Solitary confinement: bad for chimps, okay for humans?

Primate Rights  
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 22, 2012

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Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins is a key cosponsor of legislation that, among other provisions, would outlaw psychologically damaging solitary confinement for more than 500 chimpanzees caged for research in federally supported laboratories. In July the bill bipartisanly passed the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee on its way to a floor vote.

But the legislation, which also protects gorillas and other ape species if they are used for research, doesn't protect the dominant primate species, Homosapiens. Experts say at least 80,000 prison inmates are in solitary confinement in tiny cells in this country.

Some prisoner-rights advocates think it's ironic when laws give rights to animals that aren't extended to humans. Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright noted that, for example, "there are existing laws saying how much living space primates should have in captivity. By contrast, no such laws apply to humans in captivity."

He concluded: "Sadly, I don't think most people, at least not in this country, see any connection between animal and human rights,"

Laurie Jo Reynolds, an anti-solitary-confinement activist in Illinois who also is a strong supporter of animal rights, said, "Acknowledging that we must stop inflicting solitary confinement on chimpanzees is also a recognition that we must stop the practice for humans."

S. 810, the Great Ape Protection Act, "corrects the pain and psychological damage that apes often experience as a result of needless experiments and solitary confinement," Senator Collins said in a recent statement. Repeated requests to her office for her views on human solitary confinement did not get a response.

But Maine's First District Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree, who is a cosponsor of a parallel bill in the House, H.R. 1513, agreed that the damaging effects of solitary confinement extended to humans: "A growing number of experts describe it as cruel and unusual punishment, and I agree with them."

Michael Michaud, Maine's Second District congressman, is also a H.R. 1513 cosponsor. In repeated attempts, he could not be reached on the question of whether human solitary confinement should also be banned.

A ban or restrictions on prisoner isolation, however, may soon be debated in Congress. In June, Senator Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, presided over the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. He's preparing legislation to reform its use.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said he refers to the damaging effects of solitary confinement on humans in his speeches in support of S. 810, but banning isolation of chimpanzees was "really not the impetus" for the legislation.

He said forbidding the invasive experiments chimps are subject to is a more important motivation behind the bill. These include, as the bill's language states, experiments that cause injury, trauma, or death in drug testing, "intentional exposure" to harmful substances, and removing body parts.

But S. 810 would also ban "isolation" and "social deprivation" that "may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape." The legislation notes that apes are "highly intelligent and social animals."

Kathleen Conlee, vice president of the Humane Society, pointed to research appearing in the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation that shows how chimps subject to laboratory conditions express Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-like symptoms. Isolation is listed as a common stress.

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