I just listened to an hour Radio broadcast by Citizen Radio entitled “America’s Domestic Black Sites: The Tragic History of Solitary Confinement.” This broadcast is firstly extremely interesting and powerful because Citizen Radio is dedicated to reporting on underrepresented stories that aren’t reported by mainstream media. The report gave a very insightful and moving account of solitary practices in the United States through detailed accounts of history and testimonies.
I would like to mention some points of the broadcast that I found particularly interesting. Firstly, the practice of solitary confinement can find its origins in the Asylums of the Northeast. They were built to hold ‘dependents’ and ‘deviants’ of society.
Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was opened in October of 1829, where in a Quaker effort to reform corporeal punishment, incarceration would be based not on penalty but reform. Prisoners would give penance to society and learn to regret. Isolation was a means for reflection where the prisoners would realize their wrongdoing. Eastern State would receive many visitors including Charles Dickens who wrote in his travelogue “American Notes for General Circulation” in 1842:
“Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired….He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years….
And though he lives to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated; what kind of men there are about him; whether in the long winter night there are living people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail, with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.”
The broadcast goes on to explain that in the 1950’s the United States government was obsessed with learning Soviet and Chinese methods of mind control, brainwashing and indoctrination. The Department of Defense then funded research to learn Communist brainwashing techniques through sensory deprivation. This report turned into a method used by prisons called “Techniques of Coercion.” This idea reminds me of Foucault and his book “Discipline and Punish” but I will have to come back to that theoretical idea. The prisons integrated a method of first breaking the prisoner through isolation, then ‘remoulding’ them such as through medication (One flew over the Cuckoos nest ring a bell?), then the prisoners were put through a “CARE” program. CARE stands for Control and Rehabilitation Effort, where prisoners were put in group settings and yelled at by other prisoners to expose their weaknesses and made to feel guilty for “real or imagined characteristics.” This again shows that this strategy wasn’t based on rehabilitation but control. During the 1970’s psychologists, the Department of Corrections, and the government were concerned with behavior modification techniques, whereby prisoners were given mind altering drugs, which would allow prisoners to be brainwashed and be susceptible to guard control.
The broadcast goes on to explain modern methods of isolation and the development of the super max prison. Citizen Radio uses the examples of Anthony Graves and Bradley Manning. Graves was placed in solitary for 10 years before becoming a death row exonerate. He was wrongfully convicted of murder of 6 people. He testified to the Senate about his experience. Also Bradley Manning was placed in solitary confinement and suicide watch for over 2 years in punishment for leaking the military information to Wiki leaks. He wasn’t allowed anything in his cell and was made to lie on his back at night. He had to be woken up periodically throughout the night so the guards could ask if he was O.K. with which he was made to answer yes out loud.
Mississippi has led the nation in solitary reform. The state has re structured their solitary classification system which has limited their solitary population by 80% saving the state 8 million per year.