By Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Cohn edited The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration and Abuse, a collection of essays.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is facing court-martial for leaking military reports and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico brig in Virginia. Each night, he is forced to strip naked and sleep in a gown made of coarse material. He has been made to stand naked in the morning as other inmates walked by and looked. As journalist Lance Tapley documents in his chapter on torture in the supermax prisons in The United States and Torture, solitary confinement can lead to hallucinations and suicide; it is considered to be torture. Manning's forced nudity amounts to humiliating and degrading treatment, in violation of U.S. and international law.
Nevertheless, President Barack Obama defended Manning's treatment, saying, "I've actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures . . . are appropriate. They assured me they are." Obama's deference is reminiscent of President George W. Bush, who asked "the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government" to review the interrogation techniques. "They assured me they did not constitute torture," Bush said.
The order for Manning's nudity apparently followed what he described as a sarcastic comment he made to guards after their repeated harassment of him regarding how he was to salute them. Manning said that if he were intent on strangling himself, he could use his underwear or flip-flops.
"In my 40 years of hospital psychiatric practice, I've never heard of something like this," said Dr. Steven Sharfstein, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association. "In some very unusual circumstances, when people are intensely suicidal, you might put them in a hospital gown. ... But it's very, very unusual to be in that kind of suicide watch for this long a period of time."