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In solitary

While the BCCLA National Security Blog usually limits itself to commentary on Canadian conduct, we think it’s worth discussing the detention of Bradley Manning, the U.S. army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks.

Manning — who has yet to be convicted of any crime — has been in solitary confinement at Quantico since August 2010. As described by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald:

For 23 out of 24 hours every day he sits completely alone in his cell.  Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.  For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).

Until March of this year, Manning was forced to sleep every night in nothing but his boxer shorts. At the beginning of March, Quantico ordered that Manning be forced to sleep completely naked, and be subjected to a daily morning inspection where he is required to stand outside his cell, naked. As  The New York Times observed this week,

Forced nudity is a classic humiliation technique. During the early years of the Bush administration’s war on terror, C.I.A. interrogators regularly stripped prisoners to break down barriers of resistance, increase compliance and extract information. One C.I.A. report from 2004 said that nudity, along with sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation, was used to create a mind-set in which the prisoner “learns to perceive and value his personal welfare, comfort and immediate needs more than the information he is protecting.”

The U.S. government claims that Manning must be held in such conditions to protect national security and his own safety. Yet, as The Times reports:

Military officials say, without explanation, that these precautions are necessary to prevent Private Manning from injuring himself. They have put him on “prevention of injury” watch, yet his lawyers say there is no indication that he is suicidal and the military has not placed him on a suicide watch. (He apparently made a sarcastic comment about suicide.)

All of this is nothing short of appalling. It is well-documented that prolonged solitary confinement, such as the sort experienced by Manning, has devastating psychological effects. The U.N. Committee Against Torture has called for its abolition. It has been described by international bodies as constituting a breach of the anti-torture principle. Indeed, Manning’s lawyers have reported that military doctors are dosing him with anti-depressants in order to help maintain his psychological integrity.

The issue of prolonged solitary confinement has been much on our minds here at the BCCLA. Two weeks ago, we launched a constitutional challenge against the use of long-term, indefinite solitary confinement in Canadian prisons. Like Manning, prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries are all too often subjected to long-term isolation. They too are kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, with no meaningful human interaction, for months or years at a time.

A recent article by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, reported that during fiscal year 2008-09, there were, on average, approximately 904 individuals in solitary confinement in Canadian prisons, on any given day. A snapshot on April 12, 2009, shows that almost 37 percent of those in solitary confinement had spent over 60 days there. These numbers are alarming, given that the total number of prisoners living in institutions with solitary confinement units is less than 10,000.

The conditions of Manning’s detention are shocking, but the brutality of solitary confinement is something experienced by too many Canadian prisoners, as well. To learn more about solitary confinement, we recommend this excellent article from The New Yorker, by surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande. To learn more about solitary confinement in Canada and the BCCLA’s advocacy, take a look at our special section on solitary confinement at the BCCLA’s website.