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Abu Ghraib .... Shocking? What Happened There Is Commonplace at U.S. Prisons

The prison has become a central institution in American society, integral to our politics, economy, and culture. Between 1976 and 2000, the United States built a new prison each week, on average, and the number of imprisoned Americans increased tenfold. With a current prison and jail population of over two million, America has become the uncontested world leader in incarceration. Prison has made the threat of torture part of everyday life for millions of individuals in the United States, especially the 6.9 million currently incarcerated or otherwise under the control of the penal system. More insidiously, our prison system has helped make torture a normal, legitimate, even routine part of American culture.

Imprisonment itself, even when relatively benign, is arguably a form of torture. This is implicit in our society using prison as the most dire legal form of both"punishment" and"deterrence," except for execution. Moreover, in the typical American prison, designed and run to maximize degradation, brutalization, and punishment, overt torture is the norm. Beatings, electric shock, prolonged exposure to heat and even immersion in scalding water, sodomy with riot batons, nightsticks, flashlights, and broom handles, shackled prisoners forced to lie in their own excrement for hours or even days, months of solitary confinement, rape and murder by guards or prisoners instructed by guards--all are everyday occurrences in the American prison system. [1]

The use of sex and sexual humiliation as torture in Abu Ghraib and the other American prisons in Iraq is endemic to the American prison. Psychological and physical sexual torture is exacerbated by the underlying policy of denying prisoners any volitional sex, making the only two forms of sexual activity that are physically possible--homosexuality and masturbation--both offenses subject to punishment. Strip searches, including invasive and often intentionally painful examination of the mouth, anus, testicles or vagina, frequently accompanied by verbal or physical sexual abuse, are part of the daily routine in most prisons. A 1999 Amnesty International report documented the commonplace rape of prisoners by guards in women's prisons.[2]Each year, numerous prisoners are maimed, crippled, and even killed by guards. Photographs could be taken on any day in the American prison system that would match the photographs from Abu Ghraib that shocked the public. Indeed, actual pictures from prisons in America have shown worse atrocities than those pictures from the American prisons in Iraq. For example, no photos of American abuse of Iraqi prisoners have yet equaled the pictures of dozens of prisoners savagely and mercilessly tortured by guards and state troopers in the aftermath of the 1971 Attica rebellion. [3] Even more appalling images are available in the documentary film Maximum Security University about California's state Corcoran Prison. For years at Corcoran, guards set up fights among prisoners, bet on the outcome, and then often shot the men for fighting, seriously wounding at least 43 and killing eight just in the period 1989-1994. The film features official footage of five separate incidents in which guards, with no legal justification, shoot down and kill unarmed prisoners. [4]

But if the tortures practiced in American prisons are so commonplace, then why, one might reasonably ask, did those pictures from Abu Ghraib evoke such an outcry? The answer to this critical question lies in the history of the American prison and how the prison functions in contemporary culture.

Prior to the American Revolution, imprisonment was seldom used as punishment for crime in England and was rarer still in its American colonies. The main punishments under England's notorious"Bloody Code" were executions and various forms of physical torture--whipping, the stocks, the pillory, branding, mutilation, castration, etc.--all designed as spectacles to be witnessed by the public. The prison system, in contrast, institutionalizes isolation and secrecy. The prison's walls are designed not only to keep the prisoners in but to keep the public out, thus preventing observation or knowledge of what is going on inside. Unknowable to all but prisoners and guards, the prison thus becomes a physical site where the most unspeakable torture can continue without any restraint. And as an unknowable place, the prison can thus also become a prime site for cultural fantasy.

The modern prison was devised by American reformers who believed that people should not be tortured and that criminals could be"reformed" by incarceration, labor, and"penitence." But with the rise of industrial capitalism, unpaid prison labor became a source of superprofits, a trend accelerated by the Civil War, and the"penitentiary" became the site of industrial slavery conducted under the whip and other savagery.

Prior to the Civil War, the main form of imprisonment--African-American slavery--was, like the penitentiary, not to be regarded as torture. Slavery, indeed, was never legitimized by any claim that the slaves were being punished for crimes or anything else. A main cultural line of defense of slavery even maintained that the slaves were happy. This changed in 1865 when Article 13, the Amendment that abolished the old form of slavery, actually wrote slavery into the Constitution--for people legally defined as criminals:"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . . ."

At this point, tortures routinely inflicted on slaves, especially whipping, became a standard feature of the main site of penal incarceration: the prison plantation. The antebellum plantation was merging with the"penitentiary" to create the modern American prison system. Ironically, the sexual deprivation of the prison was an additional torture not characteristic of the old plantation, where slave breeding was a major source of profit, while the old pathological fear of Black sexuality became a prime source of the sexual tortures endemic to the modern American prison, where people of color are not a"minority" but the majority.

The true nature and functions of the American prison started to become known through the tremendous surge of prison literature in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The river of prison literature poured into public culture in books, songs, journals, and movies, dramatically influencing the political movement of that period. In response came a massive suppression. Most states enacted laws making it illegal for convict authors to receive money from their writing. Creative writing courses in prison were defunded. Almost every literary journal devoted to publishing poetry and stories by prisoners was wiped out. Federal regulations were drafted explicitly to ensure that prisoners with"anti-establishment" views would"not have access to the media."[5]

The silencing of prisoners was a precondition for the astonishing next stage of the American prison. Launched simultaneously was the unprecedented and frenzied building of more and more prisons, soon filled and overfilled with the help of harsh mandatory sentences,"three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws, and the so-called"War on Drugs" (a metaphor for an onslaught against the poor about as accurate as"War on Terror" is as a metaphor for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq).

How is it possible that the American public, so revolted by glimpses of Abu Ghraib, seems to accept, even enthusiastically sponsor, the hundreds of Abu Ghraibs that constitute the American prison-industrial complex? Intimately and intricately related to the boom in prison construction has been a boom in imagined images of prison, with the prison's walls of secrecy validating a complex set of supportive cultural fantasies that ultimately function as agents of collective denial. [6] Even superficially realistic representations, such as the TV serial Oz, end up masking or normalizing America's vast complex of institutionalized torture. Perhaps the dominant image, promulgated by the very forces that have instituted the prison-building frenzy, envisions prison as a kind of summer camp for vicious criminals, where convicts comfortably loll around watching TV and lifting weights. Just as false images of the slave plantations strewn across the South encouraged denial of their reality, false images of the Abu Ghraibs strewn across America not only legitimize denial of their reality but also allow their replication at Guantánamo, Baghdad, Afghan desert sites, or wherever our government, and culture, may build new citadels of torture in the future.


1. For a detailed summary of some of the horrors of American prisons, an analysis of specific connections with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and examples of especially vicious American correctional officials who were assigned to Iraq, see Anne-Marie Cusac, “Abu Ghraib, USA,” Prison Legal News, Vol. 15, #7 (July 2004), 1-4. This monthly journal is an excellent source of information about the routine abuses of the American prison and the myriad legal cases contesting these abuses. The national “Prison Discipline Study,” included in Criminal Injustice, ed. Elihu Rosenblatt (Boston: South End Press, 1966), reported that 42.5% of prisoners in maximum security facilities were beaten at least once a month.

2. Cusac, 3.

3. See, for example, the 64 pages of photographs included in Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Commission on Attica (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972).

4. “Maximum Security University” (1997) is available from California Prison Focus, 2940 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 or e-mail info@prisons.org.

5. Dannie M. Martin and Peter Y. Sussman, Committing Journalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 127, 212.

6. For a marvelous exploration of the various genres and forms of cultural images of prison, see Heather Schuster,"Framing the (W)hole: Representing the Prison in the Era of U.S. Mass Imprisonment, 1972-Present," Unpublished dissertation, New York University, 2001.

This article was first published by Historians Against the War.