The Disparity of Outrage

The Disparity of Outrage

“Defendant [County of San Bernardino] admits for the purpose of this lawsuit only that there exists probable cause to believe that violations of the federal rights of plaintiffs [West Valley Detention Center inmates] have occurred sufficient to warrant the relief contained herein.”
Proposed Consent Decree, Magistrate Judge David T. Bristow

Most Americans and many around the world who value human decency were outraged in December 2004, when it became public that U.S. Marines operating in Iraq had committed a variety of despicable abuses against Iraqi prisoners. 

The disturbing report came on the heels of a blockbuster report a month earlier which exposed the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison (also in Iraq). The report shook the U.S. military, rocked America and stunned the world. In one disturbing report, at least three Marines shocked a detainee with an electric transformer and forced him to dance as the electricity hit him.

Overall, according to a summary prepared for the Pentagon’s Inspector General and made public by the American Civil Liberties Union, there were at least ten substantiated incidents of Marines abusing prisoners. 

For weeks and months afterward, Americans remained fixated and disgusted by these reports. They also took note as investigations unfolded, and the perpetrators were identified and punished. 

Here at home, when inmates in state and local prisons and jails report allegations of mistreatment it barely raises public interest—it is as if too many Americans believe—because the victims are detainees—they don’t deserve humane treatment or, if they had not committed a crime, they would not be in jail/prison to be abused.  

So, it was disheartening but not surprising when on December 12, 2018, Judge Virginia A. Phillips approved a settlement agreement/Consent Decree between San Bernardino County and plaintiffs (detainees) of the West Valley Detention Center was hardly noticed during the Christmas rush. 

I wondered why individuals were so outraged over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners but were much less concerned about abuse that occurs right under our noses? After all, although many of those held in county jails may have been charged with a crime, they are yet to be tried and convicted and are still presumed innocent—just because they may not be able to afford bail does not mean they should be subjected to the added indignities of abuse. 

According to court documents, the involved inmates at the West Valley Detention Center were subjected to abuses that in some ways were like the abuse suffered by prisoners in Iraq. Their allegations included repeated assaults with stun guns, having shotguns placed to their heads, beatings, being deprived of sleep and some were even sodomized by jail officials as part of routine body searches. In addition, there were concerns raised about deferred mental and physical medical care—including care of the disabled. 

The case of abuse at the West Valley Detention Center took more than four years to wind its way to the final Consent Decree in December. Despite this agreement however, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the complaints reported by the inmates/victims in West Valley were echoed by immigrant detainees at the Adelanto Immigration Center and by inmates in Los Angeles County and inmates in Orange County and inmates in Sacramento County and the list goes on and on. 

Although prison guards lose their jobs, rarely are they ever charged with a crime as if the people they abuse don’t count. It is almost as if the inmates are not human. Interestingly, and in contrast, people are sentenced to jail for abusing animals.  

America’s jail/prison system is ineffective, abusive and as broken as the nation’s criminal justice system. However, as long as many jails/prisons remain packed with Black and Brown bodies owed to disparate administration of justice, they will continue to be abused until citizens raise their collective voices and say, “Enough!” . . . “No mas!”

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.

S.E. Williams

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