Abusing the WikiLeaker?
Bradley Manning is accused of a serious crime. If convicted, he deserves punishment. But he does not deserve arbitrary and pointless abuse.


Long before the P. J. Crowley flap, several liberal bloggers were arguing that Pfc. Bradley Manning — who is accused of facilitating last year’s WikiLeaks document dump, but who has not yet been tried — has improperly been held in solitary confinement for months.

This is a grave accusation. As Atul Gawande detailed in a disturbing 2009 New Yorker article, solitary confinement — the practice of denying a prisoner virtually all human contact, sometimes coupled with sensory deprivation — can severely and irreparably damage the human psyche. It should be used only on prisoners who are otherwise impossible to manage. There is no evidence whatsoever that Manning — whatever he did before being taken into custody — is such a prisoner.

The problem with this accusation, however, is that Manning is not actually in solitary confinement. According to the Department of Defense, Manning is treated like any other prisoner of his classification: a maximum-custody detainee on prevention-of-injury watch. He has a cell to himself, as do all prisoners at the facility, and he is allowed to speak with other prisoners, so long as the conversations are not “disruptive.”

Even Manning’s own lawyer, David E. Coombs, has admitted that the detainee is “not technically held in solitary confinement,” arguing instead that the conditions are “tantamount” to solitary confinement because there are no prisoners in the cells on either side of him. Talking with the nearest prisoners, Coombs writes, would require speaking loudly enough that the conversations would “probably” be seen as disruptive. There are conflicting accounts of how much access Manning has to television, newspapers, and outdoor recreation, as well as how soft his bedding is, but the “hole” from Shawshank Redemption, this is not.

That’s not to say, however, that the Quantico Marine Corps Brig’s treatment of Manning has been exemplary. He has yet to be convicted of a crime — and, regardless, prisons should avoid inflicting arbitrary and pointless miseries on their charges. Manning’s defense lawyer has made a plausible case — to which the Department of Defense has not issued a convincing rebuttal despite much public attention — that the prison staff has been doing just that in classifying Manning as a higher risk than he truly is. On at least two and possibly three occasions, prison officials have used their discretion to subject Manning to harsher procedures than would normally be used under the brig’s policies. Manning’s treatment may well be legal, as the general counsels of the Departments of Defense and of the Navy found — the policies in question are just guidelines — but that doesn’t make it right. The fact that the State Department’s P. J. Crowley spoke out against Manning’s treatment, however ill-considered the outburst was, should encourage Americans to demand a better explanation.

There are two elements to Manning’s classification. The first is “maximum custody,” meaning that, as Coombs summarizes,

PFC Manning is required to remain in his cell for 23 hours a day. Whenever he is moved outside of his cell, the entire facility is locked down. PFC Manning must wear hand and leg restraints when he is outside of his cell and is escorted by at least two guards whenever he is moved.

Such measures would be justified if Manning posed a threat of some kind. But the Department of Defense has provided no evidence that he has acted threatening in any way. As Manning noted recently in a memorandum requesting a new status, he was given a 5 on the classification scale last August — a scale that recommends “maximum custody” only at a score of 12 or higher. Prison officials overrode the score on the grounds that he had received a higher score in Kuwait, when it was still unclear how much danger he posed. If they had a good reason for doing so, they have not released it to the public.