Prisons and U.S. ‘acceptionalism’
In 2001, Abdullah Al Noaimi was a 19-year-old Bahraini traveling in Pakistan. Bounties were being offered for men who fit his description, which is why he ended up detained in a Pakistani jail. When he learned he’d be turned over to Americans, he told “This American Life” journalist Jack Hitt that he was relieved. “He told the other prisoners it was good news. He knew America. He knew how the people were,” Hitt explained.
Abdullah, it turns out, had gone to Old Dominion University in Virginia. He’d been to Disneyland. To him, Americans had a reputation of being fair, friendly and level-headed.
“I was pleased,” said Abdullah. “Oh, everything’s going to be fine. They [Americans] can understand.”
He was then shackled and shipped to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It’s been well-documented the methods used on prisoners in our strategically off-shore supermax gulag: beatings, burnings, urinating on prisoners, sleep deprivation, force-feeding, electric shocks, the threat of rape and other demeaning humiliations.
The articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention were drafted in 1949 in the wake of the atrocities from Nazi Germany and Japan during WWII. They covered the humane treatment of prisoners of war — specifically, they prohibited torture, degrading treatment and unsanitary conditions. The Fourth Geneva Convention was a resolve by 194 countries to be better than the Japanese and nothing like the Nazis.
Fifty years later, George W. Bush decided these men we’d bribed the locals to turn in were not POWs, but rather enemy combatants. Therefore, they reasoned, the Geneva Convention, once the great aspiration of the world after “the most devastating war in history” didn’t apply. And habeas corpus, a 400-year-old staple of Western civilization, was no longer relevant.
Decency, fairness and justice were all thrown out in the name of national security. Gone.
Instead of being leaders on human rights like Abdullah Al Noaimi assumed we were — we opened Guantanamo Bay.
And to make this $150 million a year black spot worse, 70 percent of the prisoners being held indefinitely at Gitmo are in isolation.
Is solitary confinement torture? Yes, according to the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, and other groups who recently signed a petition with the United Nations stating exactly that.
We rationalize this by saying it’s not happening to Americans. “The guys in Guantanamo, they’re terrorists. Americans don’t get treated like that.”
The United States leads the world in prisoners with 2.2 million incarcerated Americans (that’s four Wyomings, census nerds). Of those, 81,622 are in solitary confinement according to the most recent data the federal government released.
California prisons alone house 11,730 of them.
This week, the largest hunger strike in California prison history is taking place. There are 30,000 men and women forgoing meals so their living conditions might be improved. Adequate food and an end to indefinite and long-term solitary confinement is what they are demanding. Basically, what we as a country agreed to following WWII — what the Bill of Rights ensures for U.S. citizens.
And why should we care if a bunch of murderous thugs in Bakersfield suffer?
For the same reason we allow civilians to stockpile weapons and say the most depraved and disgusting things imaginable — it’s in the Bill of Rights. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and that includes torture.
If the Constitution is good enough justification to protect nutty Uncle Ernie’s arsenal and Glenn Beck subscription, then it should suffice for halting long-term solitary confinement of both enemy combatants and U.S. citizens.
The problem is we’ve accepted cruel and unusual punishment as, well, usual. Tell us it’ll make us safer, we’ll agree to just about anything. (Case in point: The TSA ogled the genitals of airline passengers for years until someone realized the Advanced Imaging Technology scanners would work just as well showing only a generic outline of a person.)
According to the numbers, solitary confinement doesn’t make us safer. It just makes us crueler.
And we’ve just accepted that.
Tina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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