Maybe Don’t Laugh at Whitey Bulger’s Masturbation Punishment

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On Thursday, the Boston Globe reported that Whitey Bulger, the rather monstrous and murderous Boston gangster who was sentenced to more than two life sentences in 2013, had been punished for a rather embarrassing, erm, “offense”:

Locked away in a prison cell in the predawn hours last June, notorious South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger still managed to get into trouble — of a variety not easily discussed.

A male corrections officer making 3 a.m. rounds at the US Penitentiary Coleman II in Sumterville, Fla., reported that Bulger, while alone, with the lights on, was violating a regulation that prohibits any sexual activity by inmates. Prison authorities soon put him in solitary confinement for 30 days, revoked his commissary and e-mail privileges for 120 days, and confiscated his personal property for 30 days.

Naturally, the response to this has been rather gleeful. That’s understandable: Bulger murdered a lot of people and ruined a lot of lives. It’s hard not to relish the idea of the big, bad gangster, once untouchable in south Boston, reduced to this.

Far be it from me to argue that Bulger doesn’t deserve to spend the rest of his life locked up — he does. But we should also keep in mind just how brutal solitary confinement is and what we’re accepting when we laugh at Bulger’s latest setback.

There is by now a rich, hard-to-argue-with body of evidence — some of it described in a superb New York article written by Benjamin Wallace-Wells and published in 2014 — that solitary confinement is a form of torture. Here’s how Human Rights Watch described things in testimony it submitted to the Senate:

There is no way, of course, to measure the misery and suffering produced by prolonged solitary confinement. Inmates have described such confinement as akin to living in a tomb. Their days are marked by idleness, tedium, and tension. For many, the absence of normal social interaction, of reasonable mental stimulus, of exposure to the natural world, of almost everything that makes life human and bearable, is emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. People suffer grievously in prolonged solitary confinement because human beings are social ani­mals whose well-being requires interaction and connection with others as well as mental, physical, and environmental stimulation. As one federal judge noted, prolonged super-maximum security confinement “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.”

And it’s not like it’s only the “worst of the worst” who get this punishment (though I’d argue that, simply by virtue of being human beings, they don’t deserve it either). All over the country, it’s disturbingly common for prisoners to be tossed into solitary confinement for minor, sometimes-arbitrary violations that pose no significant threat to anyone. To take just one of many, many examples, the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in 2012 that “Prisoners can be sent to [“extreme isolation cells”] for prolonged periods of time for violating a broad range of prison rules, including for minor, non-violent misbehavior.”

Nobody wins when prisoners are in some cases literally driven insane by a practice that may well be torture. It’s a good thing that reform efforts are under way and seem to have picked up steam in recent years, but overly harsh solitary-confinement protocols are still inflicting a great deal of suffering for no good reason — suffering that will, of course, only come back to bite society in the butt in one way or another when prisoners are released and find the lingering effects of their confinement render them unable to function, in some cases driving up their recidivism rates.

Let’s not lose sight of how awful Bulger was. Maybe the best way to put it is, yes, he deserves to spend two lifetimes — hell, several lifetimes — in jail. But nobody, not even Whitey Bulger, deserves to be thrown into solitary confinement for masturbating.