Some prison abuse context

There’s been a lot of blather about how the abuse at Abu Gharib is “un-American”.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Abuse of prisoners is as American as apple pie. Moreover it is a natural consequence of the effect the prisoner-guard relationship has on people.

It was clear even before Gen. Taguba’s report that torture – the kind of soft-shoe torture that leaves no physical marks – was an established and accepted operational tactic in post-9/11 prisons. This is not isolated behaviour; it started in Afghanistan, where aside from the thousands of people who died while being moved in shipping containers to prison, systemic abuse of prisoners was par for the course.

Even though the operational focus on military intelligence that gave rise to the specific abuses in the 9/11 prison system is novel, the abuse of prisoners by guards is not.

Aside from the inescapable fact that the prison system in America is deeply racist, in that a wildly disproportional number of minorities are incarcerated, abuse is also accepted and common practice in American prisons.

Furthermore, there seems to be very little that can be done to free prisons from abuse; abusive behaviour seems to be a natural consequence of the social dynamics of incarceration. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the canonical example of how dividing people arbitrarily into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ rapidly degrades into abusive behaviour.

There is a way out, however, and we have excellent examples to follow. When Finland became free from the Soviet Union, it inherited a Soviet-style prison system, with near-US levels of incarceration, harsh, long-term sentences, and high rates of recidivism. Now they have one of the lowest rates of incarceration, lower rates of recidivism, and crime hasn’t risen. While this matter is worth extensive study, an article in the guardian, and an excellent article in the NYTimes (sadly behind their paywall) both give an introduction.

While many Americans condone torture, it is widely held to be horrifyingly unethical, prohibited by UN convention, and ineffective in producing accurate intelligence. Furthermore, in Iraq, people have been living under a dictatorship for a long time; they know that narking on your colleague is the best way to show loyalty, so inventing something to tell your tormentors surely can’t be that far from the mind of someone being sexually humiliated.

Since Americans are willing to dehumanise, incarcerate, and abuse vast swaths of their own population, there is little hope that whatever ‘reforms’ are made in the supranational prison complex operated by the US military will resemble anything like the success of Finland. It is clear that what is revealed in Abu Gharib is not the exceptional behaviour of debased individuals, but a mere pustule on the festering canker that is the 5.6 million inmate strong American prison complex.

And still we retain the arrogance to give people freedom from the barrel of our gun.


Slate calls the prisoner experiment allusion insufficient. Actually, in reading the article, it mostly says that the Abu stuff is worse. Also, The New Republic has a good article on how them merikans were just serving up a heapin’ helpin’ of homemade prison abuse.

5 thoughts on “Some prison abuse context

  1. What a tirade of liberal shite!
    People like you are content to criticise something you know nothing about without offering a viable alternative to incarceration.

    Britain is pumping millions of pounds of taxpayers money in an effort to tackle the drug culture and reduce recidivism. The only way to reduce crime and protect the public is to provide an alternative to an anti social way of life whilst removing the offender from those who are victimised.

    The next time you hear about some child being abused or some boy shot and maimed consider this…

    It is those who are prepared to ignore the rules of society who are to blame. The Liberal views and the blameless culture you adhere to makes it easier for them to do so. THe only society in the world which achieves admirably low crime stats is Singapore (An extremely authoritarian society)

  2. I’m not certain, as you’ve chosen to remain anonymous, but you appear to be from Britain. As you suggest that you have more knowledge of the subject than I, you’re probably aware that the United States has more than five times the prison population of the UK: 701 vs. 138 per 100,000. I have no real idea how the 63 thousand British prisoners are being treated; perhaps your history of exporting troublesome individuals to other continents has spared you the development of the abuse that too many of the two million+ US prisoners experience.

    In the US, many people are removed from society despite having committed only victimless crimes; generally, they posessed plant parts considered to be contraband, or they were trying to buy or sell the same. Similarly, most of the people held in Iraqi prisons were not guilty of any crime; they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. This suggests that prisons are serving as something other than “removing the offender from those who are victimised.”

    I will confess to your accusation that I support a “blameless culture”. I believe very strongly in personal responsibility, and I feel that the “culture of blame” diminishes personal responsibility, in addition to being ineffective in reducing crime. Furthermore, many of the people who should be taking responsibility for the current abuses are instead trying to be sure that the lower ranks get the blame.

    In my personal life, I have found that apportioning blame generally does not contribute to solving whatever problem has arisen; indeed, blame makes it more difficult to solve the problem. As a matter of public policy, I certainly understand that some violent individuals need to be temporarily removed from society. There is nothing I have seen to suggest that incarceration serves as any sort of ameliorative function; therefore blame and punishment should not be the primary tactics for attempting to reduce crime rates.

    From this side of the pond, most of Europe has achieved “admirably low crime stats”; far fewer of you commit violent crime than in the US.

    Thank you for taking the time to reply to my post.

  3. Taking a position whereby you criticise a system without offering a viable alternative is not an acceptable argument. In any democracy the Governing party has a duty to protect its citizens from those who choose, for whatever reason, not to adhere to the rules set out by the majority.

    If those rules are unacceptable to the majority then we are able to change them thanks to the electoral process. Such is the advantage of living in a democracy.

    A couple of points..

    Prison in the UK is a last resort after all other avenues have been explored.

    I am not clear how much experience you have with the European penal system, however all prisoners who have their liberty denied in Europe are subject to the European convention on Human Rights.
    This means they have access to vast sums of money set aside for lawyers waiting to take on alleged cases of Human rights breaches. I firmly believe that the vast majority of Prisoners in the UK and Europe are treated with Humanity, Dignity and Respect. They earn priveliges enabling them eventually to stay in open conditions or Weekend Prisons earning a realistic wage, paying rent and saving towards their release.

    The question remains, what alternative can you offer that will remove those who continually and consistantly break the rules? (even if you believe that those rules are petty)

    The next question is: Who are you to decide and dictate which rule is petty?

    One final point. Only when you become a father will you understand the lengths to which I am prepared to protect my sons. I would horribly maim, torture and kill a million Arabs if I felt that it would provide protection for them.

    There is no reasoning with people prepared to commit the attrocities on 9/11. If they could have wiped out every man, woman and child in the USA using a chemical or Biological attack then, be in no doubt we would not be typing this on your web site.

  4. Who are you? It’s nice to know the background of people who write on the Net – it gives me context for what they’re saying. There are many things I (tentatively) don’t agree with, in what you say, and knowing how your circumstances are different from mine (are you British or American? Are you yon random reader, or someone mindlace might know? how old are your children, and are they in Iraq?) might help me understand your point of view.

  5. When you suggest that I am not offering a viable alternative, I suspect that you have not read the original post completely. I state:

    There is a way out, however, and we have excellent examples to follow.

    (Emphasis mine.) Finland has chosen an approach to the problem of crime that is at least as effective as the one the UK, yet imprisons less than half as many people, or less than a tenth as many as the US.

    I do think it is excellent that your prisoners are subject to the convention on Human Rights, and I fully believe that your prisoners are treated more humanely than those in the US. As you know, while the US has signed an international treaty against the use of torture, it has tried and failed to block a treaty allowing inspections to ensure compliance. I admire that Britain and the countries of Europe have signed this treaty and implemented an enforcement mechanism, but Americans have no such protection.

    The notion that the function of democratic systems is to allow the majority to persecute and incarcerate anyone who deviates from their dictate is to embrace the justice handed out by the Klu Klux Klan in the post Civil War south, or the sort of justice that the Hutu meted out on the Tutsi. It is only the protections from the majority that modern democracies provide minorities – particularly minorities of one – that distinguish them from oligarchies writ large.

    I certainly respect your desire, as a father, to protect your children. I do not support horribly maiming, torturing and killing anyone; first because I believe it is dreadfully unethical, and second because I do not believe it will provide any protection.

    When the US tortures innocent civilians and bombs wedding parties more than once, it’s hard to maintain the pretext that we are only engaging in atrocities against those who would engage in atrocities against us.

    Furthermore, despite the crimes that some people living in Afghanistan or Iraq may have committed, these acts will not serve to quench any distaste or nascent hatred their neighbors may have for the US (and Britain, presumably.) Can there be any doubt that these men will never forget their humiliation? Doesn’t it seem plausible to you, who is willing to maim and torture, that these kind of acts in your homeland might spur you towards violence? We are breeding a generation of furious, unemployed Arab men who have already been stripped of everything they hold dear; I suspect that they will have even less regard for the lives of Westerners than you have for theirs.

    I reject the notion that you have the right to torture and kill a million Arabs, regardless of how narcotic a psychological prophylactic it may be for you. Over nine thousand people that had nothing to do with 9/11 have been killed. How many thousands more would slake your thirst for blood? I cannot plead to any external agency for you to discover mercy, but I do ask that you look more closely at those people that surround you on a daily basis and ask whether you could countenance being done to them what you propose to do to others.

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