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Abu Ghraib in Our Own Backyard

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News from abroad in the "war on terror" has prompted many to ponder the deplorable prison conditions at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other locations far from home. However, many Americans might not realize that prison conditions are often just as harsh right here in the U.S.

Human rights and criminal justice groups have compiled numerous accounts of prisoner abuse in correctional facilities across the country.

Prison overcrowding is an enormous issue. Overcrowding is not only a problem in itself, but it triggers more problems that are bound to occur when too many human beings are forced to occupy close spaces.

The prison overcrowding problem is the inevitable result of mandatory prison sentencing for perpetrators of non-violent crimes, such as drug offenses and immigration violations, as well as mentally ill persons who would be better served in a psychiatric facility.

Inmates are routinely being denied medication and medical care, and this sometimes results in death or permanent injury.

They are often deprived of soap, toothpaste, razors, and other basic grooming necessities, even prior to court appearances.

They are underfed. They are often forced to buy or bargain for treats from the commissary because the regular prison meals offer inadequate portions if they are delivered at all.

Guards routinely discriminate against certain prisoners, address them using racial slurs, and arbitrarily keep them from attending religious services.

Physical violence against prisoners by guards, including gratuitous and malicious beatings and shocks from electric stun devices, is rampant, as is prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse.

Female prisoners have it even worse. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches. Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower, or the toilet. And male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against female inmates who complain about sexual assault and harassment.

Pregnant inmates are denied proper care, even during childbirth. Shackling of all prisoners, including pregnant prisoners, is policy in federal prisons and almost all state prisons. Shackling during labor may cause complications during delivery, such as hemorrhage or decreased fetal heart rate. If a caesarian section is needed, a delay of even five minutes may result in permanent brain damage to the baby.

Some people point out that prison isn't supposed to be a country club, and that prisoners deserve harsh treatment in return for the crimes that they have committed. This is a naive view, because even the lower-security prison systems are a far cry from Club Med, as Martha Stewart can attest. Prisoners are there to serve their time in accordance with their sentences. Torture and ill-treatment are not part of the sentence. Furthermore, they are unconstitutional.

We need to fix the problems in our prisons. Prison guards must be trained in proper procedures for the management and treatment of prisoners, and they must be held accountable for their behavior. Our elected officials must enact legislation to ensure that prisoners receive adequate medical care and that prison conditions in general are effectively monitored for adherence to basic standards of humane treatment.

The way we treat the lowliest among us is a testament to the nature of our society. The world looked in horror at the photos from Abu Ghraib. How then should we view the same abusive treatment when it's directed at our very own citizens?

Our tax dollars must not be used to support cruel and inhumane treatment of any human being.

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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