U.S. Must End Torture of Prisoners in America As Well As in Iraq, ACLU Says

May 11, 2004 12:00 am

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Statement of Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project


WASHINGTON – Like most Americans, I am horrified by the sexually degrading photographs and the reports of Iraqi detainees being threatened with electrocution and rape by members of our military at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Those who are shocked by these human rights violations, however, should be aware that equally depraved acts are committed against prisoners in the United States regularly without the outrage and disgust currently being expressed by U.S. officials in response to conditions in Iraq.

Indeed, accepted correctional practice allows male officers to work in housing quarters that provide views of women showering, undressing and even using the toilet. In certain circumstances male guards even strip search confined women, many of whom are victims of sexual abuse, often leading to unnecessary trauma and pain.

For U.S. prisoners who have suffered treatment similar to what has been carried out in Iraq, Congress has banned them from bringing a lawsuit in our federal courts to gain redress for their injuries. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996 without any congressional hearings on its provisions, prevents prisoners, jail detainees and even confined juveniles from seeking damages for deliberate sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse, as long as the prisoner suffers no “physical injury.” Indeed, if a prisoner in our nation’s capital were threatened with electrocution by his captors and suffered a heart attack or a mental breakdown as a result, he would still have no remedy in federal court.

Degradation and humiliation are just the tip of the iceberg. The ACLU hears from thousands of incarcerated men and women in the United States whose human rights are violated. Many report repeated rapes and sexual assaults committed by prisoners and even staff. The best available data tell us that more than 200,000 prisoners have been raped nationally.

Texas was identified as the worst state in the nation for prison rape in Human Rights Watch’s 2001 book-length report, No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons. Independent observers, including a federal judge, have said that some prisoners in Texas are vulnerable and need protection — which they are not getting.

In one class-action case about Texas prison conditions that has spanned 30 years, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice observed: “Evidence has shown that, in fact, prison officials deliberately resist providing reasonable safety to inmates. The result is that individual prisoners who seek protection from their attackers are either not believed, disregarded, or told that there is a lack of evidence to support action by the prison system.” Judge Justice also said evidence “revealed a prison underworld in which rapes, beatings, and servitude are the currency of power.”

The ACLU’s National Prison Project won a damages settlement last year in Colorado on behalf of a woman who was sexually assaulted while being transported between jails after her arrest. In another particularly brutal case, the ACLU represents Roderick Keith Johnson, a gay African American man who was repeatedly raped and sold by prison gangs as a sexual slave for $5. The ACLU has filed other sexual assault cases and continues its investigations of abuse and rape.

The ACLU hopes that the justified outrage over these despicable acts in Iraq will lead Congress and the President to thoroughly investigate U.S. prison and jail conditions as well and protect American prisoners by repealing the physical injury provision of the .

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