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European Space Agency simulation module used to study the effects of long term confinement. Photo: Pavel Zelensky/AFP/Getty Images

In June 2010, as part of the Mars 500 research project, the European Space Agency (ESA) put six trainee astronauts into a space flight simulation. In a giant ” tin can” in a Moscow hangar with no sun, no fresh water and no alcohol for 520 days, the psychological tenacity of these six ground-bound astronauts will be under constant scrutiny. Mars 500 is the most ambitious space-simulator research to date. The ESA put away its trainees in similar conditions for 105 days in 2009.

As a spokesman for Mars 500, Dr. Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut with the human spaceflight directorate of the European Space Agency (ESA) emphasised the usefulness of the study:

“This isn’t a joke. It will give a lot of useful information, not just about Mars but also for Earth […] People are isolated in many places in the world. We have scientists in the south pole for a long time, or in submarines. Then there are all those in jail.”

Fuglesang is right. Solitary confinement is never a joke.

Well-wishers, family and friends watch a video of the miners projected onto a screen erected near the collapsed gold and copper mine near Copiapó, Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters.

When the Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days experts from NASA were called in as experts on the psychological strains of long term confinement. A call to the management of any one of America’s hundreds Intense Management Units (IMUs) could have been as useful (except for the fact that prisoners are hardly cared for or monitored in the way necessary to improve their psychological state.) On any given day in the United States, 20,000 men, women and children are held in solitary confinement.

I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating:

First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving” (Haney). [They] become essentially catatonic.

Source: Hellhole, The New Yorker, March 30, 2009, by Atul Gawande.


Everyday in American prisons wallow the equivalent of 600 Chilean mining disasters … except prisoners can remain penned in for longer than 69 days.

“The [psychological and cognitive effects of long term isolation] is not something that’s easy to study,” says Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, “and not something that prison systems are eager to have people look at.” Haney leads academic research on solitary confinement and notes that US prisons didn’t always resort to its current widespread use:

We have an overwhelmingly crowded prison system in which the mandate to rehabilitate and provide activities for prisoners was suspended at the same time as the prison system became overcrowded. Not surprisingly, prison systems faced with this influx of prisoners, and lacking the rewards they once had to manage and control prisoner behavior, turned to the use of punishment. And one big punishment is the threat of long-term solitary confinement. They’ve used it without a lot of forethought to its consequences. That policy needs to be rethought. (Source)


Academics, studies and statistics may hook, inspire and lead some to direct action, but for others the voices of those who’ve suffered in solitary confinement may inform more effectively.

In a prison system that has lost its moral compass, in a system that uses solitary confinement cells as the new asylums, in a country which had made torture its own, it is the voices of the confined to which we should pay most attention.

I would like to recommend an excellent writer, who also happens to be a prisoner. Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the PEN American Center 2010 Prison Writing Contest. Longworth writes about the violence of the Walla Walla Intense Management Unit (IMU) in Washington State. Longworth’s second memoir piece is entitled The Hole.

You can buy The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth #299180 ($7) by following the directions posted at Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

An inmate waves a Chilean flag from his cell at the San Miguel prison following a fire on Wednesday. Claudio Santana / AFP – Getty Images

Earlier today, the MSNBC photoblog ran a four image gallery on the fire at San Miguel Prison, Santiago.

Reporter, Jonathan Woods wrote: “Fire engulfed a prison in the Chilean capital early on Wednesday, killing 81 inmates and critically injuring 14 others, prison officials said, in the worst-ever accident in the country’s jail system. Officials said the fire was triggered during an early-morning fight between inmates.”

The arm of a flag-waving inmate from within the bowels of a charred prison is somewhat confusing for me – is he celebrating life in the face of tragedy? Is it an act of solidarity? If so, with whom – families on the outside, the people, the government (who presumably locked him away)?

The image of the flag amidst wreckage also recalls the visual cues as delivered during the 69 day rescue of the 33 Chilean miners, following the Copiao mining disaster.

The Chileans taught the U.S. a thing or to in flag-waving patriotism during the remarkable story.* The Chilean flag was in the hands of prayerful onlookers, on balloons released by children and on the t-shirts of miners as they emerged from underground in a Chilean themed extraction pod.

The uniting force of symbols – often flags – is powerful and should only be criticised when the means and ends are pernicious.

In the case of the Chilean miners rescue, a near tragedy that ended not only in no deaths but in celebration of life no criticism applies. Just joy. The montage ‘Chile, the Miners, and Respect for Life‘ packages red, blue and white footage against an uplifting music score, which is something I gather Brad Pitt is to perfect. Seriously.

This still gets me no closer to knowing the intent of the flag-waving Chilean prisoner.

Apparently, many nations involved in the rescue effort, counseling and diplomatic duty sent their flags along with their engineering experts. An isolated news report ‘Chilean miners solidarity flag resurfaces‘ explains that the Polish national flag signed by all 33 miners was retrieved from the mine today (belongings are still being extracted).

The flag had been passed to the miners when they were trapped underground in October by Polish missionary, Father Adam Bartyzoł.

* Stephen Colbert, America’s keenest flag-waver, loves the Chilean flag, “It’s just like the American flag, but chunkier!”


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