May 06, 2004

"They Don't Represent America"? Not Quite, Mr. President.

From President Bush's interview with Al Arabiya:
QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you for giving us this chance here in Al Arabiya. Regarding the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, six U.S. soldiers are being reprimanded. Do you think that's enough?

BUSH: First, I want to tell the people of the Middle East that the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don't represent America.

QUESTION: And you just — you've said this is reflected badly here, in the United States of America. How do you think this will be perceived in the Middle East?

BUSH: Terrible. I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, this isn't a country that I've been told about. We're a great country because we're a free country, and we do not tolerate these kind of abuses.
As has been true for quite a while, particularly with regard to issues concerning human life and dignity, Mr. Bush is gravely mistaken about whether the abuse of Iraqi prisoners "represent[s] America," and whether such behavior has been "tolerated" in the United States.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in Farmer v. Brennan:
The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who are convicted of nonviolent offenses, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure.
From Stop Prisoner Rape, and from a statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary:
Rape in prison is an ugly reality that most people have learned to ignore, but prisoner rape is an institutionalized form of cruelty that infringes upon basic human rights, contributes to the spread of disease, and perpetuates violence both inside and outside of prison walls. Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) is a nonprofit human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention. We endorse the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2002 as an important first step toward addressing this serious and widespread abuse that plagues institutions nationwide.

The few studies that have been done on prisoner rape reveal astonishing rates of abuse. A recent study of prisons in four Midwestern states found that approximately one in five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. About one in ten male inmates reported that that they had been raped.

Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff members, vary greatly among institutions. In one facility, 27 percent of women reported a pressured or forced sex incident, while another had virtually no reported sexual abuse. The discrepancy between facilities points to the important fact that such abuse is not inevitable. As with the abuse of men, the problem of sexual abuse of women in prison has not been adequately studied.

Youth in detention are also extremely vulnerable to abuse. Research has shown that juveniles incarcerated with adults are five times more likely to report being victims of sexual assault than youth in juvenile facilities, and the suicide rate of juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than that of juvenile detention centers. As states try growing numbers of juveniles as adults, the risk of sexual abuse becomes much greater.

Men, women, and youth detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) are also at risk of sexual abuse. Though SPR has learned of numerous instances of such abuse in INS detention, this issue has never been the subject of research, and the INS has failed address this issue in its detention policies.

Unfortunately, no conclusive nationwide data exist for any of the above mentioned groups.

Male custodial officials have vaginally, anally, and orally raped female prisoners and have abused their authority by exchanging goods and privileges for sex. In many women’s facilities, male corrections officers are often allowed to watch female inmates when they are dressing, showering, or using the toilet, and some regularly engage in verbal degradation and harassment of women prisoners. Women also report groping and other sexual abuse by male staff during pat frisks and searches.

Currently, reporting procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and complaints by prisoners about sexual assault are routinely ignored by prison staff and government authorities. In general, corrections officers are not adequately trained to prevent sexual assault or to treat survivors after an attack.

Even simple prevention measures, such as pairing cellmates according to risk, are uncommon, and basic supervision is often lacking. Prisoner rape occurs most easily when no one is around to see or hear, particularly at night and in hidden areas that are difficult to monitor. Inmates complain about a lack of vigilance, even reporting that screams for help have gone unanswered.

Punishment for prisoner rape is rare. Few public prosecutors concern themselves with crimes against inmates, and instead leave such problems to the discretion of prison authorities. As a result, perpetrators of prisoner rape almost never face charges. Staff members who sexually abuse inmates are rarely held accountable, facing only light administrative sanctions, if any. In fact, some female inmates have reported retaliation from corrections officers against whom reports of sexual misconduct have been lodged.

Prisoner rape has been used in some cases as a tool to punish inmates for misbehavior. Male inmates have testified that they were forced into cells with known sexual predators as a form of punishment for unrelated misconduct.
From the beginning of the survivor story of Tom Cahill:
In 1968, I was arrested for civil disobedience in Texas. I was and placed in a cell with 30 other prisoners, for the next twenty four hours I was tortured and gang raped.

To add to the horror I was experiencing, I later learned from a cellmate that my rape was deliberately orchestrated by the guard who put me there as something called a "turning out party." Among other things, the guards lied to my cell mates, telling them that I was a child molester and promised them an extra ration of Jell-o if they would "take care of” me.

Two years later, I got married and started a portrait business that was quite successful for a while. But as often happens in post traumatic stress disorder, there was a delay of about six years before the full impact of my rape hit me. The trauma of the experience came back daily, and I was no longer able to live my normal life. The only trauma I have had in my life was rape in jail in 1968. I lost my business and my wife. I was homeless for many years, until I received a disability pension from the Veterans Administration.

Rape is crazy-making. It may be the ultimate humiliation, with very serious and long-lasting psychic damage to the victim as well as to close loved ones who are secondary victims.
There are other, similar survivor stories on the SPR site.

Certainly, the President is to be commended for signing the legislation designed to end such abuses into law in 2003. In fact, Tom Cahill attended the signing ceremony. We can only hope that this new law is slowly bringing such barbaric practices to an end. And to be sure, our country is thankfully very significantly different from a dictatorship where these kinds of cruelties and humiliations are a matter of explicit official policy. [Added 1/24/06: Tragically and unforgivably, this distinction between the United States and the most vicious dictatorships is now being seriously eroded, if not fatally compromised.]

Nonetheless, it is a deeply tragic fact that the common occurrence of such acts -- and the deliberate allowance, and even encouragement, of such acts by agents of the state who should have prevented them -- are hardly unknown in the United States. In fact, they have been a commonplace of our history.

Many Americans, and our President it appears, have a deeply naive view of our own history, so naive that it veers uncomfortably close to deliberate self-delusion.

A great many abhorrent practices have a long and despicable history here at home. We are hardly perfect. It is indulging in fantasy to pretend otherwise, and to say that acts such as those reported from Iraq "don't represent America," implying that such acts are virtually known here.

They are not unknown here. It is time for people to wake up, face the truth, and then fix it when necessary -- and we ought to begin here at home, before we presume to tell the rest of the world how to correct their problems, particularly when certain other countries represented no serious threat to us at all.

The truth can often be brutally horrible, and terribly ugly. But surely facing the truth is not as difficult for us, as it was for people like Mr. Cahill to live it. No value should hold a higher place for us than truth, pure and undiluted by fantasy or preferred visions of how we would like to see ourselves. We owe the victims of these kinds of horrific violations at least that much, whether they be Iraqis -- or Americans.