Prison Abuse Is No New Scandal

by on May 20th, 2004

As we all know, the United States has a problem with prisoner abuse. Reported abuses of prisoners by American personnel include:

  • strip searches for the purposes of humiliation, and forcing prisoners to remain naked for long periods of time
  • sexual abuse and the use of sexual threats to force compliance with rules
  • use of restraints in a cruel manner and keeping prisoners restrained for long periods of time in violation of prison policies
  • lack of access to exercise, fresh air, and other amenities required by the Geneva conventions
  • long periods of isolation
  • beatings and electroshock
  • housing children with violent adult criminals, putting them at risk for physical and sexual abuse
  • male guards improperly supervising female prisoners in violation of their rights to privacy and dignity
  • allegations of rape
  • lack of documentation and oversight by prison authorities of allegations of abuse

What might surprise you, however, is that not a single one of the incidents I’m referring to above took place in Iraq. They’re all alleged or documented cases of abuse by American guards of American inmates in American prisons right here in the Good Old U.S.A. The cases are as follows:

  • On December 15, 2001, Joann Lanoue was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. When she refused a Breathalyzer test, as is her right under the law, she was forced to undergo a strip-search. All of her clothing was taken from her, and she was left naked in a holding cell for five to six hours, and her detention was videotaped by police.
  • Thirty-one women filed a class action suit against the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1995, alleging sexual abuse of female prisoners by the guards, and even more disturbingly, retaliatory abuse against women who reported the abuse. They and other prisoners have alleged that guards commit acts of rape and sexual assault, offer privileges and perks to women who agree to have sex with them, and use rape as a punishment for infractions.
  • At least four inmates have died in the U.S. since 2000 due to being immobilized in a “restraint chair,” sometimes for days at a time. Inmates have also reported being shackled to walls, forced to stand restrained in the hot sun for hours, hooded, and chained against the instruction of medical professionals.
  • Human Rights Watch has found that main local jails lack any exercise or fresh air access for inmates, who are often held there for up to a year.
  • Solitary confinement is used as a punishment in most U.S. prisons, and while human rights standards demand at least 1 hour each day of fresh air and exercise, many prisons do not comply. The use of solitary confinement has also been expanded to children.
  • Hundreds of cases have been brought against prison officials around the country for beating and abusing inmates under their care. The electroshock belt, which delivers 50,000 volts of electricity to a prisoner’s waist and kidneys, is totally legal, and is a popular tool to ensure compliance with court and chain gang rules.
  • Children charged and sentenced as adults under the law often end up in adult prisons, where they are far more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of other inmates and guards.
  • Women are routinely supervised by male guards, despite international human rights standards calling for limitations on male contact with female prisoners. Women report inappropriate fondling, men present during invasive strip searches, male guards watching them shower, dress, and use the toilet, and other violations of their dignity.
  • Estimates place the number of rapes and sexual assaults on U.S. prisoners at approximately 240,000 per year for male prisoners alone. By contrast, there were only 90,000 male-on-female rapes reported to police in the U.S. in 2002. Guards are often complicit in such abuse.
  • Corrections staff routinely refuse to take reports on alleged abuse, and such reports almost never result in criminal charges against offenders. Prison officials have been known to laugh at abuse victims or tell them they deserved it.

When the abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became public this month, President Bush told the Arab world, “In our country, when there’s an allegation of abuse — more than an allegation in this case, actual abuse, we saw the pictures — there will be a full investigation and justice will be delivered.” His promise, however, doesn’t seem to apply to prisoners under his care here in the U.S. Not only do federal prisoners face unchecked abuse every day, but a federal judge wrote of Bush’s leadership in Texas:

Texas prison inmates continue to live in fear… More vulnerable inmates are raped, beaten, owned, and sold by more powerful ones. Despite their pleas to prison officials, they are often refused protection. Instead, they pay for protection, in money, services, or sex. Correctional officers continue to rely on the physical control of excessive force to enforce order. Those inmates locked away in administrative segregation, especially those with mental illnesses, are subjected to extreme deprivations and daily psychological harm.

Apparently the prison abuse in Iraq does, in fact “represent America” after all. And just as the Iraqis deserve better from us, so too do the human beings, criminal or not, who are abused in our nations prisons every day.

Amy Phillips