Contemplating Torture

When U.S. political leaders debate the ethics and efficacy of torture, we need to consider how our country arrived at this chilling moment in our history. We’ve debated the death penalty for years, but despite wars and Red scares and spells of xenophobia, we have never before discussed as a nation the use of torture. Even those who favor the death penalty often oppose deliberately inflicted physical pain, arguing for lethal injection instead of the electric chair, gallows, gas chamber, and firing squad.

If our President were willing to talk frankly about it, he might say our nation is confronted by extraordinary evil, and if we had been willing to inflict severe physical and mental pain on suspected terrorists, we might have learned about the horrors planned for us on September 11, 2001. As a result, he might say during this imagined exercise in candor, that his administration found it necessary to define cruelty down, to say it is torture only when it causes pain equivalent to experiencing death or organ failure. We might assume this after reading Jane Mayer’s "The Memo" (New Yorker, February 27, 2006), which describes how challenges within the administration to this view of torture have been quickly swept aside.

One consequence of the administration’s deliberate ambiguity on torture, at best, is apparent in a Fort Bliss, Texas, military trial. Several soldiers and officers are being tried in the deaths of two young Afghan detainees, and one effective defense strategy has been the argument that low-level functionaries can’t be expected to know the rules of interrogation if the President and secretary of defense don’t know those rules.



Judging from what has happened in Ohio’s prison system, I think our society began several years ago, half-consciously, to accept torture as just. This possibility first occurred to me in late April of 2000, about two years after the completion of the Ohio State Penitentiary, our "Supermax." The Supermax in Youngstown, like many other high maximum security prisons around the country, was designed to be an emphatically punitive environment: prisoners spend a minimum of 23 hours a day alone in small cells, and they can leave their cells for exercise or a shower only in shackles after a humiliating body search. Such an arrangement pretty well rules out riots and promotes suicides.

In April 2000 a friend and I were having breakfast at a restaurant in eastern Ohio and talking about the recent suicide of Richard Pitts, a prisoner in Ohio’s Supermax, when a middle-aged truck driver asked if he could join us. He had overheard our conversation, he said, and he wanted to tell us something. He brought his coffee to our table, sat down, and before he could speak, quietly began to cry. He told us his son, a corrections officer at the Supermax, had been at the prison when Richard Pitts hanged himself in his cell. His son spoke of Pitts’ suicide, he said, as "good riddance to bad rubbish." Coming out of the Army, his son had taken a job at the Supermax, hoping to accomplish something worthwhile. He had become a local expert on the influence of gangs in prison and was sometimes asked to give talks around Ohio on that subject. But after a year on the job he began to believe the phrase "the worst of the worst," which prison administrators and politicians use to describe Supermax inmates. He no longer considered them fully human, his father said, and his bitterness had begun to affect his treatment of his wife and children. The truck driver believed his family was being torn apart by his son’s work in Ohio’s new prison.

It is important to acknowledge that there are dangerous, violent men in Ohio’s prison system. I correspond with a young man whose attorney has spoken to me of his heinous crime. When he was transferred back to the Lucasville maximum-security prison after more than three years in the Supermax, this young man attacked another inmate and was quickly returned to isolation. There are surely prisoners who must be isolated to protect others. But we have known for a long time that isolation is a form of torture, not rehabilitation.

Early Philadelphia Friends believed solitude could have healing power in prison. They thought time alone with a Bible and no diversions would allow criminals to understand themselves and the implications of what they had done. By the early 19th century, however, it was clear that isolation could be psychologically destructive. After Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville came from France to study our prison system, they described what happened in New York’s Auburn prison in their book The Penitentiary System in the United States (1833):

The northern wing having been nearly finished in 1821, 80 prisoners were placed there, and a separate cell was given to each. This trial, from which so happy a result had been anticipated, was fatal to the greater part of the convicts: in order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. Supreme Court had acknowledged the terrible effects of isolation. In Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising Staughton Lynd quotes an 1890 decision, In re Medley, describing the effects of extended isolation on prisoners:

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, even after 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.

Contemporary psychologists report that sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, confusion, and psychotic behavior. They say isolation is especially destructive when people experience it as an arbitrary form of punishment with no fixed end.

When the chance to attend classes is withdrawn from the prisons, as it has been to a great extent in recent years, inmates often create opportunities to gather and talk anyway. This impulse toward community organization can lead to gangs, and it is one reason why supermaxes have been built in most of our states.

But I have met with two inmate-initiated groups that seemed less like gangs than like good college seminars. In the winter of 1994 I met several members of the National Lifers Association at the Gus Harrison Facility in Adrian, Michigan. What most struck me about the Michigan prisoners was their civility. We had only an hour together, and several men seemed to want to tell about their prison experience. They deferred to each other, giving the quietest among them opportunities to talk. They talked about their loss of privileges in recent years, such as the chance to make art and music that would have been part of rehabilitation in a different era.

Four years after my visit to the Gus Harrison Facility, I met a class of long-term prisoners at Green Haven prison in Stormville, New York. On that visit, I accompanied several Vassar College students who were scheduled to teach the group of 20 inmates, a class normally taught by the inmates themselves. Midway through a two-hour session, one of the students lectured the class on environmental justice, pointing out that toxic waste dumps and polluting industries cluster around minority communities. Make a map, she said, of the most dangerously polluted parts of our country and another map of our poorest minority neighborhoods, urban and rural. Now superimpose the maps, and you will find they are almost the same. This was not news to the prisoners, all African Americans except for one Hispanic. They said they had noticed sewage treatment plants, toxic waste incinerators, and chemical plants in their own neighborhoods. They spoke of the importance of community organizing to resist such injustice and the development of what one prisoner called "community-specific programs." They talked about ways of holding local politicians accountable.

The student insisted on another view. The key, she said, is the power of the consumer. Careful, knowledgeable buying, she argued, can bring environmental justice. The young woman’s insistence that careful consumerism is the answer for prisoners whose families and neighbors are poor seemed to flow from the innocence of great privilege. But the men spoke gently, without sarcasm, as they disagreed with her. Having studied together for years, they seemed comfortable with each other and confident of their ability to disagree without causing bad feelings.

By 1998, when I visited Green Haven, federal and state funding for education in prisons had dried up. But it would have been hard for anyone to sit through that long class meeting without seeing that such practice in civility and the lively exchange of ideas is beneficial for men who might someday return to their communities. Still, isolation was already the growing trend in criminal justice around the country, and Ohio’s Supermax had just opened.



For several years Alice and Staughton Lynd have worked in Ohio to end the injustice that is inevitable when a state builds an institution designed to induce psychological disintegration. They helped to develop a class-action complaint filed on behalf of 29 inmates at Ohio’s Supermax by attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. In February 2002 Federal Judge James S. Gwin ruled that Supermax inmates "face an atypical and significant hardship," adding that almost 200 men were transferred to the Supermax from 1998 to early 1999 without an "adequate hearing." The judge said the State of Ohio had violated the "due process of law" clause in both the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Although Judge Gwin did not put it this way, it seems to me true to say prisoners in Ohio’s Supermax have been subject to illegal mental cruelty—to torture. I’ve corresponded with one of the prisoners included in the class-action complaint, a young man I’ll call Lawrence. In April of 1993, at the age of 22, Lawrence began serving a sentence of 3 to 15 years for armed robbery, a first offense, at Ohio’s Orient Correctional Institution. In 1998 he was charged with assaulting a corrections officer while intoxicated.

A discipline committee at the Orient prison placed him in isolation but recommended that his classification level remain the same and that he not be transferred to the Supermax. The Orient warden agreed. A criminal indictment against Lawrence, based on his alleged assault, was dismissed by the local prosecutor’s office. Despite the recommendations and the lack of an indictment, Chief Bernard Ryznar of Ohio’s Bureau of Classification raised Lawrence’s security classification three levels from medium to high maximum security, an extraordinary ruling, and moved him to the Supermax in October of 1998.

Judge Gwin writes that after one year of good behavior Lawrence was given an additional year at the Supermax by a reclassification committee at the prison. After more than two years the committee recommended that he be removed from the Supermax with his classification reduced, but they were overruled by Ohio prison administrators. Despite guidelines that recommend parole after 48 to 60 months for a first-time offender convicted of armed robbery, Lawrence could not be paroled after he had served over 90 months because he was classified as high maximum security. So ends the judge’s account, but within a few months of his ruling, Lawrence was transferred and then paroled.

Reading Judge Gwin’s summary of Lawrence’s case, one can’t help wondering why a state official would ignore a unanimous recommendation and put a first offender in a facility supposedly designed for the "worst of the worst." The judge doesn’t answer that question directly in his ruling, but he does say this: "The opening of the OSP has created too much capacity for the highest level of security. . . . After the huge investment in the OSP, Ohio risks having a ‘because we have built it, they will come’ mindset."

Judge Gwin suggests the state may be financially tied to a kind of imprisonment known to inflict mental pain, but Ohio’s continuing, unsuccessful effort to fill the 504 cells at the Supermax, while taking account of the judge’s insistence on due process, has led to a great fiscal irony: we are moving our death row prisoners from the Mansfield Correctional Institution, where the annual cost per inmate is $22,063.14, to the Supermax, where they will be tortured for the rest of their lives at an annual cost per inmate of $58,353.80.

Torture of the kind I believe we have come to accept in Ohio has not been publicized in the way more spectacular cruelty at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and various sites in Afghanistan has been reported. To my knowledge, no legislative body in the United States has seriously debated the use of torture in our prisons. The subject of torture can be discussed with a degree of comfort only when it is kept at a distance, as when it is attributed to other cultures, said to put less emphasis than ours on humane values. Even the most violent electronic games include much killing but no torture. And deliberately induced mental agony in our prisons has been kept in the shadows as just one part of the dark underside of a criminal justice system from which we have withdrawn the resources needed for rehabilitation.

Few of us want to think about the possibility that we’re implicated in deliberately inflicting pain. This understandable distaste has been apparent in our public discourse on capital punishment. When the State of Ohio resumed executions in 1999 after a moratorium lasting since 1963, the first to be killed was Wilford Berry, a diagnosed schizophrenic and convicted murderer who volunteered for lethal injection. There was considerable public debate before and after his death, including arguments that Berry’s execution amounted to a mercy killing and claims that killing a man known to be mentally ill undermined the legitimacy of capital punishment. But as more people were executed in Ohio and the state got rid of the electric chair that had remained as a grisly alternative to lethal injection, public attention shifted away from capital punishment. Then a man named Lewis Williams physically resisted his execution. When Williams was killed by lethal injection on January 14, 2004, nine guards worked to restrain the 117-pound man. His screaming and writhing attempts to save himself while witnesses observed the preparations were unmistakable evidence of great mental suffering, and once more there was considerable public debate.

We know the people who administer executions suffer psychologically, and it would be astonishing if people who administer torture were not harmed as well. In fact, the best way to understand what happened to the truck driver’s son in his work as a corrections officer at Ohio’s Supermax may be to consider what it means to be a deliberate agent of another person’s suffering. I suggest an analogy. Like most teachers, I have known how it feels to fail at least as often as I succeed, but if I came to understand my work as a daily effort to keep my students from learning and growing, I might seek comfort by telling myself they deserved such treatment. Still, if I allowed myself to know my students and their potential for good, the daily act of driving them deliberately toward a sense of futility and hopelessness would lead me into despair. My confident guess is that the truck driver’s son was not disillusioned by his contact with "the worst of the worst." Instead, he felt what Friends call "that of God" in the men who were his charges. As he came to understand that he was tormenting them, not caring for them in a way that might prepare them to live outside the prison, he must have lost his self-respect.

These are grim matters to consider. It is difficult to imagine a time when we will not be ashamed of talking about torture, let alone pursuing it as state and national policy. But the conversation has already begun at the highest levels of our government, and perhaps it offers an opportunity to discuss something that has happened unwittingly to us in our polarized, fearful society. As our leaders have talked of confronting evil before it reaches our shores and we have been reminded daily of the power of suicidal violence, perhaps we have come to see ourselves as desperate victims in a world that hates us. How else are we to account for our tolerance of leaders whose belief in the need to abuse prisoners corrupts us all? The far more hopeful lesson to be drawn from September 11, 2001, has escaped us: that we are as vulnerable as other people despite our enormous economic and military power, and our shared vulnerability is a basis for authentic international community.

In our desperate fear we have let our leaders turn to torture, hoping to learn what others’ hatred holds in store for us. Our willingness to allow torture in our name may be eased by the cruelty we have accepted as policy within our own prison system, cruelty that surely fosters more hatred. If we are able to talk with each other about the moral quagmire we have made for ourselves abroad, perhaps we will be able to look within our own prisons. And doing that, we might come to agree that we should never torture, whether our motive is learning about our peril or punishing people we consider evil.

William Nichols

William Nichols serves on the executive committee of American Friends Service Committee, Great Lakes Region. He is retired from Denison University, where he was a teacher and administrator. His essay "Light beyond the War Clouds" appeared in Friends Journal, September 2005. He is at work on a Vietnam-era memoir, Collateral Damage at Fox Creek.