New Internationalist

Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading

Issue 327

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Torture / PRISONS

Cruel, inhuman, degrading
Leading British playwright Harold Pinter lays bare
the excesses of the American Penal system.

There are nearly two million people in prison in the United States.

These are some of the devices used in these prisons.

The restraint chair is a steel-framed chair in which the prisoner is immobilized with four-point restraints securing both arms and legs and straps which are tightened across the shoulders and chest. The prisoner's arms are pulled down towards his ankles and padlocked and his legs secured in metal shackles. Prisoners are often left strapped in restraint chairs for extended periods in their own urine and excrement.

A stun gun is a hand-held weapon with two metal prongs which emits an electrical shock of roughly 50,000 volts. The use of stun guns and stun belts is widespread. The belt on the prisoner is activated by a button on the stun gun held by a prison guard. The shock causes severe pain and instant incapacitation. This has been described as torture by remote control.

Mentally disturbed prisoners have been bound, spread-eagled on boards for prolonged periods in four-point restraints without medical authorization or supervision. It is common practice for prisoners to be shackled during transportation by leg irons or chains. Pregnant women are not excluded. Sexual abuse and rape by guards and inmates in these prisons are commonplace.

Ali lends his support to Amnesty International’s campaign to ban the use of stun belts in US prisons. In 1997 thirty-six states operated fifty-seven 'supermax' facilities housing 13,000 prisoners. More are under construction. These are super maximum security facilities. They are designed for isolation of dangerous prisoners but in fact prisoners may be assigned to 'supermax' units for relatively minor disciplinary infractions, such as insolence towards staff or, in the case of both men and women, complaints about sexual abuse. Severely disturbed prisoners are held within these facilities receiving neither appropriate evaluation nor treatment.

Prisoners spend between 22 and 24 hours a day in claustrophobic and unhealthy conditions. The concrete cells have no natural light. The doors are solid steel. There is no view of and no contact with the outside world.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee stated in 1995 that conditions in these prisons were 'incompatible' with international standards. The UN special Rapporteur on torture declared them inhuman in 1996.

Thirty-eight states out of fifty employ the death penalty. Lethal injection is the most popular method, followed by electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging and the firing squad. Lethal injection is regarded as the most humane method. But in fact some of the case histories and injections that go wrong are as grotesque as they are grisly.

Mental deficients and people under eighteen do not escape the death penalty. However, the assistant attorney-general of Alabama did make the following observation: 'Under Alabama law you cannot execute someone who is insane. You have to send him to an asylum, cure him up real good, then execute him.'

Amnesty International stated that all these practices constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But the 'International Community' has not been invited to comment on a system at one and the same time highly sophisticated and primitive, shaped in every respect to undermine the dignity of man.

© Harold Pinter. This text was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.


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