Dr. C. Scott Ananian (cananian) wrote,
Dr. C. Scott Ananian

Abuse, Torture, the Rule of Law, and the American Prison System

Key stories on the Iraqi prisoner-torture cases, and American lessons and analogs.


In less than two months, sovereignty will be restored in some degree to the Iraqi people by a coalition whose already poor reputation has now gone off the bottom of the scale. It avails little to put up power lines and rebuild bridges when thousands of Iraqis have been killed by the coalition and hundreds of others are tortured. ... [F]or a start, let us hand back the entire prison system to the Iraqis and allow them to liberate their own jails.
"My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," said Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence on Tuesday. ... He confessed he had still not read the March 9 report by Major General Antonio Taguba on "abuse" at the Abu Ghraib prison. Some highlights: " ... pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape ... sodomising a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick ... "

The same day that Rumsfeld added his contribution to the history of Orwellian statements by high officials, the Senate armed services committee was briefed behind closed doors for the first time not only about Abu Ghraib, but about military and CIA prisons in Afghanistan.

Bush has created what is in effect a gulag. It stretches from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantánamo to secret CIA prisons around the world. There are perhaps 10,000 people being held in Iraq, 1,000 in Afghanistan and almost 700 in Guantánamo, but no one knows the exact numbers. The law as it applies to them is whatever the executive deems necessary. There has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US military embraced the Geneva conventions after the second world war, because applying them to prisoners of war protects American soldiers. But the Bush administration, in an internal fight, trumped its argument by designating those at Guantánamo "enemy combatants". Rumsfeld extended this system - "a legal black hole", according to Human Rights Watch - to Afghanistan and then Iraq, openly rejecting the conventions.

Under the Bush legal doctrine, we create a system beyond law to defend the rule of law against terrorism; we defend democracy by inhibiting democracy.

Abuse allegations against the US have now surfaced in Iraq, Guantánamo, Bagram, in Afghanistan, and even in Gambia, where a British businessman told the Guardian he was threatened with rape and beatings while being questioned by US agents.

Two CIA interrogation manuals surfaced in 1997 after the Baltimore Sun obtained them under freedom of information laws. Reading them in the context of the pictures from Iraq and accounts from Guantánamo suggests that the advice they contain is still being applied.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Horrific abuses, some similar to those revealed in Iraq, regularly occur in U.S. prisons with little national attention or public outrage, human rights activists said on Thursday.

"We certainly see many of the same kinds of things here in the United States, including sexual assaults and the abuse of prisoners, against both men and women," said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the national prison project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This office has been involved in cases in which prisoners have been raped by guards and humiliated but we don't talk about it much in America and we certainly don't hear the president expressing outrage," she said.

President Bush has said he was disgusted by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Yet, there were many cases of abuse in Texas when he served as governor from 1995 to 2000.

Why no one really cares about prison rape. Discusses the optimistically-named Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
The truth is that the United States has essentially accepted violence—and particularly brutal sexual violence—as an inevitable consequence of incarcerating criminals. Indeed, prison assault has become a cliché within mainstream culture. The news and entertainment media refer to it nonchalantly. Prime-time TV shows, such as Oz, depict the most awful scenes of rape and carnage. Popular TV dramas routinely depict police taunting potential defendants with threats of the violence and sexual abuse they will face in prison. Indeed, last year 7UP ran a TV advertisement in which a teasing threat of sexual assault in prison was part of a lighthearted pitch for selling soda. ...

So accepted is assault as part of prison life that an outsider might conclude that on some basic, if unarticulated level, we think it an appropriate element of the punishment regimen. Perhaps we believe that allowing prisons to be places of horrific acts will serve as part of the utilitarian deterrent effect of criminal sentences. Or perhaps we recognize that prison rape and assault are an unavoidable byproduct of the rape and assault in society generally, so that our goal here is not utilitarian but retributive: that is, even though we cannot eliminate rape and assault, we can at least reallocate them. Thus, when we purport to incapacitate convicted criminals, what we are really doing is shifting to them, the most "deserving" among us, the burden of victimization.

...[T]here are other, more honest ways of acknowledging what the American prison system has created. Perhaps every sentencing judge should require that a defendant headed for prison be given extensive "pre-rape counseling" in the hope that he or she can take some small personal steps to reduce the risk of attack. Or perhaps we could require judges to demand data about the differential risks of rape and assault for different types of prisoners in different prisons and begin to factor such data into any sentence. "You committed murder, so let's send you somewhere where you're really likely to be raped." In that way we will be at least as brutally honest with ourselves as we are literally brutal with our prisoners.

60 Minutes: A Brutal Prison. Details what life is like at California's Corcoran State Prison.

The official Taguba Report on Abu Ghraib.

More British allegations


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