America's Abu Ghraibs: Prisoner Abuse in the US | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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America's Abu Ghraibs: Prisoner Abuse in the US


Last Updated: 07/01/2013 1:09 am

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But, even if we have fewer system-wide examinations of state penal systems, anecdotal evidence of rampant abuse still abounds. The New York Times' Fox Butterfield reported on May 8 that guards at one Arizona prison routinely make male prisoners wear pink women's underwear to humiliate them, while prisoners at a Virginia facility report they are regularly beaten and made to crawl. In 2000, the Justice Department released a report alleging that guards at the Jena Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana - which is owned and operated by the Wackenhut Corporation, one of the largest private prison companies in the United States - engaged in routine physical abuse of young prisoners. After subsequent lawsuits filed by the federal government and private plaintiffs, Wackenhut surrendered the prisoners back to state authorities.

And we do have systematic evidence of at least one type of abuse: prison rape. In 2001, Human Rights Watch released a report citing credible estimates that 20 percent of all male prisoners in the United States have been raped. Inadequate supervision by guards, the mixing of prisoner types, and sheer indifference by prison authorities are often what allows the rapes to take place. One prisoner quoted by Human Rights Watch described a story straight out of the horrific HBO series "Oz": When he appealed to the guards for help, prison authorities informed him - in front of the rapist - that they weren't interested in "lovers' quarrels." The rapist continued to assault the man, then nearly killed him by bludgeoning him in the head with a combination lock.

The report suggested that, of all the states, Texas had the worst rape problem - which isn't surprising, given its history. As late as 1999, even as Texas authorities insisted they had corrected the problems prompting the original Ruiz lawsuit, inmates were still testifying about wretched treatment inside the Texas prisons. One prisoner described being locked in an isolation cell, naked, after being doused with pepper spray. Citing accounts like this, Justice maintained his oversight of the system until he was all but forced to end it by a higher court in 2002.

The governor of Texas, during the final years of the Ruiz oversight, was, of course, George W. Bush. And, according to Perkinson, who is writing a history of the Texas penal system, Bush - like most of the state's Republican leadership - seemed much more concerned with throwing off the yoke of federal oversight than actually making sure conditions for prisoners had improved. But, in fairness to the president, it's not as if Democrats around the country have been particularly aggressive about safeguarding prisoners from abuse, either. As Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, says, the Democrats - and many Republicans - were "completely intimidated by the [infamous furloughed Massachusetts inmate] Willie Horton phenomenon." So, in 1996, after Republicans rolled the prison litigation reforms into the budget reconciliation, both President Clinton and his congressional allies went along without a fuss, refusing pleas to revisit the law in later years.

Then again, it's hard to blame Democrats for their skittishness when the public itself seems so unmoved by stories of prisoner abuse. Even that now-infamous case from Brazoria, Texas - the one that made national news eight years ago - failed to stir much public outrage. The settlement, which the plaintiffs' attorneys accepted after focus groups suggested a courtroom verdict was unlikely to be more generous, only left about $1 million in damages after legal fees, to be divided among as many as 700 inmates. As one plaintiffs' lawyer explained to the Houston Chronicle, the "jury was not as responsive to the videotape as you would have thought...Everybody was of the opinion that is what prisoners should get."

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