State Torture: Behind Prison Walls
“A penalty offends the proscription against cruel and unusual punishment when it is so disproportionate to the crime for which it is inflicted that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.”(Lectric Law)
A universal injustice lies within the world today and reaches across the seas. The blatant disregard in the
humanity of prisoner treatment is indeed a very serious issue. The vastness in the amounts of reports attests to the unethical practice of state torture is transpiring. What is wholly discouraging is the fact that, so many times, this is often disregarded and left overlooked. While the person who is in jail may have committed a terrible crime, it does not give anyone the right to treat him as they see fit. To beat him, isolate him, and go beyond any moral boundary for their own personal satisfaction, should not be permissible under any circumstance. From the outrageous pictures of the recent Iraqi prisoners tortured under the hands of American soldiers, to the stories of the brutal prisoner treatment of Alcatraz, it is only blatantly apparent that this is atrocious. The corruption of the jails and the lackadaisical method to deal with the torture issues is greatly distributing. Even the more passive approach, in regards to solitary confinement, is a disregard to human life. The system has set up legislation and a court for those who disregard the law. If it is found that a person has breeched these regulations they will be dealt with accordingly. Yet, behind the prison walls, there are those who are breaking those same laws and nothing or little is being done about it. The fact is prisoner torture, maltreatment, and isolation has become morally permissible to the extent that society has turned a blind eye. It is therefore of much importance that emphasis be placed upon this issue. Due to the extensiveness of the problem, the focus of prison maltreatment will remain in America. Though concentrated, it will clearly demonstrate the inhumanity that has been and is still occurring today. No one with any regard to human life can justify the brutality that has befallen these men and it is with regard to them that this claim is placed.
Correctional facilities house men who have committed unspeakable crimes, they have raped and murdered and left their mark through misery in the lives of those whom they have harmed. Then there are those who have committed non violent crimes such as drug trafficking and robbery. But the torture that is inflicted upon them isn’t because of the crimes that they have committed. Persecution wouldn’t be justifiable even if the reason was in relation to their crime. Pelican Bay State Prison in California is one of the places where officers of the law have persecuted men in sadistic ways. California has adopted a rather new method for confinement. The penitentiary is a maximum housing facility and is known as a supermax prison. Inside of the prison the security is enforced differently than others. It is broken down into two units: the maximum security unit for general population and security housing unit (SHU). In SHU, the inmates are placed in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, nearly 7 days a week where they are only let out for showers and 15-30 minute exercises. (SHU) is also termed as a “prison-within-a-prison, reserved for what the California Department of Corrections calls “the worst of the worst.” SHU prisoners are kept in windowless, six-by-ten-foot cells, twenty-three and a half hours a day, for years at a time.” (Paglen 41) The injustice continues at “Westville, Indiana’s Maximum Control Complex (MCC), where prisoners are frequently fire-hosed and then placed on “strip cell status” with all clothing and bedding removed from the cell for days at a time. At California’s Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU), prison officials may subject prisoners to merciless hog-tying for hours at a time.” (Thompson and Susler) However, the authors informed their readers that the conditions in American SHUs are routinely the targets of international human rights campaigns.
But is there any real reason to wonder why? Understanding basic human needs clearly outlines the disregard that officials have placed with regard to human compassion. And basic psychology outlines the irreversible effects from such treatment. Yet, these factors have no bearing upon the conditions that officials enforce within these cells. Family visits, which are often vital for a prisoner, are limited as they are under direct control of the administration. When they do occur there is no direct contact. There is a glass wall in between the inmate and his friend or family member which cuts off any personal contact that they can have. Furthermore, studies have shown that when relatives or family members do enter SHUs they may never want to return. “At MCC-Indiana, for instance, after a two-hour delay while prison officials attempted to deny a pre-approved visit by a prisoner’s father, the father suffered a heart attack when his son was finally brought out and he saw his son’s deteriorated physical condition and abuse by MCC guards.” (Thompson and Susler) Tragedy at this magnitude is enough, yet still, there is more.
Solitary confinement is one of the most harmful ways, in the psychological sense, to deal with a prisoner. However the state of California, in addition to other states, have instituted SHUs to enforce prisoner compliance. It is ‘justifiable’ and lawful in today’s society. But a closer look at the conditions that prisoners face within these cells clearly demonstrates the inhumanity of the entire concept and implementation. Prisoners face “conditions with no light or toilet, 76 pitch-black cell, and bread and water diet, punishment rations which “looked and smelled like five-cent dog food,” prisoners made to sleep naked on the floor, exposure to winter cold and deprivation of basic elements of hygiene such as soap and toilet paper, and various unsanitary conditions which spread infectious diseases. (Marin 84) Solitary confinement in this regard, is not new by any means. It is has been practiced for decades and while society as moved to a higher moral standard – the prison system remains in medieval times. Even as the Canadian Journal of Criminology releases publications such as Solitary Confinement is Not Cruel and Unusual Punishment: People Sometimes Are!, it only reflects and affirms the lack of regard for human life and human decency applies within criminal systems throughout the world. The fact is that prisoners subjected to this treatment are akin to a sensory deprivation and are in an environment and that creates schizophrenic symptoms. Other effects are noted as “depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember.” (Coyle 73) People held under these conditions develop what is known as “SHU Syndrome” – the degradation of mental faculties caused by extreme isolation. (Paglen 41) SHU Syndrome is a term coined by Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian. After a federal class action lawsuit was filed against Pelican Bay, Grassian found that more than 80% suffered from SHU syndrome. Why other studies fail to relate the truth of the matter is incomprehensible. Take a look at a personal comment about solitary confinement:
“Being in the hole,” wrote one convict “could make a man wish he were dead.” (Morris 112)
As was stated in the beginning of this paper, solitary confinement is the more ‘passive’ demonstration of the lack of regard for human life – now it comes in full swing. Pelican Bay has become known for the torture methods that they have imposed upon the prisoners. The mentally retarded are not exempt for this manner of treatment as can be seen within the story of Vaughn Dortch. Dortch was in a confrontation of some sort with a prison official and he had bitten him. His punishment came swiftly, as a group of officers handcuffed him behind his back and forced him into a tub of 145-degree water. A nurse had reported the incident stating that one of the officers had commented “It looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through; his skin is so dirty and rotten it’s all fallen off.” He was African-American. Dortch sued the prison and was awarded millions of dollars but that doesn’t compensate what he endured and nothing will.
In the years of 1970 New Mexico inmates had surged an uprising through the prison system because of the treatment that they undergone. Aside from the suspicious suicides that had been reported, there were many undeniable instances of torture. As with Dortch’s case, a health administrator had reported horrific maltreatment of prisoners. According to the hospital administrator, “a senior officer strode into cell block 5; singled out a young red-haired Hispanic inmate as an example, took him to a nearby guard’s station, and jammed his index finger more than once into the inmate’s eye socket.” (Morris 112) Moreover, inmates were forced to run in yards with “ax-handle-wielding guards” leaving them to return to their cells seriously wounded with inadequate health care. Men were stripped naked and made to run down corridor halls where the prison officials would be standing waiting to beat each one as they ran by with an ax handle. The prisoners referred to this day as “the night of the ax handles.” Meals were given once ever three days, water was insufficient and unclean, and there are reported atrocities that seem unfit to produce here. As the men started their fight against prison officials, the situation worsened.
No one with any regard to human life can justify the brutality that has been illustrated. It should be noted that the impact of torture “is not only confined to the victims who continue to suffer shattering effects of the tortures for a long period of time; further problems equally affect the families, of victims and their friends and community members.” (El-Tigani 41) What is wrong with society today is that they turn a blind eye to the injustices that are occurring to others. If any country expects people to be incarcerated and return to the world with a normal mental capacity to carry out the rest of their days, they ought to do something about this. What is transpiring here is not just a disregard for human life and compassion but they are further stimulating the violence in a person who already has a problem. A lion cannot be caged, tortured, starved, and uncared for and upon release, expected to act like a ‘normal’ animal. In the end, he will turn on his persecutors and bite them or anyone else whom he sees fit to do it to. Imagine sitting in a cell for 23 hours a day after being mistreated day in and out and yet, so-called credible sources say that this isn’t torture. These atrocities that are transpiring behind prison walls can be changed however more needs to be done. What needs to be recognized first is that, there is value to human life, no matter what he or she has done. Instead, prisons have turned their ethics into violence and morals into torture, as they have become desensitized for any regard or respect for basic human life.
El-Tigani, Mahgoub. “Solving the Crisis of Sudan: The Right of Self-Determination versus State Torture.” Arab Studies Quarterly. 23 (2001) 41
Letric Law. “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” 21 Oct 2004
Marin, Baryard. Inside Justice: A Comparative Analysis of Practices and Procedures for the Determination of Offenses against Discipline in Prisons of Britain and the United States. Cranbury; Associated University Presses 1983
Morris, Roger. The Devil’s Butcher Shop: The New Mexico Prison Uprising. Albuquerque; University of New Mexico, 1988
Paglen, Trevor. “Recording California’s Carceral Landscapes.” Art Journal. 63 (2004) 41
Thompson, Erica and Jan Susler. “Supermax Prisons High-Tech Dungeons and Modern- Day Torture.” Ed Elihu Rosenblatt 1996. 21 Oct 2004
Human Rights Watch. “Tunisia: Long-Term Solitary Confinement of Political Prisoners.” 21 Oct 2004 http://www.hrw.org/reports/2004/tunisia0704/tunisia0704.pdf>
Perkinson, Robert. “Shackled Justice: Florence Federal Penitentiary and the New Politics of Punishment.” Social Justice. 21 (1994):117