Despair Caused Prison Suicides

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 16, 2006

The moral vacuum which has engulfed the international policy of the United States of America became even more apparent this week as mid-level officials popped off with their gut reactions to the suicides of three prisoners in the Guantanamo concentration camp.  

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy, one of the legion of airhead flaks now employed by the State Department instead of policymakers, called the deaths “a good PR move” in a giggly BBC interview. The jailer-in-chief, camp commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris, said truculently that the suicides were an “act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.” Cooler heads in the Bush administration tried to backtrack later with saccharin expressions of concern, but since these were mixed with “life is cheap in the Orient” racist clichés their sincerity was dubious. 

The most obvious interpretation of suicide committed by captives is despair. Prisoners commit suicide when they’ve lost hope that they will ever be released. One of the Guantanamo dead was scheduled for release soon, indicating that prison authorities had reason to question why he’d been incarcerated in the first place, but no one told him that.  

Habeas corpus, one of the oldest pillars of legal systems like ours which are derived from English common law, seems to have evaporated. In theory, prisoners have the right to have a court examine whether or not they’re lawfully held, but most Guantanamo prisoners have now been jailed for years without legal recourse—an ongoing series of legal challenges has produced few results. 

But it’s not only the prisoners in the hellish Guantanamo camps who are seized by despair. As the United States increasingly turns to incarceration as the solution to its social problems, many prisoners who do not belong in prison see suicide as their only release. Andrew Martinez, considered one of Berkeley’s likable eccentrics when he was a student known as “The Naked Guy,” committed suicide in the Santa Clara county jail, where he was held after he got into a fight at a halfway house while he was being treated for mental illness. A lawyer who practices in that county says that prosecutors prefer to charge mental cases with crimes, because it ups the box score on convictions to include a high percentage of mentally-ill defendants who can’t defend themselves in court. Suicides in juvenile facilities, where the rules are vague and release date is uncertain, are an increasing problem. 

It’s bad enough when adults who have been convicted of real crimes after fair trials are imprisoned. Hellish facilities like Pelican Bay are little more than factories for producing future criminals, especially when more and more prisoners have to be released without proper parole supervision because of over-sentencing. The goal of rehabilitation of criminals has just about disappeared in California, partly because of the political muscle of the powerful prison guards’ union. One study found that suicides are the third leading cause of death in prisons and the leading cause in jails (short-term incarceration faculties). 

The modest amount of information which has leaked out of Guantanamo seems to indicate that a substantial number of inmates there might be cases of mistaken identity. Five members of China’s Uighur ethnic minority group, for example, were caught up in sweeps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and spent four and a half years in the camp. No charges were ever filed against them, and they were finally released last fall. 

Families of the Guantanamo suicides say that their sons were innocent of any crime, and that as devout Moslems they believed suicide to be sinful. Moazzam Begg, the British citizen released without charges who has written a book about his experiences at Guantanamo, has expressed his own doubts. U.S. officials, however, have charged the suicide victims with an assortment of radical and terrorist affiliations, and continue to try to brand their deaths as political acts. Now that they’re dead, the truth may never be known. For the rest of the Guantanamo prisoners too, the truth might never be discovered without fair trials, which seem increasingly unlikely.  

The Bush administration loves to claim the moral high ground, as evidenced, they say, by their support among certain factions of the Christian community. Members of the religious right, mostly but not exclusively evangelical Christians, preach sanctimoniously about the “right to life.” If they really support the right to life for everyone, they should join the outrage against the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo and elsewhere.  

Their brothers and sisters in the more mainstream National Council of Churches are calling for the facility to be closed. The suicides are “another milestone in a sordid history of human rights denial and crimes against humanity,” said the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, NCC General Secretary. “Americans who love their country and its historic ideals are mortified by this continuing blot on our honor, on our steadfast defense of freedom, and on our commitment to democracy and the rule of law.”  

The NCC’s online arm, FaithfulAmerica.org, has already collected 10,500 signatures on a petition to close Guantanamo. Those who agree with Rev. Edgar—left, right and center, religious or not—should add their names to it. A petition by itself probably won’t change much, but it can at least blow some fresh air into the moral vacuum which now exists in Washington.