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Isolation driving Guantanamo detainees insane: Will the American Psychological Association act?

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The New York Times, in a recent article, reminds us of the truly horrifying conditions at the Guantanamo prison. The Times reports on claims that solitary confinement in their 8′ by 12′ metal cells with no windows and nothing to do but read the Koran for 22 hours a day is literally driving many detainees insane. This situation is being raised by lawyers for detainees indicted for war crimes as the lawyers claim that their clients are unable to concentrate and aid the defense in preparation for their upcoming trials.

By many definitions, treatment that drives people insane would constitute “torture.” But, when the US ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, they adopted reservations to the treaty that restricted the definition of torture to potentially exclude such cases. Thus they stated that

[I]n order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

Given this definition, the question of whether confinement at Guantanamo is torture depends upon whether one can make a good argument that this confinement is among

procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.

One certainly could argue that behavior, such as that described in the Times, [e.g., ‘I’m talking to the ceiling now,’] constitutes a profound disruption of the senses, making it “torture,” even according to the restricted US definition.

In its defense, the US, according to the Times, is apparently distorting statistics of the rate of mental illness there. An additional tactic used by military health representatives I have heard is to claim that many of the emotional problems among detainees are do to what are called “personality disorders.” This is clever because personality disorders, by definition, have been present for many years, thus predating imprisonment in hell, er, Guantanamo.

As the military confirms, the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees are housed in extremely harsh conditions invoving near permanent isolation for years on end:

According to military statistics, three-quarters of the detainees have been held recently in two “camps” that look much like American [supermax] prisons. Camp 5 and Camp 6, heavily guarded concrete buildings, hold men who have yet to face trial. Behind a heavy door, each cell has a handful of sanctioned items including a cup and a Koran.

Officials concede that the daily two hours of recreation in a chain-link pen is sometimes offered in the dark. From inside their cells, detainees cannot see the outdoors. From the exercise pens they sometimes can see only a sliver of sky.

But, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world that is Guantanamo and other US national security detention facilities, nothing is as it seems. The military are trying to prove the Humpty Dumpty correct that “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more or less.” Thus, as described by an attorney, while at Guantanamo,

Conditions are more isolating than many death rows and maximum-security prisons in the United States.

The military prosecutor claims, however,

that the way that Mr. Hamdan was being held did not constitute solitary confinement in part because “detainees can communicate through the walls.”

The literary genre of prison memoirs from Stalinist concentration camps among others is full of accounts of people able to “communicate through walls.” Never before have I heard a claim as brazen as that this flaw in the system of total isolation did not make being locked up alone for years on end in an 8′ by 12′ cell for 22 hours a day “solitary confinement.”

This article does not even mention the existence of another “camp,” the super-secret Camp 7 the existence of which was only admitted by the military to the Associated Press last February. While details about conditions at Camp 7 are unavailable, we can only assume that they are even more brutal than those at Camps 5 and 6 that are described in this Times article.

This past February the American Psychological Association amended their 2007 anti-torture resolution to unequivocally condemn the use of prolonged isolation as unethical. Unfortunately, the APA regularly condemns torture in the abstract but to date has not had a word to say about real, existing, US torture. The APA could give this resolution some concrete meaning by issuing an amicus brief supporting the attempts of these detainees to be moved to less harsh settings, where interaction is allowed. Further, the APA resolution’s states that:

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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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