Author: John Kiriakou
Progressive International recently hosted the third in its series of events called The Belmarsh Tribunal, where witnesses testified as to Wikileaks cofounder Julian Assange’s case, his incarceration in Belmarsh prison, and the public service he performed by exposing war crimes committed against Iraqi and Afghan civilians, journalists, and others.
I was honored to speak at the Belmarsh Tribunal in Sydney, Australia at the beginning of 2023 and again at the Tribunal in Washington in December. Most recently, I spoke about the solitary confinement that Julian would likely face, were he to be extradited to the United States. I want to recount some of what I said.
First, and perhaps most importantly, the Justice Department and its prosecutors are lying when they say that Julian would not be placed in solitary confinement, a lie that they stated in court in the UK. I say that they’re lying because they simply have no say as to who goes into solitary confinement and who doesn’t. That decision is the sole responsibility of the federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”).
Having prosecutors tell a British judge that they promise not to send Julian to solitary has the same weight as me promising that I won’t send Julian to solitary. The truth is that the moment any other prisoner walks up to a prison guard and says, “I heard somebody talking about assaulting Assange,” Julian will be taken to solitary and left there “for his own safety.” That’s how prisons work. Even worse, if somebody at the BOP decided to keep Julian away from the media, he would go either to solitary or to an equally restrictive Communications Management Unit (“CMU”). It does not matter to the USA’s federal authorities that the United Nations has deemed the US use of solitary confinement to be a form of torture.
Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating a prisoner from all human contact for an extended period of time. It is often used as a form of punishment or to control behavior, but it can have serious negative effects on mental health. Most countries around the world limit the time that a prisoner can spend in solitary to 15 days. The United States doesn’t. There are scores of prisoners across the US who have been in solitary for years and, in some cases, decades. It should be clear to everybody — the courts, the states, and the federal Bureau of Prisons — that solitary only worsens already bad situations. It shouldn’t be in use.
We already knew that, of course. Solitary confinement as a punishment was invented in 1829 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. The idea was to build an imposing, neo-Gothic, escape-proof maximum-security penitentiary where every prisoner was kept in solitary confinement. Each tiny cell had nothing but a bed, a chair, a small table, a chamber pot, and a bible. The idea was that if the prisoner had nothing to do with his time other than to read the bible, he would be a good, law-abiding Christian man by the time he was released.
Instead, everybody went insane.
There is a growing body of research that shows that solitary confinement as it is used today can cause a variety of severe psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts. These problems can be so severe that they can lead to long-term disability or even death.
A true account of the experiences of US prisoners held in solitary confinement and the deleterious effects on their mental health could fill a library. But the stories are generally consistent. The longer a person is held in solitary, the worse his mental state becomes. The younger a person is when he begins a sentence in solitary, the worse his mental state becomes. And the situation is usually hopeless when a person who is already mentally ill is placed in solitary whatever his age. Here are just a few examples:
Cesar Villa, a prisoner in the solitary confinement unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in California wrote in his 12th year in solitary, “Nothing can really prepare you for entering the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit). It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together, seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind. The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipated with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands began to split open from the cold. I bled over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. Band-aids were not allowed, even confiscated when found. My sense of normalcy began to wane…Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same.”
Thomas Silverstein, who spent 28 years in solitary in the US Penitentiary in Atlanta before dying there, wrote, “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…Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it…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…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 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.”
William Blake called his 25 years in solitary “a sentence worse than death,” and added, “I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside—so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get a hold of, even harder to keep a hold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.”
It’s not just the effects of solitary on the mental health of prisoners that is so dangerous. It’s the physical conditions in solitary itself. Last year, Richard Carter, 63, was arrested after fighting with his girlfriend. He was uncooperative when he got to the jail, so he was placed on suicide watch in solitary. When a prisoner is placed on suicide watch, he is stripped naked and then given a paper smock to wear, the idea being that the prisoner cannot use his own clothes to hang himself. But solitary can also be very, very cold. When the prison doctor warned the warden that Carter was not suicidal and that the unit was cold, the warden responded, “Fuck him. Let him freeze.” Three days later, on December 24, 2022, that’s exactly what happened. Carter froze to death inside a prison in the wealthiest country in the world.
The research on the effects of solitary confinement is clear: Nothing good comes of solitary. It causes or exacerbates serious psychological problems and frequently leads to long-term disability or even death. The United Nations condemns it and much of the rest of the world won’t practice it in their own prisons. It is a living example of the failure of the both the US prison system and the US mental healthcare system. Repairing those will take a great deal of time, money, and effort. But the very first step must be to end solitary confinement immediately.
John Kiriakou is a former CIA analyst and case officer, former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former counterterrorism consultant. While employed by the CIA, he was involved in critical counterterrorism missions following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but refused to be trained in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”