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Does barbaric Georgia prison cell photo depict an American Abu Ghraib?

A cell phone photograph showing cellblock brutality has raised new awareness of problems in the Georgia prison system. What are prison officials – and American society more generally – doing to root out prison barbarism?

A shocking prison photo of inmates taken at a Georgia correctional facility could intensify a halting effort in the United States to alleviate poor prison conditions that can lead to unchecked barbarism likened to an American Abu Ghraib.

The picture from Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., shows three young and shirtless African-American male prisoners. One of them is pointing at the camera as though holding a gun, another is holding a makeshift leash, and the third, an 18-year-old, is on his knees, his left eye closed from a beating, and the leash lashed around his neck.

The image is shocking on several levels, including its similarity to the Abu Ghraib torture pictures, the fact that a contraband cellphone was used to capture the degradation, and that prison officials didn't witness the mass beating and subsequent humiliation of a young man serving an eight-year sentence for aggravated assault after first being arrested for armed robbery as a 14-year-old.

Prison system critics say the image is a poignant insight into a broader problem of prisoner-on-prisoner violence in many US correctional facilities, not just in Georgia, and the extent to which those experiences influence “young men who will be back among us one day,” as Sarah Geraghty, an Atlanta human rights lawyer, put it.

Wide-ranging reaction to the degrading photo also illustrates America’s evolving views on the confluence of punishment and humanity, and the extent to which society tolerates prison violence as a form of deterrence.

“I think this picture can go a long way toward galvanizing a discussion about what prisons are for – particularly, does anybody believe that these men are deterred by prison?” says Jonathan Simon, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and author of “Mass Incarceration on Trial.”  

“You have to ask yourself: If the basic story that we tell ourselves is that it’s all about laws and sending people to prison because they violated laws and harmed other people, how can we possibly justify sending them to a place where that is happening to them?” Professor Simon says. “If that’s our idea of punishment, then we have conceded the point that there’s a difference between crime and law.”

In Georgia, reaction among prison officials to the picture was immediate and strong. The beaten inmate was moved into protective custody, and the Department of Corrections moved to find and punish the torturers. More broadly, new policies and detection technology have led to mass confiscations of cellphones, which have been tied to violent extortion schemes involving inmates and their family on the outside.

“First and foremost, the Department does not tolerate contraband and takes very seriously its mission of protecting the public and running safe and secure facilities,” spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan told Ernie Suggs of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The problem plaguing the corrections system nationwide is one that the [Georgia DOC] is aware of and continuously works to utilize extensive resources to combat this issue.”

Yet critics say the Abu Ghraib-like photo is emblematic of the kind of violence that regularly occurs in Georgia’s prisons. In a 2014 report called “The Crisis of Violence in Georgia’s Prisons,” the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta documented dozens of similar ordeals and argued that Georgia has seen an increase in the “number of really brutal incidents.”

They include a prisoner who was airlifted to a burn center after fellow inmates poured bleach in his eyes and poured boiling water on his privates. In another case, a prisoner had three fingers severed by an inmate wielding a 19-inch prison-made machete. In another, a prisoner was tied to his bed and beaten, remaining a hostage until guards found him – two days later.

Root causes of such violence include failures of basic security, inadequate supervision, and accessibility to lethal weapons and cellphones, the report concluded.  

But while Georgia’s problems with violent prisons are significant, it’s far from the only state where life inside prison sometimes devolves into outright blood-sport degradation.

Indeed, it was California that became the poster child for “horrendous” prison conditions, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

In a 2011 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that California prisons overcrowded by long-term incarceration policies violated the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. In 2006, there was one preventable inmate death a week inside California’s sprawling prison complex. The opinion referenced several photos of prison conditions, including a picture of a suicidal prisoner who was "held in ... a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic."

Aside from mandates to slim down California’s prison population, the ruling’s most lasting contribution came from Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy’s stance represented a rejection of what University of Pennsylvania law student Sara Mayeux, in an article for Reason.com, called “a deeper cultural pathology: the tendency to imagine prisoners as an undifferentiated mass of uncontrollable criminality, not as human beings with organs that fail and extremities that break.”

Still, problems remain deep and endemic in states like Georgia. It’s a system, the human rights report argues, “in which prison officials have lost control.”

Aware of such problems, political leaders in Georgia and other Southern states have begun to recognize that over-reliance on incarceration and mass imprisonment has itself become a problem that affects society.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in 2011 that his get-tough-on- crime views had been tempered over time. “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Mr. Gingrich pointed out. “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

Fighting off tears, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in 2012 signed a law to help keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Conservatives joining forces with a long-running liberal push to curb society’s reliance on expanding prisons to deal with its most troubled citizens “will also provide an example of how bipartisan policy breakthroughs are still possible in our polarized age,” David Dagan and Steven Teles wrote in a 2012 Washington Monthly article.

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