Prisoner Isolation, From Jefferson Davis to Bradley Manning

One hundred and forty-five years later, the room was almost pleasant. There was an embrasure with an open window at the extreme end of the casemate, looking out over the moat and the pretty buildings of Fort Monroe beyond. The sun played over the water and sent dazzling reflections back into the room, which boasted HGTV-ready hardwood floors and walls of whitewashed stone.

There was also a tiny desk and a cot, as set up for a prisoner. The prisoner had once been Jefferson Davis, president of the failed Confederate States of America. He was imprisoned there after the Civil War in the approximately 18 ft. x 16 ft. casemate from May to September 1865. On a recent trip to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, I unexpectedly found mercy and humanity, and inevitably compared that to the sadistic way in which the U.S. government has treated “high value” prisoners after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Consider that Davis had led the secession of the southern states from the union and approved the Confederate attack on the U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter, which started the war on the federal government in 1861. At the end of the war four years later, some 365,000 Union and 260,000 Confederate soldiers were dead from battle and disease, and more than 400,000 wounded. Five days after the final surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln was murdered in cold blood by secessionists who refused to give up the fight.

According to accounts, Davis was first brought to Fort Monroe under a cloud of suspicion—voiced by new President Andrew Johnson himself—that the confederate leader had something to do with the assassination. Though the charges were soon dispelled, Davis’ first days in the casemate were difficult. He was put in leg irons, sentinels were posted inside and outside the room with rifles and fixed bayonets, and the reading lamp was kept on all night. According to a former “regimental quartermaster” at the fort who gave his “inside view” of Jefferson’s treatment to The New York Times in 1905, “time, and a cooler spirit of inquiry, showed the charge of Mr. Davis’ complicity in the assassination to be a monstrous error, but while it was believed in it was not to be wondered at that his treatment was not wholly based on the courtesies due to a distinguished State prisoner.”

As this and other accounts tell, Davis was removed from the leg irons “before many days”—five days, according to one biography. He was essentially subjected to solitary confinement, not leaving the casement but for brief periods of walking exercise each day. There was constant pressure on the federal government over Jefferson’s treatment, however, particularly from his wife, Varina, whose persistence forced the War Department to send in doctors. Within two months, the night lamp and the guard were removed from the inside of the cell. The physicians who administered to him were genuinely dedicated to improving his health, which, according to varying reports, was deteriorating, mostly because of the solitary confinement.

By October, however, he was given more spacious and accommodating quarters at Carroll Hall, former officers’ housing, outside the system of casemates. His health improved. By the end of his two-year imprisonment, his wife, his sister, and his youngest child were living at Fort Monroe, he had free rein to visit and walk with them outdoors all day, he had a steady supply of visitors, gifts including “cigars and brandy,” and had become quite friendly with the guards.

Davis was indicted for treason. In May 1867, he walked into a packed courtroom at his former Confederate headquarters in Richmond a prisoner, and left quite shortly after, a free man. He was released on a $100,000 bond, for which some very important Americans agreed to pay. The government never pursued a trial and Davis was granted amnesty in 1869. He lived out his final days as a favored son of the Old South.

Bradley Manning

I invoke the old ghost of Jeff Davis only to compare him to the way the U.S. government treats its own citizens accused of criminal acts in the so-called Global War on Terror today. In particular, 23-year-old Pfc. Bradley Manning, whose treatment in military confinement has been called torture by his supporters, “shocking” by his heretofore silent father, “indefensible” by a U.S. congressman, “stupid” and “counterproductive” by an Assistant Secretary at the State Department (who was forced to resign shortly after), “abusive” and “outrageous” by countless writers and activists, and has led to an investigation by the United Nations and admonishment by Amnesty International.

This month Manning was charged with 22 counts, including a charge under the U.S. Code of Military Justice that he knowingly gave “intelligence” to “the enemy” — a capital offense. Manning is allegedly responsible for transferring tens of thousands of classified military and State Department files to WikiLeaks, which has published many of them in concert with major newspapers, including the Afghan War Diary and Iraq War documents. Before he was turned in by former hacker/journalist Adrian Lamo, Manning told Lamo in a series of email chats that he wanted “people to see the truth … regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Over a century apart, both Manning and Davis were imprisoned in Virginia in the month May. If Manning were in Davis’ shoes, he would have been taken off “maximum security” status—which keeps him in 23-hour solitary confinement—back in October. Instead, Manning continues to inhabit a tiny, windowless 9 ft x 8 ft cell at the Marine Corps Brig at Quantico. His only exercise is walking a redundant figure eight, in hand and leg restraints, once a day in a room outside of his cell. He is being forced to sleep without a pillow and sheets and sometimes naked—“as a precautionary measure” (supposedly so that he doesn’t hurt himself)—and also stand naked at attention outside the cell for morning inspection with the other brig detainees.

He is forced to respond to the guards’ inquiries every five minutes, all day, and wakened repeatedly at night if his head goes under the blanket or he rolls away from the guards’ view—again, “for his own good”. He isn’t allowed to wear his eyeglasses, except to read, which is one book or magazine a day. He cannot exercise in his cell.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell has denied that Manning’s treatment has been extreme. He said that the terms of Manning’s confinement are due to “the seriousness of the charges he’s facing, the potential length of sentence, the national security implications, and also the potential harm to him that he could do to himself or from others,” thus the “prevention of injury (PIO)” status requiring all of the restrictive measures.

To the contrary, according to Manning’s lawyer David Coombs—who is a former military Judge Advocate General (JAG) and a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves—the military’s own doctors do not consider Manning a threat to himself or anyone else.

Furthermore, Coombs said Manning has been a model inmate for the last eight months (at which time any other prisoner would have been removed from the “MAX”). As for the charges, Manning is still “presumed innocent,” leading critics to believe that all these measures are retributive, arbitrary, and meant to humiliate and “soften” him for the trial or a plea agreement, whichever comes first.

“It’s designed to degrade both Manning’s psyche and resistance to incriminating WikiLeaks and is highly likely to achieve both,” said constitutional lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald.

That was three months ago, before this latest wrinkle, the forced nakedness, which last week happened three nights in a row. Again, a military spokesman said it was for his own good. “There is no justification, and there can be no justification, for treating a detainee in this degrading and humiliating manner,” charged Coombs.

Except that it has become the new norm in the way the country has treated its prisoners in the GWOT—American or otherwise.

Torture the New Normal?

“It seems that this is the world before and after 9/11,” said Andy Worthington, investigative journalist and author of The Guantanamo Files, in an interview with

“The United States has had a very brutal record (of detainee treatment) and the nudity is a nasty little twist. That’s what makes me think—it is this kind of nudity, the sadistic stuff, the kind of thing we saw in Abu Ghraib. People giving license to torment people, to deprive them of sleep, soften them up … it’s seems to have infected the system.”

In a column published over the weekend, Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower activist and publisher of the Pentagon Papers, concurred.

“Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity—that’s right out of the manual of the CIA for ‘enhanced interrogation.’ We’ve seen it applied in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. It’s what the CIA calls ‘no-touch torture,’ and its purpose there, as in this case, is very clear: to demoralize someone to the point of offering a desired confession. That’s what they are after, I suspect, with Manning. They don’t care if the confession is true or false, so long as it implicates WikiLeaks in a way that will help them prosecute (WikiLeaks’ founder and frontman) Julian Assange.”

While Bradley Manning’s treatment has not reached the level of Abu Ghraib in 2004, the forced nudity has its ritual beginnings there, and in the Guantanamo Bay prison (the Bush Administration found a way around the country’s long tradition of maintaining high standards for treating war prisoners early on in the GWOT by declaring suspects, including U.S. citizens, “unlawful combatants”). From a June 8, 2004 New York Times report about the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal:

“Forced nudity of prisoners was pervasive in the military intelligence unit of Abu Ghraib, so much so that soldiers later said they had not seen ‘the whole nudity thing,’ as one captain called it, as abusive or out of the ordinary. …

“The International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting in October, found prisoners left naked in their cells for days, modestly trying to shield themselves behind cardboard from meals-ready-to-eat boxes. …

“When Red Cross monitors expressed alarm about prisoners being left in their cells or forced to move about naked, they said military intelligence officials “confirmed that it was part of the military intelligence process.”

You bet. Digging into the tranche of “torture memos,” one finds this gem by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in December 2004, under the title “combined use of interrogation techniques,” an explicit justification for the use of nakedness. The memo also defends waterboarding, long confinements in small dark places, ritual slapping, sleep deprivation and other manipulation of the senses in high-value interrogations. Jose Padilla is possibly the best example yet of an American GWOT prisoner whose mind has been reduced to mush as a result of these techniques.

Besides the nudity, Manning’s “forced helplessness” is being brought on by the isolation, say critics. This technique is not new nor limited, certainly, to American authorities. Just ask John McCain or Terry Anderson, an American journalist who spent 6 ½ years as a captive of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in the 1980’s. According to his own accounts, Anderson’s long ordeal in solitary confinement drove him, literally, insane.

In a 2009 article for The New Yorker, Physician and journalist Dr. Atul Gawande quoted from Anderson’s 1994 memoir to explore whether solitary confinement could be considered torture:

“In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. … After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again. …

“One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.”

As Greenwald and many others have pointed out, many consider the use of prolonged isolation an explicit form of torture. Gawande’s New Yorker report well traverses the arguments. David House, a friend and supporter of Manning who is one of three people (including his aunt and Coombs) to visit Manning, said back in December that the confinement had already taken its toll, noting the “marked decline in his physical state and psychological well-being.”

“I definitely think the conditions he’s being kept in are inhumane, and they are starting to weigh on his personality and his physical appearance to a great degree.”

Just as the isolation had reportedly plagued Jefferson Davis 145 years before. But unlike Manning, Davis’ conditions improved because the people around him—his doctors, the guards—saw him as a human being, deserving of no less.

One could certainly argue that Davis’ status as a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of War placed him high above the considerations of so many other POWs at the time, that it’s presumptuous to even compare Davis to Bradley Manning, a man of lower rank and no political connections nor position.

One could also point to the brutal way captured confederate soldiers were treated at places like Camp Douglas in Chicago, or the unconscionable conditions that “rebellious” Union soldiers were forced to endure at Fort Jefferson in Florida. But the abuse appeared not to be institutionalized nor systematic (in 1863, Lincoln adopted the Lieber Code for the conduct of union soldiers in dealing with POWs and “guerrilla” sympathizers). In fact, there were many exceptions, too—evidence of compassion and decency—despite all the bitterness the bloody war had spawned.

The U.S. still has an anti-torture code, for sure. Unfortunately, as though 145 years of enlightenment and evolution as a nation hadn’t occurred, the Bush Administration employed every legal machination to get around it, and in the end, simply refused to acknowledge that its harsh interrogation practices and detention policies were ever “torture.” President Obama, despite his own campaign promises to the contrary, has merely maintained the status quo.

Manning and Davis

Manning never took up a gun to fight his government; his alleged crime is the transfer of information in an attempt to cast light on what he described as policies and events that ran counter to American principles and standards of conduct, if not the law (think the “Collateral Murder” video, which the military attempted to cover up). Like Davis, he believed in a cause, but unlike Davis, he did not lead others to commit violent acts of aggression against his country. Yet he is being treated quite worse than Davis ever was.

Varina Davis served as an invaluable advocate and was most responsible for maintaining her husband’s health throughout his two-year imprisonment at Fort Monroe. Manning is going to need all the Varinas he can get right now. Keeping his case in the spotlight is the best defense he has, really, against what has become the government’s post-9/11 instinct for torture.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.