The United States has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prison population – and this nation holds more of its citizens in solitary confinement than any other nation, by a wide margin.
Atul Gawande, writing in the New Yorker, has a long and devastating article that carefully demonstrates that isolation is one of the cruelest forms of torture ever devised. He also marshals convincing evidence that isolating prisoners doesn't even achieve the stated aims of its proponents. I'm lifting one of the less depressing sections, where he explores some of the alternatives, but I suggest you read the whole thing.
Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.
Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.
So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.
The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
A friend's Facebook status update pointed me to The Victory Garden of Tomorrow, a series of agit-prop posters exhorting viewers to plant gardens, compost, ride bikes, and generally Do The Right Thing. It helps that the hand-screened posters are gorgeous!
The memo said the direction came from the Office of Management and Budget, the executive-branch agency that reviews the public testimony of administration officials before it is delivered.
Not so, said Kenneth Baer, an OMB spokesman.
"There was no memo, no guidance," Baer said yesterday...
Coincidentally or not, senior administration officials had been publicly using the phrase "overseas contingency operations" in a war context for roughly a month before the e-mail was sent.
I know it's cliche, but I can't resist including the words of that rascal Eric Blair, which he penned some 60 years ago:
Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. A large part of the political literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks, photographs—all had to be rectified at lightning speed. Although no directive was ever issued, it was known that the chiefs of the Department intended that within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia, or the alliance with Eastasia, should remain in existence anywhere.
Apparently you can access more text than you ever though possible – everything from Grit to Residential Design & Build to ArtForum to the Journal of Popular Culture to Army Logician to Boys' Life is available for your perusal. (Some content requires a paid subscription, but a surprising amount of it is free (as in beer).)
It doesn't contain every journal published anywhere, but doing a web search on Jean-Michel Basquiat led me to this 1993 article by bell hooks reflecting on the meanings in Basquiat's paintings (an excellent read, by the way). It seemed strange to find an article like this, which was originally published in Art in America, on the website bnet, whose banner proclaims it to be "the go-to place for management." (Even stranger that it's owned and hosted by CBS Interactive, a division of the CBS Corporation (which is itself a huge chunk of the former Viacom.))
At any rate, here's a link to all the art journals online at bnet. It's a pretty huge list!