The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Taste of Fears

In March, I wrote:

In the United States today, we have reached an unclean compromise. Setting aside the (rare) death penalty, the most cruel punishment is confinement in cells which are mandated to fairly high nominal standards of cleanliness and roominess -- so the State has the appearance of highly civilized mercy. Then, in practice, standards slip and the State turns a blind eye to prisoner abuse at the hands of other prisoners, so as a practical matter imprisonment is a mixture of bland inconvenience and brutal abuse.
Those who wish for harsher punishments ignore this problem because it has an effect they find desirable; those who wish for greater leniency might wish to change the situation, but their proposals tend to a nominal level of leniency which is completely unacceptable to society. We could reduce jailhouse brutality and prisoner rape, increase the deterrent effect of prison terms, reduce their value as a training ground for criminals, and simultaneously save money -- simply by isolating prisoners more in smaller cells, instead of giving them just enough "rights" to let them create jungle societies.

Our national hypocrisy about criminal prisoners is also coloring the debate over prisoner treatment at Guantanamo. Roger L. Simon writes:
Meanwhile, in the real world, we all know the obvious truth about prison in every country - it stinks! Jail is lousy for everyone from Tashkent to Talahassee - even Martha Stewart. And I'd take my chances in a US Military prison over virtually all of them and so would (I'd bet again - in this case my house) almost all their critics, from the editors of the New York Times to the head honchos of Amnesty International.
[Emphasis mine.] The idea that the worst feature of prison is risk is an outgrowth of the unclean compromise I spoke of. For comparison, naturally we turn first to Turkey, as reported by the Turkish Human Rights Association:
The dirt, airlesness, extreme heat and cold, diseases and noice are making the conditions more unhealthy. The general toilets, which are used collectively and are lacking in number, are unuseable because of lack of water and cleaning materials. mouses and insects are existing in the prisons because of disinfection and uncleaning, and are making the conditions more unhealthy. Drinking water and use water is insufficient in many places. There are very few prisons where water is available during all the day. In some prisons water is available two times for ten minutes in a day.
... The food given in prisons is insufficient both in amount and in quality... It is stated that sometimes insects are seen in the food. The reasons for the food being bad are that the daily cachet cost being too low, the lack of control and that this procedure being preferred consciously.
The risk of violence is present [the cited report mentions an increase in sexual abuse due to overcrowding] -- but it is far from the dominant hardship. We have chosen to ameliorate such hardships as those described, while allowing risk to flourish.

Thus we reach a situation where only 20% of Americans think the Guantanamo prisoners are being "treated unfairly", because they know those prisoners are under the watchful thumb of the U. S. Marine Corps. They suffer mild hardships in their incarceration, and more severe (sometimes excessive) hardships under interrogation, but they are not at risk in the way common criminals would be. A public hardened by the knowledge of what we have chosen for our prisons is not shocked by any of the reports from Guantanamo.

And every American adult is so hardened. The gentility are isolated from everyday roughness and violence, but they never doubt its reality. Argue that Guantanamo shows bad policies, carelessly applied, to the detriment of the American cause, and you can make a case for change. But the pretension that some new species of horror has been unearthed is just a pretension, an attempt to synthesize outrage beyond that merited. It shows contempt for the audience, forgetting that:
I have supped full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaught'rous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.