LI wasn’t planning on writing about the Abu Ghraib tortures, but it is too good an opportunity to ask about U.S. prisons to pass up. After all, the outcry has been confined mainly to the Iraq context, and whether the U.S. contractors and reservists exercizing their talents for cornpone sadism are the equivalent of Saddam H.’s vast torture machine. But while Saddam was constructing his prisons, the U.S. was very busily constructing theirs. And while we know very little about whether Iraqis regularly joked about prisoners in Saddam’s system getting their arms threshed into bloody pulps and their genitals electrocuted, we do know that it has been a huge joke, in the U.S., that prisoners routinely get raped in U.S. jails. That a former prison guard from one of our private prisons in Virginia has spread the practice to Abu Ghraib shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In U.S. prisons, discipline, aka torture, is affected not by the guards so much. Being a more self-organizing society than Iraq under Saddam, the guards and the private prison companies had no time for micro-managing torture – they simply put inmates into maximally dangerous situations and waited around for the inevitable assault, the tearing out of eyes, the gang bang sodomy, etc. All funny fodder for our talk shows and movies. According to this Human Rights Watch report, something like 70 percent of the prison population yearly suffers assault. All hilarious stuff, too. But the guards get in their innings:
“In California, for example, not a single local prosecutor has ever prosecuted a guard for prison shootings that have killed thirty-nine inmates and wounded more than 200 over the past decade.”
Of course, this is the active violence that is meted out and condoned by the U.S. system. The part that isn’t considered torture is solitary confinement – which, according to this article for Fortune Magazine, started as a specifically political punishment:
“This use of sensory deprivation was extensive with imprisoned members of the Black Panther party, the Black Liberation Army formations, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the American Indian Movement, white activists, jail house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prison activists. At one time or another, they all found themselves living in extended isolation, sometimes for years on end.”
And here’s a pertinent graf from the same Fortune article:
“Many human rights groups have expressed concern over criminal justice policy in the US, which has increasingly, encouraged the use of control units, security housing units and super-max prisons. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, California Prison Focus, and many other groups and individuals have joined with the World Organization Against Torture in expressing concerns about these units. The World Organization Against Torture is currently writing a report on United States compliance with the United Nations Covenants (CAT) in 1994. Areas of concern where the US does not comply with that Convention include punitive violence and brutality in control unit facilities, the practice of cell extractions, the treatment of the mentally ill and the use of brutality through chemical sprays and dangerous methods of restraint. The existence and scope of these conditions is also in opposition to guidelines for treatment set in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”