One of Chicago’s newer museums is also its most frightening. It’s the museum of Medieval Torture, located just North of the loop. It displays a wide variety of torture equipment used in the Middle Ages. For example, an upright metal cylinder large enough for a person to stand inside. The inside walls are barbed with spikes. A person can stand upright inside comfortably, but any time they try to lean or rest against one of the sides they are stabbed.
Use of this equipment is supposed to be forbidden today. But a Texas prisoner named Dennis Hope recently claimed that he has still been tortured for years in his cell.
Hope has been kept in solitary confinement for the last 27 years. His cell is 9 feet by 6 feet, including the sink and toilet. He has no human contact except with the guards that periodically handcuff and escort him when he has to go in or out. He recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to declare his conditions a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. He described for the court the mental, physical, and emotional harm 27 years of solitary has caused him. Read more here.
Solitary Confinement is common
While 27 years is unusual, solitary confinement itself is common in U.S. prisons. It is often euphemistically called segregated or secure housing, or more often when used for punishment it’s called ‘the hole’. Due to reporting restrictions and the division of the U.S. prison population into federal and state prisons along with a multitude of local jails run by sheriffs, it is impossible to get accurate data. Solitary Watch, an organization dedicated to reducing the use of solitary confinement, estimates that at various periods during the last decade on any given day there were between 60,000 and 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the United States. Unfortunately, data on the length of these stays is also scarce. But a recent study by Yale University found that 11% of prisoners in solitary had been there for three years or more.
In U.S. prisons any number of violations can land an inmate in solitary. Possessing contraband, violating orders, fighting, and so forth can all be punishable by being sent to the hole. Prisoners have no right to a trial or any other way to appeal this punishment. Children or other inmates at risk of harm are sent to the hole for their protection. And some inmates are kept in solitary with no explanation. Dennis Hope surmises he is being kept in permanent solitary as retribution for escaping in 1994.
U.N. Declares Extended Solitary Torture
One purpose of prison is supposed to be rehabilitating inmates before they are released back into society. This means teaching them the social and economic skills needed to succeed on the outside. Solitary confinement clearly is the opposite of that, and should be used seldom if ever for that reason alone. But what if prison officials think that even so, the threat of solitary is the only way they can maintain order and get prisoners to comply with commands?
While brief stints in solitary might be a legitimate option for punishment, in 2015 the United Nations adopted standards on the minimum treatment of prisoners, called the Mandela rules, which make clear prolonged solitary is not allowed. The Mandela rules begin by stating that no prisoner may be subjected to torture, cruel, or degrading treatment, and no circumstances whatsoever can justify it. The United Nations explicitly defined solitary confinement lasting beyond 15 days as torture. To me, even 15 days seems like an awful lot. To read the full text of the Mandela rules click here. For a summary, click here.
Love Your Neighbor as yourself
The Torah itself sometimes calls for inflicting pain via lashes as punishment for crime, and Jewish law includes capital punishment. The Talmud, Pesachim 75a, discusses the verse which states that an adulterous woman who is the daughter of Cohen must be put to death by burning (Vayikra 21:9). In this section of the Talmud the Rabbis debate how exactly putting to death by burning is to be carried out.
After a colorful discussion of various possibilities, the Gemara raises the question of whether dowsing a person with boiling water such that they die would still be considered execution by burning. Rav Nachman objects to this possibility by quoting one of the most well-known verses of the Torah: You must love your neighbor as yourself. We usually understand this verse to be a foundation of ethics for daily life- to treat others the way we ourselves would wish to be treated, to seek the best for other people.
But here Rav Nachman extends the meaning of this verse. He says it means we must choose the easiest form of death to use in carrying out an execution. And in Rav Nachman’s view boiling water is a particularly painful execution method, and a more humane technique must be found. His statement makes clear that compassion extends to everyone, even criminals on death row.
Extended Solitary Must End
One of the scariest realizations from the museum of torture is that some of the worst forms of torture can be carried out passively, from a safe and sanitized distance. Guards can lock a victim inside the barbed cylinder and leave. For the first few hours the victim will be okay. It’s only when he starts to tire and can no longer maintain the posture necessary to avoid the barbs that the pain begins. By that time the guards may be far away, unable to hear the screams and cries and therefore less troubled by pity or guilt.
So too with solitary confinement. The solitary cells are bigger than the barbed cylinders, so it takes longer for the pain to start and therefore easier for guards, let alone the rest of society, to turn a blind eye. But prolonged solitary confinement shouldn’t be allowed in our prison system.
Unfortunately, legal experts are not optimistic about the prospects for Dennis Hope’s lawsuit. If the courts don’t outlaw lengthy solitary for prisoners, that will leave Attorneys General and county sheriffs as the ones with the power to do so. We should insist they do.