PHILADELPHIA - November 11 - Far from the aberration painted by the Bush Administration, to find horrendous examples of torture in U.S. society, one need look no further than America’s prisons.
On Monday, the President said in response to criticism of reported secret CIA prisons that handle terrorism suspects, “We [in the United States] do not torture.” However, torture in American prisons is frighteningly widespread.
“The wall of silence that exists around prisons, prisoners and the use of torture in our criminal justice system must come down,” states Bonnie Kerness, Prison Watch coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) which has been tracking such abuses for decades. “As a human rights advocate, I receive testimonies of brutality, humiliation, physical and sexual abuse from men, women and children in prisons.”
So widespread are the practices and human rights violations that major human rights groups have all reported on the pattern. The problem is so pervasive that the United Nations Committee on Torture has cited the United States as a human rights violator — noting egregious violations, including the use of electric stun belts and restraint chairs on prisoners, prison chain gangs, and sexual assault of female prisoners.
“We receive reports from people being forced to live in prolonged isolation for ten even twenty years, being abused with devices of torture such as stun belts or restraint chairs,” Kerness states. “We hear from women being forced to engage in sexual acts. We hear from children as young as 12 being placed in isolation, saying that ‘if they don’t beat you physically then they mentally abuse you.’ ”
Abuse in American Prisons. Think the horrors of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay can’t happen here? Think again. Here are some real examples:
Prison guards in a California jail put an inmate in a bath so hot it boiled 30% of the skin off his body
The use of chain gangs, sexual assaults, and racially motivated torture and ill treatment by police and prison guards has been widely cited
An increasing percentage of the U.S. prison population lives in some form of extended enforced isolation, placed in a cage the size of your bathroom for months and even years.
“Imagine being placed in what is literally a human warehouse where you will stay 24 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year out,” Kerness describes. “In the more progressive units, you may be allowed into a tiny bare concrete yard for exercise twice a week. Mail and reading material are censored. When you leave your cage, you are strip-searched; this often includes a humiliating anal probe. You are shackled around your waist and handcuffed. You are entirely under the control of guards who carry long, black clubs they refer to as ‘nigger beaters.’”
An inmate from Wallens Ridge State Prison, Big Stone Gap, Virginia, states: “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 niggers. 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.”
Prisons are one of the largest growth industries in the United States. While the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, it holds an astounding 25 percent of the world's prisoner population.
“Reports of torture devices in prison largely come from the isolation units, called ‘control units’,” adds Tonya McClary, national director of the AFSC criminal justice program. “Torture devices commonly used in U.S. prisons are four-point restraints, restraint hoods, belts and beds, stun grenades, belts and guns, tethers, waist and leg chains and air tasers.”
Add to this the U.N. treaty positions on the racially biased death penalty, abuses involving the mentally ill, prison labor, children's rights and the shocking treatment of people in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers.
“U.S. prisoners are mostly poor and working-class people who need jobs and education,” McClary concludes.
Internationally recognized for its contributions to civilian public service during World Wars I and II, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is an international social justice organization that, along with the British Friends Service Council, won the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Quakers worldwide.
Tonya McClary, national director of the AFSC Criminal Justice program. The Criminal Justice program works nationwide to eliminate the use of prisons, jails, and executions as a “solution” to crime and violence. The group challenges the morality and effectiveness of the "get-tough-on-crime" mentality and believes taking the life of another human being is never justified.
Bonnie Kerness, AFSC Prison Watch coordinator. Bonnie has been active in the Civil Rights movement since the 1960s. She saw Black children in the South being hosed by police and bitten by police dogs when all they wanted was to go to school; she has witnessed the death of activists at the hands of police, state troopers and the National Guard. By the time she was twenty in the early 60s and living in Tennessee she had become an activist and organizer. Her work with the American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Program dates from 1976.
Oskar Castro, AFSC Youth and Militarism program. Oskar works to educate young people about the risks, horrors and misconceptions of military life. “GI’s returning from Iraq report that methods used in United States military prisons and detention centers mirror the questionable tactics used in America’s prison system,” Castro states. “That indicates the problem is more a part of our cultural make-up than most care to admit."
Oskar gives factual, no-nonsense information about the many tricks recruiters use to lure young people to enlist; informative how-to’s for would-be conscientious objectors; stats and other pertinent details concerning recruitment efforts in our schools. Oskar’s knowledge specialties include the expansion of the Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (JROTC) in high schools, the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, and the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on military recruitment. He travels widely to lead counter-recruitment trainings, workshops, and discussions. He is currently one of the key architects of the incipient National Network on the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY), a coalition of counter-recruitment organizations.
Mohammed Ibrahim, torture survivor from the Sudan. Mohammed is head of the Group Against Torture in Sudan (GATS) an advocacy group in Philadelphia consisting of Sudanese American human rights activists and torture victims who survived the torture machine of the current Islamist regime in Sudan.
There is a report on torture in the U.S. prisons up at the AFSC web site www.afsc.org (Prison Reports located at http://tinyurl.com/8oklx)