The Gated Society: The U.S. love affair with incarceration, solitary confinement and torture

May 29, 2013

I live in a country (the USA which in mid-2011 had 311,800,000 people) that imprisons more than 2.5 million of its citizens on an average day in more than 9,000 jails and prisons, boasting the highest per capita detention rate in the world by far – 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people {Local jails: 785,556 [Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, March 31, 2009]; state and federal adult prisons: 1,610,584 [Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, March 31, 2009]; juvenile facilities: 79,166 [Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, February 24, 2010]; immigrant detention: 33,400 [ACLU: Immigration Detention, May 8, 2014]; and Indian Reservation Jails: 2,364 [Bureau of Justice Statistics , US Department of Justice, Jails in Indian Country, 2012]= Grand Total: 2,511,070 US prisoners on an average day}. Rwanda has the second highest detention rate at 595; Russia comes in third at 568. The world’s average per capita detention rate is 146. [World Prison Population List, 9th Editon, Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies].

More than 60 percent of US prisoners are from racial and ethnic minority groups [“Rate of Incarceration Per 100,000, By Gender and Race, 2010, “The Sentencing Project], yet they comprise only 37 percent of the general population [“Census: Minorities Constitute 37 Percent of U.S. population”, National Journal, The Next America, May 17, 2012]. The US, with 4.6 percent of the world’s population, holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners [World Prison Population List, 9th Editon, Roy Walmsley, International Centre for Prison Studies].

Some 80,000 prisoners are locked up in solitary confinement in facilities for years such as exist in Pelican Bay Prison in California, Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, and hundreds of others prisons. Being held in solitary for more than 15 days was determined in 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur to begin devastating, often irreversible physical and mental ill effects, and is therefore considered torture. [“Solitary Confinement: FAQ, Solitary Watch, www.solitary]. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes in the US is also not unusual, itself another form of torture in violation of international law. [“Is Force –Feeding Torture?” by Joe Nocera, New York Times, May 31, 2013]. Solitary confinement inevitably contributes to increased risks of prison suicides, of which hundreds are reported every year. [“Critics: ‘Maximum Security’ a Factor in Prison Suicide Rate,” Bob Ortega, The Republic (Arizona), June 2, 2012]. Nine Guantanamo prisoners are reported to have died, and at least six of these deaths were suicides. [“Guantanamo Bay Detention Center Fact Sheet – Guatanamo By The Numbers,” National Religious Campaign Against Torture].

I studied the regular use of torture in Massachusetts prisons in 1981, where force feeding of striking prisoners was common; as was the withholding of rights and privileges such as necessary medicine, mail, or winter clothing during cold weather; the imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, igniting clothes and bedding, providing too little or too much heat, and spraying mace and tear gas; inflicting physical beatings of prisoners filing prison complaints or litigation, of those protesting conditions using hunger strikes; and various forms of intentional psychological abuse such as arbitrary shakedown of cells and brutal rectal searches, ordering prisoners to lie face down on cold floors or the outside ground before receiving food, and empty announcements of visitors or family only later to say it was a joke. [“Walpole State Prison: An Exercise in Torture (June 1981),].

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, President Teddy Roosevelt proudly defended water boarding torture as part of the arsenal of techniques to achieve “the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism” of the Filipinos, or “googoos”. In Haiti in 1920, the NAACP investigated the conduct of U.S. Marines who were murdering thousands of Haitians while practicing widespread torture to overcome a Haitian revolt of “savage monkeys” against the continuing unwanted U.S. presence there. The word googoo morphed into “gook” as the derogatory term used by U.S. soldiers against the Vietnamese.

In 1931 President Hoover’s Wickersham Report (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) concluded that the use of torture (intentional infliction of various methods of pain and suffering) was “widespread” throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system. The U.S. school of the Americas has been teaching torture (“interrogation”) to Latin American military personnel since 1946.

Torture IS U.S. policy.

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