No One Cares About Child Soldiers if They're in Guantanamo
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Okay, but what about torture? We bemoan with great feeling that America has “become” a state that uses torture. Alas, this, too, is not so new, nor has it ever been limited to foreign insurgents (be they Comanche, Filipino, or Vietnamese) or suspected terrorists. Take, for example, the former high-ranking Chicago police detective Jon Burge who, over a 20-year career, enhanced his interrogations with mock executions, suffocation, electroshocks, pistol-whipping, and yes, a form of waterboarding. All this was uncovered in 2002 in an epic special investigation which led to the reexamination of more than 100 cases, several overturned convictions, multiple Governor’s pardons and the usual massive lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department. Because the statute of limitations for Burge’s crimes had run out, the disgraced police officer was convicted this past June for perjury and obstruction of justice. He currently awaits sentencing.
Routinized Prison Abuse
As for routinized prison abuse, Bagram and Abu Ghraib have regularly been described as one-off aberrations, but the origins of such brutality are not hard to spot in our treatment of prisoners at home. This continuity is personified by Charles Graner, the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib torture. He had fittingly been a guard at maximum-security State Correctional Institute-Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania, itself subject to a major prisoner-abuse scandal in the late 1990s which got several guards fired, though not Graner.
Fact is, the abuse and/or torture of prisoners, though far from systematic, is not all that uncommon in many American prisons. What came out in the Abu Ghraib photos is, according to the (increasingly busy) United States program of Human Rights Watch, not so different from the abuse and brutality of many of our own stateside lock-ups.
In New York, for instance, a state task force convened by Governor David Paterson in 2008 deemed the entire youth detention system “broken.” The official report found that guards throughout the system regularly used “excessive force” on youth inmates, sometimes breaking bones and shattering teeth.
Prison abuse here at home can be just as fatal as at Bagram. In New York, an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old died in 2006 after corrections officers pinned him face down on the ground. (Remember, at Bagram the interrogators tried to make young Khadr talk by threatening to send him to an American prison, which they apparently considered at least as threatening as anything Afghanistan had to offer.)
This is not lost on lawyers representing Gitmo detainees. “I might well advise a client to take ten years in the communal wing of Guantánamo over three years in solitary at the supermax in Florence,” says Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Attorney Joshua Dratel, who took part in the very successful defense of Gitmo detainee David Hicks, told me recently that he thought the worst American-run prison is not Guantánamo’s Camp Delta, but rather the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. And yet, somewhat mysteriously, New Yorkers are more likely to know about the brutality of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib than the fatal abuse and abysmal prison conditions in their own state.
To be sure, in significant ways Gitmo and the CIA’s various global “black sites” were significantly worse. First, the use of torture has been far more widespread at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the other secret prisons established in the Bush years than at home. In addition, the government has also made the decision to imprison some detainees without trial for the duration of what has often been described as a “multigenerational” global war on terror. Even those prisoners with habeas rights have had trouble getting release orders granted by the judiciary enforced. Half a dozen Guantánamo prosecutors -- prosecutors, mind you, not defense lawyers -- have quit in disgust with the whole process, offering harsh words about the structural flaws which tilt the system towards securing convictions at the expense of impartial justice.