Lagon and guest bloggers will grapple will raise key issues and dilemmas among these priorities and strengths of the Walsh School of Foreign Service. A parallel Global Justice Lecture Series will interest readers.


Solitary: Torturous Arguments It Isn’t Torture

Posted: April 21, 2017, 4:38 pm

By Thomas J. Shuman (C’17) 

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as:

“-any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind-” 

Of important note here is the inclusion of mental pain and suffering and the acknowledgement that torture need not leave physical marks to qualify as inhumane. 

This aspect is especially important when analyzing the American criminal justice system and, in particular, solitary confinement. Not all prisoners placed in solitary confinement experience physical violence, but the psychological effects of isolation are severe, largely unacknowledged by prison authorities, and seen as a proportional response to bad behavior or character.  As a result, solitary confinement, as it is currently implemented by innumerable private prisons across the United States, is torture in terms of the United Nations definition of such acts.

Advocates of solitary confinement often describe it as a place for “the worst of the worst” and those who are unable to maintain good behavior in General Population. The implications of this argument are that solitary confinement will

A.   Cure the prisoner of their violent/undesirable behaviors and

B.  Protect them from the outside community

However, there is nothing about solitary confinement’s effect on prisoners that suggests these effects are even remote possibilities.  Solitary has not been shown to have any restorative or beneficial effects and, in his essay The Trauma of Psychological Torture, Terry Kupers found that “almost ninety per cent of [residents] had difficulties with ‘irrational anger,’ compared with just three per cent of the [prison’s] general population.”  While this statistic does not tell us whether these residents had these difficulties before solitary confinement, it shows clearly that there is a fundamental developmental difference between General Population and solitary confinement.

The governments of the world know this, too; according to a report of the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, the purpose of solitary confinement according to the States that use it are as follows:

a. To punish an individual (as part of the judicially imposed sentence or as      part of a disciplinary regime);

b. To protect vulnerable individuals;

c. To facilitate prison management of certain individuals;

d. To protect or promote national security;

e. To facilitate pre-charge or pretrial investigations.

Nowhere in this list of priorities is the rehabilitation or mental health of prisoners mentioned.  The first and immediate priority is punishment.

Even in a punitive prison program, the use of practices that break or further degrade its residents is not only ineffective, but, I would argue, illegal under the aforementioned international law.  Given that solitary confinement, from its conception up until the present day, has had obviously detrimental effects and been intentionally used chiefly as an especially onerous method of punishment for suspected or committed acts, the only thing standing between defining it as common practice and defining it as torture is the establishment that severe pain and suffering results from the use of solitary confinement.

This case is not hard to make.  In Mendez’ Interim report, he describes the conditions as the primary attributes of solitary cells as follows: “location in a separate or remote part of the prison; small, or partially covered windows; sealed air quality; stark appearance and dull colours; toughened cardboard or other tamperproof furniture bolted to the floor; and small and barren exercise cages or yards.”  These conditions, combined with “deprivation of food, water, sleep…temporal disorientation due to denial of natural light…[and] induced desperation through indefinite detention” as described by Kupers can only create an environment hostile to recovery, rehabilitation, and continued participation in society.  These conditions would induce a weakened physical and mental state on their own and the impact can only be harsher when resentful or abusive guards are added into the equation as a prisoner’s only human interaction.  Visitation is often denied or restricted to a glorified Skype call and programming for prisoners in solitary confinement is rare.

Perhaps the most damning effect solitary has on a prisoner is the degradation of one’s ability to participate in society over time.  A key aspect of torture is the lingering effects that the practice has on its victim.  Flashbacks or altered behavior are examples of this and many prisoners coming out of solitary, whether they return to GenPop or are released to the outside world, are reclusive, choosing to live a free life closer to the life they knew on the inside than their life before prison. The lack of programs or communities for those released from prison means that the trauma solitary confinement inflicts on these men and women may go untreated for the rest of their lives.

Solitary confinement is the kind of evil that looks useful at first glance, especially when it is sold to society by experts and prison officials, whom we are brought up to trust implicitly, and used against criminals, whom we are taught to hate.  This rhetoric and viewpoints selling the practice do not take away from the horrific and damaging effects it has on the people who are forced to endure it. It is ineffective as a deterrent against violence, counterproductive as a rehabilitative tool, and condemned on a global scale as torture and beyond reprehensible.  The continued use of it in America on anyone, let alone those prisoners guilty of minor infractions, is a striking blemish on the record of human rights in the United States and, for the sake of consistency in our global rhetoric and actions, should be abolished or completely restructured immediately. 

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