Solitary confinement is torture. It is torture when it is used in prisons, against adults and teenagers like Kalief Browder. It was torture when it was imposed on Chelsea Manning, and it is torture that is now being applied to WikiLeaks Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange.
What exactly constitutes torture, and why does solitary confinement fall under its definition? The term is defined in the online Oxford English Dictionary thus: “1. The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something. Eg: ‘the torture of political prisoners,’ or ‘confessions extracted under torture.’ 1.1. Great physical or mental suffering. 1.2. A cause of great physical or mental suffering.”
Clearly, by this standard Julian Assange is experiencing torture in the form of great mental and physical suffering stemming from his long-term, indefinite confinement without medical care, now exacerbated by Ecuador’s imposition of near-complete social isolation.
Assange was already facing the beginning of his sixth year spent in arbitrary confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London before Ecuador’s implementation of total isolation. The lengthy period of arbitrary confinement followed approximately two years under house arrest. Wikileaks recently likened Assange’s current circumstances to solitary confinement on Twitter.
Chelsea Manning described her experience in solitary confinement in a 2016 opinion piece published in The Guardian: “Solitary confinement is ‘no touch’ torture, and it must be abolished. ” “…..Shortly after arriving at a makeshift military jail, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in May 2010, I was placed into the black hole of solitary confinement for the first time. Within two weeks, I was contemplating suicide. After a month on suicide watch, I was transferred back to US, to a tiny 6 x 8ft (roughly 2 x 2.5 meter) cell in a place that will haunt me for the rest of my life: the US Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. I was held there for roughly nine months as a “prevention of injury” prisoner, a designation the Marine Corps and the Navy used to place me in highly restrictive solitary conditions without a psychiatrist’s approval.”
Manning also cited the sentiments of Juan Mendez in her op-ed, with Mendez acknowledging that the harmful effects of solitary confinement can become permanent after as little as fifteen days, a length of which Julian Assange has just eclipsed:
“Prolonged solitary confinement raises special concerns, because the risk of grave and irreparable harm to the detained person increases with the length of isolation and the uncertainty regarding its duration. In my public declarations on this theme, I have defined prolonged solitary confinement as any period in excess of 15 days. This definition reflects the fact that most of the scientific literature shows that, after 15 days, certain changes in brain functions occur and the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.”
The words of alleged WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, whom WikiLeaks made strenuous efforts to protect from the moment of her 2010 arrest, is particularly poignant given Assange’s current situation. Specifically, WikiLeaks’ Editor-In-Chief is now subjected to conditions similar to those imposed on Manning after her arrest for allegedly supplying the publisher with documentation of war crimes perpetrated by the US military.
Even the horrors of a normally hectic news cycle pale in comparison with the events of the last two weeks. The emergence of reports that Julian Assange had been silenced at the behest of the Ecuadorian government quickly gave rise to vigils on and offline, multiple petitions in his defense signed by tens of thousands, as well as innumerable acts of solidarity. At the time of writing, Assange’s contact with the outside world has not been restored despite the passage of three weeks. This time-span may sound brief, but to those who have experienced similar ordeals, and in the estimation of Mendez, such a period can entail irrevocable damage, with even 24 hours of isolation stretching into an eon.
This position was borne out by Rick Raemisch, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Raemisch described his experience of just twenty hours in solitary confinement in The New York Times, relating: “Eventually, I broke a promise to myself and asked an officer what time it was. 11:10 a.m. I felt as if I’d been there for days. I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away? I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose.”
Horrifically, what Raemisch describes entails the deterioration of his perception of time while in solitary confinement for less than 24 hours. This effect is apparent when Raemisch recounts asking a guard for the time, despite having promised himself not to do so. That the head of the Colorado Department of Corrections would experience not only the distortion of time but also the awareness of an impending loss of sanity within such a brief timespan is particularly ominous.
Raemisch’s account corroborates Mendez’s position that even as little as two weeks of isolation can cause serious damage. Contextually, this illustrates the exponentially growing risk of permanent mental disfigurement every day that Assange remains thus confined, requiring the utmost urgency of efforts to lift this looming, suffocating silence. Even The Washington Post has characterized solitary confinement as a method of torture: “We would call it solitary confinement. It would also be accurate to call it torture…”
Enforced isolation is not only torture in the opinions of those who have experienced it. The practice has also been labeled as such by the UN, with the previously cited Rick Raemisch writing in The New York Times regarding his participation with the State Department and other United Nations countries in: “Modernizing international standards for the treatment of prisoners, now known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.” Raemisch related that it was decided that keeping someone for more than 15 days in solitary was torture. In essence, under these rules, the length of time for which Julian Assange has been cut off from the outside world, almost three weeks, would now be officially considered torture by the United Nations.
What are these long lasting and brutal effects of total isolation? In addition to Raemisch’s experience of time distortion, Business Insider described the profound disintegration of prisoners’ vision and sense of direction: “One former inmate in Louisiana, who had spent 29 years (conservatively 232,870 hours), also spoke… He explained the experience left him nearly blind and with almost no sense of direction.”I could not make a face out six feet in front of me — even my brother or mother,” Robert King said. “If I’m around one corner of my house, by the time I get to the next corner, I’m lost. I’m embarrassed.”
In other words, complete separation from social contact horrendously and permanently disfigures the brain. Business Insider chronicled the horrific consequences of inhabiting a total social void as: “Sufficient enough to change the brain and change it dramatically, whether it is brief or extended. And when I say extended, I mean days, not decades,” he said.” The New Yorker described the severe effects of solitary confinement on former hostage Terry Anderson: “He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”
In light of these wide-ranging reports, the unspeakable experiences of those in solitary confinement are remarkably similar regardless of whether they are isolated as a prisoner in the US or in the hideouts of terrorists, or in Assange’s case, in the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy. A slow internal death as described by former prisoners and hostages constitutes the same outcome we can expect for Julian Assange in the absence of swift remediation of his situation. That one of the world’s most courageous and brilliant minds could so rot into a “formless, gray-black misery,” is unacceptable.
The New Yorker additionally described studies showing the physicality of injury sustained by those who undergo extreme isolation, writing that a 1992 study of fifty-seven prisoners of war released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia were examined using EEG-like tests. The results revealed brain abnormalities in those who underwent solitary confinement equivalent to a significant head injury. The article related: “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury… Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.”
The New Yorker also chronicles the psychosis induced in prisoners in solitary confinement: “Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises… After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him.”
Despicably, Assange’s medical reports already indicated that some cognitive effects were manifesting years before being separated from the outside world. Thanks to Suzie Dawson’s work Being Julian Assange, we know that he was already experiencing vision issues, distortion of his perception of time, and other issues thanks to the more than five years spent in a heavily confined space without access to natural light and varied distances. These specific changes are identical to Business Insider’s depiction of a Louisiana prisoner who left complete isolation virtually blind, as well as Rick Raemisch’s self-report of time distortion in less than 24 hours of cessation of all social contact.
Dawson wrote of medical records made public by Wikileaks: “It is obvious to any viewer that his vision has been affected.” She also noted the findings of Assange’s medical assessment, which stated: “There is clinical evidence to suggest that Mr. Assange is suffering from significant alterations in his sense of time, space and internal perceptions of his body in relationship to the external environment. These changes are all consistent with the restrictions associated with his current living situation.”
Wikileaks’ publication of a medical assessment of Assange specifically describes his distorted vision as more than simple deterioration of sight, but also on Assange’s mental perception of what he views:
“When I first visited the Embassy I noted the cluttered state of what he referred to as his working space. I commented on the clutter and asked couldn’t he see it? He replied that he ceased to “see” things in that way, that it all became a blur in the total absence of any novel sensory input. He described it as a shutting down of his visual field in relation to his physical environment. Interviewees commented upon normal aspects of sensory experience (for example a breeze in the air) being exceptional events to be experienced rarely within the Embassy”
This haunting sentiment echoes the experience of those who shut down in solitary confinement, sometimes entering a semi-catatonic state. Although Assange’s deteriorating vision can relate in part to his inability to view changing surroundings, it also relates to his relatively constant isolation over the past five years, representing yet another effect of isolation manifesting before his connection to the outside world was finally severed. These issues were specifically cited in the legal proceedings during an unsuccessful bid to gain Julian freedom in UK courts.
It is well worth repeating that the breakdown of Julian Assange’s sense of time, space and his own body were all observed long before he was utterly separated from human contact save legal representatives. What will be the result of this additional blow? We cannot afford to wait-and-see.
The manner of death that will be visited on Assange if his insulation from human contact proves permanent is in some ways crueler than external attempts to harm him. Instead of challenging the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian Embassy in a full-scale assault or kidnapping attempt, this slow torture will achieve the same end by transforming Julian Assange’s place of refuge into a site of torment. The embassy walls that have thus far protected him, even at a detriment to his health, now represent the walls of a tomb as his mind as it is slowly rent in the absence of fellow human beings.
The Ecuadorian government has long been a subject of praise for its unique bravery in protecting Julian Assange from the most powerful and destructive military interests on earth. To see them pivot so dramatically just months after providing Julian Assange diplomatic immunity is particularly troubling.
Assange’s situation seemed to be optimistic at the beginning of this year, with Disobedient Media previously noting that the government of Ecuador had conferred citizenship and diplomatic immunity on him. If Western interests had been willing to respect international law, a matter which the recent attacks by the US, UK and France on Syria strongly contradict, Julian Assange should have been able to safely leave the embassy this year without fear of arrest or reprisal. However, this was not the case.
In a bleak turn of events, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno silenced Assange almost three weeks ago for reasons which are no doubt multi-faceted, but which at least in part seems to have stemmed from the enormous pressure of the US and UK on Ecuador to betray Assange. Disobedient Media recently reported the possibility that Assange was cut off from the outside world in order to prevent him speaking out against heightened US aggression towards Syria.
The severely damaged vision described in Assange’s medical records prior to his latest deprivation from virtually all social contact save his legal representatives has also been recounted by those who have experienced isolation for long periods. In effect, Ecuador’s decision to deepen the already arbitrary confinement of Assange into solitary confinement is an implementation of ongoing torture and cognitive harm perpetrated against one of its own citizens.
Assange’s isolation also shares an essential commonality with infamous cases like that of Kalief Browder. Both were unfairly imprisoned and experienced social isolation while detained without conviction as a result. Browder ultimately endured two years in solitary confinement in Rikers Prison while still a teenager.
The WikiLeaks founder’s case is unique, in that it is not the product of a hopelessly barbaric and systemically racist prison system, nor does it arise from the unpredictable acts of terrorist groups seeking hostages for the sake of leverage. Instead, the torture of Assange results directly from an intentional decision of his own government. His devolution into inevitable insanity is not an accidental byproduct of confinement, but the clear end-goal of military interests and states that wish him harm.
If the West is allowed to slowly kill Julian Assange in this manner, the global public will have lost one of its most stalwart protectors from the wrongs of government, and that is a loss which is utterly irreplaceable.