The physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious. He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler. And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking. He decided to investigate himself:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.
We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.” Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water. In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.
Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings. He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.
I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank … I suddenly realized … I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!
Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.
The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.
Lilly was a provocateur. By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.
For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin. The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks. In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.
The dolphin did not learn to speak. The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer. Eventually, she offered manual release.
In total isolation, we change. Our brains atrophy. Our inhibitions wane. Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.
The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.
Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs. Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.
For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages. These housing conditions seem to affect their minds. When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages. These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.
Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs. The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids. The animals living alone, in cages, drank more. From the research publication:
A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.
Opiates are highly addictive. But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles. Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.
And among the rats? These are social animals. Isolation is painful for them. They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.
Confining social animals in isolation is a form of torture. Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.
After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible. Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.
In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress. Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time. For some, decades.
Large protests have been held outside of prison walls. Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight. Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.
Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary. One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months. “I get through it okay. I got myself a system. This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place. I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”
“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”
“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time. But for rec time? You can’t see the sun no how. You just in a different box.”
According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture. But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”
A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial. Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man. He was decidedly un-dangerous.
From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”
The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan. Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.
Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect. Theoharis:
Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes. The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.
But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:
These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence. Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense. The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.
In this case as well, our government won. Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke. One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.
After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage? Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”
He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.
ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado. Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.
A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”
Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX. This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs. He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.
That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX. From his essay describing the place:
We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.
It has become normal. And we the inmates are voiceless. Our voices are not heard. If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies. I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here. This is what should be thought of as a lie. I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.
This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls. I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles. So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary. Prison. Cages and craziness.
Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls. There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing. I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.
Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights. This spring they had two babies. We watched them grow up and fly away. On any given day the sky here is breathtaking. The beauty out my window stays in my mind. I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.
The window helps greatly.
I’m in the hole so there is no TV. Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain. But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.
Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.
The essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.
You should read this book.
If you are human, you will cry.
If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you. The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.
Mayhaps you should do something.