Living in Prison, Social Invisibility, and Legal Xenophobia

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BUSH CULTURE REVIEW. The current administration’s inability to see itself in the international human rights mirror is a throwback to legal isolationism, and the lives and rights of two million prisoners in the United States suffer in consequence.

Ewa Pagacz

Abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib received massive attention. Naked prisoners forced to pose in humiliating positions; a prisoner cowering in fear in front of an attack dog; another with wires tied to his body. There followed the well-known wave of shock and outrage in the United States and abroad. The US Army’s Fay Report concluded that the abuses “are, without question, criminal” and “likely contributed to an escalating de-humanization of the detainees.” The response was geared to satisfy the US public: the military adopted a number of recommendations, relieved overcrowding that contributed to abuses, and started training military police and intelligence personnel.

Regrettably, treatment of prisoners in the US correctional system does not receive nearly the same attention, even though similar humiliation and abuse are regular practices. For example, in 1996, videotape from Brazoria Detention Center in Texas uncovered guards forcing dozens of prisoners to crawl naked along prison floors while the guards kicked and beat them, zapped their backs and genitals with stun guns, and had guard dogs bite prisoners. In 1997, an investigation found that guards at Corcoran State Prison staged gladiator fights between inmates and sometimes shot those who would not stop fighting.

There are many more examples of cruel treatment. The list of abuses is long and, in addition to violence at hands of prison officials, includes rape both by other inmates and prison guards; inadequate medical and mental health care; overcrowding; lack of sanitation; dangerous or otherwise inhuman and degrading conditions. But unlike Abu Ghraib, there is no public outrage, pressure or demands for investigation and reform.

Living in Prison attempts to draw attention to fundamental facts about the US correctional system. The book is a three-part collection of essays offering an overview of the American prisons. Part one provides readers with general historical, philosophical and factual background, including the origins of correctional system and a brief history of corrections in America. Part two addresses contemporary correctional issues, dividing them into three subtopics for over-brief treatment: the context of imprisonment, women in prisons, and prisoners’ rights. Part three describes the prison environment through a narrative written by a South Carolina inmate, Stephen Stanko. Stanko’s story, written in plain language, creates an interesting contrast against the sociological style of the first two book sections filled with dates and statistics.

Although the back cover blurb promises an “unprecedented look” at the US prison system, the book provides mainly dry, short and superficial descriptions of selected problems, often allocating only a couple pages to important issues such as rehabilitation, prisoners’ rights, or education and work in prisons. In an atmosphere of widespread public ignorance about both domestic and international human rights standards applicable to prison conditions, books like Living in Prison are useful but hardly unprecedented. The book’s primary value is that it represents a voice trying to break what psychologist and legal scholar Craig Haney has called a “spiral of silence.” That social spiral describes the lack of contested political norms and media counter-voices on crime and punishment, producing a virtual absence of public debate about the wisdom and necessity of inflicting ever-increasing amounts of pain on prisoners.

The invisibility of US prisons is one, although by no means the only reason why domestic de-humanization of prisoners does not result in a public demand for changes. Human rights violations pass easily unnoticed if both the punishment and the punished remain removed from public view. Such violations become even easier to inflict where judicial and prison standards do not reflect internationally accepted human rights, and where legislatures and courts give prison authorities almost unbridled discretion in their treatment of inmates. As the Special Commission report stated after the 1971 Attica prison uprising: “We Americans have made our prisons disappear from sight as if by an act of will. We locate them mostly in places remote from view, and far removed from the homes of the inmates; … and we manage to forget inmates … by pretending that [they] will not return to our cities and our villages and our farms.”

Media, and especially TV reality shows such as Cops, functioning as an expression of conservative political forces, have been extremely successful in deluding the US public into a state of permanent fear and self-identification as potential victims. Such an image creates a penological need for still harsher and more creative punishments, as well as a social need for politicians who are still tougher on crime. The imagery precludes any public consideration that inmates have the right to be treated humanely, and that a convict is not sent to prison to receive additional punishment but that incarceration itself is the punishment. This imagery has made presenting an accused person’s humanity to a jury, for example, into an enormous challenge. As Craig Haney explains, a typical capital juror views the accused as having committed a crime purely as a result of his “evil makeup” and deserves to be punished simply because of their intrinsic evil.

Scholars have argued that by portraying poor and minority communities as faceless individuals who perpetrate crimes, media and political interest groups encourage the public to treat them as unimportant and dispensable. Such societal disenfranchisement works to support use of violence as an oppressive force, including use of the death penalty and confinement of prisoners in inhuman conditions. Imagery of prisoners as disposable and undeserving of any compassion, let alone rights, gets reinforced in the context of warehouse prisons, the latest form of incarceration that offers inmates little to no constructive activities such as work, vocational instruction, or education. Sociologist James Robertson writes, to be a “functioning member” of a society driven by contemporary capitalism is to be more than body and appetite – one must be perceived as capable of creating some sort of capital. Coerced and regimented idleness denies inmates those demonstrations that define their minimal socio-economic competence in an acquisitive society, thus rendering them socially useless and placing them under society rather as its part. As a result, Robertson argues, warehouse prisons treat inmates as social waste.

The US Supreme Court has recognized that the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment applies to prison conditions, that it “embodies broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity and decency,” and must draw its meaning from the “evolving standards of decency that mark a progress of a maturing society.” However, current standards fly in the face of most international human rights standards prohibiting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including, among others, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This situation is due to a large extent to the fact that the United States is the only major world power that has failed to ratify a number of the significant human rights instruments or ratified them with reservations that effectively make them inconsistent with the purpose of the instruments.

While discussing prison conditions in a recent decision, Kane v. Winn, US district court judge William Young quoted Dostoyevsky’s words that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Young wrote that “Prison conditions provide a particularly accurate barometer of a society’s values, because the society’s conception of human rights, of the basic dignity to which a person is entitled because of the simple fact of her humanity, is typically the primary, sometimes even the only constraint on what sufferings the state can impose.” US society needs to fully understand social and political realities that prisoners confront; we must stop passively and indifferently accepting torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners. An earlier, enlightened generation of jurists recognized the origins and nature of this degradation that contemporary US society prefers to ignore. In 1972, Justice Thurgood Marshall, in an opinion concerning cruel and unusual punishment warned that “lack of exposure to the problem is likely to lead to indifference, and difference and ignorance result in preservation of the status quo, whether or not it is desirable, or desired.” Nine years later Justice Brennan, in his concurring opinion in Rhodes v. Chapman concerning prison conditions, pointed out that public apathy and the political powerlessness of inmates contributed to the pervasive neglect of the prisons.

The clearest route to produce this change in domestic jurisprudence lies in incorporating international human rights standards, an approach that stands little positive prospect, however, given the Bush administration’s tragically mistaken belief that US standards represent the summit of the rule of law. Unlike Great Britain, which has incorporated precisely such international legal standards into its Human Rights Act, the United States remains trapped by its own patriotic self-elevation. We continue to reiterate the same provincial xenophobia that some sixty years ago led Senator John Bricker to declare that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented “an attempt to repeal the Bill of Rights,” and Senator Jesse Helms to announce that “we regard our system as a superior protection of human rights than any other system in the world.” The current administration’s inability to see itself in the international human rights mirror is a throwback to such legal isolationism, and the lives and rights of two million prisoners in the United States suffer in consequence.

Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View (2004) by Stephen Stanko, Wayne Gillespie, and Gordon A. Crews is published by Greenwood Press.

Ewa Pagacz is an attorney living in Arizona.

Copyright © 2004 by Ewa Pagacz. All rights reserved.

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