Saturday, March 28, 2009


by Atul Gawande

America currently houses a minimum of twenty-five thousand prisoners in conditions of near-total isolation, at very high costs, and despite the fact that studies show this treatment does not engender a positive change in the convict.

Gawande's excellent article details the effect isolation has on the human mind, using examples of American prisoners, American prisoners-of-war, and individuals taken hostage, such as Terry Anderson, who was held prisoner by Hezbollah in Lebanon for seven years. All of them experienced intense mental breakdowns, and many of them became unable to function properly in society following their release.

So, Gawande asks, why does America continue to utilise this form of correction, when it is proven that it doesn't correct? His biggest excuse would be that it would be unpopular politically to be seen as 'soft on criminals'. This becomes another example of things I don't understand about America, but there you have it. A system that punishes and rehabilitates, such as the British model described in this article, would make much more sense in terms of cost and benefit to the community, but it doesn't seem like something that American politicians would ever be able to support, as it would cost them votes.

I read this article at a time where I've been re-watching old episodes of Oz, HBO's prison drama/soap opera from the early-00's, and what I find interesting is how mainstream the facts that Gawande discusses really are. During its first two seasons, the producers of Oz showed that the system didn't work, and also demonstrated quite nicely the negative effects of segregation. It's interesting to me then that no real progress has been made on this issue. I admit, HBO has never had a massive outreach into American culture, but you would think that people would be beginning to be more educated about some of these issues, and perhaps would start changing their view of what "being hard on criminals" really means (and costs).

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