As an increasing number of voices question the inhumane conditions of detention endured by Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower, there has been growing pressure on the United States to alter this treatment. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and other media outlets reported that the UN special rapporteur for torture was formally investigating the conditions of Manning’s detention. And on January 3 Psychologists for Social Responsibility issued an open letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for a rectification of the "inhumane, harmful, and counterproductive treatment" Manning is suffering.
The outrage over Manning’s confinement is to be applauded, but sadly, his experience is not a rarity. For many facing terrorism-related charges and held in US jails within the federal system since 9/11, most of them Muslim, it has become standard procedure. And despite attempts for years by Muslim-American community leaders and activists to draw attention to these domestic cases, few commentators or news outlets have raised the issue of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement when it was being applied to Muslim defendants. Commentators question the "national security" justification for Manning’s severe detention conditions and note its punitive nature, but the draconian conditions many Muslim suspects face in the United States are too often treated as understandable security measures. Indeed, most civil libertarians have restricted their public condemnations of US practices in the "war on terror" to the prisons at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram.
The growing attention to Manning stems in part from people who have visited him, most notably his lawyer David Coombs and MIT researcher David House, a co-founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network. In detailed reports recounting Manning’s confinement, Coombs and House could very well be describing the conditions of many domestically held suspects—allegedly innocent until proven guilty—who, like Manning, face months, sometimes years, of isolation awaiting trial.
Visitors to Manning can speak about their conversations and provide detailed comments directly from Manning to counter Pentagon claims about how he is being treated (as House has done). But those who visit pretrial Muslim detainees held in solitary confinement under the government’s Special Administrative Measures (SAMs)—lawyers and immediate family members are customarily the only ones permitted to do so—are legally forbidden to speak about the detainee’s situation, including any communication they have had. This has created a wall of silence around the abuses being committed. Indeed, in many cases lawyers and family members risk prosecution if they provide any detail from conversations or quotes from the detainee. SAMs were instituted in 1996 for cases with "a substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons." These measures were intended primarily for gang leaders and criminals with a demonstrated reach beyond prison walls, but the standards for imposing and renewing them were significantly relaxed after 9/11, leading to their pretrial use. Today SAMs provide the legal apparatus for domestic rights violations that can stretch on for years.
What information we do have about detainees held under SAMs echoes many of the horrifying conditions faced by Manning, most notably solitary confinement under constant video surveillance, including monitoring of the toilet and shower. SAMs add a layer of isolation that exceeds even the fearsome conditions Manning is encountering. For instance, David House, who is neither Manning’s lawyer nor a member of his family, has been allowed access to Manning, but under SAMs only the lawyer and immediate family (if cleared) can have contact with a detainee—no letters, visits, calls or even talking through walls. Page after page, a prisoner’s SAM spells out in intricate detail the nature of his isolation, down to how many pages of paper he can use in a letter or what part of the newspaper he is allowed to have and after what sort of delay. Manning is allowed to watch television, but pretrial prisoners under SAMs are often forbidden television or radio and read newspapers often delayed at least thirty days and redacted by prison officials. Manning is allowed to write multiple letters to an approved group of family and friends, but prisoners under SAMs are typically allowed only a single letter on three pieces of paper once a week to an immediate family member. House says that Manning told him he has not been outside to exercise for four weeks. Compare this with Syed Fahad Hashmi, an American citizen who spent three years without access to fresh air at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, or Canadian citizen Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, who spent six years—nearly all of them in pretrial solitary confinement—under SAMs in Minnesota.
Indeed, many Muslim detainees have faced this isolation for years on end as they await trial. These conditions, whether pretrial or not, violate the Geneva Convention and are increasingly drawing the condemnation of the world community. Last summer the European Court of Human Rights stayed the extradition to the United States of four terrorism suspects because of the inhumane conditions in the US federal system. Yet such conditions continue to be imposed by the Justice Department and sanctioned by federal district judges.
Solitary confinement, in addition to threatening an inmate’s mental health, threatens his ability to participate in his defense. Such treatment has great value to federal prosecutors. Medical and scholarly evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates the severe damage solitary confinement causes after just sixty days. Indeed, Senator John McCain writes that it was the worst part of his POW experience in North Vietnam—more devastating than the physical torture. "Tortured until proven guilty" is how some commentators have termed the way Manning’s conditions are being used to coerce his cooperation.
What becomes evident from Manning’s treatment as well as that of a number of Muslim defendants is the utility of this form of torture in producing convictions. The increasing number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggests that it will continue these practices until the public insists that the United States will no longer torture.
Two years ago, on January 22, President Obama pledged to halt the use of torture. As people’s condemnation mounts against the unconscionable treatment of Bradley Manning, their outrage must highlight such practices within the federal system and call for their end. Torture is torture, whether it happens to a young white soldier in a military brig or a Muslim defendant facing terrorism charges in the federal system.