David House, a computer researcher from Boston, is one of few people permitted to visit accused Wikileaker Bradley Manning at a military prison in Quantico, Va. He's relayed a message from Manning: My blankets hurt.
Over the last week, a debate has exploded over whether the conditions of Manning's confinement—he is confined to a cell for 23 hours a day, permitted little if any exercise, barred from reading newspapers, and gets little human contact—constitutes torture. Salon's Glenn Greenwald described it as "inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing...isolation." House, speaking to the Guardian, said that he's seen "a steady decline in [Manning's] mental and physical wellbeing" over the course of several visits due to the solitary confinement. The hubbub has sparked an investigation by the U.N.'s special representative for torture.
The Army quickly responded that Manning is allowed to read newspapers, exercise, watch television, and generally gets treated like any other prisoner.
Today, House has written an account on Firedog Lake of his most recent visit with Manning, and relays Manning's answers about how bad his treatment really is. It doesn't sound fun. Maybe it qualifies as inhumane. And House certainly demonstrates that Army officials are lying when the describe how pleasantly he's being treated. But does it sound like torture to you?
Manning related to me on December 19 2010 that his blankets are similar in weight and heft to lead aprons used in X-ray laboratories, and similar in texture to coarse and stiff carpet. He stated explicitly that the blankets are not soft in the least and expressed concern that he had to lie very still at night to avoid receiving carpet burns. The problem of carpet burns was exacerbated, he related, by the stipulation that he must sleep only in his boxer shorts as part of the longstanding prevention of injury order. Manning also stated on December 19 2010 that hallway-mounted lights shine through his window at night. This constant illumination is consistent with reports from attorney David Coombs' blog that marines must visually inspect Manning as he sleeps.
Manning sleeps on a mattress with a built-in pillow and an uncomfortable blanket, a state of affairs that Greenwald described as a "vindictive denial of a pillow or sheets." The denial probably is vindictive, or maybe it's because—despite a psychiatrist's finding that Manning is not a suicide risk—they don't want him to have access to cloth that can be fashioned into a noose. Either way, is it that big a deal, all things considered?
The most serious claim about Manning's confinement is his lack of exercise. According to House, Manning said he had not been permitted outdoors for a full month prior to their visit, and despite getting an hour a day to exercise, he "is [only] able to exercise insofar as walking in chains is a form of exercise." This is at odds with the Army's claims that Manning is permitted to do "activities [that] may include calisthenics, running, basketball." Barring even basic physical activity certainly seems inhumane and wrong, but again—is it the stuff of a U.N. investigation?
Manning also says he's not allowed access to news—"when I said 'The Pentagon has stated that you are allowed newspapers,'" House wrote, "his immediate reaction was surprised laughter." He gets an hour of television a day, but there are no news programs on the channels available to him during that time slot.
Many of the restrictions Manning faces are due to a Prevention of Injury order, designed to keep him from hurting himself. House and Greenwald quite reasonably want that order lifted. If I were Manning, or a friend of his, I would certainly be raising hell about every overstarched blanket.
But the bottom line is that there is nothing even remotely unusual about the conditions under which Manning is currently confined. There are literally thousands of people—by one estimate as many as 20,000 [pdf]—in this country in solitary confinement right now. It is a distressingly routine technique. To the extent that it is inhumane, illegal, unconstitutional, and violative of international law—which it may be—there are thousands of people in line ahead of Manning awaiting their U.N. investigations.
And to use the word "torture" to describe Manning's treatment—based on what we know so far—undermines the noble effort over the past decade by people like Greenwald to define that word in a way that criminalizes the perverse techniques employed by the Bush Administration. Even those who argue that solitary confinement is indisputably torture acknowledge that the confinement must be lengthy in order to qualify. Manning has been imprisoned for six months. You are not being tortured if you are denied access to a newspaper.
[Photo of Manning via AP. Photo of Quantico via Getty Images]