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Iraq "Supermax" Prison No Change From Abu Ghraib

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

"Supermax" prisons in the United States are far from humane

(PNS) -- In his five-point plan for Iraq's reconstruction, President Bush said that after tearing down Abu Ghraib, he would build a "modern, maximum-security prison" as one way to wipe away the horrid stain of the prison scandal. But it is precisely these "supermax" prisons, as they are popularly known, that have come under fierce assault from prison reformers, lawmakers, and even some prison officials in the United States -- because of prisoner abuse scandals within their walls.

Supermax prisons have been the target of prisoner lawsuits in California, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia and Illinois. Prisoners have called them "torture chambers" where they are subjected to flagrant human rights and civil liberties violations and appalling psychological and physical abuses. In a lawsuit filed by Ohio prisoners at the state's supermax prison in Youngstown in 2002, inmate Keith Garner bluntly told a judge that the conditions at the prison were "like being in a tomb."

Garner is one of 20,000 prisoners held in supermax prisons in 22 states, the District of Columbia and at a federal supermax in Colorado. The prisons were built to hold the worst of the worst: prisoners deemed so violent or incorrigible that they threaten prison stability and are an extreme menace to other prisoners.

Garner may or may not fit into that category. Prisoners are often dumped in supermaxes for petty, non-violent offenses; for being a suspected gang member, even if they have not been accused of any misconduct; if serving a long prison sentence; for mental illness; or simply to relieve prison overcrowding. A disproportionate number of the prisoners in supermaxes are black and Latino.

The lawsuits cite a litany of abuses that include: the misuse of the restraints; punitive shackling; the use of electro-shock weapons and pepper spray; random strip searches; prisoners being confined to prolonged isolation in a tiny cell with lights on for 24 hours; minimal recreation and exercise; and the denial of psychological treatment and counseling.

These abuses are eerily similar to those inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Many detainees there had not committed any terrorist acts, or were members of militias fighting against American forces. Many of the prisoners in America's supermaxes also can be held indefinitely, as the Iraqis were. There are virtually no uniform standards, or guidelines that spell out when and under what circumstances a prisoner is no longer considered a behavior threat and can be returned to a regular prison. The warden generally makes that decision, and it's a decision that's fraught with whim, capriciousness and frequently, racial bias.

The rationale, though legally flimsy, for permitting harsh interrogation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is that a de facto state of war exists and that the prisoners there could give aid and comfort to those who kill American soldiers. But that hardly applies to the prisoners held in America's supermaxes. Though their treatment may not be considered torture in the strict definition of the term, the psychological and physical damage of isolation and segregation is by any standard a human rights abuse. That puts the U.S. squarely in violation of the two international treaties that it signed in 1992 and 1994 that specifically bar abusive or coercive treatment of prisoners. The treaties also spell out minimum standards for prisoner treatment.

Supermax prisons were built during the 1980s and early 1990s, when states were flush with cash and lawmakers and much of the public had a "lock em' up and throw away the key" stance toward criminals. The mounting evidence that supermax prisons were not being used solely to confine dangerous and violent prisoners, and that the prisoners in these jails were being abused and their rights violated, stirred no outcry from politicians or the public. But with cash-strapped states facing ballooning deficits of $80 billion or more, the extravagant costs of building and running these prisons has finally forced some lawmakers to rethink their worth. The average cost to maintain a prisoner in a supermax prison is double that of maintaining a prisoner in a regular state prison. Worse, there is no real evidence that supermax prisons are any more effective in making unruly prisoners more compliant and the prisons any safer than providing prisoners with counseling, drug treatment and educati onal programs, which is far less costly.

President Bush claims that demolishing Abu Ghraib and replacing it with a modern maximum-security prison will be a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning. The horror of America's supermaxes mocks that claim.

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Albion Monitor June 2, 2004 (

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