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Is prolonged solitary confinement unconstitutional in America and in the Guantanamo gulag?

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12,775 days in solitary confinement, 35 years, for crimes they likely didn't commit. This is justice in 20th and 21st century America, somewhere down near the pits of hell:

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are those men, who along with Robert King, are known as the Angola Three. (King established his innocence and was released in 2001 after almost 30 years in solitary.) Collectively, the three of them have spent 100 years in solitary confinement. Wallace asked this week, "Where is the justice?"

It was also on this day in 1972, that Brent Miller, a young, white, newlywed prison guard, was discovered in a pool of his own blood, stabbed 32 times. Brent Miller was a popular, athletic, handsome local boy who dreamed of leaving Angola with his young wife as soon as he could get a job in the nearby paper mill or up in Oklahoma. He never got a chance.

And based on long-lost evidence uncovered by a new team of attorneys and investigators over the past year and a half, it is clear Miller hasn't received justice, either. Woodfox and Wallace were placed in solitary and under suspicion of the murder the day it happened, and were later convicted of Miller's murder following trials highlighted by key testimony by inmate witnesses who were promised items such as cigarettes and the warden's recommendation of a pardon for their testimony. One of the state's inmate eyewitness was a legally blind certified sociopath. Another inmate repeatedly confessed to the murder to his fellow inmates and assured them that the prison administration knew he was guilty, but wanted to make examples of Woodfox and Wallace, known activists and Black Panthers.

In addition to attempting to prove that Woodfox and Wallace never had a fair trial for Miller's murder, attorneys for the two are pursuing a civil suit which

challenges that there is "no legitimate penological reason for keeping our clients in CCR, and (2) there is persuasive evidence that, in light of the duration of their confinement and their advancing age, our clients are at risk of and/or have already suffered serious physical and psychological harm - it is cruel and unusual punishment to keep our clients in CCR, which violates the Eighth Amendment."

This suit, if successful, would set a precedent that prolonged solitary confinement - the psychological torture technique known as "isolation" - is unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Such a precedent would have implications for the struggle against psychologist participation in national security interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere as the American Psychological Association last summer adopted a Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment which, to the dismay of some of us, defined "Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment" (CIDTP) using the Reservations of the United States when ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture. These US Reservations state:

"[T]he term 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment' means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States."

While a number of legal analysts have serious reservations about these Reservations and the attempt in them to base the definition of CIDTP on constantly-shifting American jurisprudence rather than upon international law [see here and here], if Woodfox and Wallace are successful in their suit, the APA may be forced to accept that prolonged isolation is, indeed, cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore fits even the United States' restricted definition of CIDTP. In that case, according to the APA's 2006 Resolution Against Torture, psychologist participation in prolonged isolation, as is routine at Guantanamo, would be unethical.

Psychologist Steven Reisner has argued that psychologists are critical to the administration's ability to, in their opinion, "legally" continue the abusive regime at Guantanamo. Reisner's argument, in brief, is that, according to key administration memos, the abusive interrogation methods utilized at Guantanamo are legal only if they are supervised by health professionals. As the American Medical Association has stated that it is unethical for medical doctors to participate in interrogations and the American Nurses Association forbids its members to "voluntarily participate in any deliberate infliction of hysical or mental suffering", only psychologists are left to provide the required supervision. If Reisner is correct, this lawsuit could hve profound implications, both for abuses in American prisons, and for abuses in the national security detention centers worldwide.

Psychological expertise on the consequences of prolonged isolation is a key part of the Woodfox and Wallace suit:

Among the evidence are reports made by leading psychologists noting the terrible toll of solitary over long periods.

If the American Psychological Association was actually an organization devoted to using psychological expertise to furthering human welfare, one would expect them to jump into this case with a friend-of-the-court-brief, plus press releases on the harms of isolation. But given the APA's joined-at-the-hip ties to the administration's torture machine at Guantanamo and elsewhere, I assume they'll keep their mouths taped shut on this one.

Please, APA, here's your chance to prove me wrong!

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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