No Cruel and Unusual Punishment? What Have We Become? | GravitySailor

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No Cruel and Unusual Punishment? What Have We Become?

Supermax? Solitary Confinement? Torture? Rendition?
Just another day in the United States of America, where the greatest country in the history of civilization generously uses super-maximum solitary confinement (“Supermax”) for 23 hours/day. Where 2.5 million people are incarcerated—at least 80,000  in solitary confinement? REALLY?


The 8th Amendment of United States Constitution reads, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” There is no argument that “shall not be” applies to all three clauses. If only we could be so clear about what punishments approach or exceed this standard. In 1962, Robinson v. California370 U.S. 660, SCOTUS extended the 8th Amendment to the States through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.


In addition, SCOTUS  has also provided some clarification to the standard by adding four principles to determine whether a particular punishment is cruel and unusual, Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972):

  • The “essential predicate” is “that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity,” especially torture.
  • “A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion.”
  • “A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society.”
  • “A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that criminal sentences that are inhuman, outrageous, or shocking to the social conscience are cruel and unusual. Although the Court has never provided meaningful definitions for these characteristics, the pertinent cases speak for themselves. For example, the Georgia Supreme Court explained that the Eighth Amendment was intended to prohibit barbarous punishments such as castration, burning at the stake, and quartering (Whitten v. Georgia, 47 Ga. 297 [1872]). Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits crucifixion, breaking on the wheel, and other punishments that involve a lingering death.In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 10 S. Ct. 930, 34 L. Ed. 519 (1890)

…In Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 112 S. Ct. 995, 117 L. Ed. 2d 156 (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a case in which a prisoner had been handcuffed by two Louisiana corrections officers and beaten to the point where his teeth were loosened and his dental plate was cracked. Seven U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled that the prisoner had suffered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Two justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, disagreed. Legal Dictionary – 8th Amendment

So there you have it, aside from grotesque mutilations and a slow death, we currently have a perfectly ambiguous and subjective standard that continues to be abused by the U.S. Government. First, I am motivated to address this issue after reading this morning about P.F.C. Bradley Manning, and his 1,000 days of military detention, for much of the time in brutal conditions.


Bradley Manning’s 1,000th Day in Jail – The Guardian UK.  Second, I am sickened anytime I read anything about an American super-max prison, and felt it was time to put my thoughts to writing. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to include the extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques of the George W. Bush administration.


Human rights groups charge that extraordinary rendition is a violation of Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), because suspects are taken to countries where torture during interrogation remains common, thus circumventing the protections the captives would enjoy in the United States or other nations who abide by the terms of UNCAT. Its legality remains highly controversial, as the United States outlaws the use of torture, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees due process. Rendered suspects are denied due process because they are arrested without charges, deprived of legal counsel, and illegally transferred to a third world country with the intent and purpose of facilitating torture and other interrogation measures which would be illegal in the USA.Extraordinary Rendition (Wikipedia)

In summary, in super-max prisons (44 State / 1 Federal) prisoners are held in solitary confinement indefinitely for 23 hours a day, with almost zero human communication or contact.  An extraordinary rendition is essentially a secret and extra-judicial kidnapping where the accused (or should I say victim) is secretly transported to a foreign country.  And we are all now familiar with enhanced interrogation techniques in various forms, but most notably water-boarding.


Growing up in the United States, for the first twelve years of my public education, the first thing we did every morning was recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  At every sporting event, from Little League to the Superbowl, we always begin with a singing of the National Anthem.  Together with the The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of The United States, we have some of the most significant and memorable language burnt into our memory from a very young age. Some of the more memorable language that sticks with me:


  • The land of the free
  • Home of the brave
  • One nation under god
  • Liberty and justice for all
  • A country that holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
  • We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

HOW did we ever come to violate so many of the fundamental beliefs that have enabled us to climb so far so fast?  Those same fundamental beliefs that placed us above cruelty, brutality, injustice; and preserved human dignity.  These beliefs are what we fought for!


Now we practice torture? Rendition? Solitary Confinement for 23 hours a day—indefinitely? How brave is that? We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world; almost 2.5 million people—and at least 80,000 in solitary confinement? How humane is that? Should we remain proud of our nation? What have we become?

(Click image to enlarge, then click again to really enlarge) Anatomy of a Supermax Prison

SOURCE: Criminal Justice Program


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How many of these indefinite solitary prisoners are going insane? How many have committed suicide? This certainly does seem wrong, no matter the crime.

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