Published on Tuesday, June 8, 2004 by The Wilmington Journal (North Carolina)
Experts Say US Prisoners are Subjected to Iraqi-Style Abuse
by Hazel Trice Edney
WASHINGTON - As Americans continue to recoil at the sight of photographs and videotapes showing handcuffed prisoners piled naked on top of one another, being bitten by dogs, being sexually exploited and subjected to other forms of debasing abuse at the Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq, human rights advocates say similar constitutional violations occur on a regular basis in United States prisons.
"In recent years, U. S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars, not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died," states a report, published last month by Human Rights Watch, titled, "Prisoner Abuse: How Different are U. S. Prisons?"
The report, written by Jamie Fellner, director of the Human Rights Watch U. S. Program, observes: "Correctional officers will bribe, coerce, or violently force inmates into granting sexual favors, including oral sex or intercourse. Prison staff have laughed at and ignored the pleas of male prisoners seeking protection from rape by other inmates."
It continues: "A culture of brutality has developed in which correctional officers know they can get away with excessive, unnecessary, or even purely malicious violence.Perhaps if photos or videotapes of abuse in U. S. prisons were to circulate publicly, Americans would be galvanized to protest such treatment as they have the treatment of Iraqi prisoners. Absent such graphic and unavoidable evidence, it is all too likely that abuse will continue to be a part of many prison sentences."
Children are not immune, the report concludes. "They too are kicked, beaten, punched, choked, and sexually preyed upon by adult staff."
President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Senate Arms Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and many others have deplored the abuses in Iraq.
''The actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people,'' Bush told Al-Hurra, a U.S.-sponsored Arab-oriented television station. "People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent."
But Human Rights advocates say Bush doesn't have to leave the U. S. to find examples of similar abuses.
''What we see is rape by prison guards, sexual assaults by prison guards. We have clients who have gone through extreme emotional trauma and physical pain because of the abuses they've endured here in the United States,'' says Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the national prison project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "When the president and officials in Congress say they are shocked and embarrassed by what's going on in Iraq at the hands of our U. S. military, I have to point the finger and say, 'Why aren't you expressing the same outrage and shame at the same conditions going on in your home states?'"
The U.S. has the largest per capita prison and jail population in the Western industrialized world, with approximately 2 million inmates.
Shifts in law enforcement and sentencing practices during the ''war on drugs'' over the past two decades have caused a dramatic growth in inmates convicted of low level, non-violent drug offenses, reports the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D. C-based prison research and policy development organization. Sixty-percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges. A fifth of all state prisoners are in for drugs and most state prisoners have no prior criminal record, according to the Sentencing Project.
Over the past two decades, the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men, making them the fastest growing segment of the prison population in local jails and state and federal prisons. Approximately 93,000 women are behind bars.
Although African-American women over the age of 10 are approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represent nearly half of the women incarcerated, according to the Justice Department.
Abuse of prisoners, both men and women, is especially difficult to stop when prison authorities refuse to acknowledge the problem, says Fellner.
"In Florida, a man died with boot marks on his back, not to mention all the many broken bones in his body," recalls Fellner in an interview. "The staff said, 'Oh, he flung himself on the floor,' or 'we just used regular force.' They used many stories. They were criminally prosecuted because the man died. But there was no conviction. The internal management backed up its staff."
These incidents happen more often than people like to admit.
''Sadly, there is no real surprise in the horrific photos from Iraq," says NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. "Americans of color are all too familiar with incidents of prisoner abuse stretching from the distant past to the present day. It begins when the person hel prisoner is considered less 'human' than the prison guard; it happened in Iraq and it happens all too often here.''
To reduce some of the abuse that is commonplace, President Bush signed the ''Prison Rape Elimination Act'' last September, promising the "analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape in Federal, State and local institutions, and for information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect individuals from prison rape."
Punitive violence is another issue raised by the Human Rights Watch report.
In a 1992 Supreme Court case, Hudson v. McMillan, an inmate was hog tied to the floor of a Louisiana prison and severely beaten by three prison guards. The court held 7 to 2 that the beating amounted to a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia dissented.
In his minority opinion, Thomas argued that the beating by three prison guards was not cruel and unusual punishment although the beating left Hudson with loosened teeth, facial bruises, and a cracked dental plate. ''A use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be torturous, it may be criminal ... but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment,''' Thomas wrote.
An Amnesty International report, published last year, "The Pain Merchants," outlined other examples of what it called official
In one example, the report said: "In August 2000, a lawsuit on behalf of District of Columbia prisoners housed at Sussex 11 State Prison in Virginia alleged they were routinely stripped to their underwear and strapped to a steel bed by the wrists and ankles, with an additional strap across their chests. The prisoners alleged they were held immobilized for 48 hours or more, and that because breaks to use the toilet were grossly inadequate, they were forced to lie in their own waste."
Some experts fear that abuse of prisoners in U.S. correctional facilities is widespread.
"The cases and newspaper reports and instances that are documented by Human Rights Watch and others of abuse in U. S. prisons is just the tip of an iceberg," says Fellner. "What we don't know is how big the ice burg actually is."