The US-based Gulag Prison System’s “Unworthy Victims”
Few people in the country know anything about the US prison system and who’s held there because almost nothing about it gets reported in the major media. Most in it are many tens of thousands of “unworthy victims” because of oppressive statutes on the books incarcerating huge numbers unjustly, many innocent of any crime, and most come from society’s most vulnerable and unwanted so who’ll care or notice. The result is the largest prison population in the world at over 2.2 million, growing by over 1000 new inmates a week. Half or more are black, about two-thirds including Latinos, over half are there for non-violent offenses, and half of those are drug related.
Then consider how they’re treated. What goes on at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other overseas hellholes happens here at home as well in US-based ones at both federal and state levels. It includes constant harassment, savage beatings by prison guards; attacks by fierce dogs inflicting painful bites; severe shocking with cattle prods and 50,000 volt-emitting Taser electro-shock guns strong enough to kill and often used multiple times making victims (who survive) shake in pain for hours; assaults by toxic chemicals like pepper spray inflicting severe discomfort or pain; and for many 23 hour lockdowns in rat and roach-infested windowless cells under 24 hour artificial light with alternating periods of sensory deprivation and extreme noise and kept in painful hand and feet shackles whenever outside their cells.
There’s more including denial of medical treatment or poor quality when received even though prisons are known hotbeds of diseases including contagious ones. In September, 2006, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated over half the prison population suffers mental problems, mostly related to their incarceration and for many it’s severe. It includes serious melancholia, mania and hallucinations. In addition, an astonishing 1.5 million inmates are released each year afflicted with threatening contagious diseases like TB and HIV/AIDS. In prison, these and other diseases cause 7000 mostly preventable reported deaths yearly plus a rising level of suicides and many more unsuccessful attempts.
In addition, prison sexual assaults are commonplace, and victims of it have virtually no effective defense against predators. The UN Committee Against Torture reported the numbers conservatively estimating in May, 2006 it happens to at least 13% of inmates with many more suffering frequent sexual abuse. The UN Committee believes around 200,000 current inmates were or will become sexual assault victims and that over the past 20 years the number exceeds a shocking one million.
Then there are the political prisoners in the many hundreds in a nation where the very notion of them is repugnant and appalling. The Prison Activist Resource Center web site lists over 100 names it focuses on (mostly unknown to the public) including a few that are like framed American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned 30 years unjustly, and internationally known journalist and former Black Panther activist Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Most others there include former Black Panther members and other black activists; Native American activists; Puerto Rican freedom fighting activists; Muslims and undocumented immigrants because of their faith and ethnicity; and others (men and women) who dared fight for rights, principles and causes America rejects.
Palestinian refugee, scholar, academic, community leader, civic activist and freedom-fighting advocate Dr. Sami Al-Arian stands out as a dramatic example of injustice in post-9/11 America with its climate of state-induced fear and harsh repression targeting all Muslims, distinguished ones included. Following 11 years of investigations and harassment, he was arrested and imprisoned February 20, 2003 on trumped up charges, held in oppressive 23 hour lockdown solitary confinement in rat and roach-infested windowless cells under 24 hour artificial light even after being tried and acquitted December 6, 2005 on eight of 17 false charges with the jury deadlocked 10 – 2 in his favor on the other nine.
On March 2, 2006 he agreed to a plea agreement to bring closure to his case and end his long ordeal. Under its terms, the prosecution stipulated Al-Arian committed no violent acts or had knowledge of any; that he would not be required to “cooperate” further by providing prosecutors more information; and that he would be released for time served and be willing to be voluntarily deported.
It didn’t happen because prosecutors subpoenaed Al-Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank violating his plea agreement that he no longer would have to cooperate in further goverment investigations. Al-Arian rightfully refused to testify knowing doing so might involuntarily entrap him in possible or interpreted perjury leaving him vulnerable to endless government opportunities to harass and reincarcerate him.
As a result Al-Arian’s sentence was extended, and he remains imprisoned where, as a diabetic, he underwent a 60 day life-threatening hunger strike in protest requiring his transfer to the Butner, North Carolina medical facility where he remained until being transferred to the Alexandria Detention Center in northern Virginia. Before arriving, he endured a 30 hour stopover at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia where, still recovering from his hunger strike, he was placed in a tiny, freezing cold windowless cell with pools of water on the ground and extremely cold air fed in through a vent, given no additional clothing or cleaning supplies to clean his cell, and no clock or watch to tell time or ability to know the proper direction to perform his Muslim prayers. In addition, guards illegally seized his legal documents and then claimed they misplaced them. They’ve yet to be found or returned.
This is how extra harshly Muslim political prisoners are treated post-9/11 as Al-Arian’s long ordeal for freedom, justice and full exoneration continues. He’s well represented by William Mitchell College of Law professor and past President of the National Lawyers Guild Peter Erlinder as his lead attorney, but his struggle ahead is daunting. Al-Arian is up against a rogue administration determined to resist efforts to free him and is ready to file new charges to keep him imprisoned as long as DOJ wants him there. Today, that’s the state of judicial fairness in America endangering anyone daring to speak out and dissent in an age of state-sponsored terrorism targeting innocent victims.
Another noted one is Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a Muslim American of Iraqi descent and practicing oncologist until his license was suspended following his politically motivated conviction in a DOJ-run “kangaroo court” trial. He was charged with violating the Iraqi Sanctions Regulations (IEEPA) using his own funds and what he could raise through his Help the Needy charity to bring desperately needed essential to life humanitarian aid to Iraqi people unable to get it because of US/UN-imposed punitive sanctions from 1990 – 2003.
For his “Crime of Compassion” (see dhafirtrial.net, Katherine Hughes), he was convicted of violating the sanctions and a total of 59 of 60 trumped up total charges including tax fraud, money laundering, and mail and wire fraud resulting in a 22 year prison sentence he’s currently serving in Terre Haute’s special illegal secret “Communications Management Unit” (CMU) targeting Muslims. Its existence was first revealed in a breaking news story February 16 by lawyer and legal analyst, academic, author and journalist Jennifer Van Bergen in an online article in The Raw Story. Van Bergen reported the CMU is for so-called “high-security risk” Muslim and Middle Eastern (Arab) prisoners to severely limit or cut them off entirely from contact and communication with the outside world violating federal law prohibiting such action.
Sami Al-Arian was exonerated by a jury and Rafil Dhafir is an innocent man never charged with or convicted of “terrorism” or any act of violence. Neither is a “high-security risk” but both are treated like them because they’re high-profile Muslims in the witch-hunt “war on terror” targeting them unjustly. These distinguished men are also “trophy” prisoners for the Bush administration using them especially, but all demonized Muslims as well, as scapegoats because of their faith and ethnicity and are treating them with extreme harshness as a result.
These examples aren’t happening at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, but right here at home in prisons everywhere where mostly non-violent human beings are locked in cages. It’s often for offenses deserving little more than a reprimand or fine or that never should have been criminalized in the first place. Or in the case of Al-Arian, Dhafir and many others it represents a state crime against humanity, against innocent men, women and even children unjustly imprisoned for political reasons only. The result is victims of injustice are forced to serve hard time, and for repeat offenders or political targets it could be life without parole because society judges them “unworthy,” punishing them in ways never done to the “worthy” afforded special treatment because of their privileged status. In the age of George Bush, we’re all potential Sami Al-Arians and Rafil Dhafirs, and far too many targeted end up unjustly in the heart of prison darkness on death row as the “unworthiest” of this country’s “unworthy victims.”
Today, the US is the only western country still using the death penalty as a punitive measure. Since 1985, over 50 countries abolished it and of the approximate six dozen still using it just a small handful account for nearly all executions. Amnesty International 2005 data showed 94% of known ones were carried out in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US.
The US-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) is a “chapter-based grassroots organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment in the United States (with) active chapters in cities and campuses across the country.” It reports more than 3500 people now on death row in the country, the largest number ever and growing listing five reasons why it’s wrong and must end. It’s racist, punishes the poor, condemns the innocent, doesn’t deter crime, and is “cruel and unusual punishment” nearly always targeting “unworthy victims” of our criminal justice system under which those on death row get the worst of it.
Since 1973, 123 or more US prisoners were released after evidence found them innocent. It concerned former Illinois Governor George Ryan enough in 2000 to declare a moratorium on all state executions after the 13th death row prisoner was found to have been wrongfully convicted since the nation’s death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Ryan then pardoned four death row inmates and commuted 167 other sentences.
The ACLU reported the results of a disturbing study conducted by Columbia University professor James Liebman in which he examined thousands of US capital sentences reviewed by courts in 34 states from 1973 – 1995. His shocking conclusion was “An astonishing 82% of death row inmates did not deserve to receive the death penalty (and) One in 20 death row inmates is later found not guilty.” Reasons why were that someone later confessed to the crime, key witness testimony was later found to be illegitimate, or new evidence supported innocence.
Investigations like this and others prove the death penalty is this country’s ultimate punitive measure used almost exclusively against “unworthy, unpeople victims” to eliminate the unwanted, and those targeted are largely defenseless against it. Only the fortunate innocent few survive also proving our criminal justice system is irreparably broken and shamefully unjust in nominally democratic America for the “worthy” alone.
America the Beautiful – Only for the Privileged “Worthy”
“Worthy and unworthy victims” live in different Americas, highlighted in the age of George Bush in blazing starkness. Those anointed “worthy” are named, known, seen media-manipulated heros while the “unworthy” are mostly nameless, faceless unknown abused “unpeople” targets of the administration’s “war on terror,” the poor and anyone “in times of universal deceit” courageously daring to dissent. Above are case examples of injustice portraying America’s dark side in contrast to those qualifying as special because Washington gets propaganda value from their misfortune. Add to them the privileged few, always special and “worthy” in a nation beholden to them at the expense of all others.
Boosted as well in the process is what Edward Herman calls our “indispensable state” image and essential goodness giving us special dispensation to wage perpetual wars for an elusive peace in the name of democracy, human rights and justice for all we preach but don’t practice. They’re easily justified by manipulating false notions of exceptionalism and moral superiority giving us special rights and obligations to spread our way of life to others hiding our darker imperial agenda to impose it on them through the barrel of a gun, like it or not.
This essay shows its effects on real people – those going along are “worthy” and those who don’t or don’t matter are “unworthy unpeople.” Wellesley College English professor Katherine Lee Bates wrote the famous words to American the Beautiful on a trip west in 1893 but never could have imagined her “spacious skies…amber waves of grain…and purple mountain majesties” would become George Bush’s ugly America for the “worthy” alone uncrowned by any of the “good” or “brotherhood” she wrote about “from sea to shining sea” everywhere read more