May 11, 2004

Beyond the Loss of Liberty

by PG

The revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison have created a new interest in how the United States treats its own on American soil. The chief point highlighted in these articles is the epidemic of rape in U.S. prisons; an estimated one in five male prisoners are sexually coerced at some time.

This analogy to what happened to Iraqi prisoners is in some ways more salient than that of the My Lai massacre during Vietnam, particularly because the abuse is happening to adult men who have been deemed criminal and is damaging not only for its obvious physical harm but also for the element of humiliation. InstaPundit, for example, has decried the My Lai comparison because that massacre involved "innocent women and children, not the mistreatment of prisoners."

Implicit in that distinction is the idea that not only is murder worse than abuse and humiliation -- something not necessarily true in other cultures -- but also that mistreating prisoners is less morally problematic than mistreating people who have not been found guilty of a crime or (in the case of many Iraqi detainees) who have not fallen under the suspicion of the U.S. authorities.

Which raises the question in my mind: Do we, consciously or unconsciously, think that abuse is part of the appropriate punishment for being in prison? Do we believe that the loss of liberty is insufficient, and that additional penalties should be paid? Or, at least, that if they are paid, we should not be excessively troubled by it?

Although male-on-male rape in American prisons generally is committed by the inmates against each other, other forms of abuse of inmates by prison officials are widespread. The New York Times reports that in Pennsylvania, inmates are stripped publicly before being moved to a new place; Maricopa County (AZ) jail inmates are made to wear pink underwear; guards at a Virginia maximum security prison allegedly often beat inmates and force them to crawl.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.
At least one American thinks we shouldn't be so outraged by the Abu Ghraib abuse. "You know, they're not there for traffic violations," Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK said. "If they're in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners -- they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands. And here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals." (Link via Unspun Zone.)

Technically, most of the prisoners have not been tried and convicted of any crime, not even a traffic violation. Even once they have been, Sen. Inhofe's attitude is wholly inappropriate; punishment should be handed out on a pre-determined basis, not thrown down at the whims of the guards or fellow prisoners. Judges and juries sentence criminals for their crimes and to pile more suffering on arbitrarily undermines the justice and legitimacy of our system.

May 11, 2004 06:06 PM | TrackBack
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