Gore Vidal and the Upside of American Military Prisons


So, here we are bringing democracy to the poor Afghans, but only the real democracy, of course, in the prisons, which we specialize in everywhere and which—one interesting thing that came out of all that mess was now the world knows how we treat Americans in American prisons.

— Gore Vidal

Only the late Gore Vidal, who the American media was almost universal in describing as iconoclastic in his obituaries, could find an upside to the torture of prisoners by American soldiers. And only Vidal could find an upside that would be at the same time deeply witty, cynical, sensationalistic, and completely factual.

I say completely factual because the torture and brutality that shocked the world in American military prisons from Guantanamo bay to Bagram to Abu Ghraib closely parallels and mirrors the United States’s own domestic treatment of prisoners. Given that the US, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, is the leading incarcerator in the world this fact is even more troubling.

One doesn’t need to dig very deep to discover the degrees of brutality, torture, and sadism that are the main stead of American prisons. Just a quick review of mainstream news sources from the last several months should produce more than enough damning evidence. In June the Senate held its first ever hearing on the widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States and whether it constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment barred by the 8th Amendment.

In addition to the horrors of solitary confinement, another prison abuse related issue received an unusualy large for the topic (but still insignificant) amount of media attention–that is in Texas prisoners are kept in such hot conditions that they routinely die from heat strokes. In some prisons heat indexes can get as high as 150 degrees. As KHOU Houston Texas reports

The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Larry Gene McCollum, who died last summer at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas.  During a week when outdoor heat indexes exceeded 130 degrees, McCollum suffered a seizure.  He was hospitalized with a body temperature of 109 degrees, the lawsuit said, then slipped into a coma and died.

McCollum was not the only heat related prison death in Texas last year, four people died and as one prison rights activist explained:

The old, the weak, the infirm, people with other complications like liver cancer, hepatitis-C related stuff, have been dying from heat prostration for some time

Texas in spite of not one, but two lawsuits doesn’t seem to be budging. Justifications from prison officials and lawmakers include if you don’t want to face lethal prison conditions you shouldn’t commit a crime, there is no money for air conditioning, and that with such a large prison population a few people are bound to die no matter what. The Texas Civil Rights Project has retorted that the issue isn’t over “comfortable” prisons but “safe and humane” ones.

However, abuse in prions is not confined to recent news stories–it is deeply engrained in our popular culture and imagination. Think how frequently sexual violence in prisons, often passed off as a source for humor, is depicted in our popular culture or the degree to which the acceptance of prison rape as normal is engrained in our popular understanding of American penology. In American prisons sexual violence in prisons is not merely the product of lack of intervention by guards, but in some instances has been actively promoted by guards. For example, in California one such inmate known as the “booty bandit” had a reputation for extreme sexual violence amongst prisoners and guards. Guards as disciplinary measures would move unruly prisoners into his cell knowing what would happen. In addition to looking the other way, the “booty bandit” was given rewards such as new tennis shoes for his enforcing of prison order (See Christian Parenti’s excellent work Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis).

And there is of course America’s fixation with the practice of capital punishment. The human rights community is completely unanimous in its opinion that capital punishment is a barbaric practice that constitutes a severe violation of human rights. While a handful of nations may have continued on this bizarre and antiquated practice, no other nation other than the United States has had such a fixation not only on killing its own citizens, but in inventing new, often cruel, ways of doing so. It was in the laboratory of America’s death row where the electric chair, the gas chamber, and the lethal injection were invented.

The similarity between America’s military prisons and America’s domestic prisons was not only noted by a leftist iconoclast like Gore Vidal. In 2004 the usually tepid New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “America’s Abu Grahib” stating

Most Americans were shocked by the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. But we shouldn’t have been…We routinely treat prisoners in the United States like animals. We brutalize and degrade them, both men and women.

It should further not surprise Americans that one of the soldiers convicted of a crime stemming from the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Grahib, Charles Graner, had been a prison guard in the US. It should be no further surprise that the prison Graner worked at, State Correctional Institution – Greene, was marred by allegation of not only racism, but physical and sexual violence carried out by the guards against the prisoners. Garner himself was sued twice by prisoners, one alleging that Garner put razor blades inside his food and another prisoner who alleged that Garner and other guards would make him stand on one foot while handcuffed and be repeatedly tripped. In both cases the lawsuits were dismissed as being over the statue of limitations.

This is not the first time America’s overseas policies of empire have had a relationship between domestic policing and prisons. Between 1972 and 1991 the Chicago police tortured at least 135 African-American suspects. The routine and systematic torture, which included electro-shock, began when Jon Burge began to apply “interrogation techniques” he had learned as a solider in the Vietnam War.

The difference, of course, between then and now is a very profound one. In the past, it was the legacy of America’s brutal overseas wars slipping into our domestic polices. Now it is our domestic polices of incarceration and policing that are slipping into overseas wars and occupations. It is because of this shift that Vidal is correct to assert that at least now “the world knows how we treat Americans in American prisons.”

Chip Gibbons is an activist who has been involved in various activist causes from labor rights to death penalty abolition to anti-war activities. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Political Studies and History from Bard College. His undergraduate thesis was on the Central American Solidarity Movement. He maintains the blog Exiting Emerald: Observations on Democracy and Empire.

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