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Posts Tagged ‘torture’

090330_r18075_p233 In the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande asks the question, “Is solitary confinement torture?” His compelling answer, supported by personal accounts from prisoners, is an unequivocal “Yes.” Gawande’s article mainly focuses on the stories of two American prisoners isolated for years with hardly any human contact, even from guards. The mental toll that solitary confinement takes on these men is readily apparent; one man sets his tiny cell on fire multiple times while the other becomes obsessed with revenge fantasies involving his captors. Gawande notes that locking people up in isolation for long periods of time makes them mentally unstable– they lose the ability to interact normally with others and often the will to live.

Today, solitary confinement is no longer limited to temporary punishment for unruly prisoners; it has influenced correctional design so fundamentally that entire institutions are built with the purpose of keeping inmates isolated from one another at all times.  These supermax prisons, or Special Housing Units (SHU), have become favored prison models in the United States.  Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio estimates that at least 25,000 inmates are currently serving their sentences in solitary confinement, locked up for 23 hours a day with only one hour allotted for exercise alone in a small concrete yard. In non-supermax prisons, suspected gang members are routinely thrown into solitary in a weak effort to dilute violence within the general population, while other times solitary is imposed arbitrarily or for minor offenses. The worst instance of solitary confinement nationwide comes from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,  each spent 36 years in isolation, a situation Amnesty International declared “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

For more information about the history of solitary confinement, click here. Also, read NPR’s fascinating three-part series on solitary confinement, which highlights Pelican Bay Prison in California, one of the U.S.’s most notorious supermax prisons.

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Of all the countries that practice capital punishment, China ranks #1 on the list. According to Amnesty International, in 2007 China put more than 470 individuals to death. While human rights organizations have kept close tabs on China’s oft-secretive judicial proceedings in the last thirty years, for many decades China successfully kept its greatest atrocities hidden from the outside world. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s through Tiananmen Square in 1989, China murdered, tortured, and imprisoned millions of its citizens– often after impromptu trials or none at all.

In her memoir Socialism is Great, Lijia Zhang describes the execution of her childhood friend at the age of sixteen in 1980:

[His] execution was a big day out for my school. The sixteen-year-old was a former classmate of mine named Roc. His old classmates and other children, as young as twelve, joined the excited crowds filling the ten-thousand-seat Nanjing Stadium for the public sentencing rally. ‘Scare the monkey by killing a chicken’– the authorities invited the masses to witness the iron fist of proletarian dictatorship and to draw lessons from negative examples. The guilty verdicts were read out to loud applause. Then the condemned, wearing a placard stating their crimes, were paraded onto open-top army trucks, toward the execution guard in the western suburbs. I had been to this killing field several times, although in the crush of bodies I never got close enough to witness the spill of blood as, from behind, bullets ripped open the prisoners’ heads. But the boys in my village had shared many vivid accounts. The Chinese seemed to take pleasure in this ghoulish spectator sport, watching soldiers kill the ‘rotten eggs,’ as local slang termed the baddies. No one doubted they were guilty. This time, however, I didn’t follow the herd: Roc wasn’t just a ‘rotten egg.’ He was a childhood friend who caught cicadas and swam in the Pig Pool with me.

The whole tragic drama, from the fight to the execution, took place so quickly: there were quotas to be met in the crackdown against soaring crime, regardless of whether suspects were under eighteen, technically the minimum age for capital punishment. The only way officials knew how to combat the rising crime was to punish some people swiftly and without mercy. No effort was made to tackle the social roots of the problem (44-45).

While Zhang was moved to reconsider the merits of execution for personal reasons, her conclusion resonates with pragmatism and compassion. Capital punishment does not prevent or slow crime, whether performed in or outside of the legal system– instead it lubricates the spinning cycle of violence by which those punished crimes are distinguished. It is the greatest disregard to life and justice, two of humanity’s most precious values.

Book cover courtesy of Atlas & Co.

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