I try not to use this blog as an outlet for re-posts, but this article screams to be shared. In it, The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik describes the intense, time-warping agony of life in prison:
“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates.
“That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded…What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment.”
Later in the piece, Gopnik focuses on the even more profound inhumanity that is extended solitary confinement:
“Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)”
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Our discourse around torture tends to revolve around questions of physical pain. Remember all the commentators who mocked the idea that many of the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques really counted as torture? Their logic seemed to go as follows: if it doesn’t cause immediate and excruciating physical pain, then it doesn’t qualify. (The Bush Justice Department actually went further in its famous “Torture Memos“.)
By this logic, sensory deprivation isn’t torture. But of course, we know better. Torture isn’t just a matter of physical sensations: it’s also – and perhaps primarily – a matter of mental experience. (Which means, of course, that physical sensations aren’t just physical either.) The Bush Administration – like other practitioners of torture – knew this. And as Mark Bowden has written, our government has known it for nearly half a century:
“For most people severe sensory deprivation quickly becomes misery; the effects were documented in the notorious 1963 CIA manual on interrogation, called the Kubark Manual…The manual cites a 1954 study at the National Institute of Mental Health…in which two volunteers attempted to see how long they could stay suspended in water wearing blackout masks and hearing only the sound of their own breathing and “some faint sounds of water from the piping.” Neither lasted more than three hours. According to the study, “Both passed quickly from normally directed thinking through a tension resulting from unsatisfied hunger for sensory stimuli and concentration upon the few available sensations to provide reveries and fantasies and eventually to visual imagery somewhat resembling hallucinations.” John Marks reported in his book that in a similar experiment a volunteer kicked his way out of a sensory-deprivation box after an hour of tearful pleas for release had been ignored.
“The summary of another experiment concluded,
“‘The results confirmed earlier findings. 1) The deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress; 2) the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects; 3) the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and 4) some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.’”
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I’m not suggesting that prison is equivalent to sensory deprivation (though I suspect solitary confinement comes close and ends up destroying minds in a similar way). In fact, what I’m saying is pretty basic. Prison tends to prevent inmates from fulfilling basic human needs for physical and social contact, and many suffer profound psychological consequences as a result.
With all of this in mind, it’s worth thinking about the goals that we use to justify incarceration. Typically, these aims break down into two categories: rehabilitation and punishment.
But given what Gopnik has written – and given what we know about the effects of long-term social isolation and relative sensory deprivation – it should be clear that prison isn’t particularly good at either one. If the goal is rehabilitation, then putting people in cages with little or nothing but their own thoughts isn’t likely to be successful. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. And if the goal is punishment, then for a large range of cases, prison is far, far too harsh. It is long-form torture, no less severe or destructive for its silence.
*A few weeks ago, I spent about four hours in a cell at a police station in New Hampshire. Not for a moment would I compare my experience to anything approaching full-time confinement in prison. Still, it’s worth saying that even those few hours messed with my head. I felt foggy and small, restless and bored, jumpy and exhausted, anxious and depressed. I didn’t know how long it would last or when it would end. And while I knew that each minute brought me closer to my release, it wasn’t clear how much closer – which meant that the passage of time couldn’t provide much solace.