An unprecedented crime

Mass torture in America. And how to stop it
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  November 14, 2007

Editor’s Note:This is an edited version of a speech given by Phoenix contributing writer Lance Tapley to a seminar at the National Lawyers Guild 70th Anniversary Convention in Washington, D.C., on October 31. The discussion was on how to use international treaties to advance human rights in the United States.

On Halloween, I have a true ghost story to tell: the story of 35,000 ghosts in America, the largely invisible inmates of our solitary-confinement “supermax” prisons.

What is their life like? It is torture. It is isolation, sometimes for years — 23 hours a day in a tiny cell, with the other hour in a small cage outdoors. It’s sensory deprivation — usually, no radio or TV and few books. If you are disobedient, you may suffer beatings and Mace in the face when Swat teams “extract” you to put you in a restraint chair. Feces, urine, and blood coat the cellblock walls, floors, and ceilings — splattered there by the many insane and enraged men. Guards “checking” on prisoners deprive them of sleep, and so does the usual pandemonium; like ghosts, some prisoners howl in constant agony. Inadequate food is shoved through an unsanitary slot in the door. The prisoners get poor medical and dental care; in Maine, many Supermax inmates are not allowed toothbrushes. Mental health care is a cruel joke. Medical professionals are complicit in the torture; they try to keep prisoners capable of enduring more suffering. Guards sexually humiliate prisoners and taunt suicidal ones. Rare “no contact” visits with family take place through a window and a tinny speaker. Prisoners typically are allowed one telephone call a week. There is arbitrary censorship of mail and little or no access to education and other possibilities for rehabilitation.

For two years I’ve written about the treatment of men in the Supermax unit of the Maine State Prison. “Supermax” is the informal name of a super-maximum-security “special management unit” or “control unit.” They exist in most states and the federal prison system. Most are separate prisons; they were built beginning in the 1980s to house, in principle, disruptive prisoners.

Supermax confinement is repulsive, immoral mass torture that is historically unprecedented. I would also suggest it is illegal under international law. If the American people can be brought to see these things, it will be possible to get rid of supermaxes. In the process, we will begin to calm our complex, turbulent prison madness. Instead of indulging ourselves in the fury of punishment — with the supermax as the ultimate circle of the hell we have created for prisoners — we can try rationality and rehabilitation. Before we can move to this better place, though, the public needs considerable education. The news media can provide it, but reporters need legal action to report on, and legal action could have some success in itself.

There are so many other crimes committed against prisoners that the few reform groups tend to protest them all at once. Politically, though, supermaxes are a vulnerable point. As unsympathetic as many citizens feel toward prisoners, they don’t want to be seen as torturers. And Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have sensitized Americans to the word torture.

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