Locked Doors

The plane was an old Airbus A320, of the generation that smashed into the Alps the day before. No one knew why the accident occurred, and all the theories centered on mechanical issues, rather than a German nutcase.

Bizarre things happen to me on planes, and this one was no exception. Somehow my seat was double-booked—although my digital boarding card was fine, the printout I got at the airport only shared one name with me—next time I’ll check.

Electronic security in London flagged there was a problem—presumably the other me had already gone through. I went to manual, surrendered my passport, and the lady scrutinized it with a knowing eye.

Clearly steeped in anti-terror tactics, she looked blankly at the assortment of unfamiliar names, made the totally wrong decision that the two documents matched, typed an override of my boarding card, and let me through.

At the entrance to the lounge, I was told the air miles were not assigned—quite right, since the card was in another passenger’s name. We added the miles, and in I went. By then I should have been seeing red flags.

I walked to departures, blissfully ignorant that my card belonged to someone else. At the gate, my passport was carefully examined against my boarding card—once more, they let me through.

They also let through someone with the same seat assignment.

I boarded. The matter came to a head when a bearded guy tried to sit on my lap.

The story ends badly, because the Airbus was totally full, and the poor guy got thrown off the plane.

Far more worrying than that is the fact I sailed though three security points on the wrong identity—Churchill once said that an Englishman is allowed to pronounce foreign names any way he chooses, but this is ridiculous.

It got me thinking about Arab names—how inept Western security people must be at dealing with them, and how permeable the systems are, once humans get involved.

The tragedy on the German plane highlights this fact, and the irony is that the locked door issue is a product of nine-eleven, and in this case led to exactly the same outcome.

There’s no easy fix for the standard human reaction: if there’s a problem, lock the door.

The Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

The Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

Our species discovered long ago how to make a cage, and since then we’ve been locking animals up—humans are animals too, and it was a natural step to lock each other up—no other species on the planet does this. Well… there are always exceptions

Parents lock doors as a punishment to children, a mental torture far worse than a sharp tap on the behind. And all countries use a prison system to punish, although often such places are called correctional facilities, the emphasis being on rehabilitation, at least in name.

We are gregarious by nature, a social animal—even anti-social behavior is a manifestation of this—although social generally means nice, it really just means you are part of society. If your nature is to be rude, violent, or ridiculous, that’s still social—these are participative actions.

Thousands of years ago, in the dungeons of Carthage and Nineveh, imprisonment involved corporal punishment (still the gold standard in most of the world), but the ancient peoples soon discovered that it was isolation that made men go mad.

In the North America of Benjamin Franklin, solitary confinement was tried in the jails of Philadelphia—prisoners would no longer be beaten, but made to sit alone, to best contemplate the error of their ways. It soon became apparent, however, that this therapy rapidly drove inmates insane.

From a biological point of view, social relationships are necessary both for sexual reproduction, which occurs in all the animal kingdom, and for parental care, which is particularly well-developed in mammals and birds.

Three thousand years after Carthage, grim details now emerge on life inside the US Federal Correction Facility in Florence, Colorado. This is the prison known as Supermax, also termed ADX.

I have no doubt that far worse goes on in Russia, China, and many other countries, but I suppose it’s the triad of time, place, and system that shocks. The time is the twenty-first century, the place is the United States, and the system is democracy, the self-proclaimed land of the free.

ADX is one of many supermax ‘facilities’ in the US—Amnesty International refers forty states now use them. And although ADX is the worst, the common factor to all of these is isolation. It means prisoners are locked alone in their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day. Ten hours of out-of-cell exercise each week—alone. The average imprisonment period under these conditions is eight years.

When I was a child, a local newspaper serialized Papillon, the story of Henri Charrière, a small-time French criminal who was sentenced to life in the penal colony of Guiana for the alleged murder of a pimp. The paper used cartoons to tell the story.

As soon as I could, I read the book. I’m always fascinated by how much you remember of childhood experiences, as compared to what you remember from last Tuesday. My singular memories from Papillon are three.

I was astounded that the prisoners kept money in metal tubes shoved up their ass, and I remember that the Devil’s Island penal colony was created by Napoleon. When the emperor was asked who would be assigned to guard these hard cases, he replied “even harder cases.”

The final memory that stands out is the description of the time spent in solitaire, and the mental and physical tricks Charrière used to survive it.

If you can imagine locking yourself in a windowless room for a day and a night, that would be hard enough. If you are instead locked in by someone else, and for far longer, you will need all your mental strength to remain sane.

The people the New York Times interviewed for their article clearly didn’t—several of them appear to have been completely nuts when they arrived there.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Times piece, which is not for the faint-hearted.

He cut off both earlobes, chewed off a finger, sliced through his Achilles’ tendon, pushed staples into his face and forehead, swallowed a toothbrush and then tried to cut open his abdomen to retrieve it and injected what he considered “a pretty fair amount of bacteria-laden fluid” into his brain cavity after smashing a hole in his forehead. In 2005, after slicing open his scrotum and removing a testicle, he was sent to the medical center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Mo., for treatment, where a psychiatrist determined he was “not in need of inpatient psychiatric treatment or psychotropic medication” and that his behavior “was secondary to his antisocial disorder.”

If you have the stomach for it, you can read the whole article.

And here’s the thing. The men and women of Carthage might struggle to understand our smartphones, transportation, and TV shows.

But from Isis to ADX, they’d feel right at home with our sadistic streak.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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