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?"
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.