Roots of Gitmo Torture Lie Close to Home

The group of American peace activists now walking across southeastern Cuba in route to stage an anti-torture demonstration at the infamous US Guantanamo Bay prison are receiving applause from activists involved in the fight against torture inside US state and federal prisons.

“There are huge similarities between US prisons and Guantanamo Bay,” said Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch program.

“The US has a history of violating human rights in prisons before and after signing international treaties barring the use of torture,” said Kerness who has monitored abuses in US prisons since 1975.

Human rights abuses in US prisons, Kerness said, include beatings, hoodings, isolation, stun belts and sexual humiliations. These abuses are have erupted in US detention facilities from Gitmo to Iraq to Afghanistan.

Prison torture and abuses are daily occurrences across America, said Kerness who receives an average of ten letters a day from male, female and juvenile inmates.

“Juveniles are being held in isolation. They are being maced and pepper sprayed. This is happening to children in the United States,” said Kerness, who began working with the AFSC’s Criminal Justice Program in 1976.

Torture and other human rights abuses in US prisons is “a state of mind and that state of mind lead to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib,’ Kerness notes. “The strategy of torture is not isolated. It is all done with the knowledge of people in authority at the federal and state levels and none ever acknowledge it.”

The peace activists in Cuba are preparing to stage a protest at the gates of Guantanamo Bay on Saturday (December 10) ­ International Human Rights Day.

The activists, members of the Catholic Worker religious community, plan to seek entrance to the Guantanamo Bay prison which US authorities have UN and other inspectors from entering.

The 25 activists hope to meet with some of the estimated 500 detainees at the prison, held by the US government on suspicion of terrorist activities.

Reports indicate that 200 detainees at the prison are conducting hunger strikes to protest conditions inside the facility and their long incarceration ­ some for as long as three years ­ without trial.

This action by these activists is the first time that religious people of conscious have challenged the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow inspectors’ access to Guantanamo, where reports claim detainees are being tortured.

A Statement released by the activists stated, “For many months we have heard and read reports of torture being carried out by representatives of the American government in the name of the American peopleAs people of faithwe are compelled to act”

The activists include Frida Berrigan, daughter of the late peace activist Phil Berrigan.

The Statement released by the activists before they quietly left the US on Monday, slipping into Cuba on Tuesday, also stated, “We demand that the prisoners of Guantanamo be treated with the same measure of mercy and dignity, as we would have our own sons, brothers and fathers treated Regardless of the perpetrator, torture is an act of terrorism.”

Bush Administration officials vehemently deny charges of torture at Guantanamo.

Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a European tour, repeated these denials of torture. Rice’s was trying to defuse the crisis that erupted across Europe in the wake of revelations that the CIA operates secret prisons for terror suspects in some Eastern Europe countries.

However, Rice’s denials are flat wrong according to Ron Daniels, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“America does torture,” said Daniels, a noted author and activist.

Daniels, who like Rice is African-American, said it was “ironic to see [Rice] as the point person justifying torture.”

Rice frequently plays a ‘race card’ about her growing up during America’s segregationist era in America’s South, a time saturated with racist terrorism and torture. Additionally, Rice frequently cites her childhood friendship with one of the four black girls killed in the 1963 racist bombing of a Birmingham, AL church.

Rice “is a black woman but she is wrong,” Daniels continued. “The issue of torture, abuse, rape and harassment are routine in US prisons.”

Major human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented sexual assaults in US prisons on female prisoners by male prison personnel and rampant inmate-on-inmate rapes in male US prisons ­ torturous conduct ignored by prison authorities.

Charles Grainer, one of the US soldiers featured in the infamous sex abuse photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, was a prison guard at a Pennsylvania maximum security prison.

Grainer was the subject of inmate abuse complaints at that prison ­ SCI Greene, the facility housing Pa’s Death Row.

“Is it mere coincidence that some of the most brutal, most vicious actors at Abu Ghraib were US Reserves, who, in their civilian lives, were prison guards. How else could they learn it?” said death row journalist Mumia Abu Jamal, in an April 2005 commentary. Abu Jamal is housed in the same maximum security prison where Grainer worked.

In mid-November, the AFSC issued a press release decrying the widespread torture existing in US prisons.

One incident listed in this press release detailed how prison guards in a California jail “put an inmate in a bath so hot it boiled 30% of the skin off his body.”

American military and intelligence personnel [allegedly] use various forms of water based torture on detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and those CIA operated secret prisons in European countries.

“The tactics approved in US prisons are being exported overseas,” said Tonya McClary, national director of the AFSC’s Criminal Justice program.

A 1999 report prepared by Bonnie Kerness contained testimonials on torture from inmates across America.

A Utah inmate described being pepper sprayed to the point of getting “burns and blisters to my arms, face, chest and feet.” Another account described a “mentally ill prisoner in a New Jersey isolation unit who was tortured to death.” Guards made this inmate “perform sexual acts on himself in order to get food and cigarettes.”

Torture is not America’s “dirty secret anymore” Bonnie Kerness said. -30-

Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune and a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.



Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.