Monday, March 19, 2012

Gawande, Alexander, and Kafka

It's hard to think about imprisonment as separate from torture. Not only do torture and imprisonment overlap in terms of activity (victims of torture are generally also imprisoned), but they overlap in terms of the effects of removing people from normal social life for an extended period--both victims and perpetrators. Journalist Atul Gawande presents us with striking evidence of the damaging effects of social isolation in his article "Hellhole," both in hostage situations and in legal "imprisonment," which we like to see as a different institution. In considering fellow journalist Terry Anderson's seven years of isolation, Gawande writes, "He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down." But during times when Anderson was placed with cellmates, "he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly [. . .]. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions." Anderson's story is only one example of the way solitary confinement breaks down people's abilities to function socially and to care for themselves, mentally and physically. Due to these known dangers, Gawande asks, "how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?"

This humbling question reminds me of when we asked ourselves, if torture is ineffective, and if there are few real ticking-bomb scenarios, why do we still accept it as a method of war? Just as with torture, we need to consider how we developed our penal system, what its true goals were and are, and if its reality fulfills those goals. Are we trying to rehabilitate people who have broken the law? If we see that the isolation of humans can only cause further damage to people's ability to flourish in our particular society and thus cannot be the means to that goal, are we perhaps trying to protect law-abiding citizens? Or are we trying to simply weed out those we deem socially undesirable, regardless of whether or not they pose a real threat to other people? The most obvious difference between torture and imprisonment is that, while torture victims frequently have done nothing wrong, we presume people in U.S. prisons to be guilty of a crime and worthy of punishment. But, as Gawande writes, "only a subset of prisoners currently locked away for long periods of isolation would be considered truly dangerous" in terms of the incidents that landed them there, while nearly 90% of prisoners in one California maximum security isolation prison experienced "irrational anger" after being isolated. There is really no logic to this.

Professor Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, highlights the racial discrimination present in the U.S. legal system, which is causing "a new racial caste" (3) to develop. Alexander provides us with the horrifying reality that the "United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of the apartheid" (6). While we like to speak of social mobility and the value of hard work, the fact remains that a huge proportion of black Americans are legally incapable of improving their own lives by any measure. Alexander illustrates how the War on Drugs was constructed to re-create and ensure the continuation of a racial hierarchy, labeling, stereotyping, and closely surveying black populations with the end result of mass incarceration. And while racial discrimination is not officially legal any longer, policies such as President Clinton's "made it easier for federally assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history" during a time when unprecedented numbers of black Americans were facing criminal drug charges.

What seems the most frustrating to me is that we know objectively that incarceration is not the solution to our societal woes. Gawande points out that Britain and other European countries have seen and accepted that education and work programs are far more effective methods for cultivating a safe and productive society. Our refusal to follow their lead is a testament only to our continued racism, not to being "tough on crime." Author Franz Kafka illustrates the absurdity of legal systems, as represented by "the Law" in his work "Before the Law." A man spends essentially his entire life being repeatedly denied access to his individual path into accordance with the Law, despite his obvious desire to enter it. My interpretation of the story as it applies to the U.S. prison system is that while we claim that people shape their own lives and can choose to operate on the straight and narrow, our legal structures deny many people even the opportunity to try. However, in the story no reason is given for the man's marginalization, while in modern America we can assume that historical constructs of race and class determine people's abilities to enter society to the degree of their choosing.


  1. I want to expand on Kafka. I see your correlation to prison systems, especially in the framework of our other readings for tomorrow. But I interpreted it more along the lines of internalized racism, which is another form of imprisonment, one that won't change with a change of laws, but with a revolution of mindset.

    Kafka's parable made me think of the Travyon Martin homocide and people's responses to it. For those who haven't seen the news, Travyon Martin was a 17-year-old boy living in Orlando, Florida, who walked to his neighborhood convenience store to buy Skittles, alone, and was gunned down by the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman has not been arrested and is claiming self-defense. I'm not quite sure how shooting an unarmed teenager is self-defense, but that's my personal opinion. Anyway, there has been a variety of responses, from outcry to brusque scoffing. The scoffing is along the lines of "He should have known better." When it is people of color doing the scoffing, it's serious internalized oppression. Walking around your neighborhood, whether you're black, white, Asian, Latino is not illegal, but apparently your skin changes your walk's connotation.

    I am also reminded of a story I read in the blogosphere (I frequent it). A young, activist of color described a situation where she was driving in the car with her mom, and they saw some black teenagers hanging out on the corner. Her mom commented, "Those boys look like trouble." The blogger saw that the boys weren't doing anything, let alone anything illegal. And her mother has black teenage boys of her own. Serious internalized oppression. I don't know. This is all a tangent. When Kafka said, "later, as he grows old, he grumbles to himself," (4), this is the grumbling I imagined. I guess I'm suggesting that the new Jim Crow is an internal as well as an external force.

    1. I think that Olivia makes a good point in her post, saying that the New Jim Crow is an internal force as well as an external force. But I think the internal aspect of racism can only stem from the external forces of society acting on that individual. Like Michelle Anderson states in the introduction to her book, "What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it," (2). The structure of our society has not really changed, only the way we talk about race has. Anderson brings up some really great points in her introduction on how incarceration allows for discrimination similar to the Jim Crow laws. There’s a deeply embedded need in our society to be “on top,” which comes with the need for others to fall behind or be made lesser than ourselves. Racism and Jim Crow allowed our society to put down black people and bring whites to the top of the ladder. But when that ability was taken away by the Civil Rights movement, the system was just “redesigned,” (Anderson, 2). The criminal justice system allows for continued marginalization of black Americans, and those in the lower class. When someone dresses a certain way, acts a certain way, or lives in a certain area there are judgments that are made, no matter what. Historical constructs of race and class, as Kerry said, are the basis of how our society works. Changing the way we talk about race does not change the fact that racism and discrimination are embedded in the structure of our society.

  2. After reading Gawande’s article “Hellhole,” I found myself grappling with various thoughts concerning the relationship between imprisonment and torture. When examining our past readings in class revolving around torture during the war on terror, it was evident that many unjustified cases of torture occurred. For example, countless innocent victims were held and tortured at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. In Gawande’s article on the other hand, several prisoners were portrayed committing some form of an unlawful act in America. As a result, these prisoners received the punishment of isolation in incarceration. While these prisoners acted illegally under different circumstances, Kerry states an important point that only a select amount of prisoners locked away for long periods of time are truly dangerous. As Gawande shows, most of these prisoners experience harsh solitary confinement that in turn deeply affects the victims physically and mentally. Isolation in these United States prisons is an example of torture. These prisons and their administrators believe that isolation provides discipline and prevents violence, but violence is actually not decreasing among the prisoners as Gawande says. These prisoners’ lives are even more so negatively impacted from their experiences of loneliness. They lose their minds while they are trapped in these prisons as Kerry discussed with the example of Anderson. As the article explains, they often find themselves hallucinating and sleeping for extended periods of time when they are isolated. Like the soldiers during the war on terror, they have trouble coming back to reality once they are freed due to their torturous experiences. They tend to have a difficult time with social interactions and also face many disadvantages within society. As Alexander points out in the introduction of The New Jim Crow, prisoners face employment discrimination, housing discrimination, missed educational opportunities and exclusion from other public benefits. Therefore, it is critical to acknowledge how these prisoners are deeply affected from their experiences in isolation.
    While I believe that prisoners deserve proper punishment for the illegal acts they commit, torture is only effective in a minimal amount. I found the end of Gawande’s article to be particularly interesting and informative in how he provided more successful methods to deal with prisoners’ behavior. For example, increasing prisoner’s social skills through work and allowing for human contact can lead to greater results and less violence. Prisoners should experience isolation for only a limited extent and then recover in more realistic, helpful settings such as rehabilitation programs. There are special cases of evil people committing unspeakable crimes who most likely deserve the harshest punishment possible. However, for most of the prisoners who commit crimes such as stealing, it is more beneficial to teach lessons. While prisoners deserve punishment to a certain extent, United States prisons should also strive to conduct more productive strategies to improve the behavior and strengthen the lives of these prisoners.

  3. I think Kerry makes an excellent point in comparing the prison system to the ticking-bomb scenario. Particularly, the question of the goals and justification of the prison system are pertinent. Just as we justify torture as a means to obtain valuable information, we legitimate isolation by upholding the idea that it prevents violence and effectively disciplines difficult prisoners. As we have discussed, the ticking-bomb scenario manipulates us such that we accept torture despite the overwhelming scientific data suggesting its ineffectiveness. Similarly, the vast majority of research indicates that solitary confinement, contrary to popular belief, fosters violence rather than preventing it. Just as we legitimate torture by perpetuating rhetoric that it is a forward-looking, heroic, last resort act, we justify the use of solitary confinement by promoting the idea that anything less would render us "soft on crime." Moreover, as Alexander elucidates, opposition to solitary confinement has been framed as a lack of commitment to "law and order." Alexander explains that because U.S. prison systems and laws are inextricably, albeit implicitly, tied to race, our prisons serve to isolate black Americans from the rest of society in a legally justifiable way, thereby perpetuating stereotypes and further marginalizing black Americans. I think these readings further exemplify the ways in which public discourse and narratives shape our thinking in ways that are often misleading. Gawande brings up the example of British prison systems, indicating that American tax dollars could be spent far more effectively so as to decrease the number of prisoners and develop programs that foster education, social ties, and various skills among prisoners. However, as Alexander notes, Americans have decreased funding for education, public housing, and food stamps, while drastically increasing funding for the development of prisons. It is critical to recognize the power of public discourse in shaping our beliefs. Moreover, scientific studies on the efficacy of solitary confinement, just as with torture, contradict our justifications for their use. Thus, such research can serve as a powerful tool in eliminating the use of such inhumane and racist behaviors.

  4. Kerry, I found your question about whether the US is trying to reform individuals or weed out the undesirables with their policies of mass incarceration particularly interesting. The latter seems true when looking at the policy of mass incarceration in the United States and the high number of African Americans in US prison. Alexander argues that because of the American ideal of color blindness, the US government must use other mechanisms besides race, namely the justice system, to distinguish blacks and therefore justify discrimination against them. In labeling criminal, they can use all the practices they said they had outlawed. Alexander uses evidence to illustrate that those released from jail often face discrimination in terms of unemployment, education, housing, the ability to vote, etc. Therefore, the American government uses language with out racial tones, such as the “war on drugs” and “welfare queens” to justify their practices that are far from liberal. The government is able to get away with eliminating the unwanted citizens in society because of the colorblind idea that race no longer matters.

    We see similar patterns when looking at the practice of solitary confinement. Gawande asserts that the government constructs those in solitary confinement as the most violent and dangerous in society- therefore, it is a necessary evil. However, this is far from the case, as Gawande demonstrates the lack of effect it has had in reducing individual violence and crime rates. Furthermore, the harsh conditions allude to the desire to destroy certain individuals. EEG studies revealed that brain waves actually slow down, while many report feeling their mind disintegrate, losing the ability to concentrate or sustain social interaction (2009). Soldiers returning from Vietnam even went so far as to say that it is equal to any type of physical or psychological torture they suffered (Gawande 2009).

    These policies and their ineffectiveness seem to demonstrate the government’s attempt to eliminate certain groups of people, physically with mass incarceration, as well as socially, in the negative effects and loss of rights/abilities they face as a result. In my other PCON class, we are reading a piece by Zygmunt Bauman, who claims that modern genocide aims to create a better, more perfect society- that the destruction of a certain group is no longer the ends, but the means (73). Is this what the government is trying to achieve with their mass incarceration and isolation techniques?

    Also similar to torture, the government is using creative, liberal language to misrepresent the reality of their objectives. Furthermore, the public’s liberal ideal of America, where things like cruelty and race do not exist/matter, allows the government to get away with inhumane practices. How liberal can our government claim to be if they are using creative tools to manipulate their public into supporting inhumane practices?

  5. While reading Hellhole, I kept asking myself “what is the benefit of and the justification for using solitary confinement?” and, like Kerry, I saw parallels between putting prisoners in solitary confinement to protect the safety of other inmates and using torture in the face of a ticking time bomb scenario. Both forms of punishment seem to have a “whatever it takes” justification behind them. As some have already noted, the difference between torturing suspected terrorists and putting prisoners in solitary confinement is that prisoners are probably guilty of committing a crime. But, of the prisoners put in solitary confinement Gawande indicates that only a small population of them truly dangerous. Prisoners like Bobby Dellelo, who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder and spent five years in solitary confinement after escaping from prison, are not a danger to other inmates and while they might deserve more security surveillance, punishment through solitary confinement is groundless. Even if the purpose of solitary confinement is to protect other prisoners from a violent inmate, Britain has demonstrated that there are more civilized and constructive ways to deal with these types of prisoners. Obviously, solitary confinement is a form of torture and the myth that it works to rehabilitate inmates is trumped by all of the scientific evidence that indicates these prisoners reveal brain abnormalities months after solitary confinement. Similarly, when we torture someone we cease to view them as human and vulnerable, and I think the same can be said of how we view and treat prisoners. I’m curious whether prison guards experience guilt and shame after both putting prisoners in solitary confinement and witnessing first-hand the horrible psychological and physical toll it takes on someone. I sympathize with these prisoners and while it is impossible for me to know what they went through, I think anyone subjected to prolonged solitary confinement would be similarly affected. Another connection that I wanted to try to make here is the trauma experienced by prisoners put in solitary confinement and that of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gawande says “they begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world…the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity” (11). With the recent story of Sgt. Robert Bales, we can consider his act to be the consequence of his break with reality or as a perverse and desperate way to maintain a sense of purpose. Perhaps, this is too difficult a connection to make, but I wanted to demonstrate how trauma repeatedly provokes the need for violence and to fight back against the “enemy.”

  6. As Kerry discussed, I think what struck me the most from the readings for today's class was the comparison that Gawande makes between torture and solitary confinement. For my past paper, I discussed the fact that torture should never be justifiable. Although I took the perspective of looking at the soldiers as becoming victims of their own actions, I strongly believe in my opinion that torture is never justifiable because of the suffering of those who receive the violence as well. While reading the article “Hellhole” I began to see distinct similarities between torture and isolation as isolation turned prisoners “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.” In my opinion, this statement describes many victims of torture. The question then remains, as it often does, where do we draw the line?

    As Gawande also states, “there are some highly dangerous and violent prisoners who pose a serious challenge to prison discipline and safety”. In addition, “the main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence”. Those who are in isolation are said to have committed violent crimes against society, or have severely broken the rules within prison confinement. Does the fact that they have committed crimes justify the solitary confinement? Is torture only seen as vicious when it is committed against innocent civilians as it often is for prisoners of war? It becomes a complicated scenario, especially when considering the fact that I took the position of arguing that torture is never acceptable. I do want to be protected from criminals and those who commit violent crimes, yet I begin to wonder if isolation does this at all. Many prisoners return to society, and the readings suggest that solitary confinement worsens their ability to do so, making them more dangerous to civilians than before. In addition, as Alexander discusses, the United State’s incarceration rate is skyrocketing, and many of the prisoners may not need to see jail time at all even to the extent of being innocent for the crime they are being charged for. The scenario becomes even more complicated as you factor in all the people that are in jail that shouldn’t be. If we state that torture is never acceptable because of the amount of innocent people that become victims of the violence, then perhaps isolation is never acceptable as well if innocent people are imprisoned. Even further, innocent civilians may be put at risk if prisoners, who are unfit for society because of the mental and physical torture isolation causes, are released back into daily life.