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It’s only fair to compare Obama’s 2009 outing with the big rabbit with George W. Bush’s 2008 appearance.

But sometimes pigment trumps pixels.

Painting by Dan Lacey

My call on Friday for more information on Civil War era prisons bore an unexpected rich harvest. A single reply but an absolutely riveting one.

Imagined Prisons responded with this:

These images are fascinating and haunting, and the idea of the modern prison as “a permanent abstraction of earlier jails” is a compelling one.

As for the carceral spaces – makeshift and otherwise – of the Civil War, some authorities have cited Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rights as a precedent for the Bush Administration’s policies in today’s war prisons. E.E. Hale’s classic short novella, “The Man without a Country,” written in response to Lincoln’s controversial move, tells the story of a man sentenced to spend the rest of his life aboard U.S. Navy ships, in the extralegal zone outside the boundaries of the nation-state.

You might also be interested in this poem by Herman Melville, from the 1866 volume “Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War”:

In the Prison Pen

Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
‘Tis barren as a pelican-beach–
But his world is ended there.

Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think–to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil’s shore–
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.

A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair–
A den that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,

Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead–
Dead in his meagreness.

Imagined Prisons is the accompanying website for the book The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith, which will appear from Yale University Press in September of 2009.

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Carr. Yale University Press, September 2009

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith. Yale University Press, September 2009

The book examines the history of the U.S. prison system and its imaginative life in nineteenth – and twentieth – century culture. Caleb Smith argues that the dehumanization inherent in captivity has always been at the heart of American civil society.

Imagined Prisons is a forum for conversation about the book and the questions it raises;

What is the history of incarceration in America? What roles do prisons and prisoners play in our political life and in our culture? How have artists and writers, both inside prisons and in the world at large, invited us to imagine the institutions of captivity? Visitors to this site might be interested in the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas. They may also wish to explore the long, sometimes tortured history of jails, penitentiaries, plantations, and other dark places that have haunted the new world, with its promise of liberty and justice for all.

What a significant new resource with which to reassess the prison within America’s cultural landscape. Prison Photography, too, is attempting (admittedly ham-handedly on occasion) to define the current representation/consumption of prison imagery within our society.

May I suggest that books such as Caleb Smith’s and sites such as mine exist because sites of incarceration – “dark places” – have been over-zealously operated by controlling minorities and not adequately discussed by the at-large majority?

Author’s Note: If there exist any photographs of the violence described below I wouldn’t want to see them, only trust that photographs were used to bring high ranking US officials to justice for crimes against human rights.

I have been familiar with Mark Danner‘s work since reading the excellent Torture and Truth. It dealt commandingly with the Abu Ghraib scandal, putting it into the procedural context of the Bush administration and US operations during the War on Terror. Not to be distracted by the available Abu Ghraib images, Danner continued his fervent document-trawling professionalism and pursued the truth with regard to other Black Sites and detainee torture & interrogation.

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Abu Zubaydah after his capture in Pakistan, 2002. Credit: ABC News

Last month, Danner published an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times (to accompany an extended piece for the New York Review of Books) that laid out the details of an International Red Cross report of detainee testimonies. I have only read the shorter NY Times piece and strongly urge you to take 10 minutes to do so. It is a succinct presentation of facts detailing US torture procedures.

Men were tortured in America’s name.

Indeed, since the detainees were kept strictly apart and isolated, both at the black sites and at Guantánamo, the striking similarity in their stories would seem to make fabrication extremely unlikely. As its authors state in their introduction, “The I.C.R.C. wishes to underscore that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the 14 adds particular weight to the information provided below.”

Danner deals with the circumstances of three high ranking Al Qaeda prisoners, one of whom is Abu Zubaydah (pictured above following his 2002 capture). Judging by the Red Cross report which used separate chapters – “suffocation by water,” “prolonged stress standing,” “beatings by use of a collar,” “confinement in a box” one can assume Zubaydah looked significantly more broken after his months of early detention and beatings.

Danner concludes;

What we can say with certainty, in the wake of the Red Cross report, is that the United States tortured prisoners and that the Bush administration, including the president himself, explicitly and aggressively denied that fact.

The use of torture was a decision made by the US government. Danner’s conclusion is ominous;

The consequences of this choice, legal, political and moral, now confront us. Time and elections are not enough to make them go away.


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