A believable story about prisons

It’s a rare moment when I think an anecdote can serve as strong evidence for broad claims. Atul Gawande in The New Yorker may have to be one of those moments.

I was impressed by his last piece, on a smarter way to think about obtaining universal health care in the U.S. In “Hellhole,” he addresses the morality of extended solitary confinement in prison. He asks, is solitary confinement torture? His evidence about the effect of solitary confinement is, for the most part, fairly strong — necessary for his argument, at least, if perhaps not sufficient.

But his ending his killer. After profiling a man who spent most of his youth in prison and young adulthood in solitary confinement — going, essentially, insane — Gawande closes by noting to the man that “the state prison director who had refused to let him out of solitary confinement … had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison… .”

Gawande asks the man, “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”

The response: “I’d let him out … I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.”

And the piece ends. What a finish. Surely, I think when I’m finished, surely the fact that this man would say such a thing means something — even if it’s a small thing.

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