Domestic Prison Abuse

Many of the things that happened at Abu Ghraib routinely take place in our domestic penitentiary system.

Others have pointed out that many of the things that happened at Abu Ghraib take place in our domestic penitentiary system. This NYT piece goes into some detail on the comparison: Mistreatment of Prisoners Is Called Routine in U.S. [RSS]

Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates.

In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women’s pink underwear as a form of humiliation.

At Virginia’s Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates have reported being forced to wear black hoods, in theory to keep them from spitting on guards, and said they were often beaten and cursed at by guards and made to crawl.

The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates. Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.

While it would be nice to think that these are isolated incidents, it’s probably not the case. Indeed, this type of thing and worse is depicted in movies and people routinely joke about prison rapes. It’s interesting that there is almost no talk, by either of our parties, of addressing this problem. Granted, felons can’t vote and there’s not much sympathy for their plight. Still, it’s hard to see how these conditions don’t constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Cathy says:

    Funny you should mention Pa. This group of MPs were made up of a Pa. reservist unit, and at least on of them was a prison guard in a facility in Pa… So that is were they got their bag of torture tricks from, ‘The Pennslyvania Prison System’. Maybe Rummy and his gang can stick the blame on Pennslyvania. Keep that buck passing.

  2. McGehee says:

    James — okay, it may very well be true that these things go on in our domestic prison system — but using movies as a reason to believe so?

    Movies rely on one of two things to bring the audience along into the plot. One is exposition, where a version of reality is explained that the audience might not be familiar with, so that they can put the events of the movie in context.

    The other is stereotype, in which characters are set up in predictable ways so that the audience knows from the beginning what is the context of the events. No explanation necessary.

    When times change, stereotypes should also — but they rarely do.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Various news reporting, including a week long Nightline series on this a couple years ago made it clear the movie depictions (say, “American History X”) are reasonably accurate. My point on the movies, though, is that is the image the public has of the prison system and yet no one seems particularly upset about it.

  4. craig henry says:

    Good post. What happens in prisons in this country really is an outrage.

    For those who doubt the extent of the problem, this group has a lot of information on their site:

  5. Eddie Thomas says:

    Unfortunately, a lot of people see these prison abuses as part of the punishment.

  6. Kate says:

    The use of hoods to keep inmates from spitting on guards is not based on theory – spitting has become a big problem for law enforcement everywhere, where prisoners who claim HIV positive status will try to spit in the eyes of guards and police.

  7. Art Keon says:

    Great post James. Here’s the link to the NYT’s story.

    What should be amazing is that the man appointed (Lane McCotter) by Washington to oversee the re-establishment of Abu Ghraib was someone with a lot of baggage from his time working in domestic prisons. In light of McCotter’s record while in Utah the resulting abuse in Abu Ghraib is hardly surprising.


  8. TM Lutas says:

    Actually there was prison rape legislation passed in 2003 and it’s clear by a simple google search that prison rape is not a partisan issue with both people on the left and the right fighting to reform the system. It’s a problem, we’ve got to work on it, and the legislation is just the beginning.

  9. Jim says:

    “Unfortunately, a lot of people see these prison abuses as part of the punishment.”

    This is true. I have heard people talk about how it would be great if the Enron or Tyco guys would get sent to a “real prison” and then they would get what they deserve. Of course what people are so casually talking about is getting beaten and raped, which is not supposed to be part of ANY prison sentence.

  10. bryan says:

    You and I might like for prison to be a nicer place, but I don’t see any sort of reforms that are going to ensure that it happens. Violent people locked up all day for years upon end, and prison guards paid burger king manager’s salaries to risk their lives with the inmates. Yeah, a piece of legislation is going to stop the abuse and systematic corruption that happens in those places. And voters are right now going to the polls to start new gambling initiatives to build less crowded prisons. [/sarcasm]

  11. SwampWoman says:

    Um, the male inmates in Arizona wore pink-colored undergarments (boxers) because it reduced the theft of the county-owned undergarments. I wouldn’t rightly characterize pink boxers as female undergarments. If the story is factually inaccurate on this one point that I know about, how am I supposed to trust it on the others?

  12. Spitting doesn’t explain why the hoods are opaque; a mesh bag (or a stocking mask!) should do the job.

  13. rosibud says:

    Having worked in an {un-named} State prison – I will admit that there are good and bad employees to be found. The abuse oftin being caused by a select few compared to the amount of employees that work inside.
    Abuse does happen,yet we need to be careful and not mistake situations of self defense or trying to keep control by employees as being abusive.
    Seldom do you hear of the harm done to employees in State institutions by inmates : Unless a life is lost or a hostage taken , it seems the newspapers and general public are uninterested in hearing it.
    I know of more employees having been hurt by inmates than vice-versa..Sure, humiliation is abuse, but it is nothing compared to broken noses, ribs or worse.
    Also more inmates are harmed by other inmates than by staff..Prisons are not a lovely place to work or to live – and all the rules and regulations will not change that – only a change of heart in everyone can.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Until this effected my family, I had little compasstion for prisoners. Now I know what can and does happen in our own United States prisons. Not all of these people deserve being locked in a cell with murderers and rapist, not knowing what their fate may be. No one should abuse another. It seems that our government has little concern for its citizens. Locking up people that are not guilty of cruelty to anyone is not helping anyone. The overcrowding can not be of any help in correcting the abuse in our prisons. There is a bill HR 4036 being introduced, it would release non-violent prisoners. It would be a step in the right direction, MAYBE our government could realize there are people that care what happens in the United States. PLEASE RESEARCH THIS AND LET YOUR HEART LEAD YOU. Fay

  15. rosibud says:

    I agree with you , Fay.
    Our government does have little concern for it’s citizens , and I will add to that -also little towards their own employees.
    Over-crowding in our prison system is one of the main problems that leads to abusive situations: regardless if the abuse is being done by a staff member, or another inmate.
    Yet we must be careful and not place so many restrictions onto employees to where the job becomes even more dangerous – we need to allow employees the right to defend themselfs and to take back control of bad situations – we must remember that inmates also are responsible for abusing others.
    There is no easy answer, besides each person taking a good hard look into themselfs and changing their own behavior- and I do not foresee that happening anytime soon.
    It would be nice to see non-violent inmates placed into safer prisons , or someother type of detention.
    Yet,are we to simply slap non-violent criminals on the hand and let them go? I have a problem with the passing of bill 4036. Many crimes are deserving of doing time – not just violent ones.
    I also am amazed that many tax payers mention the over-crowding in prisons – yet so many also holler when their taxes are raised to build new prisons!
    What does our prisons need?
    From my view point – better job training programs for the inmates and better treatment and training for employees, less crowding, different detention programs for non-violent crimes besides prison time, and a public that cares for the employees and the inmates,and a government that can budget itself and cut down on the ridiculous rules and regulations that it enforces which do nothing but eat away at tax money – example – do inmates really need the choice of having three different vegetables at each meal?
    When I worked for the State – I had to fill out two different papers to request a day off.. is not that a waste of money? It goes on and on…
    And so I need to end this now -some memories of how I saw my own tax money spent – are simply left along and I am heading into a different subject!