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Torture in the USA

People kept in secret foreign prisons without access to lawyers or rule of law aren’t the only ones being tortured — our domestic prison system condones torture and abuse as well. Lenin’s Tomb links to this video of prison torture. Here’s the description if you can’t stomach watching it (I couldn’t):

The prison guards stand over their captives with electric cattle prods, stun guns, and dogs. Many of the prisoners have been ordered to strip naked. The guards are yelling abuse at them, ordering them to lie on the ground and crawl. ‘Crawl, motherf*****s, crawl.’

If a prisoner doesn’t drop to the ground fast enough, a guard kicks him or stamps on his back. There’s a high-pitched scream from one man as a dog clamps its teeth onto his lower leg.

Another prisoner has a broken ankle. He can’t crawl fast enough so a guard jabs a stun gun onto his buttocks. The jolt of electricity zaps through his naked flesh and genitals. For hours afterwards his whole body shakes.

Lines of men are now slithering across the floor of the cellblock while the guards stand over them shouting, prodding and kicking.

Second by second, their humiliation is captured on a video camera by one of the guards.

The images of abuse and brutality he records are horrifyingly familiar. These were exactly the kind of pictures from inside Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad that shocked the world this time last year.

And they are similar, too, to the images of brutality against Iraqi prisoners that this week led to the conviction of three British soldiers.

But there is a difference. These prisoners are not caught up in a war zone. They are Americans, and the video comes from inside a prison in Texas.

It can be hard to overstate the brutality and the detriment that the prison industrial complex has caused. The United States has the largest prison population in the world. We are currently imprisoning 2.2 million people. We spend $60 billion dollars a year maintaining our prison system — and yet we can’t pledge that same amount over five years to make sure that poor kids have health care. Our imprisonment rate is many times higher than many European states, and higher than states like Russia and South Africa, which were long notorious for their repressive policies. Our prison system is so massive that we’ve carved ourselves out a special place in history:

According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, according to reports.

And prisoners are the least politically powerful people out there. They can’t vote. They have difficulty finding employment. They live with constant stigma. And they aren’t counted in many government statistics, making them further invisible.

We should be horrified by this torture. But we shouldn’t be surprised. And we shouldn’t think that if only we eradicated abuse, our prison system would be a-ok. Instead, we have to recognize that the current system is a tool for controlling groups of less powerful people — and in particular, it’s a legal tool that targets people of color and maintains white supremacy. Imprisonment is just one piece of the puzzle. Mass incarceration has devastated entire communities and negatively shaped society:

Mass incarceration, Western argues, also renders invisible a substantial portion of American poverty. At the height of the tech boom in 2000, he points out, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts weren’t working. Government statistics, however, said the unemployment level of this group was 33 percent, because government surveys exclude prisoners.

At the root of prison’s broader social impact lies its lingering effect on individual lives. In an ideal penal system, prisoners might exit the system having paid their debt to society and be more or less restored to their previous status as free men and women. But Pager’s book demonstrates just how detached from reality that view is. She had four college students, two black and two white, pose as applicants for low-level jobs in Milwaukee (excluding jobs where a criminal record would have disqualified them).

They used résumés that were nearly identical – high school degrees, steady progress from entry-level work to a supervisory position – except that in some cases the applicant had a drug conviction in his past (possession with intent to distribute) for which he served an 18-month sentence and then behaved perfectly on parole.

In surveys conducted by Pager, 62 percent of Milwaukee employers said they’d consider hiring an applicant with a nonviolent drug offense in his past. But in her field study, Pager found that her black applicants with criminal records got called for an interview – or to interview on the spot, as they applied in person – a mere 5 percent of the time. That compared with 14 percent for the black applicants without a criminal record. Meanwhile, the white applicants with a record were called back 17 percent of the time, compared with 34 percent for the white men lacking the blotch on their résumé. “Two strikes” – blackness and a record – “and you’re out” is how Pager summarizes her findings. (Pager has replicated this study in New York City, with similar results.)

Job prospects for black ex-prisoners in Milwaukee may be even worse in the future, Pager argues in “Marked,” because while the vast majority of job growth is in the suburbs, the gap between employers’ receptiveness to black and white ex-convicts is even wider there.

Western explores the same set of post-prison issues on a broader statistical canvas. He found that whites, Hispanics, and blacks all face a hit in their wages of about a third, relative to their peers, when they emerge from prison, and also work fewer weeks per year. Their peers will see significant raises from ages 25 to 35, but the ex-prisoners won’t, widening the gap.

The system itself is blatantly racist. Crack cocaine sentences are perhaps the starkest example — the required minimum sentence for crack possession is much higher than for possession of powder cocaine, the former associated with poor black communities and latter being favored by wealthier white people. But beyond that, people of color routinely receive harsher punishments, and are more likely to be sentenced to death than white people (particularly if the person of color killed a white person).

In the meantime, big corporations are enjoying huge financial windfalls from our government’s investments in the prison industrial complex.

Indeed, much as the military-industrial complex fueled the economic juggernaut of the Reagan/Bush era’s redistribution of wealth and resources, so now we are witnessing the production of a correctional-industrial complex in which society’s already limited resources and funds are redistributed away from social justice-based forms of spending in favor of imprisonment. For example, while states are cutting spending on education, housing, health care, and other long-term infrastructural necessities, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that state spending on prison construction increased 612% between 1979 and 1990. The American Friends Service Committee characterizes this redistribution of wealth, resources, and possibilities as part of an oncoming “fortress economy” in which an America ever more stratified by racial and class divisions retreats into armed enclaves where the promises and obligations of justice and democracy are increasingly replaced by a high-tech correctional-industrial police state.

California is a particularly cogent example of how the “needs” of the correctional-industrial complex lead toward a “fortress economy.” Its budget for fiscal year 1996/97, for the first time ever, appropriated more money for prisons (9.9% of the budget, up from 2% in 1980) than for the University of California and California State University systems combined (9.5% of the budget, down from 12.6% in 1980). Put more simply, since 1980 California has slashed educational spending by roughly 25%, while raising prison spending by roughly 500%. The effects of this budgetary redistribution are already evident. Mike Davis reports that the decade from 1984 to 1994 saw California universities and colleges lose 8,000 employees, while the California Department of Corrections “hired 26,000 new employees to guard 112,000 new inmates.” This redistribution of educational monies into the machinery of the correctional-industrial complex is also, whether intentionally or not, reproducing the fundamentally white-supremacist culture of antebellum slavery. The San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice reports that in California, the number of black men in prison (41,434) outnumbers black men in college (10,474) by a ratio of almost four-to-one.

(Read the rest of that article; it just gets worse).

Torture, rape and abuse are all par for the course in prison. So is modern-day slavery:

As the correctional-industrial complex provides capitalists with imprisoned consumers, it also provides them with cheap labor. For example, the Oregon Department of Corrections has been using prison laborers to produce a “Prison Blues” line of clothing (for public sale both in America and primarily in Asia) with projected yearly sales of over $1.2 million. Despite these profits, prisoners are reportedly earning real wages (their $8 an hour wage minus state-imposed restitution fees, and room and board charges) of $1.80 an hour. The largest network of prison labor is run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ manufacturing consortium, UNICOR. While paying inmate laborers entry-level wages of 23 cents an hour, UNICOR boasts of gross annual sales (primarily to the Department of Defense) of $250 million.

The correctional-industrial complex therefore relies on a sobering “joint venture” directly relating profits to increased incarceration rates for four kinds of “partners,” only the first of whom are those seeking opportunities in prison construction. A second kind of partner stocks these prisons with stun guns, pepper spray, surveillance equipment, and other “disciplinary technology,” corporations such as Adtech, American Detention Services, the Correctional Corporation of America and Space Master Enterprises. A third partner finds a state-guaranteed mass of consumers for food and other services in the prisoners themselves, such as Campbell’s Soup and Szabo Correctional Services. The fourth partner can be any private industry or state-sponsored program that stands to gain from paying wages that only nominally distinguish captive forced labor from slavery. In this last category, an example of the former is Prison Blues and of the latter is UNICOR which uses prisoners to produce advanced military weaponary.

They produce more than just weaponry; prison labor is crucial to maintaining our huge defense structure. And with our domestic defense now on the regular offense, prison labor is as important as ever:

According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.

Our modern-day prison system has its roots in slavery. Those roots are deep, and they continue today.

I know the prison/slavery comparison sounds overblown. I was certainly taken aback and deeply skeptical when I first heard it. But I’m a middle-class white person who has absolutely no connection to the prison system beyond having an immediate family member who’s a criminal defense attorney. Sure, I’m in law school, but even my criminal law class didn’t bother to address our prison system; we were concerned about The Law, and The Law is rational and all-important and duly separated from the people who it affects. And people in prison are simultaneously invisible and unsympathetic. They may occasionally have the chance to speak out about how poorly they’re treated, but who cares? They’re criminals. But I suspect a quick perusal of the history of our modern prison system combined with an evaluation of the current conditions would convince all but the most uncaring and dogmatic that something is deeply, deeply fucked up here.

Unfortunately, I find myself routinely surprised at just how many of us are among the most uncaring and dogmatic.

13 thoughts on Torture in the USA

  1. And they aren’t counted in many government statistics, making them further invisible.

    Or worse, they’re counted not as part of their own communities, but as part of the rural districts where the prison is. Thus artificially suppressing, say, state funding or representation for their home districts and artificially inflating the same for the prison districts.

  2. The description alone of that video of abuse and torture is sickening. I can’t even bring myself to click on the link.

    Prison reform is a hugely important issue. Changes must be made.

  3. I live in an area where we routinely (daily) see prisoner chain gangs from the county jail in bright orange jumpsuits accompanied by armed deputies doing very visible community clean-up/yard work. They are always in well-trafficked areas so to exploit the visibility–there are always signs that say… “Prisoner Work Force in Progress” with a line crediting the local (elected) sheriff for this community-enhancing, cost-saving program. Obviously its a political show to curry favor for the next campaign.

  4. Charles Graner was a corrections officer in civilian life, which is one of the reasons he was assigned to Abu Ghraib. He freely admitted that he used the same techniques on the prisoners at Abu Ghraib that he did on the prisoners he supervised in the US. And yet somehow that whole aspect of it was swept under the rug, because no one dares mention in our “law and order” society that maybe treating prisoners like animals isn’t exactly the best way to make them fit to return to society when their sentence has been served.

  5. I spent 23 years as a criminal defense attorney in the U.S.. In that time I saw incarceration rates per capita triple.

    It is a mystery to me why a core government function like maintaining a prison system is being outsourced (rather like outsourcing military functionns to Blackwater). If the state cannot afford to build and maintain a prison system sufficient for its’ rate of imprisonment then it nedds to examine its’ criminal code to reduce the rate of imprisonment.

    Likewise, prisons must never be places off degradation, humiliation and fear. When a human is subjected to these factors and then later returns to society they are more twisted than ever. If the government fells it must cage a human being and restrict that human’s ability to either defend himself from attack or flee then thhe government hhas a duty to provide a safe and secure environment. It is immoral to use the the threat of rape and murder as part and parcel of thhe prison system. I dealt with many police officers and prosecutors who saw the inevitability of prison rape as part of the punishmnent my clients deserved.

    Sorry to go off like this but you really hit a nerve with this article. It is a critical moral question for society which nobody is discussing. A civil society can be judged by how it treats prisoners.

  6. When I was in high school law class (Toronto, Canada), I scoffed at the ‘healing circle’ chapter, but now, I think, there is a place for them. People who commit violent crimes to control, oppress, destroy, others, need to be separated from society (though still treated humanely for the souls of their captor’s sake). People who committed non-violent crimes really shouldn’t be locked up at all.

  7. just last night I was watching the cell dogs program on animal planet and thinking how great it is.
    Then you see this and see the nasty underbelly is routinely covered up.

  8. On a trip home to see my parents this summer, I saw some road workers out in the country. Having known many road workers personally, I automatically assumed that they were ODOT or what have you. I was mistaken.

    I’m reminded of the short story by Ursula K. Le Guin SQ from The Compass Rose… I’m sure there are better examples, but she paints a portrait of a world where more than half of the world’s population is in rehabilitation centres, and the rest make their living inside the facilities that house them.

    There’s something horribly wrong with all this.

  9. The first thought that came to my mind when watching this clip, (beyond trying not to throw up), is Why am I getting important news like this from another COUNTRY?!

    That question alone, will give me nightmares for months now. I am finding it hard to articulate the disconnect that I feel from society around me.

    I feel like I am in some twisted Twilight Zone episode and it will end with me being carted away in handcuffs because I found out half of the inmates were innocent on trumped up charges to fuel the Industrial Prison Corporatocracy, and I went into rescue them with an AK-47 myself.

    Please tell me, I am not the only one who doesn’t recognize my own country, and feel like I just soiled myself by admitting it?

    How long is it going to take before people stand up and say ‘NO MORE?!’

    I am going to go crawl under my pillow now and pray I can sleep peacefully.

    HAHAHA like that’s going to happen.


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