News & Views » Columns

Abu Ghraib in the homeland



If the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees doesn’t get U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired, as it well should, at least it may raise America’s awareness of our own troubled policies when it comes to prisoners here at home. Some journalists have devoted ink to this subject, including New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who shrewdly pointed out last month that U.S. prisoners cannot sue for mental or emotional abuse; they only have legal recourse if they can prove they have been physically harmed.

In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which prohibits prisoners from receiving financial compensation “for mental or emotional injury while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury,” writes Herbert. Which raises the question: Is placing a bag over a prisoner’s head or making them sit naked in a cell for 24 hours legally actionable in this country? How about forcing male prisoners to wear women’s pink underwear, as is routinely done in one Arizona prison, according to a recent New York Times story?

Not bloody likely, says Patricia Streeter, an Ann Arbor attorney who has been representing prisoners for years. Around the same time the Iraqi prison photos first appeared on TV and in newspapers last month, Streeter was at a conference at Yale Law School on prisoner rights litigation. Needless to say, the irony wasn’t lost on her or her colleagues.

“It was so outrageous to advocates, who have been representing prisoners for years, that people were upset about Iraq when, under our own laws, prisoners cannot sue or stop some of the conduct that went on in Abu Ghraib,” says Streeter.

She cites a couple cases in which prisoners were denied legal compensation for mental abuse, including a 1999 case in which a Mississippi inmate sued because he was repeatedly placed in cells mentally ill prisoners had covered with feces and urine; he also was adjacent to mentally ill prisoners who banged cell bars and prevented him from sleeping.

“There was another fellow in California who was put in solitary confinement with his hands and feet shackled, who had his body cavities searched and was let out of the cell only three hours a week,” says Streeter. Though the prisoner endured this treatment for 15 months, he could not recover any damages because he couldn’t prove he was physically injured, she says.

“It is important that we re-examine the Prison Litigation Reform Act and this provision in particular,” says Streeter.

Contact News Hits at 313-202-8004 or

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.