The American gulag

Print edition : June 18, 2004

Abuse of prisoners by U.S. authorities is a problem not confined to Iraq. Mistreatment and torture of prisoners in the country itself and elsewhere is a well-documented fact largely ignored by the media.

UNITED STATES President George W. Bush went on Al-Arabiya television on May 5 to tell the Arab public, "What took place in [Abu Ghraib] prison does not represent the America I know." What is the America that Bush knows? "The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. The America I know cares about every individual. The America I know has sent troops into Iraq to promote freedom. Good, honourable citizens that are helping Iraqis every day."

Bush knows that the "America" he claims to know is myth. As Governor of Texas, he had signed the final orders for the execution of 152 prisoners in five years. His prisons held women in "detention trailers," where, under the hot sun of Texas, the guards did not allow them water. According to the Texas Prison Labour Union and various human rights groups, the prison guards in a number of Texas prisons sexually assaulted prisoners, beat them, forced them to crawl in the dirt, set dogs on them and shot them with stun guns. In 1999, a U.S. Judge found that Texas prisons cultivate a "culture of sadistic and malicious violence". This was while Bush was Texas' Governor. Much of this behaviour is not only abhorrent, but also illegal. Nevertheless, the American jailers understand such practices as routine, or else they would not be this widespread.

No surprise then that two of the seven U.S. Army reserve personnel charged in the prison scandal in Iraq have backgrounds in the prison industry. Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, who apparently operated as the ringleader at Abu Ghraib, works as a corrections officer at Buckingham Correctional Centre in Virginia. Specialist Charles Garner works at the State Correctional Institution Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1998, two years after Garner began work at Greene, the prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest against the sadistic conditions there. They demanded an end to the use of attack dogs, to the use of teargas against inmates, to regular violence and humiliations, including a game called "Simon Says" where the prisoners had to obey the shouted orders of a prison guard.

Greene's most famous prisoner is the former Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal. When Amnesty International's President visited Mumia in 1997, he said, "Death row in Pennsylvania looks and feels like a morgue. Everything is high-tech and there is no human being in sight. From the moment that condemned prisoners arrive, the state tries to kill them slowly, mechanically and deliberately - first spiritually, and then physically."

There is much that is atrocious about the events in Abu Ghraib - the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, the racist and sadistic behaviour of the prison guards, the routine torture by military intelligence to gain information, and the use by military intelligence of Israeli contractors who speak Arabic, to bring techniques to the Iraqis that are well known to the Palestinians. Furthermore, according to the New Yorker magazine's reporter Seymour Hersh, the authorities apparently used the work of a Princeton University anthropologist Raphael Patai (The Arab Mind, 1973) to learn how to best humiliate the "Arabs". Patai's book, noted Hersh, showed the U.S. authorities "one, that Arabs only understand force, and two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation." The images from Abu Ghraib are not the isolated work of some troops, but they appear to be a racist fantasy of how to break down the "Arabs" and get them to cooperate with their occupiers. All this is outlandish, and yet there is something very normal about the incidents in Iraq. They are normal practice for prisons within the U.S., both for those who are held in detention as potential terrorists and those who are held for criminal activity.

What is atrocious about the response to Abu Ghraib is that the U.S. politicians and the mainstream media portray it without making any connection to the routine abuse of prisoners in the U.S. and at the U.S.-controlled base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Baghram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees (in orange jumpsuits) at the United States-run Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. A file photograph.-AP

THERE are currently two million Americans behind bars, while another five million are under the supervision of the U.S. criminal justice system. These numbers are extraordinary. Not only does the U.S. now incarcerate the most people in real numbers and per capita, but only three decades ago, the jails held an eighth the number of people. The expansion defies belief. There are more African-American youths in jail than in colleges, and women register the largest rate of increase of inmates. Half of those in jail had been unemployed when they were arrested, and the rest reported annual incomes of under $10,000 (far below what it takes to survive in the U.S.). Many of these people, who can find no work in the U.S., enter the relatively lucrative drug economy. Three quarters of those who entered jail in the past two decades came for non-violent drug offences. The scandal of U.S. jail expansion is this: that prisons have become the holding pens for the chronically unemployed population. In the past decade, the state had spent almost $10 billion on prisons, while it has slashed its budgets for social welfare and education. Gregory Winter, who works at the Hamilton Family Centre in San Francisco, notes, "When funds are siphoned away from social programmes to prisons, communities are drawn inexorably toward incarceration." As the state curtails its provision of all that is good about civilisation, it increases its ability to treat people like animals.

Bush is disgusted by the events at Abu Ghraib, but he is silent on the abuses within the U.S. jails. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International regularly investigate claims of abuse, and despite the lack of cooperation from the state, they are able to provide comprehensive reports on mistreatment and torture. Here, some samples:

* In July 1999, four guards at the Florida State Prison beat Frank Valdez to death. The guards beat Valdez with such brutality that his ribs broke and boot marks remained on his body. The guards claimed that Valdez injured himself, but in February 2001, the state indicted them on murder charges.

* In June 2001, the state acquitted eight prison guards at California's Corcoran State Prison who had been charged with staging gladiator-style fights among inmates. In November 1999, the state acquitted four other guards for setting up the rape of an inmate by another violent prisoner.

* From December 1999, the following events took place in women's prisons: the state indicted 11 former guards and a prison official on charges of sexually assaulting or harassing 16 female prisoners at a county jail operated by a private corrections company; a jury convicted a New Mexico jail guard on federal civil rights charges stemming from the sexual assault of a prisoner; the state sentenced a New York guard to three years of probation after he pleaded guilty to sodomy of two female prisoners; the state sentenced an Ohio jail officer to a four-year term for sexually assaulting three female prisoners.

* In South Dakota, the state faced a class action suit that charged the prisons with widespread physical abuse against juvenile girls detained at the State Training School. The suit charged that guards routinely shackled youths in a spread-eagled fashion after cutting off their clothes, sprayed them with pepper while naked, and placed them in isolation for 23 hours each day.

If prison guards mete out such treatment to its domestic criminals, their behaviour towards "foreigners" as well as "9/11 detainees" has been harshly condemned by the human rights community. The detention centres for those with immigration violations used to hold about 20,000 people at one time, and these places, before the 9/11 attacks had become a symbol of all that is wrong with U.S. criminal justice. In 1995, the inmates of the immigration detention centre in Elizabeth, New Jersey, took over the jail to protest against their conditions inside. One Indian inmate complained, according to Human Rights Watch, "that between beatings, correctional officers used pliers to pinch the skin of his genitals and squeeze his tongue." After 9/11, the government picked up thousands of people whom they suspected of being linked to terrorist organisations. Because they had no specific evidence, they held them on routine visa violations. Amnesty International reported that these 9/11 detainees had no contact with family, had no access to proper legal representation, often had no day in court, and complained of "ill-treatment, including verbal and physical abuse, prolonged solitary confinement, and heavy shackling during visits and court appearances."

A U.S. Department of Justice report released in June 2003 surveyed four prisons for detainees including Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Centre. One guard from Brooklyn told the investigators that his fellow officers slammed detainees against the wall, threw them to the floor, shackled them to the walls and cell doors, insulted them during strip searches and made it clear to them that as "Bin Laden juniors" they were "never going to get out of here," at least for "20-25 years like the Cuban people."

GUANTANAMO and the Baghram Air Base tell much more horrendous tales than these. In 2003, The Wall Street Journal spoke to military interrogators who told its correspondent what they are allowed to do: "Interrogators can also play on their prisoners' phobias, such as fear of rats or dogs, or disguise themselves as interrogators from a country known to use torture or threaten to send the prisoners to such a place. Prisoners can be stripped, forcibly shaved and deprived of religious items and toiletries." Human Rights Watch conducted a comprehensive survey of mistreatment of "detainees" in U.S. facilities in Afghanistan and published a report entitled "Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan" (March 2004). One former detainee who spoke to Human Rights Watch investigators said: "We were treated absolutely terribly there. They did terrible things to us, things we'll never forget. It was absolutely awful what they did. We absolutely cannot talk about it with you. We have made our agreements not to talk, and we won't talk about it."

In October 2003, Bush told the Australian press, "No, of course we do not torture people in America. And people who make that claim just do not know anything about our country." On the surface, this is a patent lie. But in fact, Bush might be correct in one respect because his claim rests on his definition of "people". Who count as people in the world of Mr. Bush? Not "terrorists" and not "criminals," those whom he famously calls "evildoers". The media have followed Bush in their use of the labels "terrorist" and "criminal" without a sense that both terrorism and criminality are tactics used by people and not the conditions of existence of these people. They are not only terrorists and criminals, but they are also people who have a complicated history that leads them to using these violent approaches. If people are evildoers or terrorists to the core, then their very bodies are evil. A real person cannot negotiate with them or hope to rehabilitate them: they can only be incarcerated, tortured and killed. This is why the U.S. government (enthusiastically by the Republicans, reluctantly by the Democrats) makes demons of its adversaries and tries to bomb them into oblivion or submission, to pacify them or contain them.

None of this has gone by without resistance from the American people. The Abu Ghraib pictures surfaced only because of the integrity of some troops who would not countenance such actions. The various agencies of the U.S. government charged with oversight and the many human rights outfits continue to pry for information and provide the materials that have been used in articles such as this. Finally, movements across the entire country for the abolition of prisons have emerged over the last decade. Critical Resistance, Incite! Women of Colour Against Violence, Justice Now, The National Centre on Institutions and Alternatives, the Prison Moratorium Project, and a host of other organisations are both fighting against the expansion of this sadistic prison system and for the creation of a community-based, comprehensive alternative to prisons.

Brutality within the U.S. is well known among the working-class and the prison abolitionists, who are both very literate about the ways of power. The America they know is sadistic and mean, harsh and brutal - the freedom they know is the freedom from the Constitution and its protections. But they are also of America, and they have another America in mind as they fight against the vision of Bush and the Abu Ghraib guards. Their America is not the present, but the future, only if their struggles succeed.

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