What It Feels Like… To Be a Prison Guard at Guantánamo Bay


U.S. Military Police stand in a cell block in Camp Delta where detainees from the U.S. war in Afghanistan live April 7, 2004 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

By Christopher Arendt, 24, Student

I liked working night shifts, because whenever they were awake, I wanted to apologize to them. When they were sleeping, I didn’t have to worry about that. I could just walk up and down the blocks all night long.

There was usually one detainee who would lead the call to prayer at five in the morning. That person was in the very last cell. The detainees, they sang beautifully. It was so eerie to hear, because it was such a beautiful song, and to hear forty-eight detainees just get up in the morning and, in unison, sing this gorgeous song that I could never understand — because Arabic is way out of my range of possibility — it was really intense.

Camp Delta is on a cliff that overlooks the ocean. I had never been to the ocean before in my whole life. There have been a few times in the military when I’ve been so stricken by the juxtaposition of how awful what is happening inside the moment is, and how aesthetically beautiful it is at the same time. Seeing the first couple detainees start preparing for prayer, and then at the same time the sun starting to come up over this cliff base — that was probably one of the most confusing moments of my life.

Every day you walked down the blocks, forty-eight people in two rows of twenty-four cells, and you have no idea what any of them are there for. They’re just sitting in their cells. You give them food, and if they get crazy, you spray them with this terrible oil-based chemical. Then you send these five guys in to beat the shit out of them.

I grew up in Charlotte, Michigan. This was the first time that I ever met any Muslim person before in my life. My family lived in a trailer in a cornfield on a dirt road. I enlisted when I was seventeen, on November 20, 2001. Oh, my God, I met a lot of new people by enlisting.

I had bought two pornos before I left for Cuba, and I had no idea that I would get so depressed that those wouldn’t even interest me. I ended up cutting them up, and I put the remnants of the pornos all over my wall. I made a wallpaper on my half of the room of all these like really grotesque pornographic photos. My mom had sent me a packet of dinosaur stickers, so all of the particularly obscene shots I covered with dinosaurs, and I would just sit and stare at that for a long time.

During the span of a few months, I worked maybe half the time on the blocks. It wasn’t a whole lot of time, but it was really starting to break me down. I couldn’t deal with it. I tied a 550 cord to the ceiling fan that was in my room and I tried to hang myself, but I ripped the fan out of the ceiling. I’ve never been happier about poor construction. That was about two months before we went home.

One thing I miss is the cups. The detainees were only allowed to have Styrofoam cups, and they would write and draw all over them. I’m not totally familiar with Muslim culture, but I did learn that they don’t draw the human form, and I’m not positive if they draw any creature, but they draw a lot of flowers. They would cover the things with flowers. Then we would have to take them. It was a ridiculous process. We would take the cups — as if they were writing some kind of secret message that they were somehow going to throw into the ocean, that would get back to somebody — and send them to our military intelligence. They would just look at these things and then throw them away. I used to love those little cups. — As told to Lily Percy

And on the other side of the bars… ~Abo

What It Feels Like… To Be a Prisoner at Guantánamo Bay

By Murat Kurnaz, 26, Author, Activist

They used to beat everybody. There was a man — he was really old and couldn’t see and couldn’t hear. If the guards told him something to do and he didn’t do it because he couldn’t hear, they went into his cage and beat him up. They did this for a couple minutes, and after that they took him out and brought him to isolation. That happened to me as well, a lot of times.

There doesn’t need to be a reason. First they would use a pepper spray. It’s burning. It is hot. You have trouble breathing and opening your eyes. All of your face is burning — your eyes especially and inside your nose. You can’t open your eyes because they are burning very hot. Since you have trouble breathing, you have to cough all the time. Then they’d punch me with their elbows. After they were done, they would write something down as to what could be the reason for it.

We were allowed to do the call to prayer every day, but they used to play music over us at the same time. The music some of the time was rock music, but most of the time they played the [American] national anthem. Or they used to kick the doors.

The worst thing about being in Guantánamo was having to live in the small cages. Most of the time there was nothing in there with me. Sometimes I had only my shorts on and nothing else. Nothing else except my shorts and myself.

I never lost my hope, of course. Not losing my hope is an important part of my religion.

Read an excerpt from Kurnaz’s book Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo at esquire.com/wifl08.


Prisoner found guilty of masturbating in his cell

David Batty

The Guardian

It is a verdict likely to cause great consternation to lonely prisoners throughout the US penal system. A prisoner in Florida has been found guilty of indecent exposure for masturbating alone in his cell.

Terry Lee Alexander, 20, of Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, was sentenced to a further 60 days in jail on top of the 10-year term he is currently serving for armed robbery, the Miami Herald reported yesterday.

He was prosecuted after a female sheriff’s office deputy witnessed him performing the sex act in his cell in Broward County, Florida, last November.

The case drew sniggers from the courtroom as prospective jurors were questioned about their own masturbatory habits and the only witness was asked whether she had considered calling in a Swat team to tackle the defendant.

In reaching their verdict on Tuesday, jurors decided that an inmate’s cell was “a limited access public place” where exposing oneself wasagainst the law.

The only witness in the case, Broward sheriff’s office deputy Coryus Veal, testified that Alexander did not try to conceal what he was doing as most prisoners did.

She witnessed the act while working in a glass-enclosed master control room, 30 metres (100ft) from Alexander’s cell. There was no videotape evidence of the offence.

The prisoner’s lawyer, Kathleen McHugh, failed to get him cleared on the grounds that a cell was a private place and what Alexander was doing was perfectly normal.

“Did other inmates start masturbating because of Mr Alexander?” Ms McHugh asked Ms Veal. “Did you call a Swat team?”

“I wish I had,” the deputy replied.

Ms Veal, who has charged seven other inmates with the same offence, said she was not against masturbation, but she objected to Alexander performing it so blatantly. She told the court that most inmates masturbated in bed, under the blankets.

The deputy said it was the third time she had caught Alexander masturbating, and she had had enough.

After the verdict, the juror David Sherman said the case was “pretty straightforward”.

“The prosecution’s case was clear, and the defence did not dispute any of the major elements,” he told the Miami Herald.

Mr Sherman said jurors determined that a prison cell, which was owned and operated by the government, was neither public nor private but was a “limited access public place’.’

Ms McHugh asked the 17 prospective jurors who among them had never masturbated. No hands went up.

Prosecutors filed charges in all seven of Ms Veal’s other cases, according to a spokesman for the Broward state attorney’s office.

The charges were dropped in one of these cases to allow the defendant to begin his sentence in the state prison system on a more serious, unrelated charge. Four of the others pleaded guilty and were sentenced to time served. Charges against the other two inmates are pending.

Posted in USA

Prison Sentence for Pittsburgh Graffiti Writer

Infoshop News

Pittsburgh- On Tuesday a friend of mine was sentenced to an egregious 2 1/2 to 5 years in the state penitentiary for writing graffiti. That’s not a typo. Danny has already been incarcerated since January awaiting sentencing. At the time of his trial, he faced a possible 221 years in prison.

Sentences of this magnitude are unheard of in graffiti cases. Of course, this is just political maneuvering for Pittsburgh’s local government. Liberal-ass faux-hipster city councilman William Peduto pressured the judicial system to prosecute Danny to the most outlandish extent of the law.

Much of the $713,801 dollars in damage Danny has been charged with is in the East End of Pittsburgh, an area currently undergoing a process of gentrification. Business owners and politicians have voiced grievances about the adverse effect of graffiti on their ability to attract revenue to the area.

“The passion for destruction is also a creative passion”.

To many practitioners, graffiti is a visceral rebellion, a response to the alienation of the commodity economy carrying with it a desperate sense of immediacy. It is a very literal assertion of the value of creativity over the sanctity of property, a visual declaration of the will to live. 

When abundant, its presence has been attributed to the decline of property values, which translates to lower rent for landlords, less property tax revenue for the state, and often a reduction in profit for businesses affected. In short, a general diminishing of revenue for the economy, a falling rate of profit not inaugurated by impersonal contradictions of capitalism, but by the creative actions of individuals.

Of course, in many instances, the image of graffiti has been commodified, exchanged as sustenance for the economy. This should come as no surprise. The recuperation of images threatening to the economy is capitalism’s (relatively) new way of waging war against those who fight to supersede its values. This process is as applicable to graffiti as it is to the sale of anarchist literature, or the money generated from news stories about militant demonstrations. 

This is no reason to despair. The image of a rebellious act being sold for profit does not necessarily negate its radical potential, despite the hysterical assertions of countless French theorists and anarcho-punks. The process of commodification is a constant conflict between combatants and capitalists. Hence, it is an issue of the degree of recuperation and how hard we fight against it. Hippie culture, which might have been threatening 40 years ago, has been so thoroughly appropriated by the economy (while fighting back so pathetically) that it can be argued that it no longer challenges the established social order. Mark Ecko’s “Getting Up”, however won’t stop the majority of capitalists from harboring a more visceral fear of graffiti than of most anarchist demonstrations when it comes to the effect on their profits.

So what can be done about Danny’s predicament? I don’t have all the answers, and I’m hoping for suggestions. Autonomous actions are key at this point. I’m sure that many people would be motivated just by seeing demands for freedom next to his alleged nom de guerre “MFONE” (think “motherfucker one, not m-phone) adorning walls across America. Of course, that’s not enough.

We’re going to try to raise money for an appeal of his sentence, but i’m not sure how viable a possibility a reduced sentence is at this point. 

To be perfectly honest I feel that I could have done a lot more before this trial. Maybe I fucked up. I could have organized a benefit block party for him, or a show, or something of that nature. But it seems like everyone in Pittsburgh has a case now, so people were justifiably busy organizing benefits for anti-fascist defendants, amongst other things.

Anyone with prisoner support experience is more than welcome to offer some suggestions.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t surprise me if anarchists didn’t understand why it’s so necessary to support Danny. These situations are an important opportunity for anarchists to show that we support those rebels who may not be fully conscious of the radical possibilities of their actions, but have a hatred of the values of this economy. 

Substantial prisoner support around these types of situations could show local people that we will palpably support their struggles, even when the entirety of the media, the police force, and neighborhood watch groups have vilified them.

“A revolt against the spectacle — even if limited to a single district… calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanized life, a protest of real individuals against their separation from a community that would fulfill their true human and social nature and transcend the spectacle.” 

-The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy

A related article can be viewed here.

Posted in USA

Born Into Cellblocks

Charles Bowden

Mother Jones

Violence seems to love the line running through the Rio Grande at the twin cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The Mexican community was born in the humiliation of the U.S.-Mexican War. When the peace treaty left the Spanish colonial town of Laredo on the American side of the river, Mexican patriots decamped to the southern bank and, legend has it, took their buried dead with them. That favorite murder song “The Streets of Laredo” migrated from Great Britain (“The Unfortunate Rake”) to New Orleans (“St. James Infirmary”) and to Texas, where it mutated into the classic cowboy ballad of dying by the gun.

As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy wrapped up in white linen,
Wrapped up in white linen, as cold as the clay.

Now Nuevo Laredo has become the line between two major Mexican drug cartels, and every day new lyrics are written in blood to a lament we all know but fail to face.

Bullets killed the police chief last summer, just a few hours after he took office. This brought in the Mexican army. The ongoing slaughter of many cops and citizens caused the U.S. government to shut down its consulate for a spell last August. This winter the local paper was visited by some strange men, presumably working for the cartels, and they fired dozens of rounds and tossed in a grenade. One reporter took five bullets. The editor promptly announced a new policy: His paper, one of the few Mexican publications on the line actually printing news about the drug cartels, would no longer report on the cartels. One major U.S. daily had to evacuate a reporter after getting what editors termed “creditable death threats.” Dozens of U.S. citizens from neighboring Laredo have vanished while visiting Nuevo Laredo. This January the city experienced, at a minimum, 20 cartel killings.

Beneath this gore, women and children muddle on, some in Mexican jails. Incarceration, like law, is a bit different in Mexico. Conjugal visits are permitted; small children younger than six can be locked up with their moms; and men and women peddle goods and themselves within the walls in order to survive. Mexican prisons often do not provide grub. I’ve stood in line with family members who toted a week’s supply of food on visiting day, seen women reel out of cells in disarray after their weekly intercourse sessions with their men. Drugs are commonplace inside the walls, as are gangs. Money can buy anything. For years the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has complained about the posh quarters given to major drug players and how they continue to do business without interference while theoretically being under lock and key.

The women may come in clean, but they don’t stay that way. In Nuevo Laredo, they’re high by 10 a.m., then they spruce up and go off to the men’s area to make some money. By afternoon they return, their necks laced with hickeys. Convicts run the prison, and the guards do as they are told by the dominant inmates. People get killed. And all this goes on with toddlers underfoot.

In Nuevo Laredo’s El Penal II, the cells currently hold 71 women. Some get pregnant while inside. At any one time, there are 4 to 10 kids living behind bars. For many, their options are limited: Go to prison with mom, or go to an orphanage. Once the children reach age six, they are tossed out.

Photographer Penny De Los Santos put it this way: “It’s a bad place for kids. These people are in here for murder. Kids have the run of the place, kids are golden, spoiled, but one child might have several caretakers. It’s definitely not safe. Men come and go out of the women’s area all day long.”

This is an ancient story on the line and one that is traditionally ignored by both the press and the public. And it can get worse. In January 2005, after President Vicente Fox implied he was going to break the cartels’ hold over the penitentiaries, cartel thugs kidnapped six prison employees in the border town of Matamoros and dumped their bodies at the prison gates.

And so we catch hints of things in brief news flashes. Hear truncated tales from time to time. And then we forget and go back to our various wars—our war on drugs, our war against illegal immigration, our war for homeland security.

Meanwhile, the women rise, get high, go to the men. Children play amid adult shouts and screams and moans of pleasure. Murders go down. Free trade flows down its licit and illicit lanes. We’re left with these photographs and they are rarities since Mexican prisons do not welcome cameras or the press. We sense what happens to women who are forced to live this way. But we don’t really know what becomes of children who are given this kind of a start in life.

Twenty years ago, a man was executed by fellow drug people on the border after a career of 50 or 60 killings. He began his bloody career when he was 13 and was then stuffed into an adult Mexican prison. I remember going to the cops in that Mexican border town and cajoling my way in to see his mug shot and rap sheet, all this while a prisoner screamed under torture in the next room. The 13-year-old killer made it all the way to age 27. He never used a gun. He favored scissors or a screwdriver.

I look at these pictures and I wonder what will become of these children. But I don’t really wonder at all.


View the photos here.

Slammed: Welcome to the Age of Incarceration

The July/August issue of Mother Jones focuses on prison issues. We’ll post a few articles here, but if you’re interested in seeing what the whole issue is like head on over to the Mother Jones site. ~ DJ Abo.

What happens when you lock up 1 in every 100 American adults?

By Jennifer Gonnerman

Mother Jones

The number first appeared in headlines earlier this year:

Nearly one in four of all prisoners worldwide is incarcerated in America. It was just the latest such statistic. Today, one in nine African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is locked up. In 1970, our prisons held fewer than 200,000 people; now that number exceeds 1.5 million, and when you add in local jails, it’s 2.3 million—1 in 100 American adults. Since the 1980s, we’ve sat by as the numbers inched higher and our prison system ballooned, swallowing up an ever-larger portion of the citizenry. But do statistics like these, no matter how disturbing, really mean anything anymore? What does it take to get us to sit up and notice?

Apparently, it takes a looming financial crisis. For there is another round of bad news, the logical extension of the first: The more money a state spends on building and running prisons, the less there is for everything else, from roads and bridges to health care and public schools. At the pace our inmate population has been expanding, America’s prison system is becoming, quite simply, too expensive to sustain. That is why Kansas, Texas, and at least 11 other states have been trying out new strategies to curb the cost—reevaluating their parole policies, for instance, so that not every parolee who runs afoul of an administrative rule is shipped straight back to prison. And yet our infatuation with incarceration continues.

There have been numerous academic studies and policy reports and journalistic accounts analyzing our prison boom, but this phenomenon cannot be fully measured in numbers. That much became apparent to me when, beginning in 2000, I spent nearly four years shadowing a woman who’d just been released from prison. She’d been locked up for 16 years for a first-time drug crime, and her absence had all but destroyed her family. Her mother had taken in her four young children after her arrest, only to die prematurely of kidney failure. One daughter was deeply depressed, the other was seething with rage, and her youngest son had followed her lead, diving into the neighborhood drug culture and then winding up in prison himself.

The criminal justice system had punished not only her but her entire family. How do you measure the years of wasted hours—riding on a bus to a faraway prison, lining up to be scanned and searched and questioned, sitting in a bleak visiting room waiting for a loved one to walk in? How do you account for all the dollars spent on collect calls from prison—calls that can cost at least three times as much as on the outside because the prison system is taking a cut? How do you begin to calculate the lessons absorbed by children about deprivation and punishment and vengeance? How do you end the legacy of incarceration?

The US holds 1 in 4 of the world's prisoners

The US holds 1 in 4
of the world’s prisoners.

This is not to say that nobody deserves to go to prison or that we should release everyone who is now locked up. There are many people behind bars who you would not want as your neighbor, but in our hunger for justice we have lost perspective. We treat 10-year sentences like they’re nothing, like that’s a soft penalty, when in much of the rest of the world a decade behind bars would be considered extraordinarily severe. This is what separates us from other industrialized countries: It’s not just that we send so many people to prison, but that we keep them there for so long and send them back so often. Eight years ago, we surpassed Russia to claim the dubious distinction of incarceration; today we’re still No. 1.

If awards were granted to the country with the most surreal punishments, we would certainly win more than our share. Thirty-six straight years in solitary confinement (the fate of two men convicted in connection with the murder of a guard in Louisiana’s Angola prison). A 55-year sentence for a small-time pot dealer who carried a gun during his sales (handed down by a federal court in Utah in 2004). Life sentences for 13-year-olds. (In 2005, Human Rights Watch counted more than 2,000 American inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The entire rest of the world has only locked up 12 kids without hope of release.) Female prisoners forced to wear shackles while giving birth. (Amnesty International found 48 states that permitted this practice as of 2006.) A ban on former prisoners working as barbers (on the books in New York state).


Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; US Census

(rate per 100,000 people)

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online. (No 2006 drug data.)

America is expert at turning citizens into convicts, but we’ve forgotten how to transform convicts back into citizens. In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell grants for prisoners, a move that effectively abolished virtually all of the 350 prison college programs across the country. That might not seem like a catastrophe, until you consider that education has been proven to help reduce recidivism. (This was the conclusion of a recent paper by the Urban Institute, which reviewed 49 separate studies.) As the New York Times‘ Adam Liptak has pointed out, our prisons used to be models of redemption; de Tocqueville praised them in Democracy in America. Many prisons still call themselves “correctional facilities,” but the term has become a misnomer. Most abandoned any pretense of rehabilitation long ago. Former California governor Jerry Brown even went so far as to rewrite the state’s penal code to stress that the primary mission of that state’s prisons is punishment.

Our cell blocks are packed with men and women who cannot read or write, who never graduated from high school—75 percent of state inmates—who will be hard-pressed to find a job once they are released. Once freed, they become second-class citizens. Depending on the state, they may be denied public housing, student loans, a driver’s license, welfare benefits, and a wide range of jobs. Perhaps there is no more damning statistic than the fact that within three years, half will be convicted of a new crime.

Recently, there have been some hopeful signs. In April, the Second Chance Act was finally signed into law; it will provide federal grants to programs that help prisoners reenter society. But our punishment industry—which each year spends millions lobbying federal and state lawmakers—has grown so massive and so entrenched that it will take far more than one piece of legislation to begin to undo its far-reaching effects.

Just look at our felony disenfranchisement laws, which prohibit 5.3 million people from voting—including 13 percent of African American men. These numbers actually underestimate the scope of the problem, as many ex-prisoners believe they cannot vote even if they can. And so the legacy of our prison boom continues: We’ve become a two-tier society in which millions of ostensibly free people are prohibited from enjoying the rights and privileges accorded to everyone else—and we continue to be defined by our desire for punishment and revenge, rather than by our belief in the power of redemption.

Posted in USA

Inmates sleep in toilets at overcrowded prison

Sara Gaines
Society Guardian, Tuesday July 22, 2008

Prisoners are having to sleep in toilets because of overcrowding at one English jail, the chief inspector of prisons revealed today.

Inspectors uncovered the practice during an unannounced visit in February to Doncaster prison once dubbed “Doncatraz”.

The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said the practice must stop.

“We were disappointed to find that two-person cells had been turned into three-person cells by placing a bed in the shared toilet. This was unacceptable,” she said.

Inspectors also found “worrying” deterioration in healthcare and poor access to GPs, which they said must be urgently addressed.

Incidents of violence and self-harm have also increased.

The inspection report was published on the day the House of Commons justice committee said hasty legislation had been a “significant contributor” to prison overcrowding.

Prison numbers hit a record high of 83,000 at the end of June and Doncaster is 200 inmates over capacity.

The jail was the third prison to be privatised in the UK and is run by the Serco group. Its prisoners include young offenders aged 18-21, and adults.

Two years ago the inspectorate criticised it for “institutional meanness” after finding there were no pillows for many prisoners, or even toilet seats. Owers then branded conditions “squalid”.

But the jail was praised for its resettlement work in today’s report.

“Resettlement provision had continued to improve and, in the context of a busy prison with a transient local population, was among the best we have seen,” Owers added.

Posted in UK

July 22nd episode of CHSR’s “From Behind Bars”

Listen to the July 22nd episode of CHSR’s “From Behind Bars”!

On today’s show:

1. Intro (“Born and Raised in the Ghetto” by Point Blank)
2. Rights Group Calls for Independent Inquiry on Syrian Prison Riot
3. Canada Granted Access to Torontonian Imprisoned in Ethiopia
4. “African” – Dead Prez
5. “Hip-Hop Retaliate” – Sherman Austin
6. Terrorism Claims Against Khawaja Stunned Fiancé
7. Jail Horrors are a Moral Crime (Cook County Jail)
8. Michael Parenti on “Crime in the Suites”
9. “Slow Down Gandhi” – Sage Francis
10. Inmates Sleep in Toilets at Overcrowded Prison
11. Charges Finally Dropped Against Haitian Priest
12. Kevin Pina Interviews Father Gerard Jean-Juste
13. “Freedom in Haiti” – Dope Poet Society, featuring Obie
14. American Army Deserter Given Nine Months in Jail
15. “Walkout” – Payaso

Rights group calls for Syria prison riot inquiry


BEIRUT, July 22 (Reuters) – New York-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on Syria to order an independent inquiry into the deadly shooting of prisoners during a jail riot this month and to disclose the victims’ names. Syria has said little about the riot which erupted on July 5 at Sidnaya prison, 30 km (19 miles) northwest of Damascus.

The authorities said it had been put down by the following day. But the jail remains surrounded by security forces, visits are banned and a nearby hospital is also off limits.

“Syrian human rights organisations reported that as many as 25 may have been killed,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement, adding that it had obtained the names of nine inmates thought dead.

One member of the military police was also confirmed dead following his burial near Aleppo, the statement said.

Syria’s state news agency reported on July 6 that anti-riot police had intervened “to restore calm” after “several prisoners convicted of extremism and terror crimes created chaos”, suggesting the involved prisoners were Islamists.

Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963, holds thousands of Islamists and other political prisoners, including writers and human rights advocates.

“President Bashar al-Assad should immediately order an independent investigation into the police’s use of lethal force,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “We still don’t know how the prison standoff ended, or the number and names of those killed and wounded,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch said detainees had taken several prison guards hostage, including the prison director, quoting phone calls made by inmates using their hostages’ mobile phones.

“The last known communication from the prisoners was a July 8 phone call from an inmate to his family, saying that security officials were threatening to violently storm the prison if the prisoners did not surrender,” the statement said.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

Jail horrors are a moral crime

There’s been a lot of articles about Cook County Jail lately. This one mentions some specific incidents of brutality. Will this be the final straw which leads to widespread prison reform in the US? Probably not, but perhaps it will shake a few people out of complacently and force them to look at what the prison industrial complex really looks like. ~ DJ Abo

Sun Times

Cook County Jail is a bleeding mess. That’s the only conclusion you can arrive at after reading a 98-page report from the U.S. Justice Department on conditions at the facility, the largest county jail in the country.

Before getting into the meat of the findings, understand one critical fact:

The report, released Thursday by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, does not call for the county to turn the jail into a Ritz-Carlton. It does not recommend fluffy towels or a mint under each prisoner’s pillow. It does not even call for conditions equivalent to a Motel 6.

The report simply says that prisoners should be housed in a safe and clean environment with a decent place to sleep and adequate medical care.

Nothing radical.

But even at these basic tasks, the county is failing.

Prisoners shouldn’t get beaten bloody for mouthing off to a guard.

But that has happened time and again, according to the report, in what amounts to a culture of guards beating prisoners.

One man, arrested for driving on a suspended driver’s license, got into an argument with an officer at the jail and found his head being used as a “bongo drum.”

Another prisoner’s jaw was broken after he was accused of planting contraband, according to the report.

Worse still, prisoners reported that guards threatened them with worse treatment if they reported the violence.

Health care at the jail hospital, run by the Cook County Health Bureau, also leaves much to be desired.

One prisoner’s leg had to be amputated after staffers took too long to treat an infection.

Another inmate died from sepsis because a gunshot wound became infected after he came into the jail.

A female prisoner with HIV died from a preventable infection.

For all these problems, let’s be honest: Few taxpayers like seeing their tax dollars spent on improving jail conditions.

It’s easier to build jails, throw people inside, slam the door and forget about it.

It’s easier to fall prey to our baser natures, to figure that most of the folks in County Jail are probably guilty of something anyway, so to heck with them.

But, as a civilized society, we are judged on how we treat our most powerless, least desirable citizens.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart understands that improvements need to be made at the jail.

He inherited much of the mess when he took office in December 2006 and has taken several smart steps to increase prison guard accountability and reduce inmate violence and overcrowding.

But to make real changes, he’ll need the backing of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and the county commissioners.

The County Board can decide to spend the money and make the necessary changes as outlined in detail by the U.S. Justice Department.

Or the board can ignore the problem, and the feds can take the county to court.

The county could spend a ton of money on attorneys to fight the case, only to lose and be forced to make the changes anyway.

We know which option makes more sense to us.

Posted in USA

U.S. blasts [Cook County] jail conditions

Sheriff calls 98 pages of criticism ‘unprofessional,’ defends reform program

By Jeff Coen, Hal Dardick and Matthew Walberg

Chicago Tribune

In a scathing report released Thursday, federal authorities said that a culture exists at Cook County Jail in which inmates are systematically beaten by guards and medical care is so substandard that some inmates have died.

The Justice Department threatened legal action if steps aren’t taken to ensure that inmates’ basic constitutional rights aren’t routinely violated.

In the 98-page report, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division called the complex violent and pointed to a raft of problems ranging from unsanitary conditions to inadequate mental health care and suicide-prevention measures.

At a news conference, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald called on the Cook County Board and Sheriff Tom Dart to fix a dangerous jail that is “woefully inadequate.”

“Everything we’ve seen from them suggests they recognize what the problem is,” Fitzgerald said. “Now the rubber hits the road.”

Dart, who is responsible for the jail, blasted the findings, saying he felt betrayed after his office fully cooperated with the probe, only to have the report ignore their reform efforts.

“The thing that I found so disturbing was that I welcomed them in here,” Dart said in an interview at his office at the West Side jail. “I gave them access to everything with the hope that they would be yet another set of eyes, that they’d come up with a couple of suggestions about how I could do things better.

“For them to come out with criticism and then flavor it with some horribly incendiary language and try to paint this picture that we don’t care or we don’t know is completely inaccurate and horribly unprofessional.”

The largest facility of its kind in the country, the jail long has been criticized as understaffed and overcrowded. In 2004 a special Cook County grand jury condemned the handling of a 1999 mass beating of inmates by correctional officers, and inmates regularly complain to criminal court judges about their treatment there.

For more than a quarter-century, the jail has been monitored by a federal judge as a result of the settlement of a lawsuit over overcrowding. But the Justice Department report delivered to Cook County last week made it clear that oversight hasn’t been enough.

The report detailed numerous incidents in which guards used excessive force in response to verbal insults, failures by inmates to follow instructions or violence against jail staff. Inmates have been punched, stomped, choked and struck with objects, often by multiple officers, suffering black eyes, broken jaws, loosened teeth, fractured noses and ribs, and head trauma, the report said.

“We believe that, despite management’s efforts, a culture still exists at [the jail] in which the excessive and inappropriate use of physical force is too often tolerated,” the report said.

The Justice Department faulted jail management for failing to investigate guard abuses fast and effectively.

In July 2007, a mentally ill inmate who exposed himself to a female corrections officer was taken to a clothing room where a group of guards handcuffed and beat him, leaving him with severe head injuries, the report said. In August 2006, a stabbing of a guard set off a mass beating of inmates in retaliation, an incident under federal investigation.

The report said the jail’s intake area for inmates was particularly plagued with problems. In one alleged incident, guards in May 2006 beat an inmate so severely for refusing to obey orders that he needed to be taken to a trauma center and placed on a respirator.

According to the letter, the inmate was wandering around the intake area, asking for methadone, a legal drug that can be prescribed to heroin addicts. A guard told him to return to his holding pen and, when he refused, more than one guard beat him, the report said.

He was hit with a radio, and a guard smashed the inmate’s dentures under his boot when they fell out of his mouth, the report said. He suffered multiple broken bones and a collapsed lung, authorities said.

No one wants guards hurt or insulted, Fitzgerald said, “but the response is not to engage in beatings of the inmates, certainly not organized beatings, and not beatings that end up with inmates being hospitalized.”

Dart countered by saying incidents involving the use of force are down 22 percent so far this year, with 280 incidents between inmates and guards.

Dart said the federal review ignored reforms he enacted in how his office investigates misconduct at the jail and made no mention that he formed a blue-ribbon panel of prosecutors to revamp the internal affairs process. He hired a high-ranking FBI agent to lead that program.

The sheriff acknowledged that there has been abuse of inmates by correctional officers but said the new Office of Professional Regulations aggressively investigates allegations. When they are substantiated, suspensions and terminations are recommended, he said.

Federal investigators, who visited the jail in summer 2007, found overall security lacking, enabling inmates to easily harm one other because of staffing woes. Two inmates were killed by other inmates in 2006, the report said, and the facility endured 35 fights during just one week in March 2007.

The report also found that medical services at the jail fell below constitutionally required standards of care in more than a dozen areas, including in staffing and emergency care. Some inmates died needlessly as a result, the Justice Department concluded.

In early 2006, a female inmate died of an untreated infection that was a common complication of HIV, investigators found. She went untreated for weeks despite an abnormal X-ray that identified a problem, the report said.

In an August 2006 case, an inmate’s leg was amputated because of a bone infection improperly treated at the jail. In late 2006, another inmate died of sepsis after a jail staffer failed to take him to an appointment for post-operative care for a gunshot wound, the report said.

David Fagus, chief operating officer of Cermak Health Services, the jail hospital, pointed out that Cermak’s budget was cut to about $31 million in 2007 from $40 million in 2006. Currently, Cermak has 394 employees, about 70 fewer than in 2006, budget documents show.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said his administration has taken steps in the last year that the report didn’t address.

“Since the Department of Justice’s site visit, steps have been taken to enhance security for the staff, inmates and public,” Stroger said.

In recent years, funding for the jail has steadily increased. The budget for fiscal 2008 rose to nearly $215 million from about $198 million last year.

Federal officials said they recognize Cook County’s budget constraints. Fitzgerald told reporters that no one should be under any illusions that the fixes won’t cost money. Yet financial woes won’t be accepted as an excuse for not working to solve the problems, he said.

“It can’t be the only county in the country that can’t afford to have a jail that satisfies constitutional standards,” Fitzgerald said.

Tribune reporter David Heinzmann also contributed to this story.

You can watch a related video here.

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