Amid the controversy over the force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the admission of a former White House lawyer that the drone program is simply a replacement for Gitmo, the issues of torture and detention are thankfully putting pressure on President Obama and making media headlines.
While the torture and rendition program run by the Bush administration, the illegal detentions at Guantanamo Bay, and President Obama's continuance of these policies in Bagram and Mogadishu are gross violations of domestic and international law, the torture, mistreatment, and abuse inside America's prisons reveals a systemic problem with our judicial system both at home and abroad.
A Mother Jones exposé by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella on America's worst prisons document a prison-industrial-complex system that one would expect to find in China, Russia, or some of the worst police states in the world, not in a supposed constitutional republic with a government restrained by the Bill of Rights.
The details of America's worst prisons are truly shocking. Not only does the U.S. infamously have the most prisoners in the world (not just per capita), but there are over 80,000 prisoners being held in some form of solitary confinement. 1 in 10 prisoners are sexually victimized, and half of the time it is by the prison employees themselves. Beatings by guards and medical neglect are the fate of many of the 2.3 million people held in American prisons.
Ridgeway and Casella peek inside the worst of America's government cages, and find nothing but lawlessness, corruption, negligence, and abuse. For example, in the ADX Supermax prison in Colorado (dubbed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies"), the conditions have led to prisoners committing suicide, self-mutilation, having mental breakdowns, and carrying on delusional conversations with themselves in their cell. Solitary confinement, in combination with beatings and sexual victimization, can only be described as torture.
How did a vast system of prisons with this type of treatment come to exist in America?
Concerning the increase in prisons and those on prisoners and on parole, the numbers on violent crime in America sure don't reflect the number of people in prison. According to the FBI, violent crime has actually been on the decline for the last few decades.Throughout American history, the amount of prisoners per 100,000 people has remained about 100 to 110. But since 1980, the incarceration rate has nearly tripled, and is now almost 800.
Most of this increase can be traced to the federal government's misnamed "War on Drugs" started under President Nixon and put into overdrive beginning in the Reagan administration. As the incarceration rate numbers show, it really is a war on people and has been by far the biggest reason for an increasing prison population despite a significant dip in people committing actual crimes.
The war on drugs accounts for the huge increases in prisons and prisoners, but those that are detained at supermax prisons where these prison abuses occur are almost always convicted violent criminals who have aggressed against the innocent. Surely these criminals deserve to pay for their actions.
But a prison system where prisons are run like gulags is emblematic of a general public acquiescence and acceptance of government power and secrecy (the U.S. is very tight-lipped about anything that threatens its flimsy legitimacy) and a statist judicial system dominated by medieval concepts of sadist punishment rather than the Western, private tradition of restitution and rehabilitation.
The fact that the U.S. government, and its domestic state appendages, maintain prisons that feature this type of treatment for its prisoners says much about the dangers of government power freed from the restraints of constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. Legislation essentially abolishing the 4th, 5th and 6th amendments allow the state to imprison with much more ease, while the 8th amendment's prohibition against torture is null and void.
And with what's left of the Bill of Rights in their sights, this should serve as yet another reminder of the incredible dangers of unrestrained and lawless government power.