Wednesday, August 13, 2008

APA Referendum & the Prisons Issue: Vignettes from Hell

There was a bit of a scare for American Psychological Association supporters of the anti-torture referendum when some APA members who were withholding their dues in protest of APA interrogation policy felt they weren't getting their ballots in the mail. The mailing includes the APA ballot for president of the organization, as well as the ballot for the referendum. It turns out that the mailings may have been only somewhat delayed, and APA is cooperating to help members get their ballots.

In good news for referendum supporters, APA divisions 9 and 27, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) and the Society for Community Research and Action: Division of Community Psychology, respectively, have voted to endorse the referendum. Meanwhile, the debate over the pros and cons of the referendum, which seeks to ban psychologist participation "in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights," continues apace.

The initiators of the referendum are trying to address their opponents criticism, and have posted an updated FAQ page towards that end.

Abuse in American Prisons

Some of the opponents of the APA referendum say, disingenuously in my opinion, that passage of the referendum could jeopardize psychologist jobs in U.S. supermax prisons or other forensic settings. The leftwing version of this criticism is to oppose the resolution because it does not go far enough, i.e., that it fails to address both torture and abusive, inhumane conditions that occur in U.S. prisons.

It is indisputable that terrible abuse takes place in prisons in the United States, and that conditions and treatment in some amount to torture. This scandal has gone on for years, and the APA has totally failed to address it. However, to take anti-torture activists to task because their referendum (or earlier resolutions backed by the same group of supporters) addresses Pentagon/CIA torture and not abuse in American prisons, misses the point entirely, giving "progressive" cover to a political bloc with the supporters of military interrogator jobs in sites that disallow basic human rights.

The backers of the referendum address this issue in an August 6 letter to APA members:
We are well aware of the harms and legal struggles facing certain prisons and jails inside the domestic U.S. criminal justice system. However, the referendum takes no position on such settings where prisoners have full access to independent counsel and constitutional protections; nor does the referendum take a position on settings that now exist within the domestic mental health system where clients and patients also possess these basic rights.
I would have liked to see a stronger statement about the need to address the "harms and legal struggles" faced by domestic U.S. prisoners, but I also understand that the target the referendum is aiming at is the illegal military/CIA sites where prisoners have no constitutional or rights protection, and where torture is conducted as a matter of policy.

Still, both the medical and psychological establishments will have to face sooner or later the obscene mess that is U.S. penal practice. I can't understand, for my own part, why psychologists or any health professional would want to work in any place that propagates human suffering. For those who enter such institutions believing they can "make a difference" in treatment, or ameliorate suffering, they are usually cruelly disillusioned within a short period of time. (I have spoken to some of these psychologists, and they are have made it clear to me that the system is unsympathetic and unmoveable.) The others, like thousands of other prison employees, find ways to rationalize their collaboration with an unjust and barbaric system.

The conditions in U.S. prisons are bad and getting worse. A Human Rights Watch article noted:
A federal judge in 1999 concluded that Texas prisons were pervaded by a “culture of sadistic and malicious violence.” In 1995, a federal judge found a stunning pattern of staff assaults, abusive use of electronic stun devices guns, beatings, and brutality at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and concluded the violence “appears to be open, acknowledged, tolerated and sometimes expressly approved” by high ranking corrections officials....

In January 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice reported on terrible conditions at Arizona’s juvenile detentions centers, including sexual abuse of the children by staff members (and fellow inmates) that occurs “with disturbing frequency” and a level of physical abuse that is ”equally disturbing.”
Murder by Medical Neglect: the case of Hiu Lui Ng

The New York Times has an article by Nina Bernstein yesterday on the death in immigration custody of Hiu Lui Ng, a computer engineer in the U.S. since 1992, placed in detention a year ago even as he was applying for his green card. Denied treatment for months, it took a federal judge's order to get an MRI for Mr. Ng. The results came too late for any effective treatment.
In April [2008], Mr. Ng began complaining of excruciating back pain. By mid-July, he could no longer walk or stand. And last Wednesday, two days after his 34th birthday, he died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a Rhode Island hospital, his spine fractured and his body riddled with cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for months....

Mr. Ng’s death follows a succession of cases that have drawn Congressional scrutiny to complaints of inadequate medical care, human rights violations and a lack of oversight in immigration detention, a rapidly growing network of publicly and privately run jails where the government held more than 300,000 people in the last year while deciding whether to deport them.
The article chronicles the nightmarish treatment of Mr. Ng, as officials seems to have lied about his treatment, and shifted him from prison to prison to avoid his habeas petition, filed so he could seek medical treatment. The Times article documents other recent cases of negligence leading to fatalities for immmigrant prisoners in its system.

Release Torture Victim Pol Brennan!

A case that does link U.S. prisons with the larger torture issue concerns the continued incarceration of former Irish Republican Army member Pol Brennan. He was arrested over 30 years ago for carrying explosives, and imprisoned in the notorious "H-blocks" of Long Kesh Prison in Britain (razed in 2006), where prisoners were subjected to torture via the "five techniques". These techniques would seem familiar to us today, who have seen the revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. They include hooding, wall-standing (stress positions), sensory overload via noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and drink.

Pol Brennan escaped from Long Kesh as part of a big prison break of 38 prisoners in 1983.

Sandy Boyer and Shaun Harkin described Mr. Brennan's situation in an article at Counterpunch last May.
Pol made his way to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where he met and married Joanna Volz, a U.S. citizen. They lived quietly until January 1993, when federal agents arrested Brennan on a British extradition warrant. He was forced to spend more than seven years fighting extradition, and was imprisoned for three of those years, half the time in a building with no windows.
The situation in Northern Ireland changed dramatically in ensuing years, with a political agreement between the Provisional IRA and the British government. Britain withdrew its request for Brennan's extradition in 2000. The U.S. also suspended deportation proceedings against some former IRA prisoners. But Brennan still faced deportation, though it was put on hold as his application for political asylum was being considered.

Brennan settled into domestic life, working as a carpenter. As adjudication for political asylum often does (to the stress of those applying, and the scandal of social justice in the U.S.), his asylum case went on for years, while his work permits were routinely approved.

But the new gung-ho security forces born in the fires of 9/11 have generated a new atmosphere. On January 26, 2008, Brennan and his wife were stopped at an immigration checkpoint in Texas. Because his work authorization was expired, and despite the fact that he could produce evidence of his asylum case and pending work permit application, the Border Patrol locked him up:
Brennan says, "They acted as if they had caught the terrorist al-Zarqawi, as they as they huddled around their computer screens. Their little eyes were jiggling in their heads with excitement"....

Brennan was soon moved to solitary confinement, because, apparently, he was considered an escape risk since he broke out of Long Kesh 25 years earlier. It was as if they expected the IRA to invade South Texas to free him.

Today, Pol is locked in a cell 23 hours a day....

An immigration judge denied Brennan bail, saying he is a "flight risk" and "a danger to the community."
According to an ACLU attorney, Mr. Brennan is currently being held at "Willacy County Detention Center, also known as 'Tent City' or 'Ritmo,' and the South Texas Detention Complex. Willacy is run by Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a Utah-based private prison company that gained some notoriety when its former director was tapped to set up the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq." (Emphasis added) Willacy is so bad that its own guards went to the media to complain of rotten maggot-infested food being fed to its 2000 or so immigrant prisoners.

Pol Brennan is another in a by now long stream of victims of abitrary detention and inhumane treatment by the U.S. government and its seamy security contractors. Those who wish to support Mr. Brennan in his campaign for release should visit his support website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greenwashing by APA. Cute, very cute.

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