TCS Daily

Prisoner Abuses and Bilateral Logic

By Patrick Cox - May 10, 2004 12:00 AM

"The horrors experienced by many young inmates, particularly those who are convicted of nonviolent offenses, border on the unimaginable. Prison rape not only threatens the lives of those who fall prey to their aggressors, but it is potentially devastating to the human spirit. Shame, depression, and a shattering loss of self-esteem accompany the perpetual terror the victim thereafter must endure."

This statement does not, as some might expect, refer to Iraqi detainees, but is commentary by Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in Farmer v. Brennan, about the U.S. prison system.

Those who draw a straight line of responsibility between the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by military guards to either Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush ought, at the very least, to have their own logic, or lack thereof, applied bilaterally.

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has filed articles of impeachment against Rumsfeld, and says "This rises to the point that it is a high crime and misdemeanor." To the best of my knowledge, however, he has never considered resigning over serious ongoing abuses in his own state's prisons -- including the stomping murder by guards of part-time deliveryman, Thomas Pizzuto, while serving a 90-day sentence for a traffic violation during Rangel's tenure.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for Rumsfeld's firing, intoning that, "The sad fact is that the abuses could have been prevented with proper leadership at the top of the chain of command." In her own state of California, however, she did not apply this standard to the ongoing scandal of California prison conditions. Even in her state's youth facilities, studies document widespread tolerance of violence and inmate rape. The recent hanging deaths, apparently suicides by two teenagers unable to deal with conditions, have not yet been fully investigated.

Massive campaign contributions to Gray Davis's recall election campaign by the prison guards union, combined with a series of lavish salary increases he gave that group, surely merit similar outrage by the Minority Leader -- as did the union's successful opposition to legislation that would have investigated abuse of prisoners by guards. California's court system under Gov. Davis was markedly unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute allegations of prisoner deaths at the hands of guards and the intentional subjection of targeted convicts to known rapists. In fact, Pelosi opposed his recall.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, angling for a high-level firing or resignation, complained that, "No one has stepped forward to take responsibility for the conditions in Iraqi prisons. Instead, fingers are being pointed in every direction. With whom does this buck stop?"

Apparently, the buck did not stop with Byrd or any of his cronies when it was discovered that Fred Zain, the villainous West Virginia State Police Serologist, had falsified lab and test results on numerous occasions to put an unknown number of innocent people into his state's prisons. The laws of probability almost insure that at least some of these falsely imprisoned individuals were allowed to be abused and raped by hardened criminals,

John Kerry, who sees evidence of the administration's incompetence in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, wants Rumsfeld fired. He did not, though, make similar demands when his own state's prison officials nearly guaranteed that pedophile priest John Geoghan would be murdered by putting him within reach of violent inmates known to want his death.

Do I seriously believe that top state officials should be forced to resign whenever an abuse of a prisoner takes place under their watch? No.

My point is that those vilifying the military and administration for allowing lesser abuses than those that occur in prisons in their own states are either completely uninformed or dishonest.

According to the Criminal Justice Institute, in the year 2000 alone, 55 inmates were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons in American prisons. Studies by the nonprofit Stop Prisoner Rape assert that 1 in 5 male prisoners is raped while in custody, a view taken seriously by President Bush when he signed national legislation furthering research into the problem -- spurred by estimates that one in four prisoners is HIV positive.

Even many Republican supporters of the administration are publicly calling for a proud double standard, saying that America cannot allow the sort of abuses shown in the prison photographs that have sparked outrage and prompted congressional interrogations. Most admit that much greater evil took place under the rule of Saddam Hussein and continues to take place in many Middle Eastern countries that oppose the democratization of Iraq, but none has mentioned that worse abuses of prisoners takes place in America as well.

Moral posturing may serve political interests, but no honest person can be particularly surprised that wartime prisons manned by relatively untrained and inexperienced reservists are not superior to our own domestic penal institutions. Those feigning horrified outrage ought to look to their own backyards before portraying abuses by a relative few in Iraq as particularly surprising or unprecedented.

Secretary Rumsfeld promised, in the hearings, that, "We will strive to do our best ... as imperfect as that may be." Those who promise more than that do America no service.


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