Tsarnaev Case: Does US Security Require Torture?


On April 14, The New York Times reported that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, is being held by Federal authorities under debilitating conditions.

According to the Times, “he cannot mingle, speak or pray with other prisoners,..” and “he may write only one letter-three pages, double-sided—-and place one telephone call each week, and only to his family.”

Tsarnaev is not permitted to watch television or listen to the radio. As the Times put it, he is,”effectively walled off from the outside world.”

There may well be valid national security reasons to limit Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's contact with the outside world. There is no justification for torturing him.

It's important to underline that Tsarnaev 's confinement is not related to any punishment. Whatever many in the public may think, he remains legally innocent under our system until and unless a trial determines otherwise.

Today we are well aware of the debilitating psychological effects of solitary confinement. The Civil Rights Division believes that,” a considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement in isolation, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane;” still others committed suicide.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) periodically brings actions against the state prisons and local jails that engage in the very practices described in this article concerning the conditions of Tsarnaev's confinement.

The DOJ should know better.

I don't pretend to be an expert on national security, but I do know prisons and jails.

There are occasionally times when a prisoner must be “segregated” from other prisoners for the safety of himself or others. Prisons have an obligation to protect inmates and staff. There must be consequences for important violations of prison rules. But the standard for such separation should always be behavior—not affiliation, crime or beliefs.

A legitimate national security interest on the part of Federal authorities may be an equally valid justification for segregation.

However, when prisons elect to segregate prisoners in this way, for either purpose, their obligation to safeguard the prisoner's mental health and well-being is heightened. Efforts must be made to avoid deterioration in the prisoner's condition.

If Tsarnaev cannot be allowed contact with visitors, family and the daily press, then other means must be found by his jailers to reduce the extreme social isolation he is experiencing.

Staff, vetted and with the necessary security clearance, should be engaged to keep his mind engaged and active, to provide active recreation, and to help him to find other ways to occupy his long hours of confinement.

Previously reviewed and approved reading material, videos, podcasts and recordings should be offered.

This may well cost money, and it may offend the sensibilities of those who are prepared to demonize him now. Nonetheless, the conditions described in the Times article violate U.S. standards for incarceration.

Our Department of Justice should do better.

Martin F Horn, former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and former Secretary of Corrections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is on the faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He welcomes comments from readers.

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