National conversation on solitary confinement should serve as model for debate on anti-terror policies

Font Size:

In a recent blog post discussing George W. Bush’s anti-terror policies, The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan wrote, “Torture is not … a ‘difficult issue.’ It is an easy one. We don’t do it or condone it …” Of course, when Bush’s critics, such as Sullivan, accuse him of torture, they are referring to Bush’s approval of the practice known as waterboarding.

But while “torture” may in fact be an “easy one,” are the questions surrounding waterboarding and the treatment of captured terrorists truly that simple? Although this very question has been repeatedly debated since the start of the War on Terror, the current media spotlight on the practice of solitary confinement should make critics of Bush’s anti-terror policies reexamine their belief that these are in fact easy questions.

National news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times have recently run pieces scrutinizing the practice of placing prisoners in solitary confinement. These pieces highlight the latest medical research demonstrating that solitary confinement — the practice of keeping inmates in small cells for 23 hours a day with almost no human contact — is not as safe or as useful as commonly believed.

According to these studies, solitary confinement can cause psychosis and depression and lead to suicide. Moreover, after spending time in solitary confinement, inmates are often incapable of functioning in the general population. Such revelations have prompted Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) to push for solitary confinement reform.

Still, proponents of the practice argue that it is necessary to ensure prison safety and rehabilitate and control the most dangerous inmates — points opponents maintain are untrue.

This debate should sound familiar, because it closely parallels the debate surrounding the practice of waterboarding captured terrorists. Proponents of waterboarding argue that it is necessary to prevent future terror attacks and causes no lasting harm, while opponents argue that it’s cruel and, in any case, ineffective.

But there’s also a significant difference in the way these two practices have been discussed. Unlike the critics of waterboarding, who view the questions surrounding the practice as “easy,” critics of solitary confinement have generally acknowledged that reforming the practice raises incredibly difficult questions. What’s more, these critics are not demanding the criminal prosecution of any state or federal official involved in the practice. Instead, solitary confinement reform is being discussed in a thoughtful and reasoned manner by both Congress and the media.

In fact, many of the practice’s critics are only calling for placing certain limits and restrictions on solitary confinement, as opposed to demanding its complete elimination. This, despite what we know about the serious health risks associated with solitary confinement. In contrast, the Bush-era critics of waterboarding demanded that the practice be immediately ended and the individuals involved be tried as war criminals.

None of this is to suggest that we should reconsider waterboarding, nor is it a recommendation to completely eliminate solitary confinement. Both practices raise questions without easy answers. And while waterboarding might sound more dangerous than solitary confinement, it’s not clear that it is. Solitary confinement is certainly employed far more often than waterboarding ever was: At any given time, an estimated 105,000 U.S. prisoners are in solitary confinement.

So when the previous administration’s critics claim that there are no gray areas when it comes to the treatment of prisoners, they are either unaware of the harm caused by solitary confinement or simply not being honest with themselves.

Ultimately, our reactions to these practices should depend on more than politics. Solitary confinement is now, appropriately, receiving a careful and measured evaluation by Congress and the national media. The incredibly difficult questions arising from the detainment of captured terrorists should be afforded the same treatment.

Mendy Finkel is a corporate attorney practicing in New York. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School.