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Beyond Homan Square: US History Is Steeped in Torture

Chicago’s Homan Square reflects a norm rather than a deviation from US policy.

Throughout its history, the United States has tortured people and still does, in various forms. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History)

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The fatal shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of White police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, not only sparked a nationwide social movement challenging police brutality, but it also amplified media scrutiny of the US legal system. One example is the recent Guardian investigation of a detention facility in Chicago’s Homan Square, where police take people for harsh, off-the-book interrogations without reading them their rights and denying access to attorneys. The facility is deemed “the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site” since suspects are effectively “disappeared.” While this is the first time Homan Square has been discussed in the mainstream press, it hardly represents anything new or unique in Chicago, or in the United States as a whole. If anything, Homan Square reflects a norm rather than a deviation from US legal and national security policy.

Veteran Chicago activist Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, an organization dedicated to ending youth incarceration, points out that Homan Square has long been known about but underreported in Chicago.

“I appreciate the investigative reporting by the Guardian about the Homan Square facility in the past few weeks. I want to make that clear at the outset,” Kaba told Truthout in an email. “It is also important to point out that there have been allegations about Homan and other Chicago police facilities illegally detaining and torturing people for many years. In this respect, some of the local media who have characterized Homan as standard CPD practice are not wrong. People’s rights in this city have been and continue to be violated on a daily basis. It has led to apathy when it should lead to an uprising.”

Lawyers and relatives say “there is no way” of finding out where arrestees are.

The Guardian’s report on Homan Square is quite staggering. Special police units, such as anti-gang and anti-drug forces, take witnesses or arrestees to a warehouse in Homan Square for secretive interrogations. According to The Guardian, “Witnesses, suspects or other Chicagoans who end up inside do not appear to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct.” Lawyers and relatives say “there is no way” of finding out where arrestees are. “Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside,” The Guardian reports. Police abuses in Homan Square include “keeping arrestees out of official booking databases”; “beating by police, resulting in head wounds”; “shackling for prolonged periods”; “denying attorneys access to the ‘secure’ facility”; and “holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.” The victims of these harsh police interrogations are usually poor Black and Brown Chicagoans.

However, it would be wrong to read this story and come away thinking that it’s a departure from typical US jurisprudence, in the same way it would be wrong to view torture as just a post-9/11 feature of US “national security” policy. Nor is it right to view Homan Square as something unique to Chicago. But what is not unique are the abuses and torture that occur. Throughout its history, the United States has tortured people and still does, in various forms.

Torture in US History

European slaveholders inflicted massive violence on Black African slaves in order to preserve the economic system of slavery. Slavery built modern capitalism and enriched a vast network of slaveholders, stock traders, banks and corporations. Slaveholders’ number one fear was slave rebellion since that would disrupt or collapse the system. Thus, terrorizing slaves through torture and other means of violence was a way to control them, prevent insurrection and uphold the slave-built economic system.

Rather than solely crime-fighting, a key purpose of US policing has been social control of “dangerous classes.”

Torture was inflicted on slaves in order to ensure economic productivity and docility to their masters. Slaves were required to meet production quotas; torture was deployed as a form of punishment for failing to meet those quotas. Slaveholders used multiple tools to torture, particularly whipping. Whipping, for “many southwestern whites … was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism,” according to Edward Baptist in his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Other torture tools were “carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, iron or branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs.” In fact, Baptist writes, “Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in ‘stress positions,’ burning, even waterboarding.”

In addition, armed slave patrols monitored, stopped and searched, arrested and terrorized runaway, enslaved and even free Black Africans. Slave patrols’ main job was to punish runaway slaves and return them to their masters. Free Africans were not immune, either. According to Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a professor at CUNY John Jay College, “Free Africans were susceptible to capture by bounty hunters who could sell them into slavery. The word of a free black man in a Southern court meant nothing under the law.” In fact, the slave patrols’ method of stopping and searching free and enslaved Blacks can be considered a predecessor to modern-day stop-and-frisk. Those slave patrols helped lay the foundation for modern US policing. Once slavery ended so did slave patrols, but Southern Whites’ fears of Blacks did not dissipate. As a result, police squads and vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, formed and they revived slave patrols’ practices.

Moreover, rather than solely crime-fighting, a key purpose of US policing has been social control of “dangerous classes,” along with suppressing labor protests. Those “dangerous classes” were usually Black people, Native Americans, the poor, homeless and immigrants – people seen as inherently prone to violent, immoral and disorderly behavior. As Victor E. Kappeler, associate dean and foundation professor of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, wrote, “New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans” and “St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city.” To this day, those communities remain heavily policed and criminalized.

US-perpetrated torture is not a post-9/11 phenomenon.

Slavery is not the only explicit setting for torture in US history. Torture was – and remains – an instrument for furthering US imperialism. It is also crucial to note that slavery and imperialism are different forms of systemic violence with distinct roots and consequences for targeted groups of people. The roots and consequences of slavery are different for Black people than, say, the roots and consequences of Western imperialism are for peoples in Asia and Latin America. However, slavery and imperialism mutually support one another since the US empire benefited greatly from the economic foundation built by slavery.

When the United States occupied the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, US soldiers tortured – including the use of waterboarding – Filipinos in their captivity. As part of its Phoenix program, the United States, with its partner in South Vietnam, tortured and assassinated suspected Vietcong members or civilians who allegedly had information on them during the Vietnam War. US-backed death squads and right-wing militias in Latin America routinely tortured and assassinated dissidents as part of the US effort to defeat “communism” in the region.

Thus, US-perpetrated torture is not a post-9/11 phenomenon, as it has often been framed. The danger of that framing is that it is not only an erasure of history, but it also gives the false impression that post-9/11 torture during the war on terror constituted a unique moment in US history – an aberration that is now firmly in the past, and not consistently reproduced in the present. As Carla Ferstman, director of REDRESS, a London-based human rights organization, told Truthout, “I think focusing only on counterterrorism after September 11 gives a false picture that the US went astray and is now fixed. And I would assume that the government would be very happy with that narrative because it can clearly say that it’s moved on.”

Committee Against Torture

In November 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture released a report criticizing the US government’s torture practices and other affronts to the Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is party. Among those practices were the torture of detainees in CIA “black sites” and lack of accountability for torturers, lack of accountability for torture committed by the US military, and numerous abuses in the US legal system, including solitary confinement and police violence against youth of color.

The report also condemned the continued indefinite detention of people imprisoned at Guantánamo without charge or trial. The United States’ position is that the indefinite detainees (around three dozen out of 122 total currently detained) are “enemy belligerents” who will be held “until the end of hostilities” against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” – as in until the end of the war on terror, which has no defined end. This effectively makes them prisoners of war in an endless war. Criticizing that position, the Committee “reiterates that indefinite detention constitutes per se a violation of the Convention.” Indefinite detention also violates international human rights law, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention.

The Committee was also alarmed at the treatment of Mexican and Central American immigrants who attempt to cross the US-Mexico border and upon arrest are warehoused in US immigration detention facilities. Specifically, it expressed its concern that the United States “continues to use, under certain circumstances, a system of mandatory detention to automatically hold asylum seekers and other immigrants on arrival in prison-like detention facilities, county jails and private prisons. It is also concerned at the recent expansion of family detention with the plan to establish up to 6,350 additional detention beds for undocumented migrant families with children.”

Corroborating this concern is an October 2014 report by the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project about the human rights violations of immigrants held in US Department of Homeland Security detention facilities in southern Arizona. The report is based on interviews with 33 adult migrants held in short-term detention from late May to late July 2014.

Based on FBI data, a White police officer kills a Black person almost twice a week.

It found numerous human rights violations in immigration detention facilities. Migrant men, women and children “consistently reported” food and water deprivation. “Nearly eighty percent of adult immigrants reported being hungry when apprehended, and eighty-three percent reported being hungry when they left the custody of Border Patrol,” according to the report. Another 80 percent were given “no water, insufficient amounts of water, or undrinkable water.” Thirty percent of immigrants were psychologically, physically or verbally abused. Many reported sleep deprivation due to extremely cold temperatures in their cells (94 percent of adults reported this), bright lights in holding rooms, Border Patrol agents talking loudly, and “becoming over chilled due to the restriction of wearing only one layer of clothing.” Immigrants were also “purposefully and routinely awoken” in the early morning hours for Border Patrol agents “to inform them of their legal options,” the very time when people are least prepared to process complicated legal language and make “make decisions about their legal status.”

The Committee also condemned the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. Solitary confinement or isolation is when prisoners are held in isolated cells with no human contact for 22 to 24 hours a day. Isolation is used to punish or discipline prisoners, but it also used for “safety” and “health-related” reasons. (For example, prisoners who indicate they may harm themselves are often placed in solitary confinement.) According to watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Solitary Watch, around 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, many of whom are mentally ill. Even children – juvenile prisoners – are held in solitary confinement. Time spent in solitary confinement varies but many prisoners spend multiple years in isolation, including those incarcerated at “supermax” prisons entirely made up of solitary confinement units.

Since humans are social creatures, solitary confinement can have serious physical and psychological effects on a person. Isolation can cause anxiety, depression, irritability and hostility, paranoia and psychosis, panic attacks, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, difficulty sleeping, violent fantasies, nightmares, dizziness, heart palpitations, self-harm and suicide, among other consequences. It is for these reasons that solitary confinement is considered a human rights violation and a form of torture by internationalbodies and human rights groups.

Additionally, the Committee criticized the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system; life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders; lack of protection of prisoners against violence, including sexual assault; prisoner deaths in US custody; the way in which the death penalty is administered – along with the fact that it is administered at all; and excessive use of force and brutality by US police officers, particularly against people of color and other marginalized communities. Every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by a member of law enforcement or a vigilante, according to a Malcolm X Grassroots Movement estimate. Based on FBI data, a White police officer kills a Black person almost twice a week.

The UN report highlighted police violence, profiling and harassment against Black and Latino youth in Chicago, following testimony by delegates from We Charge Genocide (WCG), a grassroots group in Chicago that organizes against police violence. On November 12-14, 2014, WCG sent eight young activists as delegates to Geneva, Switzerland, to present evidence of police violence in Chicago to the UN Committee Against Torture. The delegates told the Committee and US government representatives how police violence, harassment and profiling harm youth of color, particularly Black youth, in Chicago. In addition, before the November hearing, the organization released a shadow report entitled “Police Violence Against Youth of Color,” which documented racist police violence in Chicago during the summer of 2014.

More Torture and Renditions Overseas

While largely under the radar, the United States still uses torture and renditions overseas, much of it outsourced to US allies. Renditions of suspected terrorists overseas have not ceased. In November 2013, Abu Anas al-Libi was snatched by US Delta Force commandos in Libya, detained and interrogated on a US warship without access to a lawyer. He was subsequently sent to the United States to stand trial for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of a US embassy in Kenya. However, he died in January at a US hospital.

Recently, the Obama administration slightly altered the Bush administration’s interpretation of the Convention Against Torture’s prohibition on the United States torturing and abusing prisoners in its custody. The Bush administration said the treaty did not apply overseas. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s interpretation is that “the cruelty ban applies wherever the United States exercises governmental authority,” according to The New York Times. This would apply to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as US ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace. However, the definition seems to exclude overseas secret prisons run by the CIA during the Bush years and US military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars. Those prisons were on the sovereign territory of other countries, while the Cuban government has no control over Guantánamo.

However, the Obama administration does not argue that torture is allowed overseas because it’s already prohibited by domestic laws, such as the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and the Geneva Conventions. It just doesn’t want to change the treaty’s “jurisdictional scope” as that, according to Charlie Savage of The New York Times, “could have unintended consequences, like increasing the risk of lawsuits by overseas detainees or making it harder to say that unrelated treaties with similar jurisdictional language did not apply in the same places.” This interpretation provides fewer constraints on US counterterrorism operations overseas.

While US military personnel are technically barred from torturing people, its partners are not.

On the other hand, while US military personnel and intelligence agents are, technically, barred from torturing people, its partners are not. In November 2013, reporter Matthieu Aikins wrote a long, investigative piece in Rolling Stone about 10 Afghans who were kidnapped and tortured by US special operations forces, with Afghan interpreters at their side, in the fall of 2012. Soon after his report was released, Aikins posted a video of Afghan military personnel and interpreters interrogating and torturing a prisoner as US commandos watched. As shocking as the video appears, it captures a common practice. According to Aikins, “As one military intelligence soldier told me in Kandahar in 2011, they would often take a ‘smoke break’ when interrogating recalcitrant detainees, stepping outside and leaving the prisoner alone with Afghan police or soldiers.” The United States spends billions of dollars training and funding Afghan security forces – and torture is routine in Afghan prisons.

Detention facilities have been transferred to Afghan control. But Aikins points out that “American military units are allowed to hold detainees for ‘tactical questioning’ for up to two weeks.” This can often lead to US commandos abusing detainees they have little sympathy for. Moreover, while “ISAR has halted transferring detainees to some of the worst locations … the CIA has not,” according to Aikins. Moreover, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lifted the ban on night raids, in which US special operations forces burst into civilian homes at night to kill or capture suspected militants. The practice was controversial, and banned by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2013, because they often resulted in killing and harassing innocent civilians. Now Afghan special forces get to conduct night raids with US commandos at their side as advisers. As conventional troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the US forces left over will largely be special operations forces and CIA paramilitary working alongside Afghan security forces. They will operate largely in the shadows and will likely continue these sorts of abuses – torture and assassination – in secret.

As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation, the CIA is using a secret prison in Somalia to interrogate suspected members of the militant group al-Shabab. The prison is “buried in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency (NSA),” according to Scahill. “While the underground prison is officially run by the Somali NSA,” Scahill reports, “US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.”

The prison is dark and dungeon-like. It “consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes.” Prison cells are “windowless and air thick, moist and disgusting” and prisoners “are not allowed outside.” Many prisoners “have developed rashes and scratch themselves incessantly. Some have been detained for a year or more. According to one former prisoner, inmates who had been there for long periods would pace around constantly, while others leaned against walls rocking.”

Scahill reported on the prison’s existence in 2011 but such operations still continue. In fact, in a rare public admission, CIA Director John Brennan confirmed what Scahill and others have been saying about US renditions. During a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in mid-March, Brennan said, “There are places throughout the world where CIA has worked with other intelligence services and has been able to bring people into custody and engage in the debriefings of these individuals either through our liaison partners and sometimes there are joint debriefings that take place as well.”

When reports of torture in CIA black sites or Chicago’s Homan Square come out, it is tempting to view them as anomalies in US history – momentary aberrations perpetrated by “bad apples.” But they are not. They are the norm, products of the slavery and imperialism on which the United States was built. The reason why an off-the-books torture facility at Homan Square exists is because torture is deeply embedded in this country’s history and its legal and national security structures, both historically and in the present moment.