American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison

The sadistic abuse and sexual humiliation by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison has shocked most Americans but not those of us familiar with U.S. jails and prisons. In American prisons today, wanton staff brutality and degrading treatment of inmates occur across the country with distressing frequency.The Pentagon has said it wants to send more people to Iraq who have U.S. prison experience. But before it does, it should look closely at the human rights records of their prisons.A federal judge in 1999 concluded that Texas prisons were pervaded by a “culture of sadistic and malicious violence.” In 1995, a federal judge found a stunning pattern of staff assaults, abusive use of electronic stun devices guns, beatings, and brutality at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and concluded the violence “appears to be open, acknowledged, tolerated and sometimes expressly approved” by high ranking corrections officials.

In recent years, U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died.
Most of the men and women who work in U.S. prisons are decent professionals who have never physically abused or intentionally degraded an inmate. But just as in Iraq, the absence of leadership, oversight, and external scrutiny can create a climate in which abuses will occur.The Department of Justice’s Inspector General recently reported on the abuse Muslim men picked up after September 11 endured while detained at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. For example, officers slammed unresisting, shackled inmates into walls and mocked them during body-cavity searches. A lawsuit by one of the detainees alleges that one of the officers maliciously pushed a pencil into his anus.

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