12 October, 2006

Torture Inc, America's prisons - "the brutality has become customary"

The prison guards stand over their captives with electric cattle prods, stun guns, and dogs. Many of the prisoners have been ordered to strip naked. The guards are yelling abuse at them, ordering them to lie on the ground and crawl. ‘Crawl, motherfuckers, crawl.’

If a prisoner doesn’t drop to the ground fast enough, a guard kicks him or stamps on his back. There’s a high-pitched scream from one man as a dog clamps its teeth onto his lower leg.

Those are images captured in British Channel 4 reporter Deborah Davies' documentary Torture: America’s Brutal Prisons:

Another prisoner has a broken ankle. He can’t crawl fast enough so a guard jabs a stun gun onto his buttocks. The jolt of electricity zaps through his naked flesh and genitals. For hours afterwards his whole body shakes. Lines of men are now slithering across the floor of the cellblock while the guards stand over them shouting, prodding and kicking. Second by second, their humiliation is captured on a video camera by one of the guards. The images of abuse and brutality he records are horrifyingly familiar. These were exactly the kind of pictures from inside Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad that shocked the world this time last year. And they are similar, too, to the images of brutality against Iraqi prisoners that this week led to the conviction of three British soldiers. But there is a difference. These prisoners are not caught up in a war zone. They are Americans, and the video comes from inside a prison in Texas.
Taking advantage of state regulations that require filming to be able to prove proper procedures & levels of force are being used, Davies finds that "[i]n fact, many of them record the exact opposite." She continues:

Frank Carlson was one of the lawyers who fought a compensation battle on behalf of the victims. I asked him about his reaction when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke last year and U.S. politicians rushed to express their astonishment and disgust that such abuses could happen at the hands of American guards.

‘I thought: "What hypocrisy," Carlson told me. Because they know we do it here every day.’

All the lawyers I spoke to during our investigations shared Carlson’s belief that Abu Ghraib, far from being the work of a few rogue individuals, was simply the export of the worst practices that take place in the domestic prison system all the time. They pointed to the mountain of files stacked on their desks, on the floor, in their office corridors – endless stories of appalling, sadistic treatment inside America’s own prisons.
All the hand-wringing by liberals that torture is un-american has to stop until this society as a whole is prepared to really look at itself & how it has behaved these past 60 years.

It’s terrible to watch some of the videos and realise that you’re not only seeing torture in action but, in the most extreme cases, you are witnessing young men dying.

In one horrific scene, a naked man, passive and vacant, is seen being led out of his cell by prison guards. They strap him into a medieval-looking device called a ‘restraint chair’. His hands and feet are shackled, there’s a strap across his chest, his head lolls forward. He looks dead. He’s not. Not yet. The chair is his punishment because guards saw him in his cell with a pillowcase on his head and he refused to take it off. The man has a long history of severe schizophrenia. Sixteen hours later, they release him from the chair. And two hours after that, he dies from a blood clot resulting from his barbaric treatment.

The tape comes from Utah – but there are others from Connecticut, Florida, Texas, Arizona and probably many more. We found more than 20 cases of prisoners who’ve died in the past few years after being held in a restraint chair.

Two of the deaths we investigated were in the same county jail in Phoenix, Arizona, which is run by a man who revels in the title of ‘America’s Toughest Sheriff.’ His name is Joe Arpaio. . . . We uncovered two videotapes from surveillance cameras showing how his tough stance can end in tragedy.

The first tape, from 2001, shows a man named Charles Agster dragged in by police, handcuffed at the wrists and ankles. Agster is mentally disturbed and a drug user. He was arrested for causing a disturbance in a late-night grocery store. The police handed him over to the Sheriff’s deputies in the jail. Agster is a tiny man, weighing no more than nine stone, but he’s struggling. The tape shows nine deputies manhandling him into the restraint chair. One of them kneels on Agster’s stomach, pushing his head forward on to his knees and pulling his arms back to strap his wrists into the chair. Bending someone double for any length of time is dangerous – the manuals on the use of the 'restraint chair’ warn of the dangers of ‘positional asphyxia.’ Fifteen minutes later, a nurse notices Agster is unconscious. The cameras show frantic efforts to resuscitate him, but he’s already brain dead. He died three days later in hospital. . . . His mother, Carol, cried as she told me: ‘If that’s not torture, I don’t know what is.’
. . .
The second tape, from five years earlier, shows Scott Norberg dying a similar death in the same jail. He was also a drug user arrested for causing a nuisance. Norberg was severely beaten by the guards, stunned up to 19 times with a Taser gun and forced into the chair where – like Charles Agster – he suffocated.
. . .
Not all the tapes we uncovered were filmed by the guards themselves. Linda Evans smuggled a video camera into a hospital to record her son, Brian. You can barely see his face through all the tubes and all you can hear is the rhythmic sucking of the ventilator. He was another of Sheriff Joe’s inmates. After an argument with guards, he told a prison doctor they’d beaten him up. Six days later, he was found unconscious of the floor of his cell with a broken neck, broken toes and internal injuries. After a month in a coma, he died from septicaemia. ‘Mr Arpaio is responsible.’ Linda Evans told me, struggling to speak through her tears. ‘He seems to thrive on this cruelty and this mentality that these men are nothing.’

In some of the tapes it’s not just the images, it’s also the sounds that are so unbearable. There’s one tape from Florida which I’ve seen dozens of times but it still catches me in the stomach. It’s an authorised ‘use of force operation’ – so a guard is videoing what happens. They’re going to Taser a prisoner for refusing orders. The tape shows a prisoner lying on an examination table in the prison hospital. The guards are instructing him to climb down into a wheelchair. ‘I can’t, I can’t!’ he shouts with increasing desperation. ‘It hurts!’ One guard then jabs him on both hips with a Taser. The man jerks as the electricity hits him and shrieks, but still won’t get into the wheelchair. The guards grab him and drop him into the chair. As they try to bend his legs up on to the footrest, he screams in pain. The man’s lawyer told me he has a very limited mental capacity. He says he has a back injury and can’t walk or bend his legs without intense pain. The tape becomes even more harrowing. The guards try to make the prisoner stand up and hold a walking frame. He falls on the floor, crying in agony. They Taser him again. He runs out of the energy and breath to cry and just lies there moaning.
. . .
One of the most recent video tapes was filmed in January last year. A surveillance camera in a youth institution in California records an argument between staff members and two ‘wards’ – they’re not called prisoners. One of the youths hits a staff member in the face. He knocks the ward to the floor then sits astride him punching him over and over again in the head. Watching the tape you can almost feel each blow. The second youth is also punched and kicked in the head – even after he’s been handcuffed. Other staff just stand around and watch.

More incidents are related in the article. Tasers are a little less controversial than the use of attack dogs that Human Rights Watch recently criticized. Davies notes the siege mentality guards work under, and one guard readily admits about beatings: "We cover up. Because we’re the good guys." One prison reformer she talked to says:

"We’ve become immune to the abuse. The brutality has become customary."

3 Comments:

Blogger Nanette said...

This is just horrific. I think this is one reason that there is no real outcry about torture even when it's codified into our laws... even if we don't know the full depths of the torture used in US prisons, most times, some measure of it is considered acceptable.

We are a very sick society - I believe (am not really sure) that there are more laws protecting prisoners now than there were pre stuff like Miranda and so ... or maybe it's just that there are more laws protecting suspects, but the prisons themselves have always been cesspits. I don't know.

Either way, torture as punishment is perfectly acceptable in our society today... I wonder if that is mostly because of all the "law and order" talk that goes on, mostly around election time.

I don't know, sigh... makes me ill. May I put this up on Human Beams, in the human rights section?

6:12 AM  
Blogger Arcturus said...

Lock 'em up & throw away the key - or at least forget about them. This could well be a series. I didn't even get into Illinois (documented cases of torture, but no officers were ever charged because of the statue of limitations.

Not quite torture, but I've also been sitting on two reports by the "receiver" appointed by a federal judge to oversee CA's medical care in its prisons. He has total authority over spending, hiring, everything. In the judge's findings, when he decided to take over the state's prison medical system, he cited the fact there was on average one preventable death per WEEK due to poor medical care & neglect. In the receiver's first report he writes to the judge that conditions (& the system) are evn worse than thought.

Not sure what you mean by laws protecting prisoners. They can file habeas corpus petitions or motions alledging civil rights violations (how the medical case got to court, as well as an overcrowding one still in litigation). One has very few rights though. A recent case in Texas trying to hold the state responsible for repeated rapes went nowhere.

& yea, you're more than welcome to put this up at HB.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Nanette said...

Thanks, I'll have it up sometime this weekend.

By laws... well I am not sure what I mean, actually... maybe I just mean the illusion of laws.

Ask just about any "man or woman on the street" if they think that there are enough laws to protect prisoners and I bet most of them will say that there are too many... with prisoners coddled and given TV and porn magazines and who knows what all else.

The reality, of course, is much different from that, from what I have read. This is not even to mention the accepted (and often anticipated - not by the prisoners but by "good" members of society for others) - prison rape and so on. Vile.

One preventable death per week... man. And our prisons are not in the least for rehabilitation, but just for warehousing and punishment. We probably have the least advanced and most barbaric prison system in the Western world, and probably rival or are worse than some in other places.

Entire nations is messed up, sigh.

9:12 PM  

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