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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

White Torture: Preserving the Body, Breaking the Mind

Written by Evan Moloney


              For as long as humankind has known itself, it has also known pain. From crucifixion to the rack to the blood eagle and the wheel, people across history have had no shortage of ideas when it comes to hurting one another. Whether it’s in the name of state, religion, ideology, or simple malice, torture has been an inextricable part of conflict since the start of the written record. In our modern world, human rights conventions and international diplomacy have been mostly successful in eradicating the more bloody, gruesome, and physically destructive forms of torture. Political prisoners and violent convicts in most places don’t have to be worried about being burned at the stake or having limbs severed, and to humanity’s credit, that’s a massive victory. But the relative disappearance of physical torture is a far cry from the abolition of all torture around the world, and in that grey area, we find white torture.

              Enter the United States and its War on Terror, easily the highest-profile case of a first-world, Western nation using torture as an instrument of war in the new millennium. One need only look briefly at the methods employed by American intelligence during this conflict, to understand the goal: Torture people, sure, but try not to make it too messy. The goal of so-called “enhanced interrogation” practices during this time was not to minimize the pain and suffering inflicted upon individual human beings, but to minimize public attention and controversy. Also called “clean torture”, methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and stress positions are the favored 21st-century torture methods in relatively advanced nations around the world, meant to leave no long-term trace of harm on their victims. With these techniques—and with white torture in particular—the purpose isn’t to maim or distort the body. The purpose is to warp the mind, and create hell inside one’s own head.[1]

Cellule du quartier d’isolement de la prison Jacques-Cartier de Rennes (France), à travers le judas.

The Torture

              Although white torture can take several forms, it earns its name by being carried out through an absence of stimuli, rather than an addition of stimuli. Think of white noise, a mixture of sound waves over a wide frequency range that combine to produce…well, not anything in particular, but a neutral sound people often find helpful to study, focus, or sleep. The “white” in white noise doesn’t refer to visible color; it refers to this same idea of blankness, that same neutrality. We’ll play a brief clip for you here.[2] White torture takes that same blank sensation, and applies it to everything: the things you see, the things you hear, the things you eat, smell, and feel. This creates a state of sensory deprivation, and when combined with the isolation of imprisonment, it can become very, very powerful.

              Let’s look at it in practical terms. If a subject were undergoing white torture—that is, torture with the specific goal of sensory deprivation—then they are likely going to be held in a cell painted in all one color. White walls, white floor, white ceiling, white door. There will be no windows, and there may be only very small seams in the wall to even indicate the location of the door. The subject is dressed in smooth, minimally abraisive white clothing, fed things like plain white rice in white bowls. The lights are kept at a consistent level of brightness, and may be positioned in a way that prevents the subject from casting a shadow. The toilet and the bed are white, and the temperature is as neutral as it gets, with air that is completely still. After all, what’s going to cause a breeze? The cell is soundproofed, with no source of external noise, and when the guards enter, they are dressed in white themselves, with padded or fabric-wrapped shoes meant to prevent even the smallest unintentional sound.[3]

              Then comes the difficult part: staying there. Whether for days, or weeks, or months, the subject is locked into a cell with no relief, no breaks to go outdoors, no calls, and no word from the outside world. Left alone with only their own thoughts, the subject’s mind begins to slip. They begin to hear things, even see things, obsessively listen by the door for hours on end, or injure themselves. They begin to lose a sense of reality, a sense of individuality, a sense of orientation in time and space, all because there is nothing where something should be.[4]  


Mechanism and Effects.

              White torture works by exploiting the body and brain’s natural response to sensory deprivation, a situation in which one or more of the body’s senses—touch, smell, taste, vision, and hearing, as well as other senses like balance or pressure—does not receive any stimulus. The body waits for more information from its environment, which usually provides a constant stream of sensations big and small. But when there’s nothing, and then more nothing, and then even more nothing, the body’s response can be disproportionately large. Donald Hebb, a leading researcher on sensory deprivation in the 1950s, observed in his own experiments that if a person were, say, blindfolded, earmuffed, and deprived of any pronounced sense of touch, it would take about 48 hours for psychosis to fully set in. The subject would first begin to hallucinate, and then their mind, and even their body, would begin to break down in its normal function.[5] In one experiment, Hebb expected his participants to spend a month in isolation, but of his 22 volunteers, not even one made it a week. Add to this the effect of social deprivation, without which subjects often have a hard time distinguishing what is real, and are far more vulnerable to mental breakdown.[6]

              Sensory deprivation has been studied in numerous other forums as well, including under the much larger umbrella of the United States’ MKUltra program. We’ve covered that program in other posts, if you’re interested. Programs of this kind found that isolation, simply being left alone with nothing and no one, is often enough to break a person in a way physical violence cannot. With no human contact, disoriented from time and detached from the world around us, people fall apart. They become more reactive, they regress into childlike or infantile behaviors, they ruminate on their own fear or pain or boredom with nothing, absolutely nothing, to distract them.[7]

              But pure sensory deprivation is just one circle of this subtle, insidious form of hell, and torturers can take additional measures to make it just that much worse. Clocks inside a prisoner’s cell may be adjusted at will, forward or backward, whether by minutes or by hours. Meals may come once every day, or once every few minutes, with no ability to predict when the next one will come. Cycles of day and night are removed or brought under the torturers’ control; a prisoner may spend days alone without even the smallest sign that their guards exist; and sleep, if it happens at all, is at the whim of whomever controls the light switch.[8] Perhaps worst of all, days or weeks into confinement a person may be brought outside to a breath of fresh air, a view on the landscape, a single phone call with a loved one…and then confined again, forced to submit to imprisonment even as they now know what awaits them.[9]

              The effect on a prisoner is striking. As we know from declassified CIA study records, a person subjected to these conditions will try desperately to establish a few basic needs—a sense of order, chronology, interpersonal connection. These are things we don’t realize are absolutely crucial to our survival, until they are taken from us. They may attempt to figure out a set standard of time, default back to logical structures and world-governing rules that applied in the past, or even form a connection to their captor. But they live in a space that is under the complete authority of the torturer, and their attempts to re-establish control over themselves will be thwarted, again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes for that person to devolve[10]. This results in a mental state called learned helplessness, in which a person is forced to bear something so unpleasant, yet so inescapable, that they eventually accept that they have no hope of controlling it.[11] In white torture’s twisted version of this principle, logic, predictability, identity, and autonomy are slowly stripped away, and the subject slowly regresses into a state of childlike compliance, desperate to give or do anything in order to regain the slightest bit of composure.

At any time throughout this process, an individual torture program may introduce things like stress positions, interrogation, or physical punishment…but they probably don’t need to. When our ability to make sense of our environment is taken away, it won’t break us down as quickly as, say, a lack of oxygen or a lack of water, but it breaks us down all the same. Victims of the altered forms of white torture used at Guantanamo Bay were often so completely shattered that they were deemed unfit for prosecution, exhibiting symptoms of extreme psychosis and a lack of connection to, or even recollection of, their former selves.[12] Other survivors largely report the same.


The Implementation

              The most frequent known perpetrator of white torture is the nation of Iran, particularly via the facilities located at Evin Prison. Detainees, often political prisoners or activists, are subjected to the torture in order to extort information and force the signature of confession statements. At Evin, prisoners are held underground in complete isolation with round-the-clock artificial light. Their cells are soundproof, and they are granted no access to other prisoners, medical personnel, and certainly not any attorneys, family, or friends from the outside world. Survivors describe the experience as being worse than interrogation, worse than beatings, worse even than extended physical torture. Instead, they live moment to moment, constantly in fear that their mind would not be able to see them through the ordeal. As one prisoner described:

Since I left Evin, I have not been able to sleep without sleeping pills. It is terrible. The loneliness never leaves you, long after you are “free.”  Every door that is closed on you, it affects you.  This is why we call it “white torture.” They get what they want without having to hit you.  They know enough about you to control the information that you get: they can make you believe that the president has resigned, that they have your wife, that someone you trust has told them lies about you. You begin to break. And once you break, they have control.  And then you begin to confess.

              For the Iranian regime, white torture is a powerful deterrent to those who may criticize the ruling elite. Intellectuals and activists must consider that if they are taken captive, a very different person may walk out of Evin Prison than the one that went in. Physically, they may experience severe weight loss, feelings of suffocation, and the effects of self-injurious behaviors, but even that doesn’t compare to the mental disintegration that will eventually leave them ready to sacrifice anything, just to be spoken to.[13]

              In Iran, both men and women are subjected to the torture, with it being most commonly used against writers, thinkers, artists, and others the regime considers likely to be part of reformist or subversive movements. Sometimes, white torture is combined with a sense of neglect from the guards and the prison—dead cockroaches left where they perished, doctors who do not seem even slightly interested in the prisoners’ pain, or the specific choice of clothes that do not fit. One woman described how the ants in her cell helped her endure the torture, as she spoke to them and found herself able to engage in some sort of interaction with another living being. Others, though, had no such solace, as they endured threats of violence against family members and were then left alone for days or weeks, with only that threat to think about.[14] One study of sixteen survivors of Evin Prison’s version of white torture found that of the sixteen, a majority experienced serious emotional breakdown and cognitive symptoms, about half experienced aggression and suicidal ideation, and several described hallucinations. Every one of them experienced significant physical ailments that arose during their confinement.[15]

              In the United States, white torture was documented during the aforementioned War on Terror, primarily perpetrated by the Central Intelligence Agency at various detention sites and Guantanamo Bay.[16] Since the early 2010s, there is little public record of the use of these torture methods, as the Obama administration increased pressure to adopt new guidelines on interrogation moving forward. However, that administration also declined to charge or substantially investigate the perpetrators of white torture during the preceding years, and the following Trump administration’s choice for CIA director, Gina Haspel, had overseen enhanced interrogation that included sensory deprivation methods.[17] Read into that what you will.

              A modified form of white torture has also been utilized in Venezuela, both before and during the country’s recent devolution. Known as the Tomb, or La Tumba, Venezuela’s sensory deprivation prison utilizes a refitted subway station five stories beneath Caracas. Much like Iran, the Tomb is filled with political prisoners and peaceful protestors, with victims constantly under surveillance and left to experience extreme illness without treatment. These prisoners are held in a space with no windows or toilet facilities, often in below-freezing conditions, and the space is completely without ventilation. Detainees cannot see each other, and are held in white rooms 24 hours per day, with no sound but the passage of the Metro overhead. While the Tomb features guards watching the detainees continually through two-way mirrors, and thus de-emphasizes the complete isolation found in its Iranian equivalent, survivors report similar hallucinations and psychological collapse during their time there.[18] [19]

              Whether white torture may be in use by other world governments, either as a primary or a supplemental form of interrogation or punishment, is unknown. However, it’s difficult to dismiss the similarities between deliberate white torture, and the larger practice of solitary confinement that remains in use across many nations. Within the justice system, within the intelligence apparatus, in many major nations on Earth, the bones of white torture are already there, even if it’s perhaps not so thought-out everywhere as it is at Guantanamo, or La Tomba, or Evin Prison.


              Put simply, white torture is designed with two core objectives: to inflict immense, nigh-on-indescribable pain onto its victims, and to leave no outward indicator that might clue observers in on the actions of the perpetrator. It is a tool to break minds, shatter the essence of a person’s deepest self, and yet keep them looking completely and totally unchanged. It is a method that requires resources, funding, round-the-clock staff, one that would be immensely difficult for one sadistic individual to carry out, but easy for countries and regimes with money to spare.

White torture is an instrument of a particular kind of nation, one that wants to give the outward impression of condemning torture in all forms, but still wishes to reap the benefits. If a nation doesn’t care about condemnation of torture, it will simply torture; it will break bodies as well as minds, and do so in public, with impunity, as it so wishes. And if a nation cares about condemning torture more than it cares about the perceived rewards of torturing its perceived enemies, then it’s likely not to use forms of torture at all. But when a nation does care about condemnation of torture, but cares just a little bit more about what it stands to gain by pushing its captives to their breaking point, then that is the nation most likely to view white torture as its preferred method of interrogation.

To close, we will leave you with the words of writer Massoud Behnoud, who survived white torture in Iran in the early 2000s, and recounted his experience to Human Rights Watch in 2003.

In the first few hours, it is very hard. You have never been this close to walls in your life. You don’t want to sit, because it is chalk, and you are not used to sitting on chalk. You stand.  You pace. You start to get dizzy. After you get dizzy, you lean on a wall. After three or four hours, your legs get tired, and you sit. And then you scream and no one hears you.

And you feel like they are holding you, like they are physically holding on to you.  Your hair and nails grow faster. A lot of prisoners say that solitary is like being like “the dead in their coffins” because we had heard that the dead’s nails grow in their coffins.  Even if they had given me something to read, they had taken my glasses. Even if I had had my glasses, there wasn’t enough light.

There is no sound.  Once in a while, you would hear the call to prayer…After three days, it becomes so, so difficult. Different people break at different times.  We used to talk about when people would “break.  Some people broke after a few days, some could last much, much longer.  It is absolute silence.  After three days, I just wanted any words.[20]

              After three days, I just wanted any words.

[1] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf


[3] https://www.ranker.com/list/extreme-white-torture-facts/jodi-smith

[4] https://www.ranker.com/list/extreme-white-torture-facts/jodi-smith

[5] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4890253/

[7] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf

[8] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf

[9] https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/iran0604/5.htm

[10] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf

[11] https://www.britannica.com/science/learned-helplessness

[12] http://www.uni-kiel.de/psychologie/psychophysik/mausfeld/Mausfeld_Psychology%20’white%20torture’%20and%20the%20responsibility%20of%20scientists_2009.pdf

[13] https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/iran0604/5.htm

[14] https://globalvoices.org/2020/10/15/new-book-tells-stories-of-suffering-and-resistance-from-irans-female-prisons/

[15] https://irct.org/assets/uploads/1018_8185_2017-2_96-102.pdf

[16] https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/senate-report-cia-torture/sensory-deprivationsolitary-confinement

[17] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/obamas-legacy-of-impunity-for-torture/555578/

[18] https://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/world-economy/political-protesters-are-left-to-rot-in-venezuelas-secretive-underground-prison/news-story/62b3b855e6f4be85cafb2928368fd2dd

[19] https://www.abc.es/internacional/20150210/abci-tumba-celdas-tortura-venezuela-201502091144.html

[20] https://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/iran0604/5.htm

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