Hell holes in the U.S.

Guantanamo may be the most well-known symbol of government-sponsored torture of prisoners, but the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib take place right in your back yard—conveniently hidden in high-walled prisons.


Image in public domain.

In today’s post we provide some of the facts about torture in the U.S. prison system, along with links to articles and videos that document the torture and its horrendous effects.


  • “The US incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, sometimes imposing very long sentences marred by racial disparities.” Human Rights Watch
  • Thousands of American prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, a state of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation, which is itself an extremely destructive form of torture.
  • Like the prisoners in Guantanamo, some prisoners are driven by desperation to stage hunger strikes to try to bring attention to their inhumane treatment.
  • A substantial number of the tortured prisoners, including the ones in solitary confinement, are youth under the age of 18.
  • Some of these children are girls
  • Their stories are heartbreaking—from child abuse by their families to child abuse in detention facilities.
  • Many of the prisoners are mentally ill. Instead of getting treatment, they get tortured. N.B. This video is very graphic and disturbing

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Amnesty International work tirelessly to end torture, including in U.S. prisons. They deserve our thanks and support.

To learn more about torture in U.S. prisons, see Torture in Your Backyard, a powerful video from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

And read this report (opens in pdf) from the American Friends Service Committee.

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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8 Responses to Hell holes in the U.S.

  1. One key introductory sentence in the report by the American Friends Service Committee is “Prisons reflect the societies that create them.” If this is true, then American society is a reflection of people who commit torture without any understanding or sympathy for the victim. Bruce Reilly’s blog post “Torture, or Mental Health Treatment? Leaked Video Shows American Prison Conditions” provides a painful and disturbing 17-minute video of a clearly mentally ill prisoner being tortured by a captain and guards, all of whom fail to display any signs of apology or remorse. Evidence of coldhearted indifference is shown in a segment where the captain orders the prisoner to be pepper-sprayed, resulting in the prisoner exclaiming that he can’t breathe. The captain simply replies, “You’re talking, you’re breathing.” This is the callousness exemplified in American prisons, which, as mentioned in this blog post, have the highest incarceration rate of all prison systems in the world. If the United States has the highest international incarceration rate and regularly practices insensitive torture to mentally ill prisoners, then the country is trending towards an overall erosion of human rights. My belief in this trend towards national insensitivity, particularly within the scope of the United States incarceration system, is supported by the findings of Professor Malley-Morrison and Professor Mercurio in their paper “Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: An Ecological World View Framework,” where they measured participants’ attitudes towards apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation in relation to numerous factors, such as sex, parental aggression, and, significant to this blog post, country of origin. Their findings showed that, compared to international participants, domestic participants, or those of individualistic cultures like the U.S, scored higher on being less likely to have an apologetic or forgiving orientation. If this is the case – where people of the United States are less likely to engage in reconciling behavior – then the U.S incarceration system helps support this even further, as epitomized by the unremorseful torture administered by the police captain. There is no better summation than that of Malley-Morrison and Mercurio in their own paper: “Apology and forgiveness have the potential to foster reconciliation and encourage peaceful coexistence among groups and nations” – this is a vision for the world, but in the case of the United States, it is an attitude that must be adopted starting within prison systems and reflecting outward into the rest of society. There is one powerful politician in the United States who has stood against torture. His name is Senator John McCain and he is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. As a soldier during the Viet Nam War, he was subjected to torture. He believes that the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba should be closed. He has spoken out for human rights during multiple Sunday talk show appearances and has argued in favor of making the United States a moral example for the world (http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/43012563#43012563).

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you so much for sharing that link to Senator McCain’s speech on torture. It is good to see that kind of clear statement re: the immorality of torture.

  2. Gold Dust Twin says:

    Torture as a form of punishment has horrendous effects not only on the individuals being subjected to this barbarism but also on their families. If I visualize one of my grown children undergoing torture, I can’t bear the image. I pray that the religious organizations uniting against this policy will succeed in their efforts and commend them for trying.

  3. Ketene Arante says:

    After watching Bruce Reilly’s blog post “Torture, or Mental Health Treatment? Leaked
    Video Shows American Prisons Conditions” i have to say, that was a heartbreaking 17 minute video that left me appalled. I pity for that young man who named Paul, who had to go through that horrible and heartless act and others that are living under the same circumstances and those who have gone through the same circumstances. To hear the cold words of captain welch “You’re Talking, You’re Breathing,” and how everyone in that room were simply merciless and cold hearted towards Paul’s words “I can’t breath captain, I can’t breath” seeing that the young man was pleading for help and none of them did anything simply shocked me. I believe that instead of “helping” Paul, they were making things worse. Committing atrocious acts against a mentally ill person is inhuman and should not be tolerated any longer . I pray and hope that something will be done to end solitary confinement prisons and put an end to torture once and for all.

  4. Jessica Ong says:

    One key belief the American society has towards punishment is that it will deter crimes and violence. The purpose of punishments is to deter the individual from crime because he/she would have “learned their lesson”. This is the popular view held by many Americans. This is not a wrong view as one of the main purposes of punishment is for retribution and deterrence, however the American society have rarely considered the possible drawbacks and negative consequences of enforcing strict and severe punishments upon certain population of prisoners. In a paper “Conflict Resolution Among Peaceful Societies: The Culture of Peacefulness” written by Bruce Bonta, he notes, “the absence of punishment appears to be one of the defining characteristics of a peaceful society.” (pp.408) Bonta’s examination of 24 peaceful peoples shows that conflict resolution cannot be achieved through hard punishments and violence. The conflicts at Guantanamo Bay violate the principles of conflict resolution and peacefulness addressed in Bonta’s paper. The conflict between the prisoners and the United States government cannot be addressed through acts of torturous, cruel and severe punishments. If one fights violence with violence no good will come out at the end. The torture and injustices imposed upon the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is only creating even more intense hostile situations rather than fulfilling goal of punishment and imprisonment- deterrence and retribution. Once the prisoners are freed from Guantanamo Bay, they are likely to be filled with anger because of the terrible years of torture they have been through. So, wouldn’t this just be a vicious cycle of hatred and violence?
    In addition, the injustices revealed at Abu Ghraib are also horrific acts that show the U.S.’s failure to accept cultural, religious differences that has resulted in violence. The prison guard’s blatant disrespect and burning of prisoners’ Quran show their lack of understanding and respect for cross-cultural differences. Anthony Marsella writes in his “Culture and Conflict” (2005) article that nations and people must mediate and negotiate conflict resolution through cultural understanding. All the injustices faced throughout the world can somewhat be attributed to people’s misunderstanding of each other’s cultural, religious, and political differences. If people just took a step back to understand one another while reforming the system of punishment, we might be able to have a more humane and moral system of treatment for those that violate the law.

  5. Christina Lovey says:

    The most striking thing about articles as shocking as is how little most people I talk to know about the topic of torture in the US. However, Milton Schwebel explains why this is in his article “Peace Activism and Courage.”

    Most people find out about about these horrendous acts of torture through peace activists or peace organizations. And for those that do know, they are not equipped to make a difference with that knowledge.

    Peace activists and organizations feels similarly frustrated about making a difference with that knowledge. For the most part, it is usually through conventional activism, that is try to make change from within the government, that activists try to make change. Unconventional activism does not interact with the government.

    This task is difficult because speaking out about something that the government is doing and disagreeing with its policies risks alienation and possible backlash. This takes much courage, and most people in the US lack that courage because they do not want to risk such repercussions.

    This blog serves as a medium for information and knowledge, thereby increasing the chances of change with the more people who read it. Now we must find the courage to further the fight against torture towards peace.

  6. Pingback: Happy anniversary: March on Washington | Engaging Peace

  7. kathiemm says:

    Misleading Rhetoric About Unconscionable Realities
    A Psychologist’s Deceptions About Prison Abuse in California
    by ROY EIDELSON, September 2, 2013

    “Brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end.”
    That’s how Jeffrey Beard, head of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), concluded his disturbingly deceptive August 6th op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He was condemning a hunger strike that had begun a month earlier, when 30,000 inmates refused meals in solidarity with striking prisoners subjected to long-term and indefinite solitary confinement at Pelican Bay and the state’s three other “supermax” prisons. Now nearly two months in, over 100 inmates reportedly still remain on strike. But rather than negotiating with these prisoners, Secretary Beard’s office has instead sought and obtained a court order authorizing medically unethical force-feeding.

    What is it that the striking prisoners want? They have five core demands: (1) compliance with recommendations from the 2006 report of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, including an end to long-term solitary confinement; (2) modification of the criteria used to determine gang status (which include tattoos and certain artwork or literature) and abolishment of the “debriefing” policy whereby release from isolation often requires informing on other prisoners; (3) an end to group punishment and administrative abuse; (4) the provision of adequate and nutritious food; and (5) the expansion of constructive programming and privileges (such as a weekly phone call and a yearly photo) for inmates held indefinitely in “Security Housing Units” (SHUs). Currently over 10,000 prisoners are held in isolation in California SHUs, with more than 500 of them having been in solitary confinement for over a decade.

    When Secretary Beard was appointed to lead the CDCR last December, this could have been viewed as an encouraging sign. As Gov. Jerry Brown said then, “Jeff Beard has arrived at the right time to take the next steps in returning California’s parole and correctional institutions to their former luster.” Previously, he had also received high praise from the governor of Pennsylvania when he held a similar position in that state: “Jeffrey Beard is setting a positive example not just in Pennsylvania, but nationally. …His exemplary leadership has ensured the improved management of Pennsylvania’s state prison system, and a safe place for inmates to rehabilitate.”

    Even more, there was seemingly reason for optimism in the fact that Secretary Beard is a psychologist, having received his doctoral degree in counseling psychology over thirty years ago. That training should matter because among the core principles of psychologists’ professional code of ethics are all of the following: “respect the dignity and worth of all people,” “strive to benefit those with whom they work,” “take care to do no harm,” “safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons,” and “guard against personal, financial, social, organizational or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence.”

    But eight months later, Dr. Beard’s background as a psychologist only adds to the outrageousness of his recent op-ed in which he repeatedly misrepresented the seriousness and legitimacy of the striking prisoners’ concerns, including here:

    Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHUs, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Don’t be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.

    Dr. Beard’s office has offered neither evidence nor access for independent verification of these claims, and its misguided public relations campaign runs counter to compelling evidence of widespread abuse in the prison system. Last year Amnesty International issued a scathing report – titled “USA: The Edge of Endurance” – about California’s SHUs, based on a visit to Pelican Bay and other prisons in the state. The report concluded that conditions there “breach international standards on humane treatment” and amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” In describing prisoners who are confined to their cells for at least 22 and a half hours a day and have no access to work, group activities, or programs focused on rehabilitation, the report stated:

    Most prisoners are confined alone in cells which have no windows to the outside or direct access to natural light. SHU prisoners are isolated both within prison and from meaningful contact with the outside world: contact with correctional staff is kept to a minimum, and consultations with medical, mental health and other staff routinely take place behind barriers; all visits, including family and legal visits, are also non-contact, with prisoners separated from their visitors behind a glass screen.

    In addition to the critical assessments from human rights organizations and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Dr. Beard is certainly familiar with the research of fellow psychologists and psychiatrists documenting the extreme adverse effects of extended involuntary solitary confinement (sometimes referred to as the “SHU syndrome”), which can persist long after isolation has ended. Among the negative psychological effects identified by California psychologist Craig Haney, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, and other scholars in comprehensive reviews are lethargy, depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and behavior; anxiety, panic, and insomnia; irritability, hypersensitivity, aggression, and rage; and cognitive dysfunction, paranoia, and hallucinations. Haney has also noted that ten days in solitary confinement is enough to produce harmful health outcomes. Many of the prisoners at Pelican Bay have been held in isolation for years.

    Exactly why Dr. Beard has decided to ignore, discount, or distort these unconscionable realities is ultimately beside the point. But the public should not be confused by his misleading rhetoric. The key demands of the hunger strikers are little different from prison reforms that have been strongly recommended by mental health experts and human rights advocates alike.

    In an essay published shortly after the CDCR Secretary’s op-ed appeared, Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argued that Dr. Beard’s public dishonesty and demonization of the hunger strikers demonstrate that he is the wrong leader to bring urgent reform to the “grotesque structure of inhumanity” that defines California’s prison system today. Simon called for “a protest movement and direct action campaign to force real change starting with Secretary Beard’s resignation.” Given their ethical commitment to the promotion of human welfare, psychologists should be among those at the forefront of these efforts.

    Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He can be contacted at reidelson@eidelsonconsulting.com.

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