New Internationalist

Inside Prison Walls

Issue 229

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

Inside prison walls
Beatings, solitary confinement and electrocution are called torture - except when
they happen in the United States of America. Matthew Reiss investigates.

Time: Just before dawn, 14 December 1990. Place: New York State's Shawangunk Correctional Facility. Two Puerto Rican prisoners, Edwardo Marquez and Ramon Diaz are sleeping in their cell when five 'correction' officers and a sergeant burst in. They haul Diaz from his bed. Strip him. Shackle his legs. Handcuff his arms and force them high above his back. Jab him with batons. Kick. Hit. Punch. Reduce his body to a heaving, weeping heap of lacerations, bruises and humiliated despair.

Marquez watches in horror as the officers haul Diaz out of the cell before returning for him in riot gear: helmets, vests and billy clubs. They beat him viciously. Shackle and handcuff him. March him off slapping and shoving him down the stairs. In solitary they strip-frisk him. While he is naked they ram their batons into him.

This is no piece of fiction. The two pris oners are currently suing their alleged assailants for over $7,000,000 million in civil rights damages.

Many more prisoners however have no chance to do this. For although the US liberal democracy holds individual freedoms as supreme, inside prison walls individuals are stripped of their civil rights and left clinging to a few international treaties that are all but impossible to enforce from inside a cell.

Brutality is inherent in the US prison system. Most of the one million or more people who are incarcerated are already victims of poverty, poor education and miser- able housing. One half of one per cent of the US population are behind bars - a bigger proportion than in any other nation. And an inordinate number are black and male: close to half of all black men in the nation's capital see the inside of a prison before they reach 24.

Once inside, violence takes many forms. The death sentence is being applied to ever more cases - even for crimes where no victim is involved. According to Amnesty International the US has executed more juveniles than any other country except Iraq and Iran, while more US youths currently await execution for crimes com mitted when they were under 18 than in any other country.

The 'punishments' administered frequently amount to nothing less than torture - as with the beatings which are common-place in US high-security prisons, according to one study and many prisoners' allegations. Speaking from personal experience, Dhoruba Bin Wahad - who spent 19 years in prison before an appeal found him innocent - said that the famous uprising in Attica State Correctional Facility, in which 43 inmates died, was precipitated by officers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in weekly beatings of the people in their charge.

Many forms of brutality abound in the US penal system. Beatings of prisoners are routine during cell transfers. Rectal probes are said to be used to intimidate and 'rape' prisoners moved out of certain high-security jails. While 'loss of privileges', including the right to visitors, can take a terrible toll on an inmate who has been counting the days to a family visit. When these punishments happen arbitrarily it is no wonder that prisoners lose what little respect they had for authority.

But of all the penalties levied in the penal colony, solitary confinement is both the most popular form of psychological abuse allowed by the US prison system - and the most devastating.

Locked up alone in cement cells 12 feet by 6, and allowed to walk freely for only 60 minutes a day, prisoners suffer many terrors, including breathlessness, panic, dread of impending death and hallucinations. They fantasize about taking revenge on prison guards by torturing and mutilating them. What chance does such a person have of coming out of prison unscarred, or of fitting back into 'normal' society?

At the US Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the institution's entire population is 'locked down' in indefinite solitary confinement and has been since two guards were killed in a uprising on 27 Jctober 1983.

According to prisoners, the 'lock down' itself was an exercise in brutality imposed by the 'Special Operations Response Team' which was trained in forced-cell moves and was brought in to transfer prisoners to the control centre. The team did so wearing masks, no form of identification and wielding three-foot clubs with steel beads on the end.

Prisoners claimed they were beaten, usually while handcuffed. But a US magistrate later ruled that there had been no constitutional violation of prisoners' rights. He based the decision primarily on his finding that prisoners' testimony was not credible, and partly on the testimony of a prison warden who argued that the use of force was reasonable because 'No-one was taken to the hospital'.

Matthew Reiss is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in human-rights issues.

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