Published on Sunday, May 28, 2000 in the Sunday Herald / Scotland
Jail House Horror In The Land Of Free
by Ros Davidson
PRISON guards on trial for staging gladiator fights between inmates before killing them. Electro-shock stun belts that leave a man grovelling or unconscious. Pregnant women shackled to beds. Caustic pepper spray methodi cally daubed or sprayed on to the face and eyes of non-violent protesters. And scores of new "super-max" high-security prisons with conditions so inhumane the legendary Alcatraz jail near San Francisco seems mild.

These are not a fictional Hollywood mix of ancient Rome and third-millennium Singapore. They are the worst excesses of law enforcement in the present-day USA, from New England and New York to Los Angeles and Seattle. Such "excessively harsh" treatment is at the core of the first United Nations report on torture in the USA.

Minority prisoners - African-Americans and Latinos - seem to be picked on more often by abusive guards, said the UN Committee on Torture report, issued last week. Also disturbing are recent shootings of unarmed civilians by police and the rape of female prisoners by male guards, said the independent panel of prison and criminal justice experts.

And with talking tough on penal measures being the bread-and-butter of presidential election campaigns, prisoners can expect little public support from candidates in coming months. Republican challenger George W Bush is renowned for his tough stance in Texas, where he is the sitting governor. And with Bush leading vice president Al Gore, the likely Democratic candidate, by between 5-8% in the polls, it seems unlikely Gore will take any stances which may be perceived as liberal by middle America.

Of the world's eight million inmates, two million are in the USA's overflowing jails. Of those, 60% are minorities, while only one-quarter of the US population is black or Latino, and 75,000 are women. The committee is urging the USA to stop incarcerating children and teenagers along with adults, a practice it says puts them at the mercy of older seasoned inmates.

Singled out for criticism too are stun belts, used in at least 20 states including the largest, California, sometimes even during court appearances. Guards can zap an unruly or unwilling prisoner with 50,000 volts, causing excruciating pain, for up to eight minutes. A federal court in Los Angeles issued a temporary ban last year on the devices in the city's courtrooms after an incident in which a state judge ordered an accused, Ronnie Hawkins, to be jolted because he would not keep quiet in court.

"There's a huge increase in the US prison population and they're taking the cheap way out, supplying guards with electro-shock belts," says Janice Christiansen of Amnesty International USA. "There's a fine line between control and torture." The human rights group has launched a campaign on the USA's prisons and policing, the first time it has done so to highlight law enforcement in a Western country.

With product names such as Intimidator, White Lightning, Freedom, and Consumer Spirit, US-manufactured "less than lethal" devices such as laser guns, stun belts and batons, as well as electronic restraints and shields, are used increasingly by overworked prison and police departments to save money and to appear tough on crime.

Since 1980, the USA's inmate population has increased almost sevenfold from 300,000, largely because of the "war on drugs" and a popular fear of crime. Another contributor is the so-called "three strikes" legislation - a term borrowed from baseball - which requires life imprisonment for people convicted a third time even if the last crime is minor and non-violent, such as shoplifting. California, which has the three strikes system, now spends more on its prison system than on education, say civil rights groups. Meanwhile, the hiring of new prison guards is lagging, espe cially with the current all-time low jobless rate.

Chain gangs, re-introduced in the past few years even in the liberal state of Massachusetts, should be abolished too, said the UN report. Work crews are shackled together electronically, or with old-fashioned metal chains, to subdue them and so fewer guards need be used. No other Western country uses stun belts or chain gangs.

American authorities, as well as private prison companies, are building more and more so-called "super-maximum" jails. Prisoners may end up in solitary confinement in small cells for 23 hours a day with no work or training. Such conditions are excessively harsh, says the United Nations committee, a view backed a year ago by a federal judge who described one women's prison in Texas as bad enough to make otherwise healthy inmates become psychotic.

There are about 200,000 inmates in 60 super-max prisons. And more jails are under construction, not because there is an increase in more dangerous inmates, but because generous federal finan cing is so readily available, says the American Civil Liberties Union. The USA has been known for harsh law enforcement since the days of the frontier, but this is the first time it has been publicly rebuked on the world stage for its penal practices.

The USA ratified the interna tional convention on torture in 1994, shortly before President Bill Clinton took office. The treaty does not, however, address the death penalty. Under another international agreement, the USA has also retained the right to execute juveniles and the mentally ill and, in some cases, to imprison youths with adults.

This month the Clinton administration, defending itself to the committee, conceded that the record was not perfect and that many jails were badly over- crowded. One of the most startling cases is currently unfolding in a trial in California. Last week, the 12 jurors heard testi mony in the trial of eight guards at Corcoran prison who are accused of arranging gladiator fights between rival gang inmates and then shooting them. One officer, Timothy Dickerson, allegedly rang a firebell beforehand and announced to inmates: "Let's get ready to rumble."

From 1989 to 1994, Corcoran guards shot dead seven inmates and injured 43 others, more than any other US prison. Inmates include Sirhan Sirhan, imprisoned for the assassination of Robert Kennedy and whose lawyers last week were seeking a retrial, and serial killer Charles Manson.

Copyright 2000 Sunday Herald