Solitary Torture

The Washington Post
By Sidney Rittenberg Sr

Feb. 22, 1968. As they walked me down the gray prison corridor toward my cell, I was startled to see the same medieval torture scene I had endured 19 years earlier. Eleven solitary cells still there in a row; 11 wooden slabs, with iron hasps and double padlocks.

They look like iceboxes, I thought, and there’s a human being entombed in every one of them.

Door No. 11 opened and clanged shut behind me. The bare cell held a “bed” (a wooden door laid across two shortened saw-horses), a cold-water sink, a commode with no seat. That was it. There was a steel grate over the barred half-window overhead and another around the two light bulbs, a brighter one for daytime and a dimmer one for night. The cell was about six paces long and three paces wide — little room for exercise. A peephole in the door and another by the commode afforded the guards a clear view.

Solitude without privacy.

Near the bottom of the door was a foot-long slot, opened at meal time so I could stick out my bowl for the food cart. Around the peephole was another little slot, opened when guards needed to bark orders at me.

There was a thin quilt on the bed and a thinner mat on which to lie.

For the first four-plus years of my second incarceration, prisoners were not permitted to lie down outside of regulation sleeping hours. We were not permitted to voice any sound.

Later, we were permitted to turn over in bed at night — before that, one had to sleep facing the guard, with hands between neck and navel.

I was supposed to have 30 minutes a day in a roofless cell from which one could see the sky and perhaps even get a bit of sunshine. This was honored mainly in the breach.

I lived like that in a Chinese prison outside Beijing for 10 years. Earlier, I had been locked in solitary for six years, in an old warlord prison with no plumbing and no steam heat — the first year in a cell that was kept in total darkness.

U.S. scientists have pointed out that solitary confinement is a form of torture and that few can retain their sanity after a long period in isolation. It is routinely used in China to force confessions out of suspects. I know many who have been through this, and I have seen that the survivors are often partially or wholly mentally crippled.

Imagine how shocked I was to find years later that we, the United States of America, hold more human beings in long-term solitary confinement than any other country in the world. I had supposed it would be China — but, no, it’s us.

The commonwealth of Virginia is one of the worst offenders.

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