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GOTT-September 24, 2006

Update: Trying a 20-inch-wide “Cell”

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. –Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV)

One of the main points of my previous post (two down) was that just how bad various methods of “rough treatment” are depends greatly on a lot of details — details we’re not getting much of in the case of current & foreseen future interrogations.  (Another main point is that we should try to get those details, and, absent that, should learn about the various possibilities and determine just what we do and do not want being done to detainees for the sake of our own safety.)  So, I want to emphasize that I just don’t know whether we’re currently even using the technique of keeping prisoners in very small cells for prolonged periods of time, and, if so, just what the details of our use are.

But I did discuss some details we have from a Pentagon study of the past use of such cells by U.S. special ops in 2004 — and in particular that they apparently confined a couple of prisoners in cells 4 feet high, 4 feet long, and 20 inches wide, for 7 days.  I should update a bit what I wrote there, though, because I wasn’t sufficiently concerned with the 20″ width.  I happen to have a doorway in my house that’s 4 feet across, and so I had just tried out various positions in that doorway, making sure no part of me got more that 4 feet above the floor.  As for the narrow 20″ width, I just made sure that my body was all in pretty much a straight line across the doorway, with no angling, and assumed that this would take care of keeping myself within the narrow 20″ width of the cell.  But it was suggested to me that 20″ is pretty narrow, and I should really check what it’s like to be in so narrow a cell, and in particular, whether one would have to “twist” one’s upper body to fit into so narrow a cell.  So…

Today, I took a large (very deep & more than 4 feet tall) file cabinet we have in our basement, and positioned it parallel to and 20″ away from our basement wall, so I could try sitting between the cabinet and the wall, and see what that’s like.  It turns out that in such a cell, I would always have both shoulders pushing against the walls, but I wouldn’t really have to twist — though I’d probably want to twist to get into different positions for short periods of time.  (I think my basic positions would be untwisted, sitting against the back wall or lying on my back on the floor, but I would twist left for a while & twist right for a while, just to stretch some muscles out as well as possible.)  When untwisted, I do have to roll my shoulders forward a bit to fit: I can’t just sit normally.  (That’s a big part of why I’d be twisting from time to time, to give my shoulders a rest from having to be always rolled forward.)

I certainly wouldn’t conclude from these results that it “wasn’t that bad” for the prisoners in question. Believe me, I would never want to be put into such a cell for any significant length of time!  I get extremely uncomfortable (& just a little panicky at times) on 6 hour New-York-to-Western-Europe flights when they’re crowded, esp. when I can’t get an aisle seat.  And that’s so much more cushy than a small cell of the dimensions in question that it feels funny even to be comparing the two.  I also had another recent experience with mild physical confinement.  I was lying on my stomach on a nice, soft hospital exam table while getting a cancerous mole (just basil cell: nothing to worry about now that it’s been cut out) removed from my left back/shoulder with local anesthesia.  I was supposed to lie still, but the procedure took longer than expected — but still only about an hour.  After about 45 minutes, I really couldn’t take it anymore.  There was no pain in my shoulder from the cutting & the sewing, but I felt I just *had* to move.  I was starting to sweat quite a bit from the discomfort.  Turned out, the doctor was fine with my rolling onto my right side, which was quite a relief — but the feeling of relief lasted for only about a minute.  I stayed on that side for the rest of the time (about 10-15 minutes), but I wasn’t a very good patient, moving around quite a bit, especially my legs, which I kept moving in ways that would not be remotely possible in a 4′ x 4′ x 20″ cell.  It was a huge relief when it was finally over and I was able to stand, stretch out & walk around.  And all that was only about an hour, on a soft surface, laying & fairly stretched out.  I shudder to think about what even narrower confinement would be like after the hours, and the days, started piling up on each other.

I don’t know how much of the problem is psychological, & to what extent it’s a problem I might have to a greater extent than others.  But it sure feels like it has a big & perfectly physical component that would be shared with everyone: my legs felt like they needed to move — & move quite a bit.  It at least feels like a form of physical discomfort in my muscles that can get very bad, even in a relatively short period of time.  I’d like to find out what that gets like after several days — but not through personal experience!

Posted by Keith DeRose in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Dr. Michael Spezio is a Presbyterian minister with a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

He works with torture survivors at Cal Tech.

His research confirms what otherstudies have also shown: namely, that so-called “torture-lite” actually is more shattering for the victims than more direct forms of physical torture.

You can obtain his PowerPoint presentation here:

The term “torture lite” is actually obscene.

Posted by: George Hunsinger | September 26, 2006 at 02:48 PM

Thanks for that reference. The PowerPoint presentation gives the outline of what looks like a very interesting talk. It made me wish I had the text of the talk itself.

I looked around elsewhere on the No2Torture web page and sites it links to, and found lots of good stuff — especially the National Religious Campaign Against Torture Statement of Conscience( which interested parties can read and sign on-line.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | September 26, 2006 at 08:21 PM

I would be interested to know how people in such cells would respond to questions like “we can leave you in there for another week, or you can get out now so long as you submit to traditional torture method x?”.

Or, maybe to put the question another way, suppose you were coerced into either putting someone in such a cell for a week, or submitting them to some traditional torture method. Which would it be worse to do?

(I just now went back and read Keith’s first post, where he raises much the same point. It would be interesting to hear testimony from people who have endured both kinds of torture.)

Posted by: Nick Treanor | September 26, 2006 at 11:50 PM


Thanks for raising and addressing these questions. These are very dark times for our country.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | September 27, 2006 at 07:43 AM

Those are almost exact the dimensions of “Little Ease” – the notorious cell inside the Tower of London. There was a replica in the London Dungeon museum. This physically hurts, as much as a psychologically. Try staying in it for an hour or two. Then, imagine days….

Posted by: coturnix | September 29, 2006 at 05:53 PM

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