Friday, May 23, 2008

Craig Haney on on Psychologists, Detention Facilities, and Torture

Professor Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of incarceration, and author of Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System, gave an important presentation at last year's convention of the American Psychological Association. Speaking at the "mini-convention" symposium that examined the issue of psychologists and interrogations and allegations of torture, Dr. Haney spoke to the "degradation" of "our moral universe", not only in relation to governmental policies of torture abroad, but in the emphasis on totalitarian methods of incarceration domestically, and the distortion of decades of legal precedent in order to maintain this prison culture.

Dr. Haney kindly gave Stephen Soldz the opportunity to publish the entire text of his talk at Soldz's blog. I'll reproduce some key passages here, but to read the whole thing, I'm directing you to Soldz's site.
I frankly don’t think the ethical dilemmas we confront now as a society and as a discipline can be attributed entirely to 9-11 and the extraordinary -- maybe even in part understandable -- overreaction that our government had to the threat that 9-11 initially seemed to pose. I think instead that we had been prepared as citizens for a long time to react as we did-as, to a certain extent, at least initially, nearly all of us did. And the basis for this widespread reaction was rooted in domestic not foreign policy. That is, the road that has led us so directly to the morally compromised world we now inhabit was under construction for a very long time, in one sector of our society where civil rights have long been violated with impunity, and where people have regularly been subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment-in our criminal justice system.

Indeed, we have as a nation been reacting for a very long time to troublesome, inconvenient, threatening, and dangerous people inside our borders in one way and in one way only: by punishing them with unprecedented, increasingly unmitigated harshness- punishing them in deeply damaging ways and doing so with nary a concern for the psychological consequences that were being inflicted either on them, those connected to them, or the larger group of us who just got used to hearing about, if not actually seeing, it be done. The criminal justice system in the United States has become callously indifferent to the suffering of certain disfavored others over the last three decades and, along with it, so has the surrounding society. Our consciousness, our sensitivities, what we were willing to tolerate being done to others-indeed, to “the other“-have been shifted as a result.

Sadly, many courts also have dutifully followed suit, taking their lead from the very forces that politicized punishment in the first place, opting to stay out of the fray, frequently refusing to impose meaningful limits on the amount of pain that could be inflicted in the name of preserving civil order. Those of you who are looking to domestic U.S. law for guidance here to the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, for example, as a way to insure humane treatment for detainees in the course of interrogation or confinement-are bound to be disappointed. When pain is made the very purpose of imprisonment, and criminal justice policies seek to spread it to as many corners of our society as possible, then few punishments are too cruel or too unusual as to be legally unacceptable....

As a country, we passed laws that doubled or tripled and doubled again the rate of incarceration in the United States, so that we far outstripped literally every other nation on the planet in this regard. And no one said a thing. Decades ago we began to incarcerate African Americans in this society at a rate that far exceeded the rate of incarceration of Blacks in South Africa and we still do. And no one said a thing. We abandoned long-held principles of juvenile justice and began increasingly to prosecute and punish children as harshly as if they were adults. And no one said a thing....

Once you begin to think of the world as composed of people who are part of the human community and people who are not, to react with extreme punitive harshness toward those whom you have placed outside its boundaries, to demonize rather than to understand them, then a powerful psychological process is set in motion that eventually leads to exactly the place we now find ourselves. But, as I say, we have been on this path for a long time. It is not surprising that when we finally realized that we had come to the logical but unanticipated extreme endpoint in this process-trying to decide whether and how we could participate in the torture of other human beings, we were hard pressed to know what to do or where to draw the lines.

And without wishing to offend some of my psychologist colleagues, it is important to acknowledge that many of them have participated, actively or passively, in furthering many of these degrading and dehumanizing punitive trends. There are psychologists all across the country whose job is to sign off on these extreme levels of psyche- and soul- and family- and community-destroying levels of prison punishment. And sign off they do.

I have clients who have been kept in punitive segregation in Louisiana for 35 years, living their lives inside the confines of an isolation cell not too much bigger than a kind-sized bed, except for the hour or so a day they are allowed to venture beyond its confines. Thirty-five years living like this. But no prison psychologist has seen fit to protest this inhumane treatment. In fact, quite the contrary, every 90 days one or another psychologist dutifully examines them and dutifully signs off on their continued isolation. I’ve had scores of mentally ill clients in Texas who deteriorated so badly under conditions of isolation that they regularly smeared themselves with feces and I could be hear them banging their heads against the walls of their cells or the steel cell doors as I walked up to visit them. No prison psychologist protested this treatment or demanded that these men be released from this horribly inhumane form of confinement. I have had thousands of clients in the close management units in the Florida prison system who, in addition to the severe, debilitating forms of isolation to which they were exposed, were prohibited from talking to one another, from one cell to the next. If they violated this prohibition they were pepper sprayed by prison staff, who sometimes would put a blanket over the rear window of their cells so that the gas would linger longer in the air. Some of the men could neither read nor write which meant that, when they were denied the opportunity to talk like this, they were literally denied the opportunity to communicate with other human beings at all. They were kept under conditions like these for years on end. No prison psychologist to my knowledge lodged a complaint over these and other related brutal practices, threatened to quit in the face of them, or took steps designed end them.
There's much, much more to read in the full essay, and I highly encourage my visitors here to go and read the entire thing.

It's clear that our society has gravely degenerated, that even those who are committed to help individuals who suffer have had their training and their occupation terribly twisted into monstrous subservience to a racist, authoritarian status quo. Meanwhile, the ruling elite continues marauding from New Orleans to Baghdad, filling the coffers of their off-shore bank accounts, while the poor and unconnected have to cough up more money and mindless labor to keep the machine running.

For a contrary view as to what a humane penology might look like, one could start by reading Cesare Becarria's 1764 masterpiece, On Crimes and Punishment.

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