Stopped clock alert: David Brooks is right. Really right.
This is the best column I've read by him in many a moon and it gives me a tiny bit of hope that the right will get on board with the idea that torture by solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment:
We don’t flog people in our prison system, or put them in thumbscrews or stretch them on the rack. We do, however, lock prisoners away in social isolation for 23 hours a day, often for months, years or decades at a time.
We prohibit the former and permit the latter because we make a distinction between physical and social pain. But, at the level of the brain where pain really resides, this is a distinction without a difference. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, compared the brain activities of people suffering physical pain with people suffering from social pain. As he writes in his book, “Social,” “Looking at the screens side by side ... you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”
The brain processes both kinds of pain in similar ways. Moreover, at the level of human experience, social pain is, if anything, more traumatic, more destabilizing and inflicts more cruel and long-lasting effects than physical pain. What we’re doing to prisoners in extreme isolation, in other words, is arguably more inhumane than flogging.
This seems obvious to me. Simple human empathy should be enough to show that this is a form of torture. The anguish this causes in prisoners has been clear since ... forever. But having science back up what any decent person would already know, adds a layer to the moral argument that might convince at least a few people. (I have no hope for a large number of my fellow Americans on this --- they believe torture in our prisons is useful --- and entertaining.)
Brooks' conclusion is quite something for a Republican, even one who sells himself as a moderate:
The larger point is we need to obliterate the assumption that inflicting any amount of social pain is O.K. because it’s not real pain.
Imagine that. He thinks even prisoners have a "need for health, which is social, emotional and relational." What a concept. If our criminal justice system made a decision to end the practice of "social pain" we would have taken a large step toward becoming civilized again.
When you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need for health, which is social, emotional and relational.