February 10, 2007

U.S. Prisons and the School of the Americas

Just in case you think that the infamous torture at Abu Ghraib prison, 20 miles west of Bagdad, was an isolated occurrence, never heard of before in American-run prisons or detention centers, let me tell you about the School of the Americas (SOA) in Panama City, FLA and later Fort Benning GA.

Open from 1946 through 1984, it was a kind of college for post-graduate training in covert operations, coercive interrogations and the like. Police and military officers from the US and regimes around the world were trained in techniques such as: "early morning capture to maximize shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation," humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions" --and sometimes much worse.

President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board acknowledged in 1996 that "execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment" had been permitted.

Naomi Klein in The Nation writes this about the SOA: "It's a history that has been exhaustively documented in an avalanche of books, declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records and truth commissions. In his upcoming book A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy synthesizes this unwieldy cache of evidence, producing an indispensable and riveting account of how monstrous CIA-funded experiments on [American] psychiatric patients and prisoners in the 1950s turned into a template for what he calls "no-touch torture," based on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. McCoy traces how these methods were field-tested by CIA agents in Vietnam as part of the Phoenix program and then imported to Latin America and Asia under the guise of police training programs."

People who know about the SOA seem to have forgotten its manifold abuses in their eagerness to condemn the Bush administration. Congressman Jim Mac Dermott claims that "America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now." Even Molly Ivins, thorn in the side of the American right wing, suggests that, "it's just this one administration...and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney." As if she hadn't possibly pinioned half a dozen presidents for cooperation with SOA abuses.

It is obvious that we, "we" -- our administrations, not we, the people -- have condoned official and deliberate torture, by both our operatives and foreign ones. That is not in question. What is different about the present administration is the lack of secrecy.

Before now, before 9/11 presidents understood that the American populace would be horrified by "black ops" and the condoning of torture to get done what needed to be done. Though we already condone it in the treatment of our own prison population, the SOA's activities were a mostly guarded secret; few people knew the extent to which it sometimes acted against the interests of duly elected foreign governments or permitted torture and execution.

Now Bush and Cheney want express permission to torture and execute; they want us to say, Go ahead, with our blessings!

We need to start by saying, no to torture. No torture, not of Iraqi prisoners but also not of our American prisoners. Dr Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist knowledgeable about human rights abuses in prisons, says, that in America as in Iraq, "Prisoners are maced, raped, beaten, starved, left naked in freezing cold cells and otherwise abused" though here they are supposed to be protected by the constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

In Covert Action Quarterly, a magazine that meticulously documents all its sources in voluminous footnotes for each article, Marjorie Cohn tells of torture like that of Abu Ghraib being applied in US prisons too: Sacramento, CA - hooded, robed figures with wiring attached seen at the city jail; Phoenix, AZ - men made to wear women's underwear; Utah - naked men forced to form piles in grotesque and uncomfortable positions.

We need to stop this sort of accepted abuse of people, simply because they are shut away out of sight in prisons and jails where we don't have to see them.
Stop the cruelty of Supermax confinement, known and intended to drive a convicted person "mad." People can and do become clinically psychotic under conditions of extreme isolation and boredom. Stop the indiscriminate use of restraint chairs and tasers, both of which, though supposedly non-lethal, have killed NON-violent prisoners (though there is some thought that it is the restraint after the tasering, when the corrections officers may pile onto the prisoner's chest, compressing his airway, that causes the death, not the taser experience itself). Get the mentally ill out of the prison system altogether! Treat children as children; stop trying teens as adults. The human brain is not fully mature until age 25; at age 16, no one "thinks like an adult."

The army wants, what, 100,000 more recruits? They are taking those with certain mental disturbances now, as well as those with criminal records. Until our prison system is reformed and made more humane, we have no hope of reforming our military prisons. The one takes cues from the other. In fact administrators of US prisons have been recruited in certain instances to advise or run war-related detention centers and prisons.

Finally, a large portion of the prison population is mentally ill. If that could mean your son or daughter, if that means or has meant you, don't you want something done to reform the treatment of prisoners there-- yesterday?!

Posted by pamwagg at February 10, 2007 07:23 PM


Dear Pam,

I totally agree. This prison mentality starts at home and winds up abroad. And I think it is so true that our prison system is filled with the mentally ill who need compassionate treatment. But since when has compassion treatment been the norm really when it comes to justifying further violence? If someone (anyone) is threatened they feel "justified" to do whatever atrocious thing they feel like! All's fair in love and war...isn't that how it goes? But it isn't true, much of what goes on in war and also in abusive love relationships is NOT fair but unashamedly criminal. No violence is good violence. Resorting to violence is a sign of weakness not strength. But in the case of torture prisons and their jailors, they don't just resort to violence as a last ditch effort but actually train themselves to be more and more desensitized, better torturers and what is this? It is intentional psychosis. Their objectives are no longer a part of the real world but some bizarre simulation they enforce on the cursed inmates. It's pure madness of the darkest sort. And we know a thing or two about dark madness. Would you voluntarily go back to it? Hell no! But these men and women (!) "soldiers" do keep returning to their profession as government condoned
torturers. And yet, I can't help but have compassion for those torturers. They are mentally ill just as any violent (especially the pre-meditated kind) criminal is--if the system is going to change you've got to give them room to turn around. Welcome those who say this is sick and I am sick because of it. That takes courage, the right kind of courage. Okay, I'm done ranting, you touched the pacifist in me. But God, let us change the prison system! I think that's a brilliant connection Pam.

Posted by: Kate K. at February 15, 2007 08:54 PM

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