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Solitary Confinement’s Horrors Laid Bare for Eternity

Ross Anderson’s vision of how life extension could change prisons is horrific. In Aeon magazine, he interviews Rebecca Roache, an Oxford philosopher investigating how justice can and should change as humans live longer lives. What if you could punish someone for hundreds of years, she wonders. What if you could do it forever? Eternal damnation, traditionally an […]
Solitary Confinement’s Horrors Laid Bare for Eternity

Ross Anderson’s vision of how life extension could change prisons is horrific. In Aeon magazine, he interviews Rebecca Roache, an Oxford philosopher investigating how justice can and should change as humans live longer lives. What if you could punish someone for hundreds of years, she wonders. What if you could do it forever?

Eternal damnation, traditionally an ethical problem for theologians, is a practical problem for Roche. If we’re willing to give out life sentences, what will we do when, due to advances in modern medicine, people’s lives become very, very long? If, at that point, we think it’s just to keep people imprisoned for a hundred or a thousand years, why not see if it’s possible to achieve the same effect now with mind altering drugs? The “artificial hell” she describes sounds like it was torn from the pages of Harlan Ellison’s terrifying short story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

Ari Shulman of The New Atlantis found the idea so repugnant as to not deserve any added publicity. He wrote:

Let’s be frank about the work these discussions are really doing, how they’re aiming to shape the parameters of discourse and so thought and so action. Like Herman Kahn and megadeath, when transhumanists claim to be responsibly shining a light on a hidden path down which we might otherwise blindly stumble, what they’re really after is focusing us so intently on this path that we forget we could yet still take another.

Anderson has a possible answer to Shulman’s critique at the end of his essay. He writes: “When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us.”

If it’s a horror to make a 10-year sentence feel like an eternity, is it any less so to assign a sentence that lasts a prisoner’s entire life? Particularly for prisoners given over to the penal system in their twenties?

But perhaps the unique horror of Roche’s idea is the way that it would set a prisoner out of synch with his surroundings. After all, a prisoner whose subjective experience of a ten year sentence lasts an eternity, or even the easier-to-imagine one hundred years, can’t be able to communicate with other prisoners or guards. Like a rapidly accelerating astronaut, the prisoner would be moving too fast, according to his internal clock, to belong to a community.

We’ve already sentenced people to that desperately lonely fate without any technology more complicated than four walls and a windowless door. Prisoners in solitary confinement may be running at the same timescale as the rest of us, but the overlap is irrelevant, as they’re allowed almost no fellowship or human contact.

During a portion of their imprisonment in Iran, Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd—the three hikers taken hostage in 2009—were kept in separate, solitary cells. After their release, Shane Bauer became an activist against solitary confinement, and described his own ordeal for Mother Jones:

Solitary confinement is the slow erasure of who you thought you were. You think you are still you, but you have no real way of knowing. How can you know if you have no one to reflect you back to yourself? Would I know if I was going crazy? The longer I am alone, the more my mind slows. All I want to do is to forget about everything.

But I can’t do it. I am unable to keep my mind from being sharply focused on one task: forcing myself not to look at the wall behind me. I know that eventually, a tiny sliver of sunlight will spill in through the grated window and place a quarter-size dot on the wall. It’s ridiculous that I’m thinking about it this early. I’ve been awake only 10 minutes and I should know it will be hours before it appears.

He was already living in the nightmare that Roche envisions, albeit for less time than she would countenance for “particularly odious criminals.”

But even Iran’s cold-blooded abuses are less chilling that Roche’s hypotheticals, since Iran used torture as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Iran treated Bauer, Fattal, and Shourd brutally to try to pressure them to reveal that they were spies, to gather evidence to convict them. Prisoners held in virtually the same conditions in the United States, however, have already been convicted. Breaking their minds and spirits can’t be justified, even by utilitarian calculus, as furthering some higher good.

Roche’s science-fictional horrors aren’t far enough from our current policy for us to dismiss her out of hand. Her consistency with our current choices should be a warning, a reducto ad absurdum indictment of the status quo, not a cue to move the Overton Window.


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