As of today, alleged Wikileaker Bradley Manning has been held without trial for 1,000 days. More than nine months of that time was spent in solitary confinement in the Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. To mark the date, we recommend reading Chase Madar’s book The Passion of Bradley Manning–or, next best, the long excerpt from the book that was published last fall by the Brooklyn Rail under the title “The Torture of Bradley Manning.” Parts of that excerpt follow, but it deserves to be read in full (and not only because he kindly cites Solitary Watch). Madar is one of the very few to point out that Manning’s treatment was deeply rooted in the norms of the U.S. criminal justice system.
By July 29, Pfc. Manning was “detained” at Quantico Marine Corps brig on “Prevention of Injury” watch: 23 hours of solitary confinement a day, with a ban on push-ups and sit-ups in the cell, with lying down and leaning against the walls also prohibited. Manning was deprived of all personal items in his cell, but equipped with a “tear-proof security blanket” that gave the prisoner rashes and carpet burns. There was also the unrelenting repetitive stress of having to respond every five waking minutes to the guards’ query, “Are you okay?” And if Manning slept at night—he was not permitted to sleep during the day—in such a position that his guards could not see him, he was awakened and repositioned. Eventually, Manning’s reading glasses were confiscated; so was all of his clothing.
If this were done to a U.S. soldier held captive in North Korea or Iran, few American pundits would hesitate to call this torture. But for nine months this treatment was inflicted on Manning, and for nine months the Quantico brig’s psychiatrists urgently insisted that there was no medical or psychiatric justification for this treatment. By April of 2011, political pressure, mainly from overseas, got Manning transferred to the medium-security prison population at Fort Leavenworth.
No feature of the Bradley Manning affair has been more vividly controversial than the young soldier’s nine months in punitive isolation. The State Department’s top spokesperson, an unflappable font of doubletalk, lost his job after a spontaneous eruption damning Manning’s treatment. President Obama himself weighed in, soothingly informing a reporter that he had personally looked into the matter and that Manning’s ongoing isolation and enforced nudity was for the young man’s own good. (In fact, the prison’s own psychiatric staff repeatedly found that there was no medical reason for Manning to be in isolation, and argued month after month that he be taken off “Prevention of Injury” status.)…
Sustained isolation of the kind inflicted on Bradley Manning does a body harm. Not surprisingly, medical research into the effects of solitary confinement finds that the treatment inflicts lasting severe damage. “Solitary confinement can have serious psychological, psychiatric and sometimes physiological effects on many prison inmates,” writes Dr. Peter Scharff Smith. “A long list of possible symptoms from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and outright insanity has been documented.” The suicide rate for isolated inmates, according to another psychiatric expert on mental health in prisons, is substantially higher than among those living communally in general populations.
In the footsteps of medical science, international law is ever less hesitant to classify solitary confinement as torture. The European Court of Human Rights has allowed the practice in the case of Kurdish terrorist Abdullah ‘Ouml’calan, but after finding a marked mental deterioration in that prisoner the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture recommended that the Turkish government integrate him into a communal setting. The United States has ratified the international Convention Against Torture, whose acting body, the Committee Against Torture, has recommended that long-term solitary confinement be wholly abolished. The German Bundestag’s human rights committee was not breaking new ground when it condemned Manning’s treatment as torture.
But what could possibly inspire the American government to torture one of its own citizens? Most of those who have answered this question have approached the problem from the context of America’s post-9/11 GWOT. Andy Worthington, the most dogged and incisive journalistic tracker of the Guantánamo prison complex, has asked if Bradley Manning is being treated like an enemy combatant. Lisa Hajjar, a trenchant academic analyst of Washington’s weaponization of international law, has described the treatment of Manning as a slide down the “slippery slope,” from torturing enemy combatants to inflicting the same punishment on American citizens, just as torture opponents predicted would happen.
It is certainly tempting to see the isolation torture of Bradley Manning as toxic spillover from the Global War on Terror. After all, should we be surprised that the measures that our military and intelligence services take against foreigners are later applied against Americans? What else could explain an advanced industrial democracy abusing one of its own citizens?
There is undoubtedly some truth to this story—that after a decade, the “excesses” of the War on Terror have seeped into our domestic justice systems. Yet this account is, by itself, incomplete. In fact, this narrative is perhaps undeservedly reassuring. For this story assumes that our domestic criminal justice system was already uncontaminated, and had hitherto run smoothly and fairly, at least more or less. This narrative of corruption assumes that Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantánamo are flagrant offenses against “American values,” vivid exceptions to our legal and penal norms. It assumes that nine months pretrial detention in isolation is simply unheard-of in the United States. In short, this story assumes the legalized torture of Bradley Manning to be exceptional, an atrocity. And all of these assumptions we have no choice but to reject, for they are wrong both in their particulars and in the overall image of America’s justice system that they purvey…
The controversial isolation of Pfc. Manning has opened the eyes of many—both to the horrors of solitary confinement, and to just how uncontroversial its pervasive use has become in the United States, for isolation is hardly some rare form of extreme punishment reserved for alleged national security threats like Pfc. Manning. In fact, the use of long-term solitary in the United States is frequent and widespread. Manning’s isolation cell at Marine Corps Base Quantico was anything but an invasive tendril of Guantánamo reaching back into the U.S. mainland. Rather, Manning’s cell was a blandly normal feature of the American landscape, just like baseball diamonds and strip malls.