W. Fitzhugh Brundage


On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019

A close-up

It is tempting to presume that sadists and zealots typically commit torture. Sometimes, they do. But American torturers have often insisted that their actions were altogether appropriate, morally justifiable, and in the best interest of their community.

In Chapter Two readers encounter earnest prison reformers during the first half of the nineteenth century who condoned methods of physical and mental punishment that they believed would rehabilitate incarcerated criminals. At some acclaimed prisons, for instance, a policy of perpetual isolation and silence prevailed. Prisoners lived for years with minimal contact or conversation with others. Advocates of this policy contended that it encouraged introspection that was the first step to rehabilitation. But other contemporaries countered that 24/7 isolation was a form of psychic torture that transformed inmates into mental wrecks. These critics advocated instead forms of harsh physical punishment, including whippings and simulated drownings (similar in effect to waterboarding), as apt methods for promoting the rehabilitation and obedience of prisoners.

While many of the forms of discipline were variations on time-honored techniques familiar in early modern Europe, the sites where nineteenth century prisoners experienced violence were wholly modern. Proponents vouched that any acute suffering that prisoners endured when subjected to simulated drowning or from weeks confined in complete darkness and silence were never by design. Prison reformers may have been sincere in their hope to redeem the nation’s criminals, but they designed and defended prison practices that perpetuated in a modern democratic society the state’s continued assault on the criminal’s body.