Monday, May 03, 2004

Invisible Prisoners in Iraq and America

Riverbend, an Iraqi woman blogger, writes: "my blood boils at the thought of what must be happening to the female prisoners" (Baghdad Burning, April 30, 2004).

"Key Excerpts from the Taguba Report" (May 03, 2004) documents that female prisoners have been indeed sexually tortured in the same way as -- or worse than -- male prisoners have: among the abuses listed in the report are "b. Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees" and "k. A male MP guard having sex with a female detainee." And yet, the English-language media have been oddly silent about Iraqi female prisoners, as if they did not exist. Long before CBS and The New Yorker reported on the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, however, the Arabic-language media like Quds Press were running articles like this: "It is to be noted that a number of Iraqi female prisoners there issued a statement asking the Iraqi resistance men to pound the prison and destroy it over their heads because some of them were raped by the occupation forces" ("'Occupation' Soldiers Reportedly 'Rape' Female Inmates in Iraqi Jail," February 13, 2004). Still, there is no sign that the English-language media have or will pick up such reports.

What explains the invisibility of Iraqi female prisoners, in contrast to the visibility of American female prison guards who torture and Iraqi male prisoners who are tortured? Is it that the English-language media regard the story of American men sexually torturing Iraqi women as "normal" and therefore "not newsworthy," in comparison to a newsworthy story of American women sexually torturing Iraqi men? Or are they afraid of the Arab and American publics' reactions?

Even without photographic evidence, however, we, like Riverbend, can very well imagine "what must be happening to the female prisoners" in Iraq, based on the treatment of female (and male) prisoners in the United States itself, whose sufferings are nearly as invisible as Iraqi female prisoners' in the mainstream US discourse:
A recent study of prisons in four Midwestern states found that approximately one in five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. About one in ten male inmates reported that that they had been raped.

Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff members, vary greatly among institutions. In one facility, 27 percent of women reported a pressured or forced sex incident, while in another facility, seven percent of women reported sexual abuse. (endnotes omitted, Stop Prisoner Rape, "The Basics on Rape Behind Bars")
The statistical facts cited in the above are based upon the following study: Cindy Struckman-Johnson and David Struckman-Johnson, "Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prisons for Men," The Prison Journal 80.4, December 2000, pp. 378-390.

See, also, Amnesty International, "Women in Prison: A Fact Sheet."

In civilian life, one of the US soldiers now facing courts-martial, Army Reserves Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, "has been a correctional officer for six years at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va." (David Dishneau, "Accused Soldier's Journal Details Prison," The Guardian April 30, 2004). Frederick told CBS: "We had no support, no training whatsoever, and I kept asking my chain of command for certain things, rules and regulations, and it just wasn't happening" (emphasis added, "Accused Soldier's Journal Details Prison"). Maybe so. Then again, I suspect that Frederick could do what he did, because he was trained all too well in exactly how to treat prisoners in American prisons.

The fact that we have tolerated the degradation of American prisoners for so long without vigorous and effective protests has prepared members of the 800th Military Police Brigade for their brutal duty of colonial occupation, giving them an implicit signal that it is OK to treat human beings like that. We who fight to end the occupation of Iraq have a moral and political obligation to end the dehumanization of American prisoners at home, too.