Are Prisoner Rights Human Rights?
The Dirty Bomber, Jose Padilla, was finally sentenced this week to 17 years in prison. He was not convicted of actually engaging in any terrorist violence or of arranging any detonation of a dirty bomb. He was convicted of conspiracy--essentially of associating with people who had ties with terrorist networks in the Middle East.
Andy Worthington argues that all Americans should be worried about this conviction. Jose Padilla was held as an enemy combatant for 3 years in a military prison and subjected to strict isolation and sensory deprivation. He had restricted access to legal counsel before he was finally transferred to civilian authorities. Worthington claims that giving the government this kind of power threatens the personal security of each American citizen--once the President declares a person an enemy combatant, that person can disappear into a legal limbo where the protection of civil liberties may not reach.
Two weeks ago, many American communities held rallies to close down Guantanamo Bay military prison and to put an end to the kind of detention suffered by Padilla. A few days later, the top U.S. military leader,Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, said he favored closing the prison because he believes that the stories of prisoner treatment have damaged the image of the United States around the world.
But closing Guantanamo may not mean our civil liberties are more secure. At the same time that they ruled that prisoners in Guantanamo have constitutional rights, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners in regular U.S. prisons do not have the First Amendment right to read secular newspapers, magazines, or have pictures of family members in their cells.
The case of Beard v. Banks deals with prisoners in condtions not much unlike what Padilla had in military prison. The Supreme Court ruled that prison officials can deny access to newspapers and magazines to certain prisoners if those officials believe that doing so would be a security problem, or if doing so was part of a institutional plan to punish or break a prisoner., or serve some other "reasonable" correctional interest. As one Justice put it, prisoners can read trashy romance novels from the prison library, but they do not have a right to have newspapers delivered to them that will inform them about current events or the state of the world outside their cells.
The prisoners in Beard are not nice people. They are housed in maximum security. The Supreme Court has said such individuals have some basic rights. But it is clear that many in our society do not believe they are entitled to anything like a dignified life. As the Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Kemal Mericli, who was responsbile for moving Beard forward says:
“These people are not savants, are not intellectuals; they’re not at the Brookings Institution, they’re not professors. . . . I don’t know what their life is about. What they are, to my mind, they’re prisoners in a prison.”
As my mentor Darius Rejali has pointed out before in his work on torture practices, bad things don't start in places like Abu Graib or Nazi death camps--they can be traced to police tactics on the streets of Boston or in normal prisons first.