Friday, March 27, 2009

Is solitary confinement a form of torture?

There is a terrific (and lengthy!) article in this week's New Yorker by Atul Gawande about the effects of long-term solitary confinement. Gawande begins with the research of Harry Harlow on social isolation in his experiments with monkeys and then relates vivid anecotes that range from hormer hostage Terry Anderson to prisoner of war John McCain to a number of prisoners held in the American penal system for years in isolation. He also incorporates research of the effects of imprisonment on behavior and on the lack of efficacy of solitary confinement on the behavior of the other prisoners; there seems to be no impact on violence in the prisons when individuals are removed to isolation.

Gawande notes that the use of solitary confinement is largely a development of the last twenty years and also largely an American insitution, and he makes the argument that our ease with putting convicts in isolation made it easy to do the same to combatants held in Guantanamo Bay.

Gawande calls it "legalized torture." What would your students say? This would make a great end-of-the-course assignment to have students dig into the effects of isolation, social deprivation, mental illness rates in prison, etc.

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