The Past Isn’t Past

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John LaahIn prison it pays to be tough, or at least seem tough, and men will go to great lengths to disguise their pain and suffering. So my friend’s story, which he told while tears slowly leaked from his eyes despite his best efforts, stands out in my memory. His face was taut and his voice shook as he described being stripped naked by guards, forced onto a restraint table, and strapped down by five leather belts. Next they forced a modified football helmet onto his head, and then they left. He was riding the “motorcycle”, and he would continue to ride it for a few more days, periodically given water (but not food) and sprayed off with a hose when he soiled himself. At the end he was crying and beating his head against the table in desperation (to no avail, thanks to the helmet).

This torture was commonly practiced in Georgia. A cable available on WikiLeaks was the only reference I could find to this practice. It is from the Special Rapporteur on torture and includes a reference to the motorcycle and other forms of summary punishment. The cable is dated from 2008.

I am never surprised to learn that such practices are continually being revealed. They arise whenever the balance of power is so extreme, and oversight is so limited, that no barrier exists to the sadistic impulse to punish and exploit. Yet society continues to believe that things are different now.

An infamous example from history has recently been in the news again. The Florida Current ran a story on Wednesday about U.S. Senator Bill Nelson’s visit to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys near Marianna. He was accompanied by Wansley Waters, Secretary or the Department of Juvenile Justice, and Dr. Erin Kimmerle, a University of South Florida forensic anthropologist.

The so-called school was open for over 100 years, finally closing in 2011. Guards routinely tortured children, and many of the kids were victims of molestation while in custody. Some were killed either intentionally or through neglect. Some 50 or so graves are estimated to be on the property, and records are incomplete as to who lies in them and how they died.

“We closed this institution,” Walters said. “This facility is the prime example of why we can no longer ignore children in the juvenile justice system; they can no longer be marginalized and forgotten.

“I suspect at this particular school, there were no bankers’ and lawyers’ and doctors’ and politicians’ children held here. These were poor people.”

No doubt she is correct, but we will do well to remember that in many ways things aren’t very different in 2013. Few sons of bankers, lawyers, doctors, or politicians are in today’s youth prisons, either.  Sexual assault by staff remains rampant. The 2010 National Survey of Youth in Custody, compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, revealed that some 10 percent of youth—26,550 children—were sexaully assaulted by those who were supposed to protect them.

The only defense against such action is oversight and transparency, something most prison systems are loath to embrace. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last week on the push by the Department of Juvenile Justice to pass legislation making allegations of staff abuse and incidents of violence secret, preventing the public and news agencies from finding out what is happening on the other side of the razor wire. Georgia isn’t the only state where this kind of attempt is happening.

The general public must demand oversight by elected officials. Only through this kind of advocacy, which will hold officials accountable, can we hope to uncover today’s abuses and bring the light of justice to these dark corners of the government. It is perhaps too late for the boy’s from Dozier, but it is not too late for the child who is being abused right now.