Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"It would be nice if we remembered that torture is immoral."

That was a quote from a comment about one man's experience of solitary confinement in prison. I would say it sums it up for me, but it has become all too clear to me that there are many people who are not able to remember it. They never knew it to begin with. The man in question is Thomas Silverstein, who has been in solitary for 28 years so far. He is serving life without parole for having killed two fellow inmates and a guard (he says in self defense) after having originally been imprisoned for armed robbery at 19. Here's his description of what he has experienced since then:
The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture.  
My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all…The walls were solid steel and painted all white.  
I was permitted to wear underwear, but I was given no other clothing.  
Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction on the side pocket cell, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it. In order not to be burned by sparks and embers while they welded more iron bars across the cell, I had to lie on my bed and cover myself with a sheet.  
It is hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me it felt like I was being buried alive. It was terrifying.  
During my first year in the side pocket cell I was completely isolated from the outside world and had no way to occupy my time. I was not allowed to have any social visits, telephone privileges, or reading materials except a bible. I was not allowed to have a television, radio, or tape player. I could speak to no one and their was virtually nothing on which to focus my attention.  
I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. 
Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world.  
Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was.  
I tried to measure the passing of days by counting food trays. Without being able to keep track of time, though, sometimes I thought the officers had left me and were never coming back. I thought they were gone for days, and I was going to starve. It’s likely they were only gone for a few hours, but I had no way to know.  
I was so disoriented in Atlanta that I felt like I was in an episode of the twilight zone. I now know that I was housed there for about four years, but I would have believed it was a decade if that is what I was told. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable…  
There was no air conditioning or heating in the side pocket cells. During the summer, the heat was unbearable. I would pour water on the ground and lay naked on the floor in an attempt to cool myself…  
The only time I was let out of my cell was for outdoor recreation. I was allowed one hour a week of outdoor recreation. I could not see any other inmates or any of the surrounding landscape during outdoor recreation. There was no exercise equipment and nothing to do… 
My vision deteriorated in the side pocket, I think due to the constant bright lights, or possibly also because of other aspects of this harsh environment. Everything began to appear blurry and I became sensitive to light, which burned my eyes and gave me headaches.  
Nearly all of the time, the officers refused to speak to me. Despite this, I heard people who I believed to be officers whispering into my vents, telling me they hated me and calling me names. To this day, I am not sure if the officers were doing this to me, or if I was starting to lose it and these were hallucinations.  
In the side pocket cell, I lost some ability to distinguished what was real. I dreamt I was in prison. When I woke up, I was not sure which was reality and which was a dream.
By any sane reckoning, this man has been tortured. For years. There is no reason that solitary confinement has to be like this. And yet, I've seen multiple people already both in the comments on the article and on Dispatches saying that there is nothing wrong with this, that he deserves say nothing of the people who are actually responsible for Silverstein's treatment.

I've written before about how I don't think anyone deserves life in prison, full stop. That means of course I don't think that anyone deserves to be confined like this. But that's really beside the point, because it shouldn't be about what he deserves-- it should be about how we as a society are entitled to treat him. We are entitled to imprison violent criminals to keep them from being violent again, to isolate them if necessary for the safety of others. We are not entitled to determine how to make life as much like hell as possible and then inflict that on them for the rest of their lives. We are not entitled to deliberately and methodically drive them insane. If those statements are controversial, if they make me sound like a "bleeding heart," something is horribly, horribly wrong. Well, obviously something already is horribly wrong, and it's government-sanctioned.

What this man did to get into prison in the first place, and what he did to stay there, are likewise irrelevant. If it is not acceptable to torture a terrorist for information, it is not acceptable to torture a criminal for satisfaction. What is on the line is not his ability to be civil, to refrain from barbarism, but ours.


  1. "I've written before about how I don't think anyone deserves life in prison, full stop."

    I like that post of yours on 'forever', but after re-reading it I may have missed the specifics on why no one deserves life in prison. That post covers several subjects, and it seems the two most relevant to this issue are our inability to comprehend forever, and that people change. I'm not sure what the incomprehensibility or not of 'the rest of our lives' has to do with that punishment; we similarly can never comprehend the true pain and horror of people who suffer at the hands of criminals. If we had some foolproof, or hell even remotely feasible, way to determine if somebody had truly 'changed', then I'd agree with you that life imprisonment may be wrong.

    I believe I mainly disagree with you on what is 'deserved'. Maybe I've just read about too many serial killers, but life imprisonment doesn't even approach the definition of 'justice' compared to what some have done; I don't know by what possible metric they are even remotely equated. On the contrary, there seems to be something clearly unjust about letting the BTK killer for example out when he's 80 or whatever, given his crimes; what is the possible explanation you can give the victim's families?

    Then again, I do see the wisdom in something Vincent Bugliosi said at the compassionate release hearing for the gravely ill Susan Atkins (Manson murders): Bugliosi stated that he was challenging the notion that "just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her." Suffice to say I'm definitely not as clear on whether life in prison is deserved or not, but I think respect for the victims demands that we have an extremely strong case for not imposing it.

  2. Horrifying. And demeans us as a society. I find it incredible that only allowing a Bible for reading material alone is not 'cruel and unusual punishment" let alone Constitutional.

    The mindset of penal officials that dismisses the remedial function of prisons is surely as ugly as the acts committed by the criminals who suffer inside them.

    Reading the description of that inmate's incarceration brought back the horror I experienced during a particularly vivid nightmare I had a while back, in which I experienced the visceral terror of being both blind and deaf. How Helen Keller coped with this, and how the above prisoner coped for so long with his torture, I can only guess.

  3. Remarkable account, and I would agree that this appears to fall within "cruel and unusual punishment".


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