The Least Worst Place

Colin Dayan

  • Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons by Clive Stafford Smith
    Weidenfeld, 307 pp, £16.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 297 85221 6

Shackles, dogs, humiliating acts, forced positions and ‘restraint chairs’, 23-hour lockdown, permanent solitary confinement. This catalogue of cruel and degrading treatment is now the fate not only of those held in ‘supermax’ prisons in the United States, but also of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. The language used to describe those in custody within the US anticipated the labels used for those offshore at Guantánamo: they are ‘the worst of the worst’, ‘incorrigibles’, ‘bad men’. They are given tags that seem intended to justify their loss of due process rights: ‘security threat groups’ (alleged gangs) in US prisons; ‘illegal enemy combatants’ (alleged terrorists) in the camps at Guantánamo. More unsettling are the claims made not only by those who run supermaxes but by army doctors, the Pentagon, White House lawyers, the Department of Justice and the president of the United States: ‘We do not torture.’ ‘Our practices are humane.’ ‘The United States operates a safe, humane and professional detention operation at Guantánamo.’

At Pelican Bay State Prison in California, correctional officers scalded an inmate so severely that the skin peeled off his legs. ‘Looks like we’re going to have a white boy before this is through,’ one officer joked. Given the cost of building supermaxes, an official in Arizona suggested: ‘Why don’t we just freeze-dry ’em?’ In a Special Security Unit there, another officer showed me a sign set above photos of prisoners who had mutilated themselves – row after row of slit wrists, first-degree burns, punctured faces, bodies smeared with faeces, eyes pouring blood. It read: ‘Idle Minds Make for Busy Hands.’

Building places to put criminals has become an extremely lucrative business. Even before the ‘war on terror’, which uses the label ‘terrorist’ to incarcerate ever greater numbers in the name of security, prisons in the United States had become a growth industry. In the late 1990s, investors bought a great deal of stock in prisons, especially in the Corrections Corporation of America. In 1997, Barron’s reminded readers who might balk at profiting from the warehousing of prisoners: ‘Stock prices will be largely immune to news of inflation . . . Paradoxically, and almost perversely, bad news, like a rise in the crime rate, will goose these industry’s stocks.’ Mandatory sentencing, the ‘war on drugs’, ‘three strikes and you’re out’ and juvenile detention ensured a continuous flow of prisoners, incarcerated for ever longer periods of time.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that correctional officers from state prisons were asked to restructure and reform the prisons in Iraq, including Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, both condemned by Major-General Antonio Taguba as the sites of ‘egregious acts and grave breaches of international law’. Or that Terry Stewart, the former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, who began the now prohibited practice of ‘dog frights’ in the supermaxes, not only led the Iraq team appointed by the State Department in May and June 2003, but made a brief visit to Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide to oversee prison reform there. As Stewart (who at the time was running a security consulting firm in Phoenix called Advanced Correctional Management) put it: ‘We need some place to put the criminals if we are going to have a civil society.’

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