Thanks largely to Donald Trump’s various inflammatory statements on the subject, and his claim that he would bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” torture is on the agenda this election season. Sasha Abramsky calls it his “leitmotif,” but while Abramsky and other journalists and commentators ponder the un-American and uncivilized nature of torture, the real question should be: Where did torture go?
The US has the highest prisoner population in the world, with more than 2 million men, women and children incarcerated. Coupled with law enforcement with a penchant for brutality, torture is an essential cog in the US prison industrial complex, and an effective means of controlling the wider community.
Examples of US domestic breaches of the internationally accepted definition of torture under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), which the US ratified in 1994, are too many and too widespread to list. The UN Committee Against Torture’s 2014 periodic review of the United States’ compliance with the UNCAT noted the abuse of foreign prisoners and terrorism suspects in the war on terror, to whom Trump refers in his statements, but also raised serious concerns about practices within the United States.
Domestic Torture in US Prisons
Albert Woodfox was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in February 2016 after spending 43 years in solitary confinement. Originally imprisoned at Angola in 1971 for armed robbery, he and Herman Wallace (released 2013) were convicted of stabbing a prison officer to death in 1972 and given life sentences. The decision to place them and a third man, known together as the Angola 3, in solitary was admittedly political and punitive, due to their membership in the Black Panther Party. In 2013, the UN special rapporteur on torture stated that, “The indefinite solitary confinement imposed on Albert Woodfox clearly amounts to torture and it should be lifted immediately.”
The special rapporteur, Juan Mendez, has called for an absolute ban on the use of solitary confinement for periods lasting longer than 15 days, and for it to only be used in exceptional circumstances. Although no official statistics exist, at least 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners are punished by being held in solitary confinement in the United States every day. “Self-mutilation is common among prisoners, with reports of individuals biting off veins, testicles and other body parts.” Additionally, more than half of all prisoner suicides take place in solitary confinement. Does it get a hell of a lot worse than that?
There is “no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States,” the US government told the UN Committee Against Torture. The Committee nonetheless expressed concerns about “reports of extensive use of solitary confinement,” called lengthy periods of full isolation “unacceptable” and recommended drastic reforms.
President Obama responded positively by banning solitary confinement for juveniles in January 2016. Yet, in the style of a president who flippantly conceded that, “We tortured some folks” with respect to the true nature of enhanced interrogation techniques, he is simultaneously seeking to create a new supermax prison in Illinois. Such prisons are known for their use of solitary confinement, coupled with other cruel and unusual forms of punishment.
Although Angola has come to international prominence due to the decades-long solitary confinement of the Angola 3, it is also notorious for other forms of torture flagged by the UN Committee, including death row prisoners held “in a situation of anguish and incertitude for many years,” sexual violence and the excessive use of force. The UN Committee noted that much of the torture carried out in US prisons is against vulnerable ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, as well as those with mental illnesses and migrants.
Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the US, and more than 80 percent of prisoners are Black. A prison farm that was once a slave plantation, prisoners are still compelled to work in cotton, sugar cane and corn fields, for a pittance, and “under threat of punishment as severe as solitary confinement.” All the forms of torture noted by the UN Committee in the US have long been practiced and precede post-9/11 policies by decades. Much of the United States’ practice of torture finds its origin in punishment methods used against slaves and Indigenous peoples.
Although it may be argued that there is a huge difference between terrorism suspects captured abroad and tortured punitively without the prospect of charge or trial, not all torture in the US constitutes post-sentencing punishment. This is particularly true of the use of solitary confinement, and physical and sexual violence against immigrant detainees. In making his case to end solitary for juveniles, President Obama raised the case of 19-year-old Kalief Browder who, at age 16, was placed in solitary at Rikers Island, New York, for three years for a petty crime for which he would not stand trial. He later hanged himself. His death is not unusual.
The April 2016 suicide attempt by Ahmed Ferhani, convicted of terrorism offenses in a controversial case, demonstrates the abusive conditions Muslim war on terror prisoners are often subjected to inside the US as well. In a letter, he had stated:
I have been denied food, water, telephone, recreation and law library services. My personal and religious property has been destroyed and my mail thrown in the garbage. My life has been threatened countless times and I have been the victim of sexual harassment.
Like those captured and abused abroad, often little is known about the treatment such prisoners actually face.
US Torture Abroad in the War on Terror
As with abuses under the guise of the war on terror, the situation is largely one of ignorance and denial. There is also the question of definition. Although the US ratified the UNCAT in 1994, it entered reservations on some of its articles, effectively restricting the definition of torture, particularly where mental and psychological forms of torture are concerned, and made its accession of the Convention little more than nominal.
It is these reservations that led to the authorization of a number of abuses under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, as well as torture in prisons and by the police. In the US, it is not torture unless it is extreme and physical. The purported distinction and hierarchy between physical and psychological torture has been used to legitimize the use of methods that leave no physical scars, but has no medical or factual basis. Ultimately, a serious flaw in the US understanding of torture is the nature of the prohibition in international and most domestic laws: It is absolute. There are no exceptions that can eventually become the rule.
US and global standards on torture differ. In 1989, the European Court of Human Rights ruled not to extradite a man to the US where he faced the death penalty (which is prohibited throughout the jurisdiction of the court), as the death row phenomenon can also be considered tantamount to torture. Unfortunately, in recent years, similar decisions have been mitigated against the background of the war on terror to allow a growing stream of terrorism suspects to be extradited or deported to the US from Europe where they face imprisonment in supermax prisons.
Torture is a crime under US domestic law, but it is not a federal offense, making it difficult to prosecute torture claims against law enforcement officers. In the Chicago police torture scandal going back to the 1970s, no one has been prosecuted for torture. Torture impunity is pervasive.
Two recent polls, by Pew in 2015 and Reuters in 2016, show growing support for the use of torture against terrorism suspects. They suggest the public may be responding favorably to Trump’s suggestions. A similar global poll by Amnesty International in 2014 to launch its Stop Torture campaign found that 45 percent of Americans believe the use of torture can be justified sometimes “to gain information that may protect the public” (information from terrorism suspects was not specified in this case). Indeed, most torture worldwide is not related to counterterrorism.
Amnesty suggested that the depiction of torture in television programs such as “24” have led to a growing acceptance of the use of torture. While Jack Bauer may be responsible for glamorizing the torture of terrorism suspects in the war on terror, rape, other forms of sexual violence, police brutality and death row torture have long been normalized through popular culture — in films, on television and in language — providing an erroneous conflation of sanctioned penalty and gratuitous punishment.
The use of torture in and by the US is not a post-9/11 phenomenon. The CIA’s long history of involvement in torture, and the ongoing investigation into Chicago police torture at Homan Square say otherwise. The purpose has never been discipline or interrogation, but control. In Angola in 2008, Herman Wallace wrote: “The government tries out its torture techniques on prisoners in the US — just far enough to see how society will react. It doesn’t take long before they unleash their techniques on society as a whole.” The experiments on CIA prisoners can be viewed in the same vein.
June 26 this year, as it has been every year since 1998, is “UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.” With respect to the US and torture, there has really only been one major change in post-9/11 landscape: US domestic torture practices have been globalized and franchised.