In the land of secrets, the butcher is king

California sterilized women prisoners without consent; Tennessee criminalizes pregnant women who take drugs. These policies go beyond cruelty; they institutionalize and normalize the dehumanization process in a large scale. Here are three recent examples from inside the border, at the border, and outside the borders of the United States.

In Oklahoma on Tuesday, a death row inmate was scheduled to die.

Since 2005, the European Commission has imposed restrictions on the export of anesthetics that may be used “for capital punishment, torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” But in the United States, executions must proceed. So, States came up with a secret new deadly cocktail of drugs to kill. The recipe is secret, but not the process of keeping it secret, especially since the two Oklahoma inmates sentenced to die challenged the secrecy weeks earlier.

After Tuesday’s execution, reporters and commentators made it clear, the man tortured to death, tased earlier in the day, had committed a heinous crime. And so butchering him was justified. The business of justifying the cruelty came with the help of numbers and statistics. On the PBS News Hour, Roy Engert recommended we put the issue in perspective, since only 3% of executions encountered problems. Engert’s unchallenged remark validates torture cases as just so many numbers in a deficit account.

On the US – Mexico border, US border patrols are under investigation for having recently killed more people than ever before. An independent review, leaked to the Los Angeles Times, considered 67 shootings by US Border patrols at the Mexican border between January 2010 and October 2012. These resulted in 19 civilian deaths.

The report was going to remain secret, as well as the policies and practices that allowed US patrol to shoot at Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16 year-old boy who was on his way home. He was on the other side of the fence, in Mexico. The officers on the US side shot him 10 times. He was killed with two bullets in his head and then butchered with eight more bullets in his back. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in the past three years, they have shot across the border and killed six people inside Mexico.

U.S Customs and Border Protection explained they opened fire because people in Mexico were throwing rocks and one hit their patrol dog. That explanation exposes the level of dehumanization that has normalized the use of lethal weapons against people who have been made ever more vulnerable, thanks to border fortification, intensified immiseration, and expanded displacement, all in the service of NAFTA and neoliberal development.

Outside the borders, drone strikes, to kill human targets, are carried out by the US Air Force for the CIA with the help of the NSA. As one US Air Force personnel declared, “I cannot tell you what I am doing, but I can tell you that’s super-secret.” The operations are super-secret, but the fact of the secrets is quite public.

What is secret is the name and location of the future victims. The entire process reflects US drone program whose impunity has been intensified and broadened in recent years. In the United States, every week, Tuesday is “Terror Tuesday,” the day when it is decided who will die in Yemen or Pakistan. US agents establish a list of potential victims determined through their “pattern of life,” a series of behaviors identified as potential signs of militant activities.

These various secretive methods are as dubious as the lethal drug cocktail in Oklahoma. Many stories have related how civilians in a wedding, or in a field, women and children, have been butchered by a robotic drone attack.

All these stories are linked by what Denis Salas has called the three characteristics of moral indifference: unlimited authorized use of violence, normalization of acts of violence, and dehumanization of targets. These stories reveal the power of secrecy to serve a neoliberal global disorder. Beyond cruelty, the scale of dehumanization is both intimate and global.


(Photo Credit: Paul Ingram / Tucson Sentinel)

Must punishment mean prison? Why are you asking?

In a recent television interview, Christiane Taubira, France’s Minister of Justice, was questioned about her personal philosophy of justice: “Is the mission of justice to punish delinquents?” The journalist repeated the question in different forms, emphasizing the word “punish”. Finally, the journalist added “some may feel that for you, an efficient justice system would put reeducation and reinsertion at the center?” Taubira answered immediately, “Why are you asking me this question?”

Does the act of punishing mean sending someone to prison, as the journalist repeatedly suggested?

Why pose such a question to Taubira? Because she has taken a strong stand against using public funds to contract private companies to build new prisons. These contracts would have eaten up 50% of the budget devoted to the penal system. Instead Taubira has abandoned this way and is instead toward using the funds for alternative sentencing programs, programs that have been proven to be more efficient in reducing violence.

These questions reappear in an emerging climate of crisis. While many magistrates, such as  Serge Pertolli, have argued “prison has never resolved anything in crime control,” the idea that the society must punish with prison is securely imbedded in the privatization of public services.

This is all relatively new for France. After World War II, the State’s power and right to punish existed in the service of rehabilitation. As Denis Salas explains, at that time, “what counted was to defend the delinquent in danger of exclusion in his or her own society.”

Today’s penal populism is built on opposite concepts. The victim and delinquent don’t belong to the same society, and social and economic situations have no relevance any more. Instead fear, largely fueled by the instability of economic crisis, should govern society.

Moreover, the project of penal populism is attached to the larger neoliberal project, which has impoverished many and deprived the society of its social structure through the privatization of social responsibility. The crime rate has not increased in France. In fact it has decreased, but violence is not on the decrease. Violence is gendered, marked and inflected with a neoliberal and patriarchal system of intimidation, which leads to societal destabilization through the disintegration of social cohesion in a globalized economy without a human face.

If we are to think about addressing root causes rather than merely astutely selected consequences, we must attend to the impoverishment and destitution of the notion of civil and societal care with messages of competition that have excluded so many.


(Photo Credit: Huffington Post)

Prisoners have visitors in France and in many other European countries

Prisoners have visitors in France and in many other European countries. The prison visitors are volunteers who respond to prisoners’ requests to have visitors. As a prison visitor explained: “We are not contracted, we are not entertainers, we come to share and we don’t come to judge the act that sent this person to prison but to meet with the person who is beyond the act. The act is his or her business, our goal is that this person breaks free from the spiral of losing self esteem.”

How does it work? When a person is incarcerated, he or she is informed about the possibility of having a prison visitor assigned, and then the prisoner has to send a request to the prison authorities.  The prison visitor commits to visit the prisoner regularly. The visit is confidential, takes place in cells reserved for meetings with lawyers, and may last from 45 minutes to one hour and thirty minutes.  For the detainee, this moment with the prison visitor is one rare instant without surveillance.

The association of prison visitors, ANVP, was created in 1932 and became state approved in 1951. It presently counts over 1500 members, not enough, they say, to guarantee the ideal ratio of 1 visitor per 20 prisoners. The president of the association, himself a prison visitor, explains that they are always looking for and recruiting volunteers. The age required is between 21 and 75 years old, and it takes about 2 months to be accredited after an interview and a police background check, followed by six months of probation with more training.  The main quality expected is to be able to listen: “We are here to listen. We are the wind coming from the outside.”

For prisoners in France, the outside world continues to exist and detainees remain full citizens. As Stephanie Balandras, director of “Les Baumettes” women’s prison in Marseille, explained, prison visitors “ensure that a detainee remains a citizen”.

In a democracy, everyone with citizenship has the right to vote. In France, as in most democracies in the world, detainees retain the right to vote. The right to vote is recognized by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe as an essential right in a democracy; its suppression is incompatible with a true democratic system of governance.

Among the 47 countries of the European Council, 19 have no restrictions on civic rights for detainees, 21 have some restrictions, mostly decided in court, and 7 states suspend the right to vote for detainees.

Meanwhile, in the United States prisoners lose their civic rights when convicted. Writing on the extension of the robotized war with the development of the American drone program, Barbara Ehrenreich quoted the US Secretary of Education who reported in 2010 that “75% of young Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” As African Americans fill the American prisons, they are losing their civic rights in greater proportion than Whites. There are no prison visitors to listen to them or help them retain a sense of belonging as they are pushed further to the margins.

According to Denis Salas, “The principle of human dignity is the reference on which lies the right to bend state power.” As one prison visitor put it, this principle has to come from the outside to the inside: “The prison visitor’s objective is to make each detainee aware of her or his own riches and deficits, and to help him or her to build their own project for the future”.

Let’s imagine more prison visitors in the United States, people who would help make American prisoners more visible, retain and develop their own humanity, and have their civic rights restored.


(Image Credit: Sentencing Project)