March 08, 2011
Guy Rundle in Crikey! on the incarceration of Bradley Manning:
Such forms of confinement are unquestionably torture, but they are torture of a very specific kind — a sort of paradoxical torture. If the aim of torture per se is to make the prisoner’s body rebel against their soul — have animal pain and terror fill the consciousness until any principle, belief, or commitment is undermined — then the “supermax” regime is the opposite — it dissolves subjectivity by removing all that is most basically human, from diversion to human connection.
This is the point made most famously by Foucault: that the notion that neat antiseptic prison regimes are more humane than physical punishment is the founding conceit of modernity. In many ways they can be worse. Solitary confinement and the microcontrol of a prisoner’s behaviour are designed as a form of total annihilation, because they exert enormous energies in ensuring that the prisoner goes on existing, while depriving him of anything resembling life. That division of existence from purposeful life is effectively a standardised and routinised way of producing despair.
Not surprisingly, it is a particularly American form of human annihilation. The “supermax” prisons, and such total regimes, are the descendants of the first modern prison schemes, the penitentiaries established by the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Where other prisons housed prisoners collectively in squalor as part of their punishment, the Quakers believed that this merely bred criminality. The object was to make a prisoner repent (as the name suggests) by developing a relationship with God — and the only way to do that was to deprive a prisoner of a relationship with anyone else.
Thus, prisoners in the penitentiary were ideally utterly isolated from anyone else — they even had separate corridors so they couldn’t see each other. Eventually through their screaming isolation they would seek and find God. The gentle and peaceful Quakers thought that this invention was a force for good; many of those who observed it, such as Charles Dickens, thought it was a horrifying nightmare. But someone who never saw a problem with it was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America was based on the trip he took to the US to report on this marvellous new prison system, for the French government.
Much of Democracy in America was devoted to trying work out what the problems of the new American society might be. He never realised that the answer was the very thing he was sent to study — the penitentiary was the other side of American depthlessness, an indifference to the full humanity of others hidden from oneself by following correct procedure and affirming goodness of heart.
The penitentiary is bad enough when it’s part of a God-centred culture; when part of one — even the US — where God is a shaky notion, then it’s a literal Hell. Its deeply anti-human nature does achieve what the Quakers sought, since many prisoners become believers out of the sheer need for someone to talk to, but it’s a counterfeit conversion, won through psychological warfare.
With 2 million Americans in prison, many of them in semi-penitentiary style incarceration, the prison system mirrors key aspects of American life — in particular the substantial atomisation and isolation of everyday life.