Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), a non-profit organization of psychologists committed to social change and social justice, has written a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, protesting “the needless brutality of the conditions to which 23-year-old PFC Bradley Manning is being subjected” at the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia. He has been accused of unauthorized access to classified material, some of which he allegedly downloaded to his computer, as well as other computer and security-related charges.
It is widely speculated that these charges relate to materials turned over to the Wikileaks website, including a video of an Apache helicopter attack civilians in Baghdad, the Iraq War logs, and thousands of State Department diplomatic cables. The military charge sheet accuses Manning of “wrongfully introducing more than 50 classified United States Department of State cables onto his personal computer, a non-secure information system.” It also alleges he downloaded a Powerpoint presentation, and “a classified video of a military operation filmed at or near Baghdad, Iraq, on or about 12 July 2007.”
Manning was held for approximately three weeks at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait before being transferred to Quantico, where he has remained in solitary confinement since late last July. In an article last month, I reported on PFC Manning’s current psychological state, as best as I could determine from speaking to David House, who had just visited him, and on the deleterious effects of solitary confinement in general. PsySR’s letter speaks at length also about the harsh conditions of solitary, and notes “no such putative risk can justify keeping someone not convicted of a crime in conditions likely to cause serious harm to his mental health.”
Isolation is truly a form of torture, and one often practiced in the so-called civilized world. A vicious form of solitary confinement known as “Special Administrative Measures” or SAMs were imposed by the Bush Administration Department of Justice on Syed Fahad Hashmi, and renewed by Attorney General Holder under President Obama. The SAMs meant Hashmi was kept in 23-hour lockdown and isolation before trial for three long years.
While it is used to break and control prisoners in America’s Supermax prisons, when used on accused prisoners, such as the detainees at Guantanamo, it can be used to “exploit” the prisoner. Such “exploitation” is a key component of torture programs, as the torture regime seeks not just information, but ways to manipulate prisoners for political benefit, or for use by intelligence agencies. Recently, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange told Sir David Frost on Frost’s interview program that airs on English AlJazeera that he believes the tortuous conditions of Manning’s solitary confinement are meant to force Manning to implicate him in supposed crimes against the American government. (See video of the Assange-Frost interview here.)
Assange has repeatedly said he does not know if Manning leaked the material to Wikileaks or not, but noted in an interview with Cenk Uygur at MSNBC last month:
If we are to believe the allegations, then this man acted for political reasons. He is a political prisoner in the United States. He has not gone to trial. He’s been a political prisoner without trial in the United States for some six or seven months. That’s a serious business. Human rights organizations should be investigating the conditions under which he is held and is there really due process there?
If there is one aspect of Manning’s situation I wish PsySR had emphasized more, it concerns the use of bogus Prevention of Injury (POI) orders to justify some of the conditions of Manning’s imprisonment, including use of a rough, heavy “suicide blanket,” limitations on time out of his cell, waking him in the night to “check” on him, as well as “checking” on him every five minutes or so during the day to ask if he is alright, even though he is under 24-hr. video surveillance. In addition, he is not allowed any personal items in his cell. He is not allowed to exercise in his cell, either. While it supposedly is aimed at protection against suicidal self-harm, the POI orders amount to psychological harassment and cruel treatment. Rather than “protecting” PFC Manning, the orders assist in breaking him down psychologically.
The POI orders are supposedly in place due to an assessment made by military mental health professionals. But reportedly a military psychiatrist found Manning not to be suicidal, and it’s unclear why he remains under POI orders. Quantico Public Affairs Officer Lt. Brian Villiard told Dennis Leahy at A World Without Borders last week that “a board that meets ‘frequently’ to reassess the [POI] situation.”
What follows is the text of the PsySR letter. PsySR is not affiliated with the larger American Psychological Assocation (APA). Neither APA nor the American Psychiatric Association has apparently made any statement on Manning’s onerous conditions of confinement.
PsySR Open Letter on PFC Bradley Manning’s Solitary Confinement
January 3, 2011
The Honorable Robert M. Gates
100 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
Dear Mr. Secretary:
Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) is deeply concerned about the conditions under which PFC Bradley Manning is being held at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia. It has been reported and verified by his attorney that PFC 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. For no discernible 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.
As an organization of psychologists and other mental health professionals, PsySR is aware that solitary confinement can have severely deleterious effects on the psychological well-being of those subjected to it. We therefore call for 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.
In the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court case Medley, Petitioner, 134 U.S. 1690 (1890), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller wrote, “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” Scientific investigations since 1890 have confirmed in troubling detail the irreversible physiological changes in brain functioning from the trauma of solitary confinement.
As expressed by Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist and expert in the assessment of institutional environments, “Empirical research on solitary and supermax-like confinement has consistently and unequivocally documented the harmful consequences of living in these kinds of environments . . . Evidence of these negative psychological effects comes from personal accounts, descriptive studies, and systematic research on solitary and supermax-type confinement, conducted over a period of four decades, by researchers from several different continents who had diverse backgrounds and a wide range of professional expertise… [D]irect studies of prison isolation have documented an extremely broad range of harmful psychological reactions. These effects include increases in the following potentially damaging symptoms and problematic behaviors: negative attitudes and affect, insomnia, anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, ruminations, cognitive dysfunction, hallucinations, loss of control, irritability, aggression, and rage, paranoia, hopelessness, lethargy, depression, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, self-mutilation, and suicidal ideation and behavior” (pp. 130-131, references removed).
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” (p. 132).
We are aware that prison spokesperson First Lieutenant Brian Villiard has told AFP that Manning is considered a “maximum confinement detainee,” as he is considered a national security risk. But no such putative risk can justify keeping someone not convicted of a crime in conditions likely to cause serious harm to his mental health. Further, history suggests that 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. In any case, PFC Manning has not been convicted of a crime and, under our system of justice, is at this point presumed to be innocent.
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. The most recent report of the UN Committee against Torture included in its Conclusions and Recommendations for the United States the following article 36:
“The Committee remains concerned about the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in “supermaximum prisons”. The Committee 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 (art. 16).
The State party should review the regime imposed on detainees in “supermaximum prisons”, in particular the practice of prolonged isolation.” (Emphasis in original.)
In addition to the needless brutality of the conditions to which PFC Manning is being subjected, PsySR 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. Coercive conditions of detention also increase the likelihood of the prisoner “cooperating” in order to improve those circumstances, even to the extent of giving false testimony. Thus, such harsh conditions are counter to the interests of justice.
Given the nature and effects of the solitary confinement to which PFC Manning is being subjected, Mr. Secretary, Psychologists for Social Responsibility calls upon you to rectify the inhumane, harmful, and counterproductive treatment of PFC Bradley Manning immediately.
Trudy Bond, Ph.D.
Psychologists for Social Responsibility Steering Committee
Stephen Soldz, Ph.D.
President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility
For the Psychologists for Social Responsibility Steering Committee
An article by Dennis Leahy at the Bradley Manning Support Network website describes how concerned readers can register their opinions with the military authorities (bold emphasis in original):
The Bradley Manning Support Network calls upon Quantico base commander COL Daniel Choike and brig commanding officer CWO4 James Averhart to put an end to these inhumane, degrading conditions. Additionally, the Network encourages supporters to phone COL Choike at +1-703-784-2707 or write to him at 3250 Catlin Avenue, Quantico, VA 22134, and to fax CWO4 Averhart at +1-703-784-4242 or write to him at 3247 Elrod Avenue, Quantico, VA 22134, to demand that Bradley Manning’s human rights be respected while he remains in custody.
Full disclosure note: I have been a paying member of PsySR, though I have not participated in any organizational activities, nor am I a member of any of their committees. Any of my own opinions expressed here are my own, and cannot be attributed to PsySR.