January 27, 2015

From Gitmo to an American Supermax, the Horrors of Solitary Confinement

Vanity Fair, January 2015
original here


The rap on Guantánamo is that it’s a glaring exception to the American system of justice. But the controversial use of solitary confinement both at the camp and in U.S. prisons tells a different story. Ted Conover reports on the psychological damage punitive isolation inflicts upon Guantánamo and American prisoners alike.

I first visited the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in April 2003. The “war on terror” prisoners, most of them captured in Afghanistan, had begun to arrive 15 months earlier. They were first locked up in Camp X-Ray, an outdoor prison that looked like a kennel complex for very large dogs. (The police dogs at Camp X-Ray, in fact, had their own cages—the ones without a funnel in the corner for urine.) By the time I arrived, Camp X-Ray had been replaced by Camp Delta; the wire cages had given way to what looked like a heavy-duty, high-security trailer park. The prison cells at Camp Delta were made of shipping containers, sliced in half the long way so that a corridor could be added down the middle, then re-assembled into a kind of grim double-wide. Windows were cut out and fitted with heavy mesh; bugs could penetrate, but not the ubiquitous banana rats, and at least the prisoners didn’t get soaked when it rained.

The prison population peaked that year at 684. But even as the count began to decline, a feeling of permanence took hold. By 2006, Camps 5 and 6 had been built. These were the real thing, copies of high-security facilities in Indiana and Michigan, with electronically controlled gates, central video monitoring of each cell, one-way glass everywhere, and cramped exercise pens. Camps 5 and 6 are where almost all of the remaining prisoners are now kept.

Throughout modern history, governments have used islands for imprisonment or exile. South Africa had Robben Island. Russia had Sakhalin Island. France had Devil’s Island. Guantánamo’s location does not set it apart—nor does the use of physical torture, or the prevalence of hunger strikes, or the nefarious reputation. What is new about Guantánamo has become clear only recently. Rear Admiral Richard W. Butler, who headed up the prison camp until last July, unwittingly alluded to it during my most recent visit earlier in the year. “Twelve years ago,” he said, gesturing to his desk chair, “none of us thought that anybody would still be sitting here today.”

The Bush Doctrine redefined war as something that might go on forever. It created a permanent state of exception, in which extraordinary means were permitted to pursue terrorists (wherever they may be) and to detain suspects (for any length of time). What this has meant for prisoners at Guantánamo is, on one level, well known: without prospect of trial or tribunal, their sentences are effectively open-ended. On another level, what this has meant has never been fully acknowledged. Many of the Guantánamo prisoners are being held in solitary confinement, a difficult condition under the best of circumstances, and psychologically excruciating when no concluding point is specified. Two centuries ago, America was a pioneer in the use of punitive isolation. Now it is pioneering a refinement: the use of solitary without end.


Joint Task Force Guantánamo, which runs the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, does not and will not disclose how many of the prisoners in its custody are kept in solitary confinement. The Joint Task Force will not even use the term “solitary confinement,” referring instead to “single-cell operations.” Lawyers and others who work for Guantánamo detainees estimate that from 20 to several dozen of the 127 prisoners still in the prison camp wear the orange jumpsuit of the noncompliant prisoner and are not allowed to eat, exercise, or share space with other prisoners—which is any reasonable person’s definition of solitary confinement.

The military makes solitary confinement very hard to see. In Camp 6, a visitor is allowed to peer, voyeur-like, through one-way glass into one of several blocks that make up the building. It’s like observing the human version of an ant farm. You will see five or six men inside, in white prison uniforms, sitting at metal tables bolted to the floor in a small common area surrounded on three sides by two tiers of cells. The cells are where the prisoners spend the night. Many people are familiar with this kind of prison design from television. When Camp 6 first opened, however, prisoners weren’t allowed to gather in the common area. It was a solitary-confinement unit. Each man was kept in his cell all day long except for a brief period of outdoor exercise, usually at night, alone, in a small space for that purpose attached to the block.

Today, Camp 5 is the main facility used for solitary confinement. Its single cells open not onto a seating area but onto a corridor. The cells are tiny, with needle-thin windows filled with opaque glass. Each cell has a small metal toilet and a metal sink, and a concrete platform for a bed. The so-called good-behavior cells are exactly the same, except that they have a chair and a TV. As a reward for compliance, prisoners can sometimes sit for a while in one of these cells, a leg chained to a ring on the floor. Prisoners in solitary typically have to eat and exercise by themselves. Their ability to communicate with others is, if not completely absent, sharply curtailed.

During the past few months I’ve spoken at length about solitary confinement at Guantánamo with more than half a dozen former detainees and with a score of lawyers for Guantánamo prisoners. In some ways, Guantánamo is like other prisons, in which solitary is an additional punishment for breaking the rules. In a typical prison, that might mean fighting, or possessing drugs or weapons; at Guantánamo, solitary is more likely to be a consequence of refusing to do something, such as refusing to allow the surveillance camera in one’s cell to have a clear view (by covering the lens with bits of clothing) or refusing to eat (a persistent problem). Unique to Guantánamo is extended isolation as a tool for interrogators. Early on, especially, prisoners were separated from others for questioning, which could last hours or days; more solitary could then be imposed on prisoners whom authorities felt were not forthcoming. Isolation as punishment for non-cooperation began in Camps 1 or 2 of Camp Delta, which had blocks of special cells with no windows except for a small one in the door.

These were supplanted by something even more severe—a special prison called Camp Echo, which is reportedly still in use. Initially Camp Echo consisted of nine freestanding buildings, each with two windowless prison cells inside; there are reports that it has expanded. Finally, there is Camp 7, a facility for high-value detainees, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that the Department of Defense administers separately from the other camps. All of the units in Camp 7 are for solitary.

At Camp Echo, prisoners are almost completely isolated—there is no tapping out a message on the wall, no shooting “kites” across the floor. As ex-detainee Ruhal Ahmed put it to me, “If you scream, there’s no one.” Ahmed recounted how he and a second member of England’s so-called Tipton Three, Asif Iqbal, were given solitary essentially for “stupid” acts of verbal provocation. Iqbal had scrawled the words “You are so stupid for reading this” on a piece of trash and held it up for a guard to read. The guard said Iqbal had damaged U.S. property.

As for Ahmed, he was sent to isolation for singing a song. He turned a lyric from the Westside Connection rap song “Bow Down” into a message for his guards:

Bow down when you come in my block
Bow down when you come outside my cell

Ahmed and Iqbal endured short stays by Guantánamo standards—just over two years. Those with longer stays have stories that can be much darker. Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan, told me that during the five and a half years he was imprisoned at Guantánamo, a total of four years was spent in isolation. Isolation was mitigated slightly, he says, by the rule—associated with the Geneva Conventions—that a prisoner could spend only 30 consecutive days in solitary. After that, he had to be removed: “But it didn’t specify how long he should stay away from isolation, O.K.?,” Errachidi explained. “So after 30 days, they break that chain, they remove you, let’s say 6 o’clock at night, and then the next day, say at 11 o’clock in the morning [they put you back in].”

The worst facility was Camp Echo. There, said Errachidi, “I was on my own . . . in Echo there was only one cell, one guard . . . I stayed there for almost seven months. . . . That’s where I just broke down because I couldn’t see the sky, couldn’t see sunlight, couldn’t see other prisoners, for many months . . . I didn’t know what I was doing. “In his Guantánamo memoir, The General, Errachidi describes how happy he was when ants infiltrated his cell. “These beautiful creatures would visit me in my metal prison carrying with them hope and life. I’d save food for them. . . . Sometimes I’d save a peanut, splitting the nut in half and putting each half on the floor, flat side down. The ants would come and eat the halves from the inside, leaving the skin. Such was their delicacy that, unless you turned the nut over, you wouldn’t have been able to guess it was empty.”

These ants were a rare sign of life, and when they appeared animation would creep into the deadness of my solitary cell and, for that moment, I’d feel optimism rather than despair. But their presence also brought danger—when the soldiers inspected my cell, I was always frightened they’d find the ants. I developed a warning system: if I heard a guard on his way, I’d blow on the ants and they’d scatter back to their homes while I got rid of the food.

Errachidi eventually broke down and was transferred to a unit of Camp Delta reserved for mentally ill prisoners. He told me it was hard to talk about this time. Some prisoners who lost it regained their senses; others, like a man he called Fauzi, “on his arrival, he lost his mind,” and then spent years and years in Delta block.

Another man who temporarily went crazy after months of severe punishment was an Uzbek, Zakirjan Asam. Released in 2006 to Albania, Asam told me that he had spent most of his Guantánamo time in isolation and psychiatric blocks. “And they then built Camp Echo, to take people who is not cooperating with interrogators . . . I was sent once for six days. You will be absolutely isolated, you will see only one piece of light, when they open to give something to you for food.”

A military assessment of Asam, in a document made public by WikiLeaks, stated that he had been “diagnosed with a major depressive disorder with psychotic features and a non-specific psychosis. He takes three psychiatric medications to control his illness.” It also stated, “Detainee is extremely violent . . . has six self-harm incident reports on record.” Asam told me that he does not recall ever injuring himself. But, he said, “They start giving me pills under threat of, if I did not I got injected. Maybe four or five times when I refused, they took me to special cell where bed is in center of room and they hang you out there, and they give you shot. That shot makes you to wish just for die. Just to get out of that country you need to suicide yourself, that’s all.”

Asam told me that, before Guantánamo, he had experienced no episodes of mental illness. “From healthy people, prison creates crazy ones . . . mentally disordered person, I became. I became one of them. I am still, but no one cares.”

Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman confined at Guantánamo for more than six years, spent his last 438 days on a hunger strike and, therefore, was placed in solitary, as all hunger strikers have been. (There have been a number of major hunger strikes by detainees at Guantánamo, the most recent of which is ongoing.) Sami al-Hajj said he saw prisoners around him—an Algerian, a Sudanese, a Liberian—lose their sanity in solitary, and he worried about his own. His status as a professional witness—that is, someone whose career had been as a journalist—helped him cope, he believes. It made him want to endure so that later he could report.

But solitary took a psychological toll: “I liked to laugh, and now I rarely laugh. Before prison I didn’t cry easily, but now I cry quickly.” He no longer enjoys food; he is frightened when the power goes out at his home in Qatar, because it reminds him of dark cells; he is frightened by slamming doors, which remind him of cell doors closing.

More profoundly, “I was released five years ago and I still don’t like being near people. At home, I don’t like people to talk a lot or cause any distracting noise . . . if my children are doing that, I ask them to stop. This started at Guantánamo but is still with me—when there’s a disruption, I’ll warn my children and if they keep doing it, I punish them, but I punish them too strongly . . . I’m edgy, I’m jumpy. My wife says it’s not normal—why are you punishing your children so much?”

There are many cases of Guantánamo prisoners losing their sanity after being subjected to extreme punishments. Shaker Aamer, the only British resident still at the camp, is said by his lawyer to have spent an entire year at Camp Echo. I asked that lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, founder and director of the British human-rights group Reprieve, whether such isolation had had mental-health implications. Smith replied that, taken as a whole, Aamer’s treatment over 13 years at Guantánamo has been tantamount to “one especially long psychotic episode.”


In a perverse tribute to human endeavor, solitary confinement began as a reform. Thinkers in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries imagined that it might be possible to induce criminals to change from within, especially if they could be kept isolated from one another and from the corruptions of the outside world. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon—a circular prison with a central “inspection house” that allowed authorities to look into any cell at any time—was predicated on the idea that the prisoner under constant surveillance would internalize authority’s gaze, and cease misbehaving.

The Panopticon itself was never built, but Bentham’s ideas of solitary confinement and penitent reflection appealed to Pennsylvania Quakers, who incorporated them into an idea for a new kind of prison that was built. Philadelphia’s huge Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1829 and still standing, deviated from the Panopticon by making no cell visible to any other; rather, cells were located in corridors that radiated like spokes on a wheel from a central hall. Each cell had a Bible, and each prisoner was given piecework jobs. Cultivators of silence, the Quakers believed that isolation would help criminals mend their ways. The Pennsylvania system was copied all over the world, and the word “penitentiary” became universal.

One reason for the rapid spread is that the new penitentiaries appeared to be an advance over capital and corporal punishment, which had been the main penalties up to that time. As Michel Foucault observed, the locus of punishment shifted from a criminal’s body to a criminal’s mind. Reformers in England believed they had found in solitary confinement the “most terrible penalty” short of death that a society could inflict—and yet, in their view, the penalty was also “the most humane.” It turned out that the therapeutic value of isolation was negligible; in fact, solitary confinement made prisoners worse, to the point of driving many of them mad. The penitentiaries were successful, however, in inflicting punishment and keeping prisoners away from society—which, people felt, was on the whole a bargain.

Solitary confinement also had value from the perspective of prison management. Every guard and every warden wants sticks to use when the carrots of prison life—a shorter sentence, a better cell—aren’t enough to induce good behavior. Solitary confinement—a prison within a prison—is a very big stick. The practice saw a resurgence in the late 20th century. The federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, opened in 1963 (to replace Alcatraz) with a notorious “control unit” that isolated hard disciplinary cases. When violence erupted at Marion in 1983, the control-unit form of lockdown was extended to the entire facility. Other prisons around the country were moving in the same direction. The war on drugs brought both a huge increase in the number of prisoners in the United States and also a proliferation of prison gangs. Pelican Bay, in California, with 2,664 prisoners, is one of the pioneers of solitary confinement as practiced today in the United States (though, as at Guantánamo and in American corrections generally, California calls it by other names). The prisoner boom of the 70s, 80s, and 90s resulted in many new prisons just like Pelican Bay—constructed with a large “security housing unit” (SHU)—as well as many other new prisons that were, like the original Eastern State Penitentiary, entirely a segregation unit. An estimated 44 states have some type of Supermax facility, where there is no congregate housing at all. In 2005, the last time the federal government released such data, 81,622 people were kept in some form of “restricted housing” inside U.S. prisons.

Typically, a prisoner’s time in solitary comes with a known end point—that’s what makes it tolerable. At New York’s Sing Sing, where I worked for nearly a year as a corrections officer, an inmate received 90 days “in the hole” for testing positive for marijuana. Assaulting another prisoner or a guard would get you the same or longer. But in California, Texas, and a few other states, prison practices are more extreme. According to Mother Jones, in 2012, of the 11,730 people housed in some form of isolation in California, a third were there indeterminately. The prison sentence handed down by a court had a specified duration, of course, but the portion of that time to be spent in solitary was not specified (and was not knowable to a prisoner). At Pelican Bay, the average length of time in the SHU, based on the 1,156 inmates currently housed there, is 8.2 years. More than 800 (70 percent) of those inmates have been in the SHU for at least 5 years, 347 have been there for more than 10 years, and 6 have been in the SHU for more than 30 years. Decisions about who gets placed in segregated units and for how long are not judicial—they are administrative. Wardens can pretty much do as they please, a characteristic that U.S. prisons share with Guantánamo.


I worked in a prison as a guard in order to write a book about it, and looked in on a lot of prisoners in solitary. Some glared angrily. Some regarded me dully. But many didn’t look back at all—they had been deformed by the deficit of stimuli, the utter lack of change, the complete removal from the world. From the outside, you may see signs of what is happening to a prisoner’s mind in solitary, but you cannot really get inside. William Blake, who has spent more than 27 years in solitary in New York State, wrote in an essay for the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest: “You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. . . . [I’ve] 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 . . .”

A mountain of research has been conducted in recent years about the effects of isolation on prisoners. In a classic study of prisoners in Massachusetts, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian of Harvard identified a specific psychiatric syndrome associated with solitary confinement, whose symptoms include hyper-responsivity to external stimuli, such as noise; illusions and hallucinations; panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory; intrusive obsessional thoughts; the emergence of primitive aggressive ruminations; overt paranoia; and problems with impulse control, sometimes involving violence and self-mutilation.

Psychologists and prisoners alike know there is a wide variation in individuals’ abilities to handle “hard time.” I have heard prisoners boast that they’re good at it, that a month, three months, a year in segregation is nothing to them. But in the psychological literature there are examples of impairment beginning within hours. Those who have psychological challenges going in do the worst. Commonly prisoners fall into a stupor—a mental “fog,” as Grassian wrote, in which the individual cannot focus “and cannot, for example, grasp or recall when he attempts to read or to think.” The other common impairment is that their attention becomes stuck, “almost always on something intensely unpleasant. . . . Individuals in solitary confinement easily become preoccupied with some thought, some perceived slight or irritation, some sound or smell coming from a neighboring cell, or, perhaps most commonly, by some bodily sensation. Tortured by it, such individuals are unable to stop dwelling on it.”

One important variable, Grassian suggested, is “the perceived intent of the isolation experience.” “Experimental research,” he wrote, “has demonstrated that an individual who receives clues which cause him to experience the isolation situation as potentially threatening is far more likely to develop adverse psychiatric reactions to the isolation experience. Conversely, if the subject has reason to believe the situation is likely to be benign he will be far more likely to tolerate or even enjoy it.” The contrast, I suppose, is the difference between having a Pennsylvania Quaker place you in a single cell for a limited period of time and forbid you to speak for your own good, and a Guantánamo punishment like that of Ahmed Errachidi, accused of inciting other prisoners to undertake hunger strikes, who reports being told by a guard, “If you don’t behave, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in Echo Camp.”

Zakirjan Asam says he was given a similar message. “Right after interrogation I was taken to Camp 1 without any explanations . . . I was left completely naked in an isolation room. I had no mattress. [The soldiers] got a command to push me mentally, that I should learn how to treat interrogators without resisting or asking my rights. In the end, an F.B.I. agent came in, start whispering my ears, ‘Yes, Zakir . . . you were living in light life. Now, from now on, start dark days for you.’”

Mourad Benchellali, a French ex-detainee, told interviewers from the human-rights project Witness to Guantánamo that he once heard a guard at Camp X-Ray say to a prisoner, “You’re going to be sent to another camp, called Camp Delta. And over there, they won’t beat you up anymore, but psychologically it’s going to be very hard for you. We will do anything to make you all crazy.” Benchellali observed that this approach to prison management inevitably sparked resistance: “We told each other the Americans’ goal is to make us all go crazy. So each time we thought, If we break, they will have won.”

The group-struggle dynamic takes many forms. Getting “shitted down” is a problem for corrections officers in maximum-security lockups across America: occasionally an agitated prisoner will throw urine and feces at security staff. At Guantánamo, “throwing” is an endemic problem. The risk of being sprayed through openings in cell doors is so pervasive that every guard wears a clear plastic face shield while on duty.

The best-known example of group resistance is the hunger strike. Guantánamo experienced two widespread strikes in 2005, the first lasting 26 days and involving at least 50 prisoners, and the second lasting around five months and involving some 200 prisoners. Another hunger strike that began in 2013 involved more than 100 prisoners—two-thirds of the camp’s population. About a dozen of these prisoners, such as Emad Hassan, a Yemeni who has been at Guantánamo since June 2002, continue their hunger strike to this day. In the spirit of Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., the camp commander who in 2006 called the apparent group suicide of three Guantánamo prisoners “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us,” the Pentagon refers to the hunger strikers as “long-term non-religious fasters.”

A legal petition on Hassan’s behalf filed in March by Reprieve states that Hassan has, in fact, been refusing to eat since 2007 and that he has by now been force-fed more than 5,000 times. When not being force-fed, Hassan, like other hunger strikers, is in solitary. The repeated insertions of feeding tubes up Hassan’s nose have left one nostril fully closed and the other damaged. The legal petition states that Hassan, whose weight has come down to about 85 pounds, is housed in solitary in Camp 5 Echo. The petition goes on: “The cells in Camp V Echo are almost all steel—the bed, the floor, the walls, the ceiling and the door.” Instead of toilets, the cells have only a hole in the floor and, instead of a sink, only a faucet. They are cold, “which is much harder to bear when you are on hunger strike.” Hassan’s reason for striking, according to the petition, is that “he believes that it is wrong for the U.S. to detain prisoners without charge or trial.”

“There’s also another route,” she went on, “again, like in the civilian world . . . taking a moment to kind of escape” via things like “guided imagery exercises, breathing exercises, progressive muscle-relaxation exercises.” She mentioned yoga and music therapy, too.

“A moment to kind of escape.” Not so easy in a prison whose only certain closing date is the one on which the last prisoner dies.