Torture Inc.
April 4, 2005 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Torture Inc. Americas Brutal Prisons Savaged by dogs, Electrocuted With Cattle Prods, Burned By Toxic Chemicals, Does such barbaric abuse inside U.S. jails explain the horrors that were committed in Iraq? Warning: tiny, NSFW, embedded Windows Media file.
posted by Doug (40 comments total)
 
I'll preemptively apologize for the wee-bitty media file, but I couldn't find a better copy of the report anywhere else. Whatever one thinks of the premise of the piece, the video is compelling.
posted by Doug at 8:37 PM on April 4, 2005


not as wee-bitty
posted by melt away at 8:51 PM on April 4, 2005


"The level of civilization in a society may be determined by entering its prisons." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:52 PM on April 4, 2005


Minor note: the linked site claims the information was uncovered "during a four-month investigation for BBC Channel 4". Channel 4 (which produced the program) is not part of the BBC. BBC 4 is a different channel entirely.
posted by simonw at 9:00 PM on April 4, 2005


Well, as an American who has never been a prison guard or a prisoner, take the following as you will:

This is not an example of typical American jail life.

That doesn't make this any less horrifying.

I'd like to think that the majority of Americans would find this as horrifying as I do.

Then again, if there's anything 2004 taught us, it's that what the majority of Americans think doesn't necessarily follow what we'd like to think they think. (you know what I mean.)
posted by shmegegge at 9:04 PM on April 4, 2005


Isn't this really really bad, even without having to make the obligatory Iraq reference? Even if Abu Gharib had never happened, shouldn't we clean up our prisoners?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:20 PM on April 4, 2005


To be fair, the report makes the connection between US prisons and the situation in Iraq, and it was not made by Americans. I do agree that the connection isn't particularly important, and I should have probably picked a different quote. I'm a lazy bastard.

To try to make up for that: more info on our friend Sheriff Arpaio. What's important to remember about that situation is that Arpaio runs a jail, where a good number of his residents have not been convicted of any crime.
posted by Doug at 9:31 PM on April 4, 2005


shouldn't we clean up our prisoners?

Like, with a firehose or wire brushes?
posted by Balisong at 9:55 PM on April 4, 2005


I'm a lazy bastard

That makes two of us. Not attacking you, attacking your source.

Like, with a firehose or wire brushes?

With toothbrushes, on their hands and knees. I take it you've never served in the armed forces? Or were in a suspiciously well-behaved unit...
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:37 PM on April 4, 2005


How do you make them plaster this footage all over their news? Perhaps you could find a "foreigner" amongst the guards and get Fox to run with: "This foreigner is killing our men..."
posted by meech at 1:16 AM on April 5, 2005


Well, as an American who has never been a prison guard or a prisoner, take the following as you will:

This is not an example of typical American jail life.


I can understand your reluctance to accept this behavior as typical, but considering your own statement above, you are basing your conclusion on wishful thinking.

From a prisoner's perspective: Prison guards hate their jobs and blame prisoners for their unhappy and unfulfilled lives. It takes no ambition, no talent, no drive, or any creativity to be a corrections officer. Think about it. Does any kid have dreams of being a corrections officer when he or she grows up?

The typical male guard I have encountered is not someone you would consider a winner. He is usually a skinny geek (or is extremely overweight), is undereducated, has no ambition and is sadistic. His idea of success is a monthly state paycheck, a trailer home, a 12-pack of beer, and nightly TV. I fully admit my dislike for prison guards because I am convinced that every prison guard in the U.S. has witnessed, encouraged, and/or participated in the torture or murder of prisoners.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 3:00 AM on April 5, 2005


Thanks for the link to the good quality video (86 Meg), melt away.

It's a very disturbing film, yet so easy to shut out (so to speak).

A dumb question: why does the US, among the world's freest countries by many measures, have 5 to 10 times more prisoners per capita than comparable countries? And why has it gone up so much in the last 20 years? It can't be just the war on drugs.

It's very disturbing. I suppose there's some paradoxical trade-off that says that the freer and more open and more unstructured the society is, the more people you have to put in jail. But jeez.
posted by Turtle at 3:12 AM on April 5, 2005


What is that supposition based on Turtle?
posted by biffa at 3:38 AM on April 5, 2005


My supposition is something like: in an unfree society, people are always under some form of watch and have limited opportunity or incentive to commit crimes. Similarly if there are strong cultural norms and customs, they would keep people from committing crimes. So the more negative freedom, the fewer restraints against crime.
posted by Turtle at 4:11 AM on April 5, 2005


Between 'Torture, Inc.' and 'The Power of Nightmares', I think we might cost Mr. Blair his next election. British Television - in this case, !not BBC - has done an exceptional job of depicting the current US (Administration|Regime) as out of control, outlaw and entirely fanatical. The rate at which we're moving under Bush II, I hardly think that we'd be admitted to the EU, even if we wanted it.

Condolezza's our face-man, Bolton's the UN Ambasssador, Wolfowitz is running the World Bank. Arguably, all of the 'force for good' pretenses have been dropped. If I were Chinese, Indian, S.African, W. European, etc. I'd think x3 about sending any of my kids to America for an education b/c it seems like exactly the kind of retrograde, backwater place the West has typically shyed away from being since the Enlightenment.

<sigh>

For those who haven't seen 'Nightmares', the links to the 3 part documentary are below. It was broadcast last Fall, before the US Elections, but in Europe, not the US. If ever there was an argument for the legitimacy of P2P file-sharing, even though I'd prefer that the CONTENT of the documentary not become part of the Scalia, Thomas, O'Connor, etc. debate.

Enjoy!

Part I | Part II | Part III
posted by vhsiv at 5:39 AM on April 5, 2005


My supposition is something like: in an unfree society, people are always under some form of watch and have limited opportunity or incentive to commit crimes

How about following the money. The transfer of funds from the taxed to the prison industry is quite an incentive to keep the prisons filled. Creating a work environment where if you have a conviction you can not obtain a well-paying job helps keep the work force cheap.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:45 AM on April 5, 2005


Creating a work environment where if you have a conviction you can not obtain a well-paying job helps keep the work force cheap.

Prison, the new Siberia!
posted by vhsiv at 5:52 AM on April 5, 2005


My supposition is something like: in an unfree society, people are always under some form of watch and have limited opportunity or incentive to commit crimes

That must explain why the Soviet Union and South Africa under Apartheid had so many prisoners. Wait...
posted by Dr_Johnson at 6:48 AM on April 5, 2005


A commentary supporting this post. It is truly disheartening to see how naive many US citizens are about the crimes committed by the powerful in our own country.
posted by TedW at 6:49 AM on April 5, 2005


So a "free society" is one that imprisons abnormally large numbers of its citizens?
posted by magullo at 6:52 AM on April 5, 2005


He is usually a skinny geek (or is extremely overweight), is undereducated, has no ambition and is sadistic. His idea of success is a monthly state paycheck, a trailer home, a 12-pack of beer, and nightly TV.

This guy's prejudices are showing. If prisoners we're guarded by Harvard Ph. D's, do you honestly think it would be any different (not that they'd do the job or anything)? Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment?
posted by jonmc at 7:07 AM on April 5, 2005


You Are Going To Prison...
posted by fairmettle at 7:41 AM on April 5, 2005


Largest employer in New York State? Bureau of Prisons. Number two? Verizon. I am sure that says something but I don't know what.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:01 AM on April 5, 2005


It's not exactly like showing this in the US would cause support for prison guards to go down. In fact the contrary would happen. There's a reason Joe Arpaio doesn't need to worry about his job -- he portrays himself as unnecessarily tough and that's what gets him elected.

A lot might be tempted to think that these are mavericks acting without authorization, but it seems that everyone approves, right down to the voters. I'm rather disappointed that the part with the call-in show only featured calls by former or current prison guards, because in my experience Americans tend to be "armchair sadists" when it comes to the treatment of people who are in prison... not only do they not generally mind mistreatment of prisoners, but they tend to feel that prisoners are too well-treated, no matter what the actual situation.
posted by clevershark at 9:45 AM on April 5, 2005


Keep in mind the racial and economic biases in who goes to jail and who doesn't. (according to wikipedia, in 2002 "about 12 percent of all black males in the United States between the ages of 20 and 39 were in prison"). So this isn't just random human-rights violations, but also a form of state sanctioned racism.
posted by signal at 10:09 AM on April 5, 2005


IIRC, the USA pretty removes all rights of citizenship from its ex-imprisoned, too. No more voting, no student loans, etc.

What is accomplished by this? Which people/party benefits by creating an ex-incarcerated underclass that is denied these things?

I suspect the answer is the same as it always is: follow the money, and you'll find the reason.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:47 AM on April 5, 2005


I don't find the "follow the money" arguments very convincing. They're at the very least insufficient explanations of why the US is so different from all other democracies with regard to prisons and crime. I realize it's a very big question, no doubt with a rather complicated answer. Which I'd like to know.
posted by Turtle at 11:04 AM on April 5, 2005


Howzabout a "follow the power' arguement?
The govt. only has power to nail criminals, really, so you have to make many petty things criminal. We're not a democracy, we're a republic, and a capitalist one at that.
This is done to protect capital. You divide people - in many cases by race although that's becoming outmoded albeit slowly - and put them in a position where they're at the mercy of the bank, the landlord, the repo men.
Where living just day to day is a hassle people will spend their energy fighting or rioting over bullshit (say - sports) while the big movements pass them by because they are not rooted by a house, a steady job, investments, etc.

Put joe middle class up against the wall and because he owns a home and is invested in his community he and his rotarian buddies will take your head off.
Put joe middle class in jail (for a blue collar type crime, drug offense, or more and more frequently child molestation) and after a few years he loses his home (not just his house), gets the stigma of being an ex-con, and is no longer invested. He is no longer a threat.
You torture not for punishment but to break the prisoners will.

Look at love canal - those people fought, pretty much lost, and many committed suicide because of the power of rendering another impotent.

...or don't you think people in power want to hold on to power?
posted by Smedleyman at 11:28 AM on April 5, 2005


Turtle: follow the money.

Prison is a business in the USA. A privately-run business, exerting political pressure on the government, and paying taxes to the government.

The DEA is a public-private business in the USA. It employs a lot of people, and those in the upper levels of DEA management not only get paid extremely well, they also have politicians ears' on a direct level, which gives them way more political power than any single citizen.

The local police forces are also a public-private business. They have been encouraged to use seize and forfeiture to fund their operations. They exert a lot of political pressure, because un-stupidfying the laws would result in a significant loss of revenue and mass layoffs.

I also suspect that given a true cost analysis of imprisonment versus letting the poor run about freely (using social services, unemployment, etcetera) there might be a near break-even between the two; ie) the cost of incarceration is about the same as paying out UI, welfare, green stamps, free medical, food stamps, social services, education, etc. Especially if the cost of incarceration is balanced out with prison work employment.

I could well be wrong on the latter, but three out of four of the money paths lead to the conclusion that it is politically and financially profitable to keep the jails full.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:22 PM on April 5, 2005


Five fresh fish: You may be correct, but I think you're letting the voting public off the hook. The population largely supports the U.S. rate of incarceration, and not because they stand to gain from it monetarily. I'm not saying that money is completely out of the equation, but I wouldn't underestimate the desire for retribution.

Also, loss of voting rights after a felony conviction is not a federal mandate, and varies from state to state.

jonmc: The guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment were specifically not given many operating or procedural guidelines so as to test what they would do in the absence of such rules. We also have to remember that, as per the Milgram experiment, people tend to be obedient. I don't think the outcome of the Stanford Prison Experiment is the natural outcome of every prison system.

Also, should you become a prisoner, would you rather your prison guard be a high school graduate (as most are today), or have a doctorate from Harvard? Professionalization in the criminal justice system has been predicated on the notion that a better educated workforce is a better workforce.
posted by Doug at 2:07 PM on April 5, 2005


Follow the money - I think we might be missing the forest for the trees. Personally, I think it's the income disparity between the rich and the poor.

For the majority of the poor, the 'legitimate' game will never lead them to the dizzying heights of econonmic propserity that inundate them from all sides. Funnily, it was Shark Tale an awful awful movie that pointed this out to me - that being saturated by bling makes some people aspire for unrealistic (and perhaps superficial) bling-ness.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 2:10 PM on April 5, 2005


PurplePorpoise - anything that inflames desire is evil. Advertising pretty much (in Buddist terms) is evil.
We're a consumer culture. I mean what's the first thing our fearless leaders told us to do after 9/11?
Go shopping.
But that isn't the cause for that disparity. Nor is criminal behavior the result of that.
I'd argue (from my high school level knowlege of sociology) that it is the cause of discontent and perhaps revolutionary behavior.

I think the hard economics cause criminal behavior. Most people wouldn't steal if all they wanted was an extra this or that (dis or dat). Some might, but that won't lead to the criminal statistics going up.

Put up against the wall though.... I mean if my kid was hungry and all that separated us from food was a pane of glass? Easy choice there.
But what if there isn't a pane of glass, the storefronts are all gated? Well, there are easy ways to make a quick buck preying on the dispair all around you (just like the corporations do, or aren't there vastly more billboards for booze and smokes in the poorer neighborhoods?) by selling drugs.
And then you get busted or killed.

It's not that the poor want what the rich have, it's not the bling, it's that there is no general mechanism for the poor - no matter how talented - to not be poor anymore. Sure, ones and twos get lucky, but not as a rule.

Consider what we have done to stop insects and other pests from eating our crops - then consider the same mechanisms applied to humans. They have to be far more insidious because humans are by nature very smart and tough. So you have to convince them otherwise.

So between your kid eating and food is not a pane of glass it's not even bars - it's an entire system constructed to deprive you of the resources to be able to satisfy your kid. And since physical obsticles aren't enough, you have to dumb down and break the spirit so prisons and casual abuse are a part of that system.
Hell, prisons were invented to master the spirit.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:09 PM on April 5, 2005


Enron Hubbard:

Your name rocks my socks. As far as my wishful thinking is concerned: I would bear in mind that your quote is also the point of view of one prisoner who admits his own bias. But for the sake of clarity, I'd like to say that I'm not implying that no other prisons are like this. I'm just saying that, as far as I'm aware, most prisons do NOT have guards hosing down prisoners, attacking them with wire brushes and grinding their faces into the floor with their feet. Again, I have never been a prisoner or a guard, so I could be wrong. Also, I'm not trying to lessen the point or horror of this post. I'm just making non-American members aware of the fact that, while prison has problems in this country, it's not all like that. It's not even mostly.
posted by shmegegge at 7:27 PM on April 5, 2005


vhsiv:

british television that's not the bbc. lol.

that's funny.
posted by shmegegge at 7:29 PM on April 5, 2005


Why on earth should we believe you when you say that, shmegegge, when you right up-front admit that you don't have actual knowledge of what goes on in the prisons?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:46 PM on April 5, 2005


fivefreshfish

well, you have no reason to. It's just the understanding of one person based on nothing more than the general consensus that he's aware of.

Certainly there have been more heinous and widespread deceptions played on larger stages than the american understanding of its prison system.

Of course, that's why I said that I could be wrong.

I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I'm adding, for the sake of some kind of completeness, what the average (if I count in their number) American understands his prison system to be.

I wasn't aware that being up front and honest about one's ignorance and/or expertise on the matter was such a touchy issue. By all means, I'll leave the discussion to MeFi's local experts on every prison in America: five fresh fish and Enron Hubbard.
posted by shmegegge at 11:35 PM on April 5, 2005


It's very disturbing.
No. It's disgusting, vile and downright fucking evil.

I suppose there's some paradoxical trade-off that says that the freer and more open and more unstructured the society is, the more people you have to put in jail. But jeez.

Holy fucking shit. The US is one of the more less free and less open societies. When are you going to wake up and realize that?

There were prisoners in this show wishing they were in MEXICAN prisons rather than US ones and you're thinking you have too many prisoners because your nation is free?
posted by futureproof at 12:38 AM on April 6, 2005


> The US is one of the more less free and less open societies.
> When are you going to wake up and realize that?

Maybe when arguments to that effect are more rational. If you're going to argue that American prisons are what they are because the US is one of the least free and least open societies in the world (I assume that's what you meant), you're going to have to do more than say "Holy fuck shit, the US is EVIL". Otherwise you're just talking to people who have the same view as yours. And you're not adding much to the discussion.

I suppose that some people here will take it as a troll to say that the US is a free country. Nevertheless, I'd think it's necessary to go beyond hyperbole like "the US is a police state ruled by money" to correctly and dispassionately analyze specific issues. No? Oh well. Maybe I'll see the light some day.
posted by Turtle at 1:32 AM on April 6, 2005


Professionalization in the criminal justice system has been predicated on the notion that a better educated workforce is a better workforce.

But is there any data to back up the assertion that it would actually lssen brutality in prisons? I'm not being snarky, I'm just asking.

And getting Harvard graduates to do what, by all accounts, is an incredibly unpleasant job is going to take a lot more money and perks than it takes to attract a high school graduate, who is often there because it's the most secure and well paying job in the isolated rural communities where state prisons are often located, which is a depressing thought itself.
posted by jonmc at 6:54 AM on April 6, 2005


Turtle: You're free to pick of the choices given to you, and your choices depend on the amount of money you have. If you're very poor your choices to improve your situation, and some of the most attractive are illegal.

If we lived in a country where the most attractive options were the ones that benefited society the most we wouldn't have the prison population we have.

While the phrase "more less free" is pretty meaningless, I hope I've made an argument that shows that we're not as free as we could be because of the situation we've created ourselves.
posted by betaray at 5:53 PM on April 6, 2005


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