Governments and institutions have debated the ethics behind torture for centuries. More recently, photographs, news sources, and stories of former prisoners have sparked questioning over multiple governments' use of extreme torture methods against its enemies. While the Geneva Convention of 1949 declared some torture practices inhumane, mental torture exists in a gray area, as it doesn't leave physical marks. So-called "white torture" uses sensory deprivation techniques to make prisoners hallucinate and experience breakdowns that make them highly susceptible to psychological manipulation.
First studied in 1951 as a possible way to allow British, American, and Canadian governments to brainwash prisoners, white torture occurs when individuals are placed in a confined area with highly controlled access to light, sound, or human interaction. The technique increases the mental pliability of prisoners; they become desperate for human interaction, even in the form of harsh interrogation from their captors.
Over the course of eight months in 2004, the Iranian government allegedly imprisoned student Amir Fakhravar in a completely white room with no sound or colors. Authorities arrested 17-year-old Fakhravar for publicly criticizing the Iranian regime. He spent five years in various prisons undergoing physical torture, which involved beatings that resulted in broken bones. He told CNN, however, that the time he spent in the white torture room was the most damaging treatment he endured:
We didn't see any color, all of the cell was white, the floor was white, our clothes were white and also the light, 24 hours, was white. Our food, also, was white rice. We couldn't see any color and we couldn't hear any voices.
Prison guards wore padded shoes to muffle any noise, and if prisoners had to use the bathroom, they were required to slide a white piece of paper under the door. By the time authorities released Fakhravar, he said he could no longer remember the faces of his mother and father and described himself as "not a normal person."
In 2009, Sarah Shourd, her fiancé Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal mistakenly hiked over the border separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran. Arrested as spies, the three went to Evin prison in Tehran. Shourd and her male companions spent an estimated 410 days confined to individual cells without human interaction.
Shourd experienced panic attacks, hallucinations, and severe anxiety during her incarceration. She writes:
After two months with next to no human contact, my mind began to slip. Some days, I heard phantom footsteps coming down the hall. I spent large portions of my days crouched down on all fours by a small slit in the door, listening. In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. More than once, I beat at the walls until my knuckles bled and cried myself into a state of exhaustion. At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realized the screams were my own.
After her release in September 2010, doctors diagnosed Shourd with post-traumatic stress disorder, illustrating the practice's long-term psychological harm.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, former detainees recounted the suffering they endured in Iranian prisons, which utilized sensory deprivation techniques. One experienced severe insomnia and mental health issues. Another described his breaking point, which he experienced on his 30th day of solitary confinement. Housed in a windowless, soundless, and airless cell that prisoners often described as "coffins," he said:
I suddenly started to react to the lack of air. I would put my head at the window at the bottom of the door and try to get oxygen. I couldn’t sleep. I would talk to myself, but I couldn’t be too loud. I sensed that my condition was worsening. I fell down, hit my head on the door, and fell unconscious.
A 2016 study by John Leach, of Extreme Environments Laboratory at University of Portsmouth, indicated a lack of social interaction for prolonged periods of time causes victims to experience difficulty in establishing what is real and what is not. As social creatures, humans' brains struggle to adapt to an isolated way of life, and many people experience mental breakdowns with permanent psychological consequences.
During the Cold War, the CIA began researching a way to replicate the mind-control tactics employed by countries in opposition to America. They witnessed American soldiers in Korean POW camps delivering anti-US and pro-communist statements, which spurred the idea of brain-washing. It led American, Canadian, and British officials to secretly meet in June 1951 at the Montreal Ritz-Carlton.
There, famed psychologist Donald Hebb suggested removing external stimuli from POWs as a way to lessen opposition to indoctrination. Scientists began to study various methods that same year. Hebb published his findings in The Canadian Journal of Psychology, though he disguised it as a study about the effects of living a sedentary and monotonous lifestyle.