Guantanamo Bay is often portrayed as exceptional, a piece of hell located off American shores and outside American law. A place where humans could notoriously be tortured and abused because the rules usually constraining such violence were purposefully suspended.
Certainly, there are many aspects of “justice” at Guantanamo that lie far beyond the pale: most egregiously, the prolonged indefinite detention of hundreds of men held without charge, the vast majority of whom were innocent. For many, Guantanamo Bay epitomizes all the problems with a “war on terror” that places some people outside the law, supposedly to save the rest of us from them.
However, Guantanamo Bay is not as exceptional as we might like to imagine. Physical and psychological abuse are not restricted to spaces expelled from the normal American legal system. American prison brutality did not begin at Guantanamo, and will not end with its long-promised closure.
On the contrary – in September 2015, Human Rights Watch warned that President Barack Obama’s plan to transfer Guantanamo detainees to super-maximum security prisons within the U.S. could actually worsen their conditions of detention. “Supermax conditions often include prolonged isolation that can lead to prisoners experiencing depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember,” according to a letter to Obama from HRW’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth. “Inmates have described life in a supermax as akin to living in a tomb.”
Suicide rates skyrocket in the living death of solitary confinement. In 2004, for example, 73 per cent of all suicides in California prisons occurred in isolation units, which comprised less than 10 per cent of the state’s total prison population. Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, has represented 10 prisoners at a Colorado supermax known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies. She reported that one of her clients befriended a wasp that happened to fly in his cell. The prisoner fed it and talked to it. Rovner described the prison as “a place that strips away your humanity.”
Amnesty International has characterized prolonged isolated detention in the U.S. prison system as a form of “cruel and inhumane” treatment in violation of international law. Indeed, as Amnesty has noted, the U.S. “stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement.”
One prisoner held in prolonged solitary confinement is Mahdi Hashi, a former British citizen imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan on terrorism charges. For over three years, and long before his guilty plea in May 2015, Hashi has been confined to a small cell for 23 hours a day – without any natural light, without any physical contact with other humans. Counter-terrorism expert Arun Kundnani has dubbed the MCC “the Guantanamo in New York you’re not allowed to know about.” In fact, at least one detainee has described Guantanamo as a “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” environment in some ways than the MCC; at Guantanamo, for example, prisoners were permitted to gather communally.
And certain techniques of physical violence commonly associated with the torture cells of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are also practiced in the prison cells of the United States. U.S. inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, raped, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, attacked and dragged with dogs, choked, and slammed face-first onto concrete floors by the officers tasked with guarding them. At Pelican Bay State Prison in California, inmates had their skin peeled off after being bathed in boiling water. At Dooly State Prison in Georgia, a guard forced an inmate to tap-dance naked before giving him a body cavity search. Prisoners have suffered broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, and second-degree burns. Some have died.
Guards of “war on terror” detention camps have frequently gained their training in brutality from the domestic American prison system. For instance, Charles Graner, infamous for his role as ringleader in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, previously worked as a guard at the maximum-security State Correctional Institute-Greene in Pennsylvania – the scene of a major prisoner abuse exposé in 1998.
“Reports of prisoner abuse during the prosecution of the war on terror must be understood against the backdrop of this constant drumbeat of domestic prisoner abuse stories,” writes Yale law professor James Forman Jr. “We have allowed this sort of degradation and humiliation to become normal, acceptable, even inevitable.”
The naturalization of extreme violence and humiliation in the American prison system perhaps explains why Guantanamo has been allowed to survive for so many years. When Amnesty International sought to raise consciousness about the abusive living conditions at Guantanamo Bay by constructing a mock Guantanamo cell in Washington, D.C., many spectators reacted with indifference. “Kind of what I expected,” said one 20-year-old man. “I shrug my shoulders.”
Guantanamo should be dismantled – but this will not restore humanity to a prison system that has never possessed it.
– Dr. Monia Mazigh is National Coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law