Torture and the Ritual of Solitary Confinement: Our Humanization Depends on Getting It

By Jeanne Sarson | Oct 26, 2011


Illustration by David MacDonald, 2005.

There are many forms of torture. I will focus, however, on the torture of solitary confinement because Linda and I were recently sent a BBC News article discussing statements by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. He spoke of both the need to set limitations on the use of solitary confinement and situations that required the banning of solitary confinement in prisons. Limitations were required because prolonged solitary confinement could cause serious mental and physical damage. He also said that solitary confinement should not extend for more than 15 days. And it should be banned when the prisoner is a juvenile or a person with mental disabilities. Solitary confinement would have to be, depending on the situation, considered either torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment if it were used destructively.[1]

For this Blog article I will pretend that Mr. Mendez has been called upon to assess a specific solitary confinement of a juvenile and deemed the solitary confinement of the juvenile to be an act of torture by State actors versus cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. State torturers or actors are persons such as State police, prison guards, military or embassy personnel whose employment position makes them ‘official’ representatives of a country or State. I will then construct a brief solitary confinement prison cell scenario based on years of reading State torture victimization literature. I will follow this with solitary confinement in-the-home scenarios sharing the voices and childhood solitary confinement ordeals of two women. One woman wrote to Linda and I her response to the BBC News article; the other woman, Hope (a pseudonym), took two years to share her story with us beginning in 1998.

A Solitary Confinement Prison Cell Scenario. To visualize such a situation imagine that a juvenile is locked in a prison cell; the only contacts are the State personnel who keep him in total darkness for extended periods of time. Refused access to a bathroom means he is forced to urinate and defecate on him-Self. When fed the juvenile knows the guards’ ritual. They will throw the food on the floor forcing him to eat like a dog. He is captive and confined to the cell until his captors—the State guards—release him.

Solitary Confinement in-the-home Scenarios. In these scenarios rooms and places inside the home became ‘the cells’. The prisoners were young children. The captors were parents who the women tell us were connected to other like-minded intergenerational family members and their like-minded friends. The drawing above is used to illustrate parental caging.[2]

In 1999, Hope recounted one of the captivity and torture ordeals that was a ritualized pattern of victimization which began when she was a preschooler and continued, she said, until she was about 11 or 12 years of age. She described that;

My father used to take me to the basement and put me in a cage. Sometimes he threw food on the basement dirt floor making me eat it like an animal. Sometimes he’d put canned dog food in a white china saucer and force me to eat it like a dog. There was a bucket of pee there that he’d force me to drink. He put me in my cage and suspended it from the beams. I used to make it swing; it helped me feel less like a caged animal. The swinging noise made my father angry so he tied my hands together and put a rope around my neck so if I caused the cage to swing too much the noose would tighten.[3]

And this is what one woman wrote to us after reading the BBC News article. She said:

This article is saying that solitary confinement is a form of torture...and when I was a child and a teenager and young woman too...I was kept in solitary confinement...for hours each day...and this went on for years and years and years...I wasn't able to move...there was no heating it was freezing...I wasn't able to go to the bathroom...I had to sit or lie still and not make a sound...I was often naked and tied up...freezing...then screamed at and didn't end was the same at night too...only worse...I couldn't escape because I was a child...and the people torturing me were my parents....

I was isolated and confined...or rather imprisoned in the houses and restrained and silenced and it was endless...and terrifying...when I was a child, teenager and young woman I never really knew what living could any child live life like wasn't possible...

[This] ...needs speaking about...because no one ever knew what happened...or realised that to keep a child and teenager and young woman so continuously imprisoned for a whole childhood was torture....

Based on our 19 years of experience it is very difficult for children born into such family structures to find a way to ‘escape’ until they are in their late teens or early adult years. We also know that escaping is made more difficult because societies have generally not realized that children can be tortured and imprisoned in their own home. For the first five years of their lives it is easy for such structured family and guardian adults/families to hold a child captive and imprisoned simply by restricting the child’s activities and who they permit the child to connect with. By the time the child is school age they have been tortured and terrorized into never telling and tortured into ‘remembering to forget’, therefore, even though they venture into the mainstream of schooling their psychological captivity keeps them silent as they return to the family home and to chronic torture victimization.  

Eons ago, or so it seems, Linda and I wondered what beliefs and attitudes lived in the minds of men and women, intergenerational families and like-minded groups who torture children or spouses who torture partners. Such individuals/families/groups, we have come to understand, are driven by the pleasures they derive by exerting physical and psychological and sexualized power and control and domination over those they torture, beginning for some when they were infants or toddlers. This population of torturers are identified in human rights literature as non-state actors.

These two brief recounts of acts of non-state torture (NST) reflect the many that have been entrusted to us since 1993, mainly by women but also by transgendered and male persons from many industrialized countries. Although the focus has been on solitary confinement other acts of torture have been included because torture victimization never results in a singular impact, one act of torture such as solitary confinement always includes other forms of torture whether perpetrated in a prison cell or in-the-home. For example, prolonged isolation causes depravations of all sorts—relational and environmental. Relationally there is only silence with no other person to connect with, to talk to. Environmentally there is the limited space of the cell or cage, depending on its size physical movement may be restricted as described by both women, for example. To break the psychological depravation impacts the person may Self-harm as a way to relate to her-Self, as a way to provide Self-feedback that she exists.

Common to all torturers, is their aim of destruction of the captive person’s sense of humanness—they aim to destroy the captive person’s relationship they have with them-Self. For a child victim every aspect of their growth and development is unconscionably harmed therefore, this relational shattering of Self is profound.

The specific act of Solitary Confinement in-the-home Scenarios suffered beginning when the women were children mirrors the scenario of the jail cell except that:

  1. The torturers or the captors were parents/family members/like-minded others who violated and shattered the adult-parent-child relationship;

  2. The home became the jail;

  3. The cell was ‘simply’ replaced by a cage or a room or a closet or a cupboard or a “little torture room in the basement” in the words of another woman, Sara (also a pseudonym);

  4. The degradation and dehumanization was relentless being captives in their home by their parents they speak of the aloneness suffering because no-one came to rescue them.

Women who state they were tortured as children or as women can heal from the torture victimization they suffered. It is painful work. To occur requires socio-legal recognition that non-state torture victimization and traumatisation occurs and its impact is different from the impact of other crimes such as abuse or assault. Socio-legal recognition means that a society must recognize that non-state torture victimization occurs in the home; legal recognition means criminalizing non-state torture. Socio-legal recognition is necessary in order to facilitate protection and prevention and to uphold the human right that no one should be subjected to torture.

Non-state torture victimization can only stop if societies open their eyes to see the truth—torture happens in the home. It must be stopped—developing our humanity depends on it.

[1] BBC Mobile. (2011, October 18). UN urges ban on solitary confinement. News US & Canada.
[2] Child caging drawing by David MacDonald © 2004.
[3] Sarson, J. & MacDonald. (2009 Winter). Torturing by Non-State Actors Invisibilized, A Patriarchal Divide and Spillover Violence from the Military Sphere into the Domestic Sphere. Peace Studies Journal, 2(2), pp. 16-38.


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