Manning in the Wikileaks Case
Appears to be Suffering Torture
By John Funiciello
From the moment that PFC Bradley Manning was taken into custody by military law enforcement officers, he has been subjected to what is widely described as torture: solidarity confinement with nearly total isolation from other human beings, possible sleep deprivation, and deprivation of most mental stimuli that would be considered necessary for a normal life.
Manning is the enlisted man who is charged with passing thousands of government documents to Wikileaks, which has made them public, much to the embarrassment of officials in the U.S. and around the world. Although some officials have said that he has “endangered American lives,” there have been few disclosures of the specific dangers.
In a country that prides itself on the principle that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, Manning has been subjected to what has in the past been considered by some courts, at least, to be cruel and unusual punishment - before there have been any formal and public proceedings. The U.S. government is holding him as a national security threat, much as it has any number of “enemy combatants.”
Of course, military justice and the judicial system that we are all somewhat familiar with are two different things. In some aspects, though, they are not all that different, but that depends on several things. In the military, there is a code of military justice and, for the most part a service member doesn’t have access to the justice system of the larger society. In that larger system, justice depends on several things: how much disposable money one has for his or her defense, the social status of the defendant, the race or caste of the defendant, and the ability to make bail.
For the most part, except in some cases, it is possible to get bailed out while the case is running through the “system,” but, again, that is a function of how much money the defendant can raise for cash bail or for a bond.
In Manning’s case, there was no such opportunity and there likely will be none. What is very different in his case is that he was punished from the moment he was locked up. It is widely considered in the mental health community that solitary confinement, itself, is cruel and unusual punishment and some consider it torture. He and his supporters consider him to be a whistleblower, in the manner of Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers nearly four decades ago, during the Vietnam War.
Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) sent an open letter on Jan. 3, 2011, to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, expressing their concern about the mental health of PFC Manning and his probable deteriorating mental condition.
In the letter they describe the conditions in which he is being held: “He reportedly is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day, a cell approximately six feet wide and twelve feet in length, with a bed, a drinking fountain, and a toilet. For no discernable reason other than punishment, he is forbidden from exercising in his cell and is provided minimal access to exercise outside his cell. Further, despite having virtually nothing to do, he is forbidden to sleep during the day and often has his sleep at night disrupted.”
Because of the conditions in which he is being held, PsySR is concerned that he will not be able to fully participate in his defense. The ability to participate in one’s own defense is one of the foundation blocks of the American judicial system. Manning may not be able to do so, solely because of how he has been treated by authorities from the first moments of incarceration and, therefore, may not be able to have a fair trial.
Manning’s treatment, naturally, begs the question of how others are treated in the prison system of the U.S. There are whole sections of maximum-security prisons - probably in most states - that keep men in solidarity confinement for long periods and there seems to be a lack of concern for their treatment on the part of the American people. Sociologists study the effects of incarceration and solitary confinement on the prisoners, but there is not a lot of study of the effects of such incarceration on the society at large.
Mostly, the people have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude about the nation’s prison system, even though the U.S. incarcerates some 2.2 million, more than any other nation in the world. It may seem hard to believe, but we outdo China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others in the rate of incarceration.
Solitary confinement in this system, though, usually comes after a trial and conviction. That’s not to say that this system does not bear close examination and correction, but there was a process before solitary confinement.
In Manning’s case, there was no pretense of trial and conviction before punishment with solitary confinement. And, don’t be fooled about any kind of debate revolving around solitary confinement. The PsySR letter cited a Supreme Court decision from 1890, in which the judge declared that the prisoners held in solitary “…in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
In the letter to Gates, the PsySR noted, “Scientific investigations since 1890 have confirmed in troubling detail the irreversible physiological changes in brain functioning from the trauma of solitary confinement.”
There are many in power who would claim that solitary confinement is not torture, just as those in the George W. Bush Administration - particularly Vice President Dick Cheney - who claimed that waterboarding was not torture. At the time, it was pointed out that, when the Japanese did it in World War II, it was torture, so how can it not be torture when an American administration does it? Apparently, it’s a matter of perspective, just as it is with solitary confinement.
When Cheney insisted that waterboarding was not torture (and he was speaking for the entire administration), Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota weighed in on the debate. He said that he had undergone waterboarding in his training as a Navy SEAL, that service’s elite commando unit.
Ventura said, “(Waterboarding) is torture…It’s drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you - I’ll put it to you this way - you give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”
Millions around the world consider solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual. Many consider it to be torture.
The most recent report of the UN Committee against Torture included in its Conclusions and Recommendations for the United States the following article 36: “The Committee remains concerned about the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’. The Committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to, the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (art. 16). The State party (the U.S.) should review the regime imposed on detainees in ‘supermaximum prisons’, in particular the practice of prolonged isolation.”
What PsySR and many others are protesting is not only the treatment of PFC Manning, but of all those who are held around the country in virtually every state in solitary confinement and the subtle and not-so-subtle twisting of their minds. They are warehoused by the thousands and, like the national prison population, an overwhelming percentage of them are people of color.
PFC Manning’s case is an opportunity for people of good will and those who seek justice to become aware of the conditions of the prisons in America and to reassess and change the policies and techniques of imprisonment. The time for change in not only policy, but also philosophy, is long overdue.
Perhaps, what the world and we witnessed in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was made possible simply because that’s the way prisoners in America have been viewed and treated for so long.
The fight for humane treatment of PFC Manning should mean that his advocates would do no less than to advocate for the humane treatment of every single prisoner in the U.S. prison system, a system that is an embarrassment to every right-thinking American.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.