It Can’t Happen Here? — Torture in U.S. Prisons


The two million people locked up in U.S. prisons were probably not surprised to learn about the violent abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. Cases of prisoner abuse and police torture in America often resemble the notorious photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq. Prisoners, reporters, legal investigators, and watchdog groups like Amnesty International have documented widespread cases of U.S. prisoners being beaten, stripped naked, hooded, tortured with pepper spray, electrocuted, and sexually humiliated.

A 1996 Justice Department investigation of jails in Maricopa County, Arizona uncovered an incident in which jail staff used a stun gun against a prisoner’s testicles. In 1997, FBI investigators reported that guards at Corcoran State Prison in California used rape between inmates as punishment and used gunfire to break up staged “cockfights” between prisoners. The FBI found that between 1985 and 1997, 30 inmates at Corcoran were shot by guards. Eight were killed.

Baghdad or Chicago?
Police in the U.S. also use torture to interrogate suspects. In 1996, city of Chicago attorneys acknowledged that during the ’70s and ’80s police commander Jon Burge oversaw the “savage torture” of suspects at a south side Chicago police station. Over 60 former suspects – all of them African Americans – accused commander Burge and other officers of using beatings, suffocation, and electrocution to extract “confessions.” Considering the strong repression and code of silence within prisons and police precincts, accounts of torture reaching the mainstream media merely represent the tip of the iceberg.

In the U.S. as in Iraq, prisoner abuse is bound up with racism. Because of the racist drug war and the disproportionate impact of poverty and unemployment in minority communities, African Americans make up nearly half of the massive U.S. prison population. In racially polarized U.S. prisons, non-white inmates suffer the worst abuses at the hands of prison authorities.

The Roots of Abu Ghraib
In Iraq, as in previous imperialist incursions, domestic traditions of racism and repression feed the dehumanization and violence against the occupied population.

For example, the man who was hired by the U.S. government to set up Iraq’s new prison system, Lane McCotter, ran Utah’s prisons in 1997 when mentally ill Utah inmate Michael Valent died after spending 16 hours naked in a restraint chair. John Armstrong, presently a prison official in Iraq, was in charge of the Connecticut prison system between 1995 and 2003 when three Connecticut inmates died from restraint, suffocation, and beatings.

American racism and prison torture in Iraq is an ugly extension of the racism and state-sanctioned violence long practiced at home. Recognizing common cause is step one toward joining in common cause: building the anti-war movement must be intimately linked with ongoing struggles against police and state repression at home.