Since Congress recently handed Bush the power to identify American citizens as "unlawful enemy combatants" and detain them indefinitely without charge, it's worth examining the administration's record of prisoner abuse as well as the building of stateside detention centers.
As Texas governor (from 1995-2000) Bush oversaw the executions of 152 prisoners, and thus became the most-killing governor in the history of the United States. Ethnic minorities, many of whom did not have access to proper legal representation, comprised a large percentage of those Bush put to death, and in one particularly egregious example, Bush executed an immigrant who hadn't even seen a consular official from his own country (as is required by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the US was a signatory). Bush's explanation: "Texas did not sign the Vienna Convention, so why should we be subject to it?"
Governor Bush also flouted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by choosing to execute juvenile offenders, a practice shared at the time only by Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Significantly, in 1998 a full 92% of the juvenile offenders on Bush's death row were ethnic minorities.
Conditions inside Texan prisons during Bush's reign were so notorious that federal Judge William Wayne Justice wrote, "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions."
In September 1996, for example, a videotaped raid on inmates at a county jail in Texas showed guards using stun guns and an attack dog on prisoners, who were later dragged face-down back to their cells.
Funding of mental health programs during Bush's reign was so poor that Texan prisons had a sizeable number of mentally-impaired inmates; defying international human rights standards, these inmates ended up on death row. For instance, a prisoner named Emile Duhamel, with severe psychological disabilities and an IQ of 56, died in his Texan death-row jail cell in July 1998. Authorities blamed "natural causes" but a lack of air conditioning in cells that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a summer heat wave may have killed Duhamel instead. How many other Texan prisoners died of such neglect during Bush's governorship is unclear.
As president, Bush presides over a prison population topping two million people, giving America the dubious distinction of having a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country. When considering that (based on 2003 figures) the US has three times more prisoners per capita than Iran and seven times more than Germany, the nation looks more like a Gulag than the Land of the Free.
The White House has also stifled investigation into the roughly 760 aliens (mainly Muslim men) the US government rounded up post-9/11, ostensibly for immigration violations. Amnesty International reports that 9/11 detainees have suffered "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by some corrections officers" and a denial of "basic human rights."
Then of course, there's Guantanamo, where the US is holding hundreds of detainees in top secrecy and without access to courts, legal counsel or family visits. Add to that the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis the US has imprisoned (including a large percentage of innocent civilians) and countless US secret prisons across the globe, and it looks as if incarceration is the nation's best export.
While Abu Ghraib may have left administration officials falling over themselves with protestations of compassion, it's worth remembering that the Bush White House has fought hard against the International Convention Against Torture, especially a proposal to establish voluntary inspections of prisons and detention centers in signatory countries, such as the United States.
Put it all together, and last week's passage of the Military Commissions Act is ominous for those in the US. As Bruce Ackerman noted recently in The Los Angeles Times, the legislation "authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any protections of the Bill of Rights." The vague criteria for being labeled an enemy combatant (taking part in "hostilities against the United States") don't help either. Would that include anti-war protestors? People who criticize Bush? Unclear.
In 2002, wacko former Attorney General John Ashcroft called for the indefinite detainment of US citizens he considered to be "enemy combatants," and while widely criticized at the time, Congress went ahead and fulfilled Ashcroft's nefarious vision last week. Ashcroft had also called for stateside internment camps, and accordingly, in January 2006 the US government awarded a Halliburton subsidiary $385 million to build detention centers to be used for, "an unexpected influx of immigrants or to house people after a natural disaster or for new programs that require additional detention space." New programs that require additional detention space. Hmm.
The disgraceful Military Commissions Act and the building of domestic internment camps are yet more examples of blowback from the administration's so-called war on terror, and we ignore these increasing assaults on our civil liberties at our own peril.
1. Read the Military Commissions Act of 2006 for yourself here.
Find out how your congressmembers voted on this legislation, and raise the topic when they ask for your vote this November.
2. For more information on US prisoner abuse, check out BBC's report from 2005 entitled "Torture Inc. Americas Brutal Prisons." Text and video versions are archived here. You can learn more about US prisoner's rights from the American Civil Liberties Union.
3. To take action regarding "the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror," visit Cageprisoners.com.
Heather Wokusch is the author of The Progressives' Handbook: Get the Facts and Make a Difference Now (Volumes 1 and 2). Heather can be reached at www.heatherwokusch.com.