Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Uncertain Health in an Insecure World – 78

“The Prisoner”

A British TV show of this name starred Patrick McGoohan as former secret agent, Number Six. Over just 17 episodes in 1968, the show previewed the modern Netflix and HBO miniseries genre. It was shot with a feature film feel and Orwellian sensibility.

After being gassed into unconsciousness in his flat, Number Six finds himself trapped in The Village, where he repeatedly confronts surreal situations set amid psychological threats, science fictional events and allegorical themes. Escape attempts are thwarted by a sinister balloon called Rover, controlled by Number Two. Rover is programmed to prevent general unruliness among the populace and to restrict Number Six's personal egress.

Simply put, Number Six cannot escape The Village, and cannot cope with its madness.

Shot at a secret location in a seaside community (later revealed as Portmeirion, Wales), the show’s writers followed the old adage, “Be witty, be brief, and be gone.” In the final episode, Fallout, the combined effects of hallucinogens, mind control, dream manipulation, and social indoctrination – psychological warfare and spy craft – took their toll on Number Six (below). The final twenty minutes of Fallout baffled inveterate viewers to the point where McGoohan had to go into hiding. Critics nominated the episode for a sci-fi Hugo Award (1969), and it won a Prometheus Award (2002).

Solitary confinement is socially accepted as an extreme form of personal segregation.

Typically, prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours of every day without any human contact, usually in a cell smaller than a horse stable. For much of the 20th century, this punishment lasted days or weeks, but today, it is not uncommon for inmates in “supermax” prisons to spend years in solitary. While corrections officials view the practice as an accepted protocol for general prison population safety, the medical literature shows that caging a person for months to years takes a heavy individual mental and physical toll.

In the 1950’s, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed lone rhesus monkeys in a chamber nick-named “the pit of despair.” Its slippery sides made it impossible to climb out. After a day or so, the monkeys retreated into a corner, sitting hunched over, apparently hopeless. In time, they rocked, circled, stared and self-mutilated. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” observed Harlow. An infamous 1951 study of McGill graduate students by psychologist Donald Hebb showed that within seven days, extreme sensory deprivation caused loss of the ability to think clearly and hallucinations.

Such research is no longer permitted by modern bio-medical ethics.

Studies of prisoners in solitary confinement are practically and ethically challenging. Prison systems are diverse and unique in many ways, making multi-institution cross-sectional comparisons difficult. Since the 1980’s Harvard’s Stuart Grassian has reported high rates of hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, poor concentration, impulsivity, obsessiveness, suicidal ideation and frank psychosis. As much as two-thirds of inmates in solitary confinement have a pre-existing psychiatric condition. Of interest, some research shows that such inmates did not worsen in solitary at rates higher than those without a prior mental illness diagnosis.

The more common outcome is social atrophy - a disabling anxiety about social interactions.
Since the 1990’s, University of California Santa Cruz psychologist Craig Haney has carried out studies of multi-year confinement in “The Hole.” His findings correlate solitary with higher self-mutilation and suicide rates; 63% of all 1995 prison suicides in the U.S. occurred in solitary lock-up. His experience with survivors of multi-decade solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison is “shocking, frankly.”

This is Joseph Harmon, after 8 years in solitary at Pelican Bay.

Haney points out that, “So much of what we do and who we are is rooted in a social context.”  His findings are part of a lawsuit, which revealed that those exposed to such cruelty undergo “social death.” Social scientists agree that the eventual release of these inmates back into society renders solitary confinement counterproductive outside of prison confines.

A parakeet, when finally taken out of its cage, often quickly dies.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote a 2015 minority opinion on the practice, in response to the California case of Mr. Hector Ayala, concluding that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.” Barack Obama’s July 2015 visit to an Oklahoma federal prison (above), the first by a U.S. President, questioned whether, “We really think it makes sense to lock up so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time.” An increasing number of top U.S. corrections officials agree.

Human rights groups consider solitary confinement a form of torture.

In a 2012 survey, twenty of the world’s 25 worst prisons are located outside of the U.S. But five of the world’s 10 worst prisons were situated in the U.S. 
An acclaimed TV series is the sum of all its episodes, not just the finale.

A movement is reflected in the acts of its followers, not just the words of its leader.

Whether in The Village or in a super-max prison, relegation of a person to a number begins a by-design de-socialization process.

In the end, individualism loses out to collectivism.

We in the Square follow good TV mini-series, and believe in progressive social movements.

But in doing so, we must guard against such warmth & fuzziness obscuring concern about the plight of one person.     

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