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New Jersey Prisoners Threaten Hunger Over “Abu-Ghraib-like” Conditions

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As many as fourteen hundred prisoners at New Jersey State Prison are threatening to begin a hunger strike today to protest prison conditions. Last week the prisoners complained in a letter that conditions inside were “reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.” [includes rush transcript]

As many as fourteen hundred prisoners at New Jersey State Prison are threatening to begin a hunger strike today to protest prison conditions. Last week the prisoners complained in a letter that conditions inside were “reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.” The prisoners wrote they were forced “to wear underwear, reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, with hands held on their heads, while being herded along a gauntlet of offices, with dogs, stretched to the full extent of their lease, barking incessantly for close to an hour at a time.” The prisoners have threatened to begin the hunger strike unless 16 demands are met.

Larry Hamm joins us in our Firehouse studio. He is the chair of the New Jersey-based People’s Organization for Progress. He has been closely monitoring the situation in the New Jersey prisons.

  • Larry Hamm. Chairman of the New Jersey-based People’s Organization for Progress.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Hamm joins us now from our firehouse studio here in New York. He’s chair of the New Jersey-based People’s Organization for Progress. He’s been closely monitoring the situation in the New Jersey prisons. Welcome, Larry. What’s happening?

LARRY HAMM: It’s good to be here. Well, today is October 12. Today is the day that the prisoners said they would begin their hunger strike. This strike seems to be the result of very oppressive conditions in the prisons that have existed for years. Our organization, together with many of the other advocate organizations, get letters repeatedly about beatings of prisoners, violations of their rights.

There have been several lockdowns in 2005 and 2006. Many of prisoners allege that these lockdowns were sparked by contraband that was planted, in fact, they say, by Department of Corrections officials. And it’s reached a boiling point, and today they said they’re going to begin a hunger strike.

They’ve asked our organization and other organizations to intervene on their behalf, and I was in communication with the Acting Commissioner of Corrections yesterday. We’ll be meeting on Friday, and we will propose that he meet with a larger group that will consist of all the advocate groups and prisoners’ rights groups later on this month.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how have the prisoners been able to organize themselves across the state? That’s unusual to — you’ll usually find an action in one particular prison.

LARRY HAMM: That’s a good question, and I’m not going to attempt to answer it. They do have ways of communicating with each other. And keep in mind that there were advocacy groups within the prisons that were in communication with one another. After these lockdowns, these groups were disbanded. And this is one of the 16 demands that you mentioned, that they want these groups to be reopened and to be able to engage in their activities.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, the prison conditions that they have described to you.

LARRY HAMM: Well, again, as I said, in 2005 and 2006 there were these lockdowns. The prisoners say the conditions are so bad that — and I have some of their letters here — that it’s like Abu Ghraib. Their cells have been ransacked. They have been strip-searched. They’ve been forced to strip outside of their cells. They’ve been marched in groups. They’ve been forced to run a gauntlet through a cadre of corrections officers who have attack dogs at full length of the leash, as they said in one of their letters. There have been beatings. It’s very bad. And they’ve asked us to, in fact, let the larger community know, because they feel a lot of this has gotten away with because nobody cares, but we believe a lot of people care.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the response of corrections officials when you’ve talked to them about these things?

LARRY HAMM: Well, as I said, yesterday was my first direct contact. The Acting Commissioner, Mr. Hayman, called me. However, we have a prisoners’ rights committee within our organization, and the chairs of our committee have been in contact for some time with prison officials about the situation. But it seems that with all the discussion that has gone on, conditions have not improved.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk more about the use of dogs inside prisons. Two years ago, the U.S. military was widely criticized after photographs were published showing how dogs were used to terrorize Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. One photograph showed two dogs approaching a naked prisoner. Another showed a prisoner crouching in terror as he was threatened with an un-muzzled German Shepherd.

Well, a new report from Human Rights Watch examines how dogs are used in prisons — not in Iraq, but here at home. The study reveals five U.S. state prison systems — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, South Dakota and Utah — authorized the use of large un-muzzled dogs to terrify and even attack prisoners to extract them from their cells. According to Human Rights Watch, no other country in the world authorizes the use of dogs to attack prisoners who will not voluntarily leave their cells.

Jamie Fellner joins us also in our firehouse studio. She is the director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMIE FELLNER: Thank you. Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about these findings, the use of dogs in U.S. prisons?

JAMIE FELLNER: You know, it’s one of the best kept secrets in corrections in the United States, that there are prison systems that permit dogs, large un-muzzled attack dogs, usually German Shepherds, to be brought to the cell front, and bark and try and intimidate the prisoner into complying with orders to leave his cell. If the prisoner doesn’t comply, the cell door is opened, the dog goes in and bites the prisoner and stays holding on, jaws clamped on the prisoner at whatever limb the dog can get, until he’s called off by the dog handler.

Now, you read the five states that authorize it. It’s important to point out that Connecticut and Iowa are the states that actually use dogs for this purpose quite frequently. Our information from the Departments of Corrections in the other three states are that it’s authorized, but it’s rarely, if ever, used. So we’re really focusing — and then Massachusetts and Arizona, up to early this year, also permitted the use and frequently used the dogs for this purpose.

When we first heard about this, and we were told by a corrections official who was shocked when he had learned about it, we couldn’t believe it. This is the United States. And while we know terrible things go on in U.S. prisons, to have policy permit dogs to maul prisoners, it doesn’t matter what the justification are, this goes beyond the bar, and, in fact, that’s why most states do not permit it. And Arizona and Massachusetts, when they sort of looked at it and thought about it, the new heads of those departments ended the policy. There’s absolutely no need or justification for it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the five states listed in your report don’t include New Jersey, but here we’re hearing, at least in the prisoners here, that dogs are being used, if not necessarily to directly attack the prisoners, then definitely as a form of intimidation and threat against them.

JAMIE FELLNER: Well, dogs are used in many prisons for other purposes. And we spoke to actually the former commissioner of New Jersey, Devon Brown, who said they do not use them to attack prisoners in their cells. But dogs are used in many prisons to sniff for contraband, and when there’s a riot, for riot control. Listening to Larry talk, the only good thing you can say about the use of dogs there is at least they were kept on their leash and they weren’t being used to bite the prisoners.

But if I may, I wanted to say, one of the things you see from the situation in New Jersey, but around the country, is, there is no independent oversight of state prisons, or the federal prison, for that — well, they have an inspector general. And as long as there’s no independent oversight, prisoners really have very little recourse. They can try and get into court, but under — with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, if they haven’t sustained a physical injury, they can’t get into court. They’re barred from court. We need to have in place in the United States independent monitoring, so when there are serious situations like that, prisoners have someplace to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Fellner’s report is called “Cruel and Degrading.” It is the Human Rights Watch report. The cover is frightening in itself. Yes, you can hold it up. It is a picture of a dog with his teeth bared. I wanted to talk for a moment about the videotape that you obtained, a training video, formerly used by the Arizona Department of Corrections, that shows a series of simulated cell extractions. This is how the video begins.

PRISON GUARD: Inmate [inaudible], this is a direct order! Drop your weapons now! Move over to the staging door and cuff up!


PRISON GUARD: Inmate has failed to comply. State’s K-9s.

K-9 UNIT: Inmate, this is the K-9 unit. I’m giving a direct order to cuff up or I’ll release my dog, and he will bite you! Inmate has failed to comply! Inmate has failed to comply!

PRISONER: [being attacked by dog] Woohoo!

K-9 UNIT: Drop your weapon! Get on the ground!

AMY GOODMAN: The training video from the Arizona Department of Corrections also shows several examples of how dogs should be used to attack prisoners. This is a simulation produced by the prison.

NARRATOR: The Arizona Department of Corrections utilizes service dog teams to assist in narcotic detection at all of its prison units. Selected teams have also been dual-purpose trained, and thus can be used to assist staff in inmate control situations. The four scenarios you are about to see will show how a dual-purpose service dog is employed in a maximum-security setting. This represents an escalation in the use of force to assist in controlling inmates who refuse to cooperate or who are openly combative. The first scenario involves an inmate who refuses the direction to cuff up, even after the use of a chemical agent.

AMY GOODMAN: The training video from the Arizona Department of Corrections also shows several examples of this use. By the way, we will post on our website at these videos that people can watch. Your response.

JAMIE FELLNER: It is important to remind your listeners and viewers that Arizona no longer does this. They find it unnecessary and unjustified. This was a practice begun by the former director of the department there, a Mr. Terry Stewart. And the current director, Dora Schriro, has abolished the practice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just make one quick comment. When I was researching Static with my brother, David, we did a chapter called “Exporting Abuse,” and we looked at how the prisons in Iraq were set up. You just mentioned Terry Stewart, former head of the Corrections Department of Arizona. You talked about Utah. One of the heads of that was Lane McCotter. You talked about Connecticut. These are the places that use dogs. John Anderson came out of there, and two prisoners died in that prison system, who were beaten. These are the men, who, though cited in this country, left their positions and went to Iraq to set up Abu Ghraib.

JAMIE FELLNER: I think it’s fairly well recognized now that Abu Ghraib was set up — even saying it was set up is too formal a term. It was badly created, badly staffed, badly run, no oversight. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that any of the U.S. corrections officials who went there intended naked pyramids and men standing with wires attached to them thinking they were going to be electrocuted. But these were not the most advanced professionals in the corrections industry, and it is not clear at all what kind of vetting process was used before they were chosen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the states that have stopped using dogs are Arizona and Massachusetts. And your report quotes one correction official in Massachusetts saying that there are better ways to get an inmate out of their cell than, quote, “sending an animal to rip their flesh.” Was it public pressure that got these institutions or these states to change their policies, or was it just new management that came in? And what kind of public sentiment do you see generally, in terms of providing humane treatment for our prisoners in America’s jails?

JAMIE FELLNER: First of all, any prison reflects the culture created by leadership. If you have strong leadership at the top that insists that there will not be abuse, that anybody who abuses prisoners will be held accountable, you will not find prisons with much abuse. New management came into these two prison systems. They undertook a review of the use of force in their prison systems, because what they saw concerned them. And they undertook a number of reforms, including getting rid of dogs. I think that’s an absolutely crucial lesson, and it’s the second one. I mentioned earlier the importance of oversight. You also need to make sure that you put in place and hold accountable strong leaders in the prison systems.

In terms of the public, so far I think there still is insufficient public concern about what goes on in prison. People don’t think of those in prison as members of their community. They are behind bars, behind walls, out of sight, out of mind, and that also is part of the problem. We need more transparency, more public concern about what’s happening to people’s brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters and daughters and cousins. These are members of our community, and what happens to them in prison is going to come home to the community. If you are abused and raped, mistreated however in prison, when you come back to your community, it is going to be less likely that you are going to be able to return to a law-abiding life than before.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I would like to ask Larry Hamm also on this new leadership in New Jersey. Is there any indication that you’ve seen that the Corzine administration is more sympathetic to humane treatment of the prisoners in the jails?

LARRY HAMM: Suffice it to say that the Acting Commissioner, and he’s the Acting Commissioner, contacted me. He reached out to me after receiving my letter and the information that we forwarded to him. However, as I sit here, prisoners are on hunger strike. And after all the talk is done, the question is: have conditions changed?

And I just want to dovetail on what my colleague here said. Those people who, in Jersey and in the country, who are really concerned about what’s happening to the prisoners in New Jersey State Prison, they need to get on the phone, they need to call the commissioner’s office. You can get the number out of the 609 area code information. They need to let them know that the people are watching. See, public involvement is absolutely key. If they think nobody cares about people, they’ll do what they want to do. That’s what happened in Iraq. But what’s happening in Iraq is happening in our own prisons. And if we’re outraged about that, then we have to act. People have to pick up their telephone, make a call and urge the commissioner not just to negotiate with the prison advocacy groups that are acting on behalf of these prisoners, but to meet their demands.

When you read their demands, these are very moderate demands. These are not radical demands. They want things like — you know, they banned hardcover books. Prisoners can’t have hardcover books. I mean, what is that? You know, they don’t have legal access. They don’t have — the purpose, the statute — New Jersey law says the purpose of the prisons is to return the prisoners and reintegrate them into society. They’ve just about cut out or eliminated all the programs that would positively rehabilitate prisoners and bring them back into society in a positive way.

JAMIE FELLNER: May I add something? It is not just to call the commissioner. I think people need to be in touch with their elected officials. Elected officials often run on tough-on-crime, and nobody comes back and says, you know, what about rehabilitation? If you looked at New Jersey, who they send to prison, you have thousands of low-level nonviolent people housed in New Jersey prisons and across the country using up expensive bed space. If you put those people — gave them alternative sanctions, you then have the money to provide good programs, educational programs, rehabilitative activities for those people who truly need to be in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you both very much for being with us again. We’re going to post this videotape of the training films on our website. Jamie Fellner, director of U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. The report is called “Cruel and Degrading.” It’s the one with a picture of a dog with his teeth bared on the cover. Larry Hamm, chair of the New Jersey-based People’s Organization for Progress. Thank you both for joining us.

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Abu Ghraib at Home: New Human Rights Watch Report Says US Using Dogs to Terrify Prisoners

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