The Torture of Assange Is Public Policy in U.S. Prisons
The psychological torture imposed on Julian Assange is not unlike the decades of torture imposed upon Black political prisoners in the US.
“For exposing the crimes of war, Assange is being treated like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, and the rest of the Black liberation movement’s soldiers who reside in prison.”
Julian Assange is living a nightmare. The WikiLeaks journalist was hospitalized not too long after he was arrested and detained on April 11thfor publishing documents exposing U.S. war crimes and those of its affiliates. Assange has been kept in perpetual isolation in the U.K.’s Belmarsh prison, which is often called the U.K.’s Guantanamo Bay. The conditions of Assange’s confinement have been labeled as torture by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, the arrest of Assange set a disturbing precedent for the level of control that imperialist governments such as the U.S. and U.K. wield over journalistic practice. Assange’s predicament also reveals the extent to which torture is public policy in the United States and its Western allies.
Former U.K. MP George Galloway stated that Assange might have to diein prison for U.K., U.S. and Western journalists to wake up and realize that Assange’s fate is tied to theirs. However, the U.S., which is the imperialist state primarily responsible for Assange’s condition, is a society that has no issue with torture. Torture is in the DNA of U.S. imperialism. The infant U.S. ruling class tortured African slaves through lynching and indiscriminate punishment. It also tortured indigenous peoples and nations to steal their land. The U.S. would go on to globalize its torture regime in nations such as the Philippines beginning in the 19thcentury. Water boarding began in the Philippines, although it was called the “water cure” at the time. The U.S. often uses torture as a precursor to murder, with millions of native Filipinos dying from war and disease between the years of 1899-1905 as a result of U.S. warfare.
“Torture is in the DNA of U.S. imperialism.”
State sanctioned torture garnered the most attention after the CIA’s War on Terror torture program was exposed bywhistleblower John Kirakou. The C.I.A. employed a sadistic torture program on U.S.-operated black sites such as Guantanamo Bay and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. No one in the intelligence or military apparatus was punished for these highly publicized war crimes. Even worse, the narrative of torture was covered up by the ruling class as a “mistake” and a singular “abuse of power.” Former president Barack Obama promised to keep the Senate report on the torture program a secret for up to twelve years as one of his parting gifts to the ruling class in 2016.
The case of Assange bursts asunder any illusion that the U.S. employs torture only in exceptional circumstances. Torture is public policy in the U.S. so it should come as no surprise that Assange is being tortured inside of the U.K.’s prison system. As Margaret Kimberly reminds us, the U.K. has long been a satellite of U.S. imperial interests. Assange helped expose the U.S. as a criminal enterprise and what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” And his experience with torture mirrors that which is experienced within the prison system each day in the United States.
“The CIA. employed a sadistic torture program on U.S.-operated black sites such as Guantanamo Bay and the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”
For over seven years, Assange has been confined to isolation inside of the U.K.’s Ecuadorian embassy and now its prison system. According to the U.N. special rapporteur Nils Melzer, the WikiLeaks journalist “has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.” What Melzer describes is the torture of prolonged exposure to isolation. In the U.S., prolonged exposure to isolation is public policy in the form of solitary confinement.
On any given day, an estimated 80-100,000 prisonersin the U.S. reside in solitary confinement units. Nearly every state in the U.S. possesses at least one supermax prisonor an entire facility dedicated to confining prisoners in the condition of solitary. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture in 2011, Juan Mendez, declared that solitary confinement was a form of tortureif it is employed for fifteen consecutive days. After two weeks, prisoners in solitary confinement are at risk of permanent changes to the brain and often develop symptoms of psychosis, PTSD, and a host of mental health disorder symptoms. Psychologist Stuart Grassian concluded from his research of prisoners in solitary confinement that the policy causes its own distinct diagnosable syndrome.
“In the U.S., prolonged exposure to isolation is public policy in the form of solitary confinement.”
Prisoners in solitary confinement reside in a cell no bigger than 8x10 for up to 24 hours per day, free from human contact for periods of days to years. Solitary confinement, in the words of Lisa Guenther, is a form of social death whereby prisoners are humiliated and excluded to the point of non-existence. Black male prisoners are most likely to be exposed to the social death of solitary confinement. Black men comprise of forty-five percent of prisonersin isolation cells, which is up almost ten percent from their disproportionate incarceration in the general population (thirty-seven percent). Research suggests that Black male prisoners are most likely to be viewed as a threat to prison staffand receive the harshest treatment within prisons as a result.
Solitary confinement has existed for centuries in the U.S., but modern solitary confinement was in part a response to the Black liberation and prison movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, the Marion Federal Penitentiary opened an experimental site for the Control Unit (CU)—a euphemism for solitary confinement. According to former Marion warden Ralph Aaron, “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.”Marion’s CU warehoused hundreds of political prisoners in perpetual isolation with the hopes of modifying their behavior and breaking their spirit. Former political prisoner Sekou Odingaand current political prisoner Sundiata Acolispent extended periods in Marion’s CU.To this day, prisoners are sent to solitary for possessing literaturefrom Black liberation movement leaders such as George Jackson.
“Black male prisoners are most likely to be exposed to the social death of solitary confinement.”
The torture of U.S. political prisoners within supermax facilities and solitary confinement cells has become universal practice in prisons across the country. These correctional black sites expose the farce that is “free speech” in the U.S. and have laid the basis for Assange’s torture at the hands of U.K. officials at Belmarsh. Since the War on Terror was declared in 2001, the technologies of solitary confinement, torture, and suppression have also become universally applied. Every single living person (outside of the ruling class) has been deemed potential terrorist under the current regime of U.S. imperialism. The ruling class does not see Assange as a journalist or a human whose life has value. Assange is an enemy of the state. Anyone who dares tell the truth about the policies and practices of the U.S. warfare state potentially faces the same consequences as Assange.
The war on WikiLeaks and Assange is an extension of the war on the Black liberation movement, which is the most revolutionary movement that the exploitation of U.S. imperialism has produced in its settler colonial history. Currently, dozens of political prisoners are incarcerated in the American gulag state. Many of these prisoners, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, are former members of the Black Panther Party—the principle target of the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO-led war on dissent. COINTELPRO lives on in the case of Assange. Assange is a political prisoner. The psychological torture imposed on him is not unlike the decades of torture imposed upon Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3 who spent forty-three years in solitary confinement for his participation in the Black Panther Party.
“Modern solitary confinement was in part a response to the Black liberation and prison movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Assange has no friends within the U.S. imperial state. U.S. intelligence sees him as an ally of Trump for publishing documents that revealed the Democratic Party’s complicity in damaging the campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016. For this, WikiLeaks has been demonized as an agent of the Russian government, the same Russian government which has been accused of supporting grassroots Black political efforts to “sew divisions” in U.S. society. The madness of Russiagate requires that a new, independent left political insurgency call a spade, a spade. Torture is public policy in U.S. prisons and is an indispensable component of the U.S. imperial regime at home and abroad. For exposing the crimes of war, including torture, Assange is being treated like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, and the rest of the Black liberation movement’s soldiers who reside in prison. To truly put a stop to U.S.-backed torture and the war on whistleblowers, a movement must be set into motion that has as one of its main objectives the freedom of all political prisoners and an end to the torture gulag called solitary confinement. Free Julian Assange, Free Them All!
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He and Roberto Sirvent are co-authors of the book entitled American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News -- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (Skyhorse Publishing ). He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @SpiritofHo.
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