Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Call Me Quaint

In a provocatively titled piece, "America's Abu Ghraibs," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert paints a disturbing portrait of the systemic abuse of prisoners in the American prison system, particularly the happenings in one notorious prison in Georgia.

Among the abuses documented in a lawsuit cited in the article:

"Officers opened cell doors and ordered the inmates, all males, to run outside and strip. With female prison staff members looking on, and at times laughing, several inmates were subjected to extensive and wholly unnecessary body cavity searches. The inmates were ordered to lift their genitals, to squat, to bend over and display themselves, etc.

One inmate who was suspected of being gay was told that if he ever said anything about the way he was being treated, he would be locked up and beaten until he wouldn't 'want to be gay anymore.' An officer who was staring at another naked inmate said, 'I bet you can tap dance.' The inmate was forced to dance, and then had his body cavities searched.

An inmate in a dormitory identified as J-2 was slapped in the face and ordered to bend over and show himself to his cellmate. The raiding party apparently found that to be hilarious."

What is even more shocking than this treatment perpetrated by U.S. prison officials is the fact that it enjoys near legal immunity thanks to The Prison Litigation Reform Act, "designed in part to limit "frivolous" lawsuits by inmates, passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996." This law "specifically prohibits the awarding of financial compensation to prisoners 'for mental or emotional injury while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.'"

As Herbert notes, "Without any evidence that they had been seriously physically harmed, the inmates in the Georgia case were out of luck. The courts ruled against them." In other words, the law tolerates humiliation and psychological abuse, even if it results in "mental or emotional injury," as long as there is no "physical injury."

I guess the Geneva Conventions don't apply to American citizens incarcerated by Americans. (As an aside, this legislation should provide ample reason to always be suspicious of laws that are designed to limit "frivilous lawsuits." They are almost never so pure of motive or noble in effect.)

This type of sexual humiliation sounds eerily like the methods used in Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. This coincidence, though, should come as no surprise. Aside from the fact that abuses in American prisons have been documented for decades, although to considerably less fanfare, we actually sent four men who had run prison systems that had all been involved in domestic prisoner abuse scandals, to Iraq to set up the prisons over there.

According to an article published on Democracy Now's website, "All of the men who ran these prison systems were forced out by lawsuits or political controversy. But rather than being sent to prison themselves, these men were sent to Iraq by the US government to set up the prisons there. Actually, one prison - Abu Ghraib."

Among the highlights, or lowlights, of their professional resumes,

"One man ran a prison system in Utah where a 29-year-old schizophrenic died after he was stripped naked and strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours.

Another man ran the system in Arizona where 14 women were raped, sodomized or assaulted by prison guards.

Another ran Connecticut's prison system where at least two people died after being severely beaten."

For the record, these four men are:

"Lane McCotter: A former warden of the U.S. military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, former cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Corrections Department and the former director for the Texas Department of Corrections. He now runs the private prison-company: Management and Training Corporation.

[Here is a link to the 36-page Justice Department report documenting inhumane conditions at Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center in New Mexico under McCotter]

John Armstrong: the former director of the Connecticut Department of Corrections.

Terry Stewart, former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections and his top deputy Chuck Ryan."

Now that I think of it, if you really want to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi citizenry, put these guys in charge.

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