Tags: civil liberties, human rights, incarceration, james ridgeway, jean casella, John McCain, prisoners, prisons, roger hollander, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, torture
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Imagine a place filled with closed, windowless cells. Each cell may be so small that you can extend your arms and touch the side walls. It may contain a bunk of poured concrete, a toilet, perhaps a small table and stool. A few personal possessions – books, family photos – may be permitted, or they may not. The door to the cell is solid steel.Approximately 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, which has been labelled torture by the UN, in US prisons. (Photograph: Brennan Linsley/Pool/Reuters)
Three times a day, a food tray slides in through a slot in the door; when that happens you may briefly see a hand, or exchange a few words with a guard. It is your only human contact for the day. Five times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a concrete-walled yard about the same size as your cell. The yard is empty, but if you look straight up, you can catch a glimpse of sky.
Imagine that a quarter of the people who live in this place are mentally ill. Some have entered the cells with underlying psychiatric disabilities, while others have been driven mad by the confinement and isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night. Others cut themselves, or smear their cells with feces. A number manage to commit suicide in their cells.
You may remain in this place for months, years, or even decades. The conditions in which you live have been denounced as torture by UN officials and by a host of human rights, civil liberties, and religious groups. And yet you remain where you are.
This place is located not in some distant authoritarian nation or secret black site abroad, but here on US soil. In fact, there are places like it in nearly every state in the union, within sight of our own cities and towns. On any given day in the United States, supermax prison and solitary confinement units hold at least 80,000 men, women, and children in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.
Most of them have committed nonviolent offenses against prison rules or have been categorically branded as “high risk”. A large and disproportionate percentage suffer from serious mental illness. Some of them are children. Condemned to solitary by prison officials, they spend 23 hours a day in their cells without work, rehabilitative programming, or human contact of any kind.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice.
These prisoners live out of sight of the public and the press. Their conditions have, with few exceptions, been condoned by the courts and ignored by elected officials. As a result, over the past three decades, the use and abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons has grown into one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues – yet it also remains one of the most invisible.
On Tuesday, for the first time, the US Congress has taken a look at these domestic black sites. The Senate judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights held a hearing in which corrections officials, lawyers, and mental health experts – along with one lone survivor of prison isolation – testified to the “human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences” of solitary confinement.
For evidence of humanitarian consequences, the senators need only turn to their colleague John McCain, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam (in a cell somewhat larger than those in most American supermaxes). “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” McCain later wrote. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
As for fiscal and public safety consequences, the subcommittee members can look to evidence-based research that keeping prisoners in solitary confinement costs two to three times more than keeping them in the general population, and is likely to increase both prison violence and recidivism. Or they can study the example of the few states – including Maine and Mississippi – that dramatically reduced the number of prisoners they keep in isolation, with positive results.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice. Given the political will, the subcommittee could begin by holding more hearings around the country, while its staff carries out an investigation that opens up to public scrutiny the tormented inner workings of supermax prisons and solitary confinement units.
An independent federal body with the absolute right to enter and report on prisons could go even further in exposing abusive conditions. Legislation could then force the creation and adoption of federal standards for the treatment of prisoners, which states would have to meet in order to receive federal funds.
All of this depends upon our elected leaders taking seriously the notion that all Americans – including prisoners – have an absolute right to immunity from torture by the state. That is likely to happen any time soon, but until it does, unimaginable things will keep taking place at black sites in our own backyards.
James Ridgeway is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, and co-editor of Solitary Watch. James began his career as a contributor to the New Republic, Ramparts and the Wall Street Journal. Later, he was co-founder and editor of the political newsletters Mayday, Hard Times and the Elements.
Jean Casella is a freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant, and co-editor of Solitary Watch
Tags: Barack Obama, budget, david patterson, democratic party, democrats, Economic Crisis, economic growth, economy, james ridgeway, michael bloomberg, new jersey taxes, new york, recession, repeal tax cuts, roger hollander, tax cuts, tax the rich
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Posted by James Ridgeway on 12/24/08
All of us who have been taught the Biblical story of Christmas (since my grandfather was a Methodist minister, that certainly includes me) will remember that Jesus is supposed to have been born in a stable because there was “no room at the inn.” Less often repeated is the reason why his parents had hit the road in the first place, despite the fact that Mary was nine months gone at the time. According to the Book of Luke, “it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Romans ordered all people to go to their home towns to register for a census, which was needed in order to institute the new tax system. That’s why the holy family was schlepping the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem when Mary went into labor.
The Bible never tells us how much Joseph—an impoverished carpenter with two dependents, one of them a kid who wasn’t even his—ended up having to pay in taxes. But it’s safe to assume that the local Romans, and the wealthy Sadducees who supported them, got off easy in comparison to working stiffs like Joseph. Maybe they even got off as easy as rich Americans have, under the tax cuts passed by the Bush Administration in 2001 and 2003.
During the Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama, along with all of his Democratic contenders, promised a swift repeal of these tax cuts. A rollback of tax cuts benefitting only corporations and the wealthiest individuals was supposed to provide the financing for Obama’s policy proposals, from education and health care to infrastructure and green energy. But by September, the Democratic nominee was already backpedaling on his pledge, and within three weeks of his election, Obama’s economic advisors confirmed that, after all, the new president might just let the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule in 2011, rather than eliminating them two years earlier. The decision is based on the premise that it is unwise—in economic as well as political terms—to raise taxes during a recession, since lower taxes stimulate the economy.
At the same time, New York’s Democratic governor David Patterson has refused to consider instituting a temporary “millionaire’s tax” to address his state’s desperate financial needs, choosing instead to slash vital social programs. Patterson claims that such a tax will drive businesses and wealthy individuals out of New York and further depress the economy. (This despite billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s declaration that among his rich friends, he’d “never heard one person say ‘I’m going to move out of the city because of taxes.’”)
But an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, released earlier this year, debunks the myth that tax cuts for the rich more than “pay for themselves” by fueling economic growth.
There is no evidence that the tax cuts caused any increase in economic growth, let alone growth sufficient to offset their cost. In fact, the 2001-2007 economic expansion was among the weakest since World War II with regard to overall economic growth. Moreover, revenue growth was very poor during 2001-2007. Real per-capita revenues fell deeply in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and have since risen to barely 2 percent above their 2001 level. Over the course of other postwar economic expansions, they grew by an average of 12 percent.
Capital gains taxes, CBPP found, have the effect of lowering revenue in the long run. And tax cuts financed by deficit spending—as they were under Bush, and undoubtedly will continue to be under Obama—are especially harmful.
Brookings Institution economist William Gale and now-CBO director Peter Orszag concluded that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are “likely to reduce, not increase, national income in the long term” because of their effect in swelling the deficit. [The Congressional Budget Office’s] recent study of a deficit-financed extension of the 2001 and 2003 income-tax cuts found that “real [Gross National Product] per person would decline by 13 percent in 2050” relative to an extension that was financed through a balanced mix of revenue and spending changes effective immediately.
Even the Bush Treasury Department’s analysis of the cost of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts “estimated that they would generate only enough economic growth to cover less than 10 percent of their long-term cost. Furthermore, that estimate was based on a best-case scenario; it depended on the assumption that the cost of the tax cuts would be fully offset by spending cuts.”
Likewise, on the state level, a recent study looked at a much stiffer “half-millionaire’s” tax that went into effect in New Jersey. While the study found a tiny increase in the “out migration” rate among wealthy residents, it detected no damage to the economy. In fact, it found that overall, the state’s tax revenue increased by $26 for every $1 lost.
Especially during a recession, if we put more money in the pockets of the rich, it is likely to stay right there—in their pockets. On the other hand, if we put more money in the hands of low- and middle-income workers through tax cuts, and in the hands of the poor and unemployed through increases in government programs (food stamps, TANF, unemployment benefits), that money is virtually guaranteed to go directly into the economy, since its recipients have no choice but to spend it on their basic needs—food, clothing, gasoline, doctor’s bills. A few of them might even be able to afford a room at the inn.
This post also appears on James Ridgeway’s new blog, UNSILENT GENERATION: “Information and commentary for pissed-off progressive old folk (and future old folk)… because we’re not dead yet.”