The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues
SEPT 2012 Issue

The Torture of Bradley Manning

(2:01:14 PM) bradass87: but im pretty desperate for some non-isolation

In the late summer of 2010, renowned hacker, convicted felon, and federal informant Adrian Lamo assured an audience of digital activists in New York that Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaks source inside the U.S. military whom Lamo had just betrayed, would be treated quite decently in the brig; after all, “We don’t torture our own citizens.” Lamo was apparently trying to distinguish Manning’s likely treatment from that endured by hundreds of captured foreigners in the course of our Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT as it was known in-house during the Bush-Cheney administration.

Photos of the Ft. Meade Rally in December 2011. Savebradley,

But Lamo’s tiding of comfort, based perhaps in guilt-ridden wishfulness, turned out to be grotesquely incorrect. 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.) On April 21, 2011, protesters disrupted a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraiser at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco and badgered the President about Manning’s treatment, who declared, prejudicially, that Manning broke the law. Foreign governments brought pressure to bear, sending pointed letters of concern to Washington. Manning’s defense attorney is launching a pretrial motion that the charges against his client should be dropped given this gratuitous regimen of torture, or, at the very least, given extra weight as time served when it comes time to deliver a sentence.

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 Öcalan, 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.

A Supermax Nation, Cruel and Usual

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.

Long-term solitary confinement is a routine component of the American penal system. The numbers speak for themselves: today there are more than 20,000 inmates in America’s “supermax” prisons, which by definition keep their wards in long-term isolation. There are perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 more held in solitary in other federal and local prisons—how many exactly is not known. No one is counting.

Can torture really be so widespread in a wealthy democracy during a florescence of human rights law? Yes. As Solitary Watch notes, over the past 30 years prisoners held in solitary have shot up even faster than the U.S.’s already skyrocketing incarceration rate. Some prisoners, of course, have been put into solitary because they are a danger to other inmates and to prison guards. But a great many are now put into solitary as a disciplinary measure of the very first resort. California is especially profligate with throwing prisoners into isolation: as of July 2011, all but 26 of 1,056 inmates held in isolation at Pelican Bay prison were held not because of any specific infraction or violation but because of suspected gang membership. According to the Los Angeles Times, “[n]early 300 had been there for more than a decade, 78 for more than 20 years.” 

What, then, distinguishes Bradley Manning from the tens of thousands of Americans who are still doing long-term solitary? Is it the political nature of the charges against Manning? This argument is unsupported, for there are hundreds of animal rights activists, environmentalists, and Muslims isolated in “Communication Management Units” at the supermax prisons in Terre Haute and Marion, Illinois. And yet they have not received media attention or letters of concern from the Bundestag.

Of course, Manning’s nine months of solitary were pretrial detention—surely that must be an aberration, to isolate any accused person for so long before any determination of guilt or innocence? Alas, this too is wishful thinking; pretrial detention in solitary is not at all uncommon in the United States. According to veteran journalists Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, we who are shocked by Manning’s treatment need to be introduced to the 15-year-old boy who, along with several dozen other juveniles, is being held in solitary in a jail in Harris County, Texas, while he awaits trial on a robbery charge. He is one of hundreds—if not thousands—of prisoners being held in pre-trial solitary confinement, for one reason or another, on any given day in America. Most of them lack decent legal representation, or are simply too poor to make bail.

Long-term solitary confinement, even of pretrial suspects, is just one of the things the U.S. government does, like paving roads and delivering the mail.

How can this be legal in America? Doesn’t the Eighth Amendment proscribe “cruel and unusual” punishment? Those are the words, but the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that solitary confinement, even long-term isolation, does not meet that standard of cruelty and unusualness, provided that the prisoner didn’t already suffer from mental illness. (That the punishment inflicts long-term psychiatric damage did not concern a majority of the judges.) Similarly, the 14th amendment’s guarantee of due process under the law also does not, as presently interpreted, bar the penalty.

The small ripple of revulsion against Manning’s treatment is not a symptom of 21st century moral softness. In the 19th century, critics of long-term isolation were numerous and uncompromising. Charles Dickens was revolted by the practice as he observed it on a visit to America; conservative thinkers Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustav de Beaumont noted that the solitary confinement in Auburn, New York “proved fatal for the majority of prisoners. It devours the victim incessantly and unmercifully; it does not reform, it kills. The unfortunate creatures submitted to this experiment wasted away.”

Many states of the union experimented with penal isolation before abandoning the practice in the late 19th century: the effects were just too devastating on inmates. Even the Supreme Court of the United States came within a whisker of abolishing long-term isolation in the 1890 case of In re Medley. Perhaps our late-19th century ancestors just weren’t as tough as we mighty Americans of today.

Black Light on Bradley Manning

It is no coincidence that most of the intellectuals who have pointed out the essential congruence of the Global War on Terror with U.S. domestic criminal justice—journalists like Margaret Kimberley and Bob Herbert, and law professor James Forman, Jr.—are African-American. Black Americans, whose overall incarceration rate today is probably higher than that of Soviet citizens at the peak of the Gulag, have long had ample reasons over the centuries, and now as much as ever, to doubt the fundamental rightness of the American justice system. 

Both the international outcry over Bradley Manning’s torture and the comparative silence over the tens of thousands of other Americans enduring similar treatment have not escaped comment from the black engagé intelligentsia. Jared Ball of Morgan State University argues that the outrage over Manning’s treatment is fully warranted—but not the shock, given that such treatment is so widespread already. And the outrage over Manning’s treatment, combined with near silence over the thousands of other Americans undergoing the very same treatment, evinces a certain moral myopia. However much we would like, we cannot pretend that the torture of Bradley Manning in solitary confinement is just a blemish on an otherwise pristine justice system.

In fact, the roots of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantánamo, and the isolation torture of Bradley Manning are so close to home that most of us have trouble seeing them. We might like to think that all of this is a colossal and shameful exception to our laws and customs. But the sensational “Global War on Terror” atrocities that have scandalized the world for the past decade are at base a simple extension of our everyday “normal” way of doing criminal justice. To be sure, the GWOT’s use of torture has been more programmatic, and the locales more exotic, but on the whole these headline-making scandals have been far less aberrant than we would like to think. From Guantánamo to the treatment of Bradley Manning, most of our supposedly out-of-character response to 9/11 has in fact been less exception than the rule. On the whole, the GWOT has been blandly all-American.

It would seem that Gitmo and Bagram, too, are less anomalous than we might think, and that they were well within our capabilities before 9/11. Yes, it’s true that Bush administration officials and pundits told us with excitement about how, in our counterattack on Al Qaeda, “the gloves were coming off.” For a great many Americans, however, those gloves had never gone on to begin with. This raises some vexing questions about how we budget our indignation. It is not at all clear why violent interrogations, abuse, and torture should be more scandalous when they happen overseas than in Chicago. It was just this indignation gap between abuses abroad and at home that inspired Jean Casella and James Ridgway to found the advocacy group Solitary Watch. As they have tirelessly and eloquently pointed out, it is not clear why outrage over long-term solitary should be confined to the case of a 24-year-old whistleblower named Bradley Manning given that he was not remotely alone in suffering this form of legalized torture.

It is long past time to connect the GWOT’s programmatic use of torture, including solitary confinement, with the widespread application of similar treatment at home. In fact it’s worth asking why these dots haven’t been connected all along. Is it because so many of our domestic inmates, especially in the regions where elite national opinion is produced, are African-American and Latino, whereas most of our professional social reformers in the nonprofit sector are white? Is it because most of our elite public-interest lawyers and white-shoe pro bono advocates come out of a top half-dozen law schools where they most likely got a nice taste of well-tended federal courts, but little if any exposure to our overburdened state criminal courts? Is it just too depressing to think about our collapsing, overstrained, and frequently sadistic criminal justice system in Guantánamo-like terms? Does compassion fatigue for those atrocities closest at hand always set in first, and hardest? Whatever the reasons, the gaping legal voids in our domestic justice and penal system have acquired the seamless invisibility of an open secret.

In fact, it’s the grinding familiarity of much of the War on Terror’s nastiness, with the draconian confinement of Bradley Manning very much included, that may best explain why many Americans view such horrors with a weary shrug. A common response to the high-minded shock-horror is exasperation tinged with resentment. Hello, this has been going on right here at home for decades. Where the hell have you been?

Breaking the chains

It was not ever so in the United States. Even in the postwar 20th century, solitary confinement was not always a natural feature of the American penal system. Other paths were possible, and still are. Just as the construction boom in supermax prisons swept the United States, Great Britain took an opposite approach to dealing with troublesome inmates, finding controlled ways to increase prisoner sociability, autonomy, and responsibility with the result of significantly reduced prison violence. That this solution may strike us as counterintuitive is a sign of how far we have traveled in just a few decades from the very notion of prisoner rehabilitation.

In the United States, alternatives to mass solitary confinement are not only possible, they are up and running. Despite the Clinton years’ huge construction boom in supermax prisons, solitary confinement is not a habit that is impossible to kick. Compelled by an ACLU lawsuit, Mississippi emptied out the isolation wing, the 1000-bed supermax wing of Parchman, the notorious Unit 32, famous for its howls, flooding toilets, stifling heat, and chronic violence. The move was justified not on humanitarian grounds but as a cost-saving measure, as it surely was. (Politicians must be careful to avoid mentioning any moral or humanitarian reasons for treating prisoners less sadistically, lest they expose themselves to an electorate with a seemingly limitless thirst for punishment.)

The American media and intellectual class is slowly noticing the normalized crisis of mass solitary confinement. The New York Bar Association has recently issued a condemnation of long-term isolation. The genteel New Yorker has mainstreamed the issue with a widely-read 2010 article by physician Atul Gawande on the lasting damage done by the punishment. (As for the prospect of international law influencing the national discourse, this is a red herring: international law, for good and for ill, doesn’t cut much ice in the United States.) 

Most important are the efforts of American prisoners themselves to roll back the practice of solitary confinement. In July of 2011, the 1,056 inmates at Pelican Bay’s supermax wing launched a hunger strike that spread throughout the California state prison system, even to its outsourced facilities in other states, involving 6,600 prisoners at its peak. The prisoners forced an admission from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that there was some validity to what the inmates’ concerns were, but the other modest concessions—warm hats, wall calendars, and a promise to reconsider the isolation regs—have not been implemented. The Pelican Bay hunger strike will surely not be the last organized mass uprising of American prisoners whom the state is inexorably driving insane.

The punitive confinement of Bradley Manning, far from being an obscene anomaly, has been monotonously consistent with American laws and customs. Why should this obvious truth be so difficult to admit? Andrew Napolitano, the former judge and steadfastly libertarian television personality, was good enough to denounce the Obama administration treatment of Manning as “KGB tactics,” and one can hardly disagree. But the epithet, connoting a radically un-American foreignness, is surely misplaced. The torture of Bradley Manning has been wholly in the American grain.


Chase Madar

CHASE MADAR is an attorney in New York. This is an excerpt, updated, from his new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning (OR Books).


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2012

All Issues