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Marooned in Local Jails

The Gitmos Next Door

by JEAN CASELLA AND JAMES RIDGEWAY

The U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay turns 10 today, and activists are marking the anniversary with protests andpetitions, reports and retrospectives. A decade after its founding, Guantánamo remains a dark stain on the national soul.

Even today, while the worst instances of torture may have ceased under the Obama Administration, prisoners are still subjected to solitary confinement and other forms of deprivation and abuse. According to a February 2009 report from the Center of Constitutional Rights:

“The descriptions of ongoing, severe solitary confinement, other forms of psychological abuse, incidents of violence and the threat of violence from guards, religious abuse, and widespread forced tube-feeding of hunger strikers indicate that the inhumane practices of the Bush Administration persist today at Guantánamo.”

Then there’s the fact that the prisoners at Guantánamo have been deprived of their liberty without any semblance of due process. Over the last decade, 779 prisoners have been held at Gitmo; 171 remain. Only six have ever been convicted of a crime.

When it comes to depriving people of their human and civil rights, Guantánamo stands as an unprecedented extreme. But it is far from the only place where these things happen. Today, in our cities and towns, in every state in America, there are places where individuals are incarcerated without trial, and where they suffer deprivation and abuse. They are our local jails.

Take the issue of pre-trial detention. According to the Pre-Trial Justice Institute, a full 61% of U.S. jail inmates–nearly half a million in all–have not yet been convicted of any crime. Many have not even been accused of a violent crime. The majority of them are in jail because they cannot afford the modest bail required for their release. A 2010 study by Human Rights Watch looked at defendants in New York City arrested on nonfelony charges. ”Most were accused of nonviolent minor crimes such as shoplifting, turnstile jumping, smoking marijuana in public, drug possession, trespassing, and prostitution.” It found that “87 percent were incarcerated because they were unable to post the bail amount at their arraignment,” even though bail had been set at $1,000. These defendants faced weeks, months, or years in pre-trial confinement for no reason other than poverty.

While awaiting trial, these individuals face appallingly  overcrowded  conditions, inadequate food – and far worse. On New York City’s Rikers Island, nearly one in twelve prisoners is held in solitary confinement at any given time; the jail maintains two isolation units specifically for inmates with mental illness, and another for juveniles. Pre-trial solitary is routinely used on underaged inmates, to separate from the adult jail population; one report out of Texas found juveniles in the Harris County Jail spending a year or more in complete isolation. In the most extreme cases–such as that ofSyed Fahad Hashmi, pre-trial detainees are held under “Special Administrative Measures” that constitute acute sensory deprivation.

Solitary confinement is not the only form of torment that detainees face in local jails. A recent reportby the ACLU’s National Prison Project showed a pattern of brutal abuse, carried out by sheriff’s deputies, in the Los Angeles County jail system: “In the past year, deputies have assaulted scores of non-resisting inmates…Deputies have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells. They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses,and for the color of their skin. They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs. They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted. Many attacks are unprovoked. Nearly all go unpunished: these acts of violence are covered up by a department that refuses to acknowledge the pervasiveness of deputy violence in the jail system.”

“America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace,” said Senator Jim Webb, using a phrase that has often been applied to Guantánamo Bay. But just as it has thwarted any attempts to close Gitmo, the U.S. Congress has blocked all of Webb’s attempts to propel the kinds of domestic criminal justice reforms that might have kept local jails from remaining Gitmos in our own backyards.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway edit Solitary Watch.