Saturday, February 18, 2006


This article details some things prison officials in Los Angeles have decided are necessary in order to maintain discipline:

More than 100 inmates at Pitchess Detention Center spent much of Feb. 9 naked, without their mattresses and with only blankets to cover themselves. The punishment was an effort to calm inmates who had repeatedly attacked each other, even after privileges like access to mail, television and phones were taken away, said Sammy Jones, chief of the custody division.

Does this sound at all like anything else that's been in the news lately?

I'm not actually equating treatment of prisoners here with the abuse in Abu Ghraib, in the sense of arguing that the problems are equal. But it is worth noticing that overseas or in this country, our tactics of control are all about taking away the dignity of people, all about humiliation. In many cases, control takes the form of specifically sexual degradation. In LA, officials are arguing that their tactics are justified, because not entirely surprisingly, they seem to have worked; no further violence has occurred in the dorms in which this treatment was used. Insofar as the purpose of violence against inmates in Iraq was to control them, I would imagine that it worked equally well there. The ACLU of Southern California is placing on the blame on systemic problems in the jail system:

"They don't have the staffing and the facilities to operate a detention and incarceration system according to professional standards," Mr. Rosenbaum said. "These are procedures they're making up as they go along because the staffing and facilities and other professional measures are not in place."

Similarly, in the case of Abu Ghraib, the ACLU has been calling for an investigation into the systemic nature of the abuse. Their task--and the task of all of those of us who oppose torture--is to note that we turn to, or allow, abuses when systems are flawed, that abuses are not the result of a limited necessity (in LA) or lack of supervision (in Iraq). The point of my writing about this as I do is not to absolutely condemn the individual prison officials for their actions, but to condemn the larger systems in which the decision is made, at some collective or individual, administrative or legislative level, that instead of investing in the systems that are meant to keep us safe such that we can run them in a humane way, we will rely on violence and coercion as our safeguards.

I believe that it is critical that we recognize the futility and the deep wrong of reliance on pain, humiliation, and abuse within our society, for any purpose. I feel this, in part, because of what I do: I studied domestic violence in college and in law school, and I represent battered women in family court against their batterers. I have read and heard first-hand story upon story detailing brutal uses of pain, humiliation and abuse used to control within the context of the family. I can't oppose that violence in the family context, and justify it elsewhere. As a society, we need to work to make our institutions better, and in making them better, to make them more human. To treat everyone within them as a human being. To act as human beings ourselves. We can't rely on the excuse of fear, which our current presidential administration promulgates at every turn--fear of terrorism, fear of Muslims, fear of riots, fear of prisoners, fear of black people are the weapons that our President has used to make us believe that sexual humiliation is the measure of our safety. But surely--surely we know that's wrong.


Blogger Smithie said...

Great post.

8:19 PM  
Blogger bleustockingconspiracy said...

Wow, Thistle. What even makes prison officials' minds *go* there? And, even supposing one person has that thought, what makes it acceptable in their mind to voice it aloud? Is it the work culture of running a prison -- or is it our culture of living in a violent, coercive society?

10:43 PM  
Blogger Smithie said...

Repeated studies seem to show that it's just basic human nature. Put one person in the "guard" role and one in the "prisoner" role, and normal people almost universally turn into sadists.

Add to that the very real physical dangers and emotional stressors that guards in a real live prison (as opposed to a controlled lab environment) are constantly subjected to, and... well, we're basically fucked.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Tishie said...

Awesome post.

1:11 AM  

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