† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Torture at Home
by nancy a heitzeg
As the nation notes another passing of 9/11 and now debates what “line” is too far, as the California Prisoners end their third hunger in as many years, as i reflect back on the most recent CI diaries — stories of tasing and trauma, police excess and solitary, the anniversary of the Attica Uprising – one word emerges as a unifying thread.
In the post-9/11 era, much attention has been paid to the torture tactics endorsed by the Bush regime in the so-called “War on Terror”. The use of torture in clear violation of a number of international agreements and accords.
The United Nations, in the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, defines torture as follows:
In addition to the UN, an array of NGOs consistently calls for awareness and action, especially for torture committed by the United States abroad. ALCU for example urges us to read a secret document per day — all chronicling US violations of The Geneva Conventions, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention against Torture, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention, UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners , UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Often the atrocities cited are committed at Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram, at Abu Ghraib or some other secret black hole prison which holds enemy combatants seized in the war on terror. The cases cited occur far away and involve hundreds – perhaps thousands. All of the cases involve heinous torture tactics which must be redressed.
But what about Pelican Bay and Red Onion and Chino and Limestone and Angola and thousands more US prisons? What about the millions tortured at home? Savaged by dogs, electrocuted with cattle prods and tasers, burned by toxic chemicals, suffocated in “restraint chairs”, isolated to the point of insanity??
US Prisons could reveal a torture story a day for a month for a year for a lifetime.
Here’s what happened to one SHU inmate who refused to give up his dinner tray
The supervising lieutenant then authorized his prison guard sergeants to forcibly remove Castillo from the cell. To accomplish this removal, two rounds from a 38 milli-meter gas gun were fired into the cell. A taser gun was also fired, striking Castillo in the chest and stomach. Then, without attempting to retrieve the tray (which re-mained near the front of the cell), some number of officers entered the cell, walked past the tray, and advanced toward Castillo. Castillo testified that one of the corrections officers then hit him on the top of his head with the butt of the gas gun, knocking him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he was on the floor with his face down. An corrections officer was stepping on his hands and hitting him on his calves with a baton, at which point Castillo passed out a second time. When he regained consciousness again,he was dragged out of the cell face down; his head was bleeding, and a piece of his scalp had been detached or peeled back.
An inmate from Wallens Ridge State Prison, Big Stone Gap
”I was strapped down to four point restraint . . . I’ve never in my life been strapped to a bed — it’s terrible . . . being strapped down and under circumstances of helplessness and officers coming in the cell while I’m strapped down displaying their racism — saying, ‘We hate n$*&^#rs. If it was up to us you['d] be hung.’ To say the least I was . . . scared. I would have preferred the beat-down — instead of the mental torture I was put through.”
Another mentally ill inmate suffered severe burns over a third of his body after inciting the scorn of prison guards by biting an officer and smearing his cell with fecal matter:
Nurse Kuroda later observed, from her prison nurse’s station, that Dortch was in the bathtub with his hands cuffed behind his back, with an officer pushing down on his shoulder and holding his arms in place. Subsequently, another corrections officer came into the nurse’s station and made a call. Kuroda’s unrebutted testimony is that she overheard the officer say about Dortch, who is African-American, that it “looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through, that his skin is so dirty and so rotten, it’s all fallen off.” Concerned by this remark, Kuroda walked over toward the tub, and saw Dortch standing with his back to her. She testified that, from just below the buttocks down, his skin had peeled off and was hanging in large clumps around his legs, which had turned white with some redness. Even then, in a shocking show of indifference, the prison officers made no effort to seek any medical assistance or advice. Instead, it appeared to Kuroda that the corrections officers were simply dressing Dortch to return him to his cell. When Kuroda told them they could not return him in that condition, Officer Williams responded, in a manner described by Kuroda as disparaging and challenging, that Dortch had been living in his own feces and urine for three months, and if he was going to get infected, he would have been already.
These cases are not anomalous, they are business as usual .The United States has a long list of standard police, prison and jail practices that rise to the level of torture. Included in this list are: racial profiling; excessive use of force – including use of dogs, kicking and beatings of restrained suspects with fists, batons, and flashlights; excessive use of dangerous chokeholds, “hog-ties”, and dangerous restraints – including four point restraints, the “hitching post” and the restraint chair – that have resulted in multiple deaths; excessive use of tasers and chemical sprays; excessive use of deadly force; shackling of pregnant inmates; use of nudity, strip searches and sexual humiliation and assault as a source of social control; abuse of transgender prisoners; failure to curtail sexual assaults on both male and female inmates by other inmates and guards; denial of medical care or treatment; confinement of the mentally ill; medical experimentation on inmates; excessive use of “super max” and isolation confinement and brutal methods of execution, including lethal injection which fails to meet the standards set forth by the American Veterinary Association
For a time after the Abu Ghraib scandal, some attention was paid to the easy comparison between what went on in Baghdad and what goes on in US prisons everyday. The BBC produced an exhaustive and widely viewed documentary – Torture Inc. Americas Brutal Prisons. (All five parts are embedded here.) There has also been some attention to conditions of confinement for Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning both with regard to extreme use of solitary and now, issues of transgender rights in prison.
There was fleeting hope that increased awareness would spark outrage and public outrage is indeed the prisoners last hope. ( The Prison Litigation Reform Act severely constrained inmates’ ability to seek redress for even the most egregious violations. The truest words that Clarence Thomas has ever written are these, “The Constitution has always demanded less within the prison walls.”)
“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.”
The jury seems to be in — too many have seen and do not care. These tortures are now part of nightly entertainment – they are routinized, normalized and legitimated as part of the endless parade of “reality” crime shows — Lockdown!, COPS, DEA, Lock Up Raw ad nausem..
The other night on Behind Bars a black man was arrested in Las Vegas for jay-walking. Not booked not charged not tried not convicted — but merely arrested for yes jay-walking. When he complained that 4 officers were roughing him up, he was forcibly strapped into a restraint chair and a plastic bag pulled over his head.
A scene straight out of Abu Ghraib. In Vegas. On television. For our viewing pleasure.
In his classic, Good People and Dirty Work, sociologist Evervett C. Hughes asks this with regard to Nazi Germany –
“How could such dirty work be done among, and in a sense, by millions of ordinary… civilized people? How could these millions of ordinary people live in the midst of such cruelty without a general uprising against it and against the people who did it? How and where could there be found in a modern civilized country the several hundred thousand men and women capable of such work? How were these people so far released from the inhibitions of civilization as to be able to imagine, let alone perform, the ferocious, obscene, and perverse actions that they did imagine and perform? How could they be kept at such a height of fury through years of having to see daily at close range the human wrecks they made?”
Let us look in the mirror.
Let us ask and answer the hard questions.
Let us stop supporting torture wherever it occurs.