By William Fisher
While Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, conducts international media interviews from a manor house in the English countryside, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier the military reportedly believes is responsible for providing Wikileaks’ information, languishes in solitary confinement in a Marine brig.
Now, a group of respected professional psychologists has asked Defense Secretary Gates to change the conditions of his imprisonment because “solitary confinement can have severely deleterious effects on the psychological well-being of those subjected to it.”
Psychologists for Social Responsibility (sySR) says it is “deeply concerned about Manning’s pretrial detention conditions, including solitary confinement for over five months, a forced lack of exercise, and possible sleep deprivation.
It has been reported by his attorney and a visitor that Manning's mental health is suffering from his treatment.”
In their Open Letter to Secretary Gates, the psychologists’ group says, “Manning has been held in solitary confinement since July of 2010. He reportedly is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day, a cell approximately six feet wide and twelve feet in length, with a bed, a drinking fountain, and a toilet.”
The group adds, “For no discernable reason other than punishment, he is forbidden from exercising in his cell and is provided minimal access to exercise outside his cell. Further, despite having virtually nothing to do, he is forbidden to sleep during the day and often has his sleep at night disrupted.”
The letter continues: “As an organization of psychologists and other mental health professionals, sySR is aware that solitary confinement can have severely deleterious effects on the psychological well-being of those subjected to it. We therefore call or a revision in the conditions of PFC Manning’s incarceration while he awaits trial, based on the exhaustive documentation and research that have determined that solitary confinement is, at the very least, a form of cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment in violation of U.S. law.”
The group says the conditions of isolation to which PFC Manning, as well as many other U.S. prisoners are subjected, are sufficiently harsh as to have aroused international concern. In the most recent report of the UN Committee against Torture, the Committee equates Manning’s treatment with that meted out to prisoners in “supermaximum prisons.
The Committee said it is concerned about the “prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to, the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
PsySR charges that in addition to the “needless brutality” of the conditions to which PFC Manning is being subjected, it is “concerned that the coercive nature of these conditions -- along with their serious psychological effects such as depression, paranoia, or hopelessness -- may undermine his ability to meaningfully cooperate with his defense, undermining his right to a fair trial.”
The group cited the views of Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist and expert in the assessment of institutional environments. He said, “Empirical research on solitary and supermax-like confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in these kinds of environments . . .”
Dr. Haney concludes, “To summarize, there is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which non-voluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will that failed to result in negative psychological effects”
Trudy Bond, Ph.D., a member of the organization’s Steering Committee, and Stephen Soldz, Ph.D., President of the organization, signs the letter.
Other civil libertarians have also weighed in on the Manning issue. Last week, the legal logger Glenn Greenwald of Salon described Manning’s solitary confinement. Greenwald also said his treatment was equivalent to being in a Supermax prison. He described it as torture, and wrote:
“In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.”
Letter signatory Bond approached Manning’s situation from her vantage point as a professional psychologist. She told The Public Record, “People are social creatures. We need to interact with others to be truly alive. Solitary confinement is an extremely painful punishment that threatens a person’s mental stability. It is appalling to have Bradley Manning, a person not convicted of any crime, subjected to this harsh punishment,” she said, adding,
“Solitary confinement, rather than being a rational response to a risk, is more often used as a punishment for someone who is considered to be a member of a despised or 'dangerous' group. As with all torture and inhumane treatment, it is meant to intimidate both the victim and society at large."
Human rights advocates were virtually unanimous regarding what they see as the injustice of Manning’s confinement. Bill Quigley, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), put it this way:
“The US treatment of Bradley Manning is clearly punitive and designed to deter others from leaking information about illegal actions of the US. It is also coercive in order to force him to identify other people who might be prosecuted. This is very similar to what the US has been doing in Guantanamo.”
He told The Public Record, “Under US and international human rights law people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. International law recognizes prolonged solitary confinement as akin to torture. The US treatment of Manning violates the spirit of law, human rights, human dignity, and fair play. It is unjust.”
A similar view was expressed by Chip Pitts, a lecturer in law at Stanford University law school and Oxford University and an Executive Board member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Pitts told The Public Record:
“The unusual conditions imposed on PFC Manning should concern us all. In whatever light one views his actions – and many appropriately highlight the whistleblowing aspects and crimes he revealed – the harsh treatment reported is inconsistent with any reasonable system of justice and would clearly constitute inappropriate pre-trial punishment for offenses not yet adjudicated.”
He continued: “It is illegal and immoral, jeopardizing his ability to defend himself in the future. Have both our military and civilian systems been irrevocably tainted by the recourse to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in recent years? Or is this another instance of mindless ‘revenge’ of the establishment for deviations from orthodoxy? In any case, the conduct is unbecoming the military and our legal system and must stop at once.