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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Tough Love

by digby

The other day I wrote about the prison guard who was suspended for shocking little kids with tasers on "take your child to work" day --- with the parents' permisson. Yes, some people are too stupid to breathe.

But it turns out that this was not the only incident of cretinous morons in the Florida prison system doing "demonstrations" on kids that day:

Two more state prisons have acknowledged incidents in which guards zapped visiting children with handheld stun guns, bringing to three the number of facilities where the unapproved demonstration was used on "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day."

On Friday, the Department of Corrections said that several kids visiting Franklin Correctional Institution in the Panhandle on April 24 were shocked by a guard who was demonstrating what corrections officers do at work. On Tuesday, the department revealed that children visiting Indian River Correctional Institution in Vero Beach and Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown were also zapped with 50,000-volt electronic immobilization devices.

The devices used on the children, who are between the ages of 8 and 14, require bodily contact. Used on unruly inmates, the devices usually knock victims to the ground, cause a few minutes of disorientation and leave two small burn marks.

The daughter of the warden at Indian River was among the victims.

Frank Gonzalez, the owner of Self-Defense USA, a large stun gun company in San Diego, describes the 50,000-volt shock as "similar to grabbing a live wire in your house with a wet hand — like a hard punch in the stomach with the added trauma of electricity running through your body."

The Department of Corrections did not release the number of children, or their conditions or names. But Matthew Foster, an attorney for one of the children who was injured at Franklin, said that more than six children were shocked at that facility.

His client, a 12-year-old girl, sustained abrasions and trauma when the powerful jolt knocked her to the ground, requiring a doctor's treatment, said Foster, who asked that neither the child nor her father be named. Her mother works at the prison and gave permission for the demonstration, according to Foster, but the father, who is separated from the mother, did not approve and has sued.

"These devices are designed for stopping dangerous prisoners and can cause injury or death," Foster said. "They are not for experimenting on children."

Upon hearing rumors that Franklin was not an isolated incident, George Sapp, deputy secretary of institutions for the Department of Corrections, began calling wardens around the state. His survey turned up two more similar incidents on the same day, said Gretl Plessinger, a corrections spokeswoman.

Ten employees — five at Indian River, which incarcerates teenage males between 14 and 18, and five at Martin, which incarcerates adult males — have been suspended while the incidents are investigated. At Franklin, a guard was fired last week.

Plessinger said it appeared the three incidents were "separate and unrelated," with no coordination or planning linking them. But the possibility will receive further scrutiny, she said.

"There are very clear rules about when, where and who these devices are to be used on, and all officers are clearly trained in this. So, we don't yet know how this could have happened at three facilities on the same day," Plessinger said.

You probably noticed that one of the facilities where this happened is for youthful offenders between the ages of 14 and 18. So I guess it makes sense these people think using a weapon which makes its victim feel as if he's "grabbing a live wire in your house with a wet hand — like a hard punch in the stomach with the added trauma of electricity running through your body" is so harmless that it can be used on their own children.

The casual use of electricity to subdue another human is admittedly beyond my personal experience. But I have had a bad electric shock and it was the most painful violent thing that ever happened to me. Maybe I was usually traumatized by it, but the idea of someone doing that to another human being to control them literally makes me sick. I cannot see it as anything but torture. And yet, it is used throughout our society now, people make fun of it, it's completely accepted by our legal system, the only question at this point being whether or not it kills too many people. It's so accepted that people who use it every day are willing to use it on their own children.

I have been wondering why I'm so out of step on this. It's not that I don't understand that police have a thankless job and are often put in dangerous situations. I can even see the use of these things in those circumstances where a gun would otherwise be used. But the way they are deployed most often is simply to give a jolt of horrible, mind bending pain so that people will instantly turn docile and cooperative --- at the sole discretion of the authority who wields it. Where does this eager subservience on the part of allegedly freedom loving Americans come from, that the population so willingly accepts that the police have right to make any of them feel "a hard punch in the stomach with the added trauma of electricity running through your body" whenever they feel the need? I can't wrap my mind around that.

I came across an article the other day by Maia Szalavitz, author of "Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids" in Mother Jones that pointed me in a direction I hadn't thought of before. And it sheds some light on the larger torture debate as well, digging into a certain way of thinking that our society has developed, largely I'm sorry to say, at the hands of some crackpot psychologists who legitimized torture and abuse of teenagers --- and made a tidy profit doing it.

We are, famously, blasé about our acts of torture overseas. But why? The laser-like focus on fixing the economy, wanting to avoid more political divisiveness, the diminishment of watchdog journalism—are all part of the explanation. But there's another overlooked reason as well.

Americans tend to valorize tough love—at times, even tough love that verges on torture—in prisons, mental hospitals, drug rehabs, and teen boot camps. We aren't squeamish about the psychological aspects of torture. We might even admire them.

Thousands of troubled children, for instance, now attend tough "wilderness programs" "emotional growth boarding schools" and other "tough love" camps where they face conditions like total isolation, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and daily emotional attacks.

Thousands also attend religiously based residential programs, some of which claim to "cure" homosexuality and stop teen promiscuity. In this context, the recent poll showing that evangelicals are the group with the highest level of support for torture begins to make sense.

If we think humiliation, stress positions, and isolation are OK for disobedient teens, why not for suspected terrorists?

As the author of the first book-length history and expose of the troubled-teen industry, I’m familiar not only with the distressing stories of abuse coming from these programs, but also with their roots in the same tactics now being exposed in the CIA torture program.

If more people understood the psychological and physical consequences of these "thought reform" techniques, I don't think we'd find them acceptable for anyone.

The article goes on to discuss how these "coercive" techniques work, showing the way troubled teens are often coerced into making false confessions and telling bizarre tales under very similar conditions and torture techniques as those used against the "detainees." It's chilling in the same way the OLC memos were chilling --- the use of modern, bureaucratic, "medical" language to couch unspeakable, barbaric cruelty. Her piece shows how fully we've accepted over the past three decades the concept that unruly teenagers can be ritually tortured to force them to conform. We think nothing of it --- just last week, after all, it was revealed that they commonly shock 14 to 18 year old boys with 50,000 volts of electricity at that Florida prison.

If you add in the random tasering of citizens all over the country and the horrors of our prison system (including the exaltation of its famous sadists like Sheriff Joe Arpaio)it's pretty clear that we are awash in torture, often using it against people who have been convicted of nothing more than being unwilling or unable to conform to authority.

I'm sure the usual cynics will harangue me for being a silly old fool as usual for not recognizing what a torturing society this is long before now. And I would have to admit there's a kernel of truth in the fact that this is not something I probably wanted to know. However, this current debate has made it impossible to ignore any longer: the United States of America tortures its own children. It tortures prisoners. It tortures average citizens whom any policeman believes is failing to smartly comply with his orders and it tortures suspected terrorists. We just call it (in true Orwellian fashion) "Tough Love."

Torture, in fact, is one of our defining features. The only really surprising thing, considering its ubiquity, is that the number of people who openly support it isn't larger. I suppose that's some sort of comfort.