On TomDispatch today, lawyer and journalist Chase Madar argues that Guantánamo is “not quite as exceptional as either those who love it or loathe it might may think.” He reviews the case of Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan, then tortured and placed at Gitmo, where he remained until he made a plea deal last month. Madar finds parallels in the U.S. criminal justice system to nearly all aspects of Khadr’s brutal treatment. Some choice excerpts follow, but this long piece deserves to be read in full.
When I was down in Guantánamo a few months ago, a veteran German journalist let it slip that she didn’t much care for the place. “This,” she confided in me, and many of the other journalists there as well, “is the worst place I have ever visited in my entire career.”
It’s not hard to see why my superlative-loving friend felt this way…Gitmo and all other places without habeas corpus rights are indeed dismal places — and there is certainly something disgusting about the first conviction of a child soldier since World War II. All the same, I couldn’t help but wonder if my vehement Kollegin had ever visited a homegrown federal prison like the one in Terre Haute, Indiana (whose maximum security wing was copied down to the smallest detail at Gitmo’s Camp 5), or even your run-of-the-mill overcrowded state lock-up, the kind you pass on the highway without even noticing that you’ve done so, or one of the crumbling youth detention facilities in New York State which, as we lawyers who have represented youth offenders know, are hellish.
Such prisons may lack the exotic setting of Gitmo’s Camp Delta, but they should not be forgotten. At the risk of sounding boosterish, it so happens that a great many of America’s unsung domestic prisons also routinely abuse inmates, Guantánamo-style, are unable or unwilling to prevent inmate rape, employ long-term, sustained solitary confinement (which gives waterboarding a run for its money), and in actual practice are often beyond the rule of law. Confessions, true or false, obtained through violence and threats, aren’t restricted to Guantánamo either. They are not all that hard to find in our contiguous 48 states. And for the rest of our prison system, where are the outraged German journalists? Why are no British “law lords” calling the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, a “legal black hole” as law lord Johan Steyn termed Guantánamo?…
Gitmo, a “betrayal of American values”? Would that it were! Alas, for nearly every grisly tabloid feature of the Khadr case, you can find an easy analog in our everyday criminal justice system. In a sense, much of our War on Terror has proven a slightly spicier version of our “normal” way of doing criminal justice…
Bagram and Abu Ghraib have regularly been described as one-off aberrations, but the origins of such brutality are not hard to spot in our treatment of prisoners at home…Fact is, the abuse and/or torture of prisoners, though far from systematic, is not all that uncommon in many American prisons. What came out in the Abu Ghraib photos is, according to the (increasingly busy) United States program of Human Rights Watch, not so different from the abuse and brutality of many of our own stateside lock-ups.
In New York, for instance, a state task force convened by Governor David Paterson in 2008 deemed the entire youth detention system “broken.” The official report found that guards throughout the system regularly used “excessive force” on youth inmates, sometimes breaking bones and shattering teeth.
Prison abuse here at home can be just as fatal as at Bagram. In New York, an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old died in 2006 after corrections officers pinned him face down on the ground. (Remember, at Bagram the interrogators tried to make young Khadr talk by threatening to send him to an American prison, which they apparently considered at least as threatening as anything Afghanistan had to offer.)
This is not lost on lawyers representing Gitmo detainees. “I might well advise a client to take ten years in the communal wing of Guantánamo over three years in solitary at the supermax in Florence,” says Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Attorney Joshua Dratel, who took part in the very successful defense of Gitmo detainee David Hicks, told me recently that he thought the worst American-run prison is not Guantánamo’s Camp Delta, but rather the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. And yet, somewhat mysteriously, New Yorkers are more likely to know about the brutality of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib than the fatal abuse and abysmal prison conditions in their own state.