Is Solitary Confinement Torture?

Apparently, man is a social animal: Atul Gawande has a fascinating piece in this week's New Yorker on what solitary confinement does to prisoners. Using psychological experiments from the 1950s, memoirs from former POWs like John McCain and journalist Terry Anderson, and interviews with current and former prisoners who spent years in supermax prisons, Gawande builds a compelling case for why solitary confinement should qualify as torture. As McCain put it, solitary confinement "crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." Gawande's conclusions are troubling, particularly given that the US is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. If the supermax solitary style of confinement breaks down the minds of criminals, making some psychotic and rendering a convict's transition back into society more difficult while failing to reduce prison violence in a substantive way, then perhaps it's not a great idea.