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U.S. Torture: A Sordid History Of Official And Systematic Abuse

by G . Flint Taylor

The brutal and sadistic torture by U.S. military prison guards, military intelligence officers, and CIA interrogators which is being revealed daily in the mainstream media has brought protestations from President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others who, despite apparently approving many of these techniques, have claimed that torture is "un American" and is the product of a few overzealous "bad apples." Alternatively, other officials advance the proposition that the use of such torture by U.S. forces is a recent phenomenon, necessitated by the post-9/11 threat of Al Qaeda and related terrorism. In fact, torture as an interrogation technique and as a means to inflict sadistic punishment has long been systematically practiced by the U.S. military abroad, as well as by police interrogators and prison guards here at home.

The torture techniques which are now being revealed as those practiced by prison guards and military police at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and by the CIA operatives at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, and in other secret locations - - - including electric shock, hoodings, simulated drowning and suffocation, mock executions, sodomy with nightsticks and other sexual and racial assaults and humiliation, brutal beatings, and sleep, water and food deprivation - - - are strikingly similar to those practiced throughout the sordid history of U.S. torture. Moreover, the characteristic racist dehumanization which motivates the torturers themselves is also strikingly similar, as is the authorization, participation, and after the fact cover-up of the torture by command and supervisory personnel.

Additionally, it appears that two of the main Abu Ghraib torturers had previously and repeatedly brutalized prisoners while serving as prison guards in the U.S., and at another prison camp in Iraq. Chicago Tribune, "Prison Leaders had Past Woes; Brunt of Blame Falls on Officer, Alleged Ringleader," May 16, 2004. In this article, we will trace the history of U.S. torture and examine and compare the techniques with those that are surfacing today.

The Definition of Torture and its Effects

In 1950, Article 3 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was entered into force. This Article prohibited discrimination in the treatment of prisoners on the basis of race, "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." In the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1975), the General Assembly of the United Nations defined torture as "any act, by which severe pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of committing, or intimidating him or another person." G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No.51) at 197, U.N. Dec. A/39/51 (1984).

Common tactics used world wide which have been recognized as torture include submerging the victim's head in foul water, sometimes while wearing a hood (baffera or submarino), wrapping a plastic bag over the face (dry submarino), applying electric shocks to the sensitive parts of the body such as the genitals, ear lobes and nipples, from a "black box" or with a cattle prod, suspension in the air by the hands or feet, gun threats and mock executions, beatings on the soles of the feet, blows with the palms of the hand to the side of the head to cause the rupturing of ear drums (telefono), blows administered with telephone books and rubber hoses, beating and kicking to the head and body, and "good guy, bad guy" interrogation techniques. See, Matthew Lippman, The Development and Drafting of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 17 B.C. Intl. & Comp. L. Rev. 275, 305-306, 309, 332, (1994); Duncan Forrest, A Glimpse of Hell, Reports on Torture Worldwide: The Methods of Torture and Its Effects, 109-111 (Duncan Forrest, Amnesty International ed., 1996); Amnesty International, Torture in the Eighties, 21-25 (1984); Final Report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1998), Volume 5, Chapter 1, pp. 9-10; Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, January 14, 1998, E/CN.4/1998/38/Add.2 at ¶¶ 12, 88; Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, December 13, 1996, E/CN.4/1997/7/Add. 3, ¶¶ 5, 10, 44, 85; Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, December 4, 1996 E/CN.4/1996/35/Add.2 at ¶¶ 11. According to these Reports, the purpose of these torture tactics is "frequently to obtain a confession, often to a deed the person did not commit." Torture in the Eighties at 21. According to an Amnesty International Report, "while torture promises to yield quick results, it is an edifice built on a foundation of erroneous allegations, false confessions and abuse of the innocent." Matthew Lippman, The Development and Drafting of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 17 B.C. Intl. & Comp. L. Rev. 275, 309 (1994). Torture in the Eighties at 21.

As torture techniques have become more scientifically sophisticated, they have put greater emphasis on the infliction of psychological, rather than physical, pain. 17 B.C. Intl. & Comp. L. Rev. at. 291.

A Special Rapporteur, who was appointed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, has found that "by its nature, torture often takes place during interrogation in isolation and in secret places. Unless the victim is released or the body is found with marks of torture on it, it is almost impossible to obtain direct evidence of torture. Moreover, there are a considerable number of torture techniques which leave no traceable marks on the body." Id. at 326.

The Special Rapporteur also found that "allegations of torture have proven increasingly difficult to corroborate. Detainees are isolated and there are few eyewitnesses.... Those who lodge complaints, as well as witnesses, frequently confront police threats and retribution. Police and prosecutorial authorities also tend to dismiss allegations of torture arbitrarily." Id. at 333.

In countries where the victim must be taken to court, "elaborate steps are taken to disguise" the torture, including wrapping ropes in soft cloth or conducting a beating "over clothing to prevent the lacerations though not the pain." Amnesty International, Torture in the Eighties, 21-25 (1984). In fact, "many forms of torture are designed not to leave physical traces, but rather to change the mental balance of the individual" and "torture victims of today are unlikely to present physical stigmata but can . . . be expected to reveal numerous symptoms mostly of a psychological nature." Hans D. Peterson & Peter Jacobson, Psychical and Physical Symptoms after Torture, 29 Forensic Sci. Int.179, 180, (1985); See also Rosalind Ramsay et. al., Psychiatric Morbidity in Survivors of Organized State Violence, Including Torture, 162 Brit. J. Psychiatry, 55, 55 (1993) ("the purpose of torture is always to achieve a psychological change in individuals . . .).

In his Reports on Mexico, Venezuela and Chile, the Special Rapporteur noted that detainees were routinely tortured in ways that would leave no marks, with attempted suffocation by plastic bags and electric shock being commonly utilized in interrogations for that purpose. On the basis of that evidence, the Special Rapporteur's Reports found that "infliction of torture is an offense that must be prosecuted by itself, independently of the physical harm caused to the victim. There are, for example, methods of torture that leave no after effects but are no less effective for the torturer's purposes," and "the absence of marks on the body consistent with allegations of torture should not necessarily be treated by the prosecutors and judges as proof that the torture did not occur." Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, January 14, 1998, E/CN.4/1998/38/Add.2 at ¶¶ 12, 88; Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, December 13, 1996, E/CN.4/1997/7/Add. 3, ¶¶ 5, 10, 44, 85; Report of the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, December 4, 1996 E/CN.4/1996/35/Add.2 at ¶¶ 11, 12, 16, 17, 73.

Torture leaves a lasting psychological impact on its victims and each technique of torture results in a specific set of consequences or sequelae. "Physical and Psychiatric Effects of Torture: Two Medical Studies," The Breaking of Bodies and Minds: Torture, Psychiatric Abuse, and the Health Professions 58 (1985); "Torture, A Study of Chilean and Greek Victims," Amnesty International Danish Medical Group, Evidence of Torture 14 (1977). Even "the most unintrusive techniques were found to leave lasting psychological scars," such as anxiety, hypocondria, and hysteria, while electric shocking commonly causes short term mental confusion and mental impairment, and, more seriously incontinence and dementia, as well as apathy, aboulia, and electricity phobia. Id. Plastic bagging (dry submarino), as described by Karen Prip, Chief psychologist of the Danish Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT), evokes the experience of being dead yet alive. One of the consequences and late after effect is that the survivor presents a changed respiratory pattern. The breathing rate may be excessive and rhythm erratic with a variety of patterns, including shallow, fast, and apical breathing as if the patient has momentarily forgotten to breathe, or cogwheel breathing as if the patient dare not let it out. These respiratory patterns are easily provoked when the patient is in the state of anxiety and stress. Torture and the Sequelae after Torture, RCT (1996).

The Origins of State Sanctioned Torture in the Western World

Systematic torture by military and police officials has been an ugly component of both the political process and the criminal justice system since the days of the ancient Greece and Rome. Matthew Lippman, The Development and Drafting of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 17 B.C. Intl. & Comp. L. Rev. 275 (1994). It was first used to obtain testimony from slaves in criminal and civil cases in order to "ensure that they testified truthfully." Id. at 275-6. The Romans soon recognized that statements obtained by torture were "dangerous and deceptive" because "most people would prevaricate . . . in order to avoid pain." Id. at 277-78.

In the Middle Ages, torture was only used where the crime carried a punishment of mutilation or death and an eyewitness or substantial circumstantial evidence implicated the arrestee victim. Id. The "queen of proofs," as a confession extracted by torture came to be known, had to be repeated the next day in a courtroom before a judge since authorities recognized that the reliability of such a confession was highly suspect. Id. at 279-80. In the 17th and 18th centuries, torture was abolished in most countries. As Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria wrote in 1764 in his influential critique on torture, it is "dubious to posit pain as the `crucible of truth, as though the criterion of truth lay in the muscles and fibers of a poor wretch . . . [torture] is a sure way to condemn weak but innocent people' . . .who confess due to fright, pain and suffering . . ." Id. at 282.

U.S. Torture - -1930 to the Present

Systematic torture reappeared in the first half of the twentieth century, and "democracies were not immune from infection by the virus of torture." Id. at 288. A 1931 report of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement ("The Wickersham Report") found that the "`third degree' - - - the infliction of physical or mental pain to extract confessions or statements - - - was `widespread throughout the country' and was `thoroughly at home in Chicago.'" Id. at 288-89. The methods identified in the Report "range from beating to harsher forms of torture. The commoner forms are beating with the fists or some implement, especially the rubber hose, that inflicts pain, but is not likely to leave permanent visible scars . . . authorities often threaten bodily injury . . . and have gone to the extreme of procuring a confession at the point of a pistol.'" Id. at footnote 146. It further found that the practice of police torture in the United States was "shocking in its character and extent, violative of American traditions and institutions and not to be tolerated." Id. at 289.

Brown v. Mississippi and State of Illinois v. Walden

In the case of Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936), the United States Supreme Court concluded that the uncontroverted evidence of torture of several African-American defendants by two county Sheriffs, their deputies, and a white mob, into falsely confessing to the murder of a white man, read "more like pages torn from some medieval account, than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government." This evidence reflected the terror often used to obtain confessions from black men accused of crimes against whites during that period:

"[On] March 30, 1934, a deputy sheriff, accompanied by others, came to the home of one of the defendants, and requested him to accompany them to the house of the deceased, and there a number of white men were gathered, who began to accuse the defendant of the crime. Upon his denial they seized him, and with the participation of the deputy they hanged him by a rope to the limb of a tree, and having let him down, they hung him again, and when he was let down the second time, and he still protested his innocence, he was tied to a tree and whipped, and still declining to accede to the demands that he confess, he was finally released and he returned with some difficulty to his home, suffering intense pain and agony . . . A day or two thereafter the said deputy, accompanied by another, returned to the home of the said defendant and arrested him, and departed with the prisoner towards the jail in an adjoining county, but went by a route which led into the State of Alabama; and while on the way, in that State, the deputy stopped and again severely whipped the defendant, declaring that he would continue the whipping until he confessed, and the defendant then agreed to confess to such a statement as the deputy would dictate, and he did so, after which he was delivered to jail.

"The other two defendants were also arrested and taken to the same jail. The same deputy, accompanied by a number of white men, one of whom was also an officer, and by the jailer, came to the jail, and the two last named defendants were made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner the defendants confessed the crime, and as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers. When the confessions had been obtained in the exact form and contents as desired by the mob, they left with the parting admonition and warning that, if the defendants changed their story at any time in any respect from that last stated, the perpetrators of the outrage would administer the same or equally effective treatment. . .

"Two sheriffs, one of the county where the crime was committed, and the other of the county of the jail in which the prisoners were confined, came to the jail, accompanied by eight other persons, some of them deputies, there to hear the free and voluntary confession of these miserable and abject defendants. The sheriff of the county of the crime admitted that he had heard of the whipping, but averred that he had no personal knowledge of it. He admitted that one of the defendants, when brought before him to confess, was limping and did not sit down, and that this particular defendant then and there stated that he had been strapped so severely that he could not sit down, and as already stated, the signs of the rope on the neck of another of the defendants were plainly visible to all." 296 U.S. at 282-83.

Such racial terror during interrogations was not limited to the South. In January of 1952, a twenty year old African-American musician, Oscar Walden, was arrested on the south side of Chicago for the rape of a fifty year old white woman. At the station, he was questioned by a battery of police officers, detectives, supervisors and prosecutors, and when he denied his guilt, he was repeatedly kicked and slapped, his fingers were bent back, and the officers threatened to strip him, beat him with a rubber hose, and hang him with a rope. They also racially abused him and threatened his parents with jail. He then agreed to confess, and he was dragged in front of the victim and forced to apologize. See: People v. Walden, 19 Ill. 2d. 602 (1960); Plaintiff's complaint in Walden v. City of Chicago, 04- C- 0047 (N. D. Ill.).

On the basis of his false confession and apology induced identification, Walden was convicted and sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. He was paroled fourteen years later, after evidence that another man committed the crime was uncovered, and in January of 2003, fifty-one years after his conviction, he was pardoned on the basis of innocence. Walden's attorney on appeal, who later became a federal court judge, has asserted that similarly brutal tactics were often used by the Chicago police during this time.

The "Tucker Telephone"

Systematic torture to punish prisoners and to extract information was practiced for decades in the Arkansas prison system. At the Tucker Prison Farm, which housed first time offenders, torture by electric shock was regularly inflicted on prisoners by use of the "Tucker Telephone," an instrument which was later utilized both in Vietnam by the U.S. military and in Chicago by police interrogators. As described in the February 20, 1967 edition of Newsweek Magazine:

"Men were beaten by wardens, by trusties, by one another. In the fields, whippings were regular and almost maniacally brutal. For overlooking some cucumbers he was supposed to pick, one inmate said he received 30 lashes on his bare buttocks. .... Youthful inmates were beaten if they refused the advances of homosexual trusties. As punishment, or to force information from inmates, men were sometimes tortured with pliers, with hypodermic needles driven under fingernails and with the infamous `Tucker Telephone' a battery-powered modification of a crank telephone with electrodes attached to the prisoners' toes and genitals. The device was put together by a former `inmate doctor' and usually administered in the prison hospital." Down on the Farm, Newsweek Magazine, February 20, 1967.

Subsequently, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 13-14, 117 L.Ed 2d 156, 112 S.Ct 995 (1992), again recognized the use of the "Tucker Telephone" and other forms of torture in our nations' prisons:

"The Court today appropriately puts to rest a seriously misguided view that pain inflicted by an excessive use of force is actionable under the Eighth Amendment only when coupled with `significant injury,' e.g., injury that requires medical attention or leaves permanent marks. Indeed, were we to hold to the contrary, we might place various kinds of state-sponsored torture and abuse-of the kind ingeniously designed to cause pain but without a telltale `significant injury'-entirely beyond the pale of the Constitution. In other words, the constitutional prohibition of `cruel and unusual punishments' then might not constrain prison officials from lashing prisoners with leather straps, whipping them with rubber hoses, beating them with naked fists, shocking them with electric currents, asphyxiating them short of death, intentionally exposing them to undue heat or cold, or forcibly injecting them with psychosis-inducing drugs. These techniques, commonly thought to be practiced only outside this Nation's borders, are hardly unknown within this Nation's prisons. See, e.g., Campbell v. Grammar, 889 F.2d 797, 802 (CA8 1989) (use of high-powered fire hoses); Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571, 574-575 (CA8 1968) (use of the "Tucker Telephone," a hand-cranked device that generated electric shocks to sensitive body parts, and flogging with leather strap). See also: Hutto v. Finney, 437 US 678, 682, n 5, 57 L.Ed 2d 522, 98 S.Ct 2565 (1978)."

Torture in Vietnam

Testimony before Congressional Committees and at the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation by numerous marines, soldiers, and military police officers who served in Vietnam established that torture by the U.S. military was well established as a matter of policy and was routinely used to elicit information and meet out punishment during the Vietnam War. These methods included the use of field telephones to shock prisoners, rape, dog attacks, and burning and brutally abusing the victim's genitals. The use of the Vietnam version of the Tucker Telephone was described by soldier after soldier as a racist standard operating procedure, supervised by ranking officers:

"And so, these things in the field, the torturing of prisoners, the use of scout dogs in this torture, the Bell Telephone hour as has been described with the field phones, by seeing all of these units, I discovered that no one unit was any worse than another. That this was standard procedure. That it was almost like watching the same film strip continually, time after time after time. Within every unit there was the same prejudice; there was the same bigotry toward Vietnamese. All Vietnamese . . . . You tied them to a tree and get the dog handler to let the dog jump and bite at the person tied to the tree. Or again, with the field telephone, you wired it up to his ears, his nose, his genitals. This was done to women; I've seen it done to women. In Ben Song, which was the province capital, in a prison, this guy was telling me all about why war was hell. He took me down to this dungeon where South Vietnamese troops were pulling fingernails out of an old woman. There was an American captain standing by, rocking on his heels, rather enjoying the show." Testimony of Marine photographer Michael McCusker, Winter Soldier Investigation, January 31, 1971.

"I also saw in the building a table with a piece of apparatus on it that I was told was the inside of a field telephone and it did look like a field telephone to me. I have seen them a number of times. This was taken out of the case and it had two long wires, electric probes that I was told were used on all parts of prisoners' bodies for electronic type torture. The way this operates, there is a crank on a field telephone and when this is cranked it builds up enough power inside to transmit over the wires a strong enough signal to ring the other person's telephone. I don't know the voltage of it, or what, but I understand it is very painful. I was just told that the faster you crank it, the higher the voltage, so I guess the more you crank it, the more information you got."Testimony of Military Intelligence Officer David Stark, Winter Soldier Investigation, January 31, 1971.

According to the Winter Soldier testimony, the Special Forces, together with South Vietnamese troops, engaged in similar tactics:

"We strung one of `em up in a tree by his arms, tied his hands behind him, and then hung him in the tree . . . he was stripped of all his clothes, and then they tied a string around his testicles and a man backed up about ten feet and told him what would happen if he didn't answer any questions the way they saw fit. Now all we had to go by was that we were told that he was a suspect by other villagers. Now the other villagers weren't going to point out themselves, and somebody had to be pointed out. So they'd ask a guy a question: `Do you know of any enemy units in this area?' and if he said, `No,' the guy that was holding that string would just yank on it as hard as he could about ten times, and this guy would be just flying all over the place in pain. And this is what they usedI mean anybody's just going to say anything in a situation like this to get answers out of him. And then when they were done, when the guy was just limp and hanging there, the South Vietnamese indigenous troops who worked with the Special Forces, went up there and then to get kicks, would run their knife through his ear and carve little superficial wounds on his body, not deep ones, but just you know, trickle it down his body to make fun of the guy. We took a guy to the other end of the village, and we didn't do this, all we did was burn his penis with a cigarette to get answers out of him." Testimony of Kenneth Ruth, Winter Soldier Investigation, January 31, 1971.


In September of 1971, prisoners at the Attica Prison in upstate New York seized several guards as hostages and took over the prison. After four days of negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the retaking of the prison by the state police, and 29 prisoners and 11 guards were slaughtered in the bloody assault. In the aftermath, guards, state police, and National Guardsmen tortured and brutalized the prisoners as reprisals for the takeover. The "very substantial" evidence of torture, as summarized by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, was both barbarous and systematic:

"The inmates in D Yard were forced to strip naked and lie down on the ground. Later, there were at least two gauntlets through which the naked and barefoot prisoners were forced to proceed, one at a time, across broken glass, while being beaten by baton-wielding corrections officers and subjected to threats and racial slurs. Prisoners who were identified as having played a significant role in the riot were singled out for additional and more egregious punishment, including torture. For example, [Inmate Frank] Smith was forced to lie on a table while officers brutally beat and burned him. During this time, he was forced to hold a football against his throat with his chin and was told that he would be [castrated or] killed if it fell. There was also evidence of numerous random acts of violence against prisoners. One prisoner, who had two fractured femurs, was being returned to the E housing unit on a gurney when corrections officers dumped him onto the ground. He was told to crawl back to his cell but was unable to do so. Officers were then observed repeatedly shoving a screw-driver into the injured prisoner's anus. There was other testimony of numerous instances of outrageous behavior, including corrections officials playing `Russian roulette' with jailed inmates." See: Blyden v. Mancusi; 186 F.3d 252, 257 (2nd Cir. 1999); See also, Inmates, Attica Correctional Facility v. Rockefeller, 453 F.2d 12, 16, 18-19, (2nd Cir. 1971).

Police Torture in Chicago

In 1972, Jon Burge became a Chicago police detective and was assigned to the Robbery section of the Area 2 detective headquarters. Burge had recently returned from Vietnam, where he was a Military Police Sergeant who specialized in interrogation and was also assigned to security at a POW camp. Deposition of Jon Burge in Wilson v. City of Chicago, 86-C-2360. Burge and his men were soon assigned to investigate a robbery and murder ring, and a pattern and practice of systematic police torture of African-American suspects, which spanned nearly 20 years and now includes over 100 known victims, began. In May of 1973, Burge and his fellow detectives arrested a suspected leader of the robbery ring, Anthony Holmes, and tortured him for several hours until he gave inculpatory information about a string of robberies and murders. Holmes described his torture with a box containing a motor, wires, and a crank handle which was similar to the shocking devices which were used to torture prisoners in Arkansas and Vietnam:

"[Burge] put some handcuffs on my ankles, then he took one wire and put it on my ankles, he took the other wire and put it behind my back, on the handcuffs behind my back. Then after that, when he  then he went and got a plastic bag, put it over my head, and he told me, don't bite through it. `I thought, man, you ain't fixing to put this on my head, so I bit through it.' So he went and got another bag and put it on my head and he twisted it. When he twisted it, it cut my air off and I started shaking, but I'm still breathing because I'm still trying to suck it in where I could bite this one, but I couldn't because the other bag was there and kept me from biting through it. So then he hit me with the voltage. When he hit me with the voltage, that's I started gritting, crying, hollering . . . It feel like a thousand needles going through my body. And then after that, it just feel like, you know  it feel like something just burning me from the inside, and, um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out." Statement of Anthony Holmes, April 19, 2004, taken in Patterson v. Burge, 03-C-4433 (N.D. Ill.).

He then described Burge repeating that "you going to talk, nigger, you going to talk" and then repeatedly subjecting him to the same torture until he finally succumbed to the brutal coercion:

"The last time before they brought the statement in and had me to talk to them, I come to, and I thought I was dead then because they was lifting me off the floor trying to pump air into me because I wasn't breathing. I remember that. I thought I was dead because all I could see was blackness and I said, man, this is it. I'm gone. When I looked up, they brought me back. I said, man, I'm on a seesaw, here we go again. I can't take no more of this. They did it again. So they asked me some questions, I answered them. I answered more questions. Then I said, man, I ain't going through this no more. So I said, I ain't saying nothing else. So then they put me back through it again, and the last time, I thought that was it. That was it." Id.

Holmes was convicted of murder on the sole basis of the tortured confession. Burge and his fellow detectives continued to torture other suspects in the robbery ring with electric shock and plastic bags, and they received a commendation from the Police Superintendent for their "skillful interrogations." Burge was promoted to sergeant, then to lieutenant in charge of violent crime investigations. The torture continued through the late 1970's and early 1980's, and a large number of detectives and supervisors participated in the torture or turned a blind eye to it.

In February of 1982, two Chicago police officers were killed by two black men on the south-side of Chicago, the men escaped, and Burge was put in charge in what was described as the largest man hunt in the history of Chicago. It was also described by African-American leaders as "martial law" and a war on the black community. Chicago Reader, "House of Screams," John Conroy, January 26, 1990. Detectives under Burge's command broke down doors, beating people and ransacking their homes. Several men who were suspected to have information about the crime were taken to the station, beaten, suffocated with plastic bags, only to be released when it became apparent that they had no information. Id. When a suspect was tentatively identified, Burge took him to police headquarters and he and several of his trusted detectives beat and bagged him. He turned out to be falsely accused, and was released. Id.

Five days after the slayings, Andrew Wilson and his brother were arrested and brought to Area 2. Thought to be the triggerman, Andrew Wilson was brutally tortured by Burge and his men for hours. He was beaten, bagged, burned with cigarettes, then handcuffed across a hot steam radiator. Burge then brought in the electric shock box, announced it was "fun time," and attached wires that ran from the generator in the box to Wilson's ears and genitals. Burge repeatedly turned the generator crank, shocking Wilson, whose body was jolted against the radiator, badly burning his face, chest, and leg. Id., People v. Wilson, 116 Ill.2d 29 (1987). During a pause in the torture, a prosecutor came in to take his statement, but Wilson told him about the torture, to which he responded, "get the jagoff out of here." Chicago Reader, "Deaf to the Screams," John Conroy, August 1, 2003. Finally Wilson confessed, he was later prosecuted and convicted, and received the death penalty.

The doctor at the jail where Wilson was taken reported the torture to the police Superintendent, who in turn reported it to the State's Attorney of Cook County, Richard M. Daley, but both of these chief law enforcement officers refused to investigate the torture. However, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed Wilson's conviction in 1986, and Wilson, alleging torture, filed a law suit in Federal District Court against Burge. This litigation became the vehicle for uncovering the overwhelming evidence of a pattern and practice of torture at Area 2. Chicago Reader, "House of Screams," John Conroy, January 26, 1990.

The pattern and practice of torture continued at Area 2 through the mid 1980's. In 1983, Leroy Martin, who later became Police Superintendent, served as the Commander at Area 2. During Martin's tenure, numerous cases of torture arose. A sergeant, John Byrne, who supervised the late night shift, became a point man for Burge. During this time, Byrne and several detectives arrested Darrell Cannon for murder. They transported Cannon to a deserted area of the City, where they tortured him. This torture was described as follows:

"[A]fter his arrest [Cannon] was placed in the backseat of a police car, where [detective] Dignan proceeded to beat him about the knees with a flashlight. Dignan, Byrne, and [detective] Grunhard then took him to an isolated area. . . [where] he was taken from the car and his hands were cuffed behind his back, and Dignan, who was demanding information, then threatened him with a shotgun: the officer showed Cannon shotgun shells, pretended to load the weapon with his back turned, put the barrel of the gun in Cannon's mouth, and pulled the trigger . . . Dignan repeated the mock execution three times. When that ordeal ended . . . another began. This one was a modification of a centuries-old torture called the strappado. Usually the victim has his wrists bound behind his back and is raised by his hands on a pulley. The torturer then lets the victim fall suddenly, ending the descent with a jerk of the rope. The version Cannon accuses the officers of using was less elaborate but employed the same principles. Cannon claims that his hands remained cuffed behind his back, that Byrne stood on the bumper of the police car holding him by the cuffs, and that Dignan and Grunhard lifted Cannon up and dropped him while Byrne maintained his grip on the cuffs. Cannon claims the procedure caused him unbearable pain. Finally, . . . the handcuff arrangement was changed so that his hands were joined in front of him. [T]he police then made him lie on the backseat of the car, his feet on the ground on the passenger side . . . Dignan stood on his right foot, Byrne stood on his left, and Grunhard, reaching in from the rear door on the driver's side, held his wrists down on the seat. `The officer with the electric cattle prod was sticking it to my penis & testicles while my pants and shorts were pull down around my ankles...' Cannon wrote. `From time to time Officer Byrne would stick the electric-cattle-prod in my mouth to stop me from yelling so loud.'" The Chicago Reader, "Poison in the System," John Conroy, June 25, 1999; People v. Cannon, 293 lll. App. 3d 634 (1997).

When Burge was promoted to Commander of Area 3 in 1988, Byrne and several other of his men came with him, and the reports of torture then began to arise from that Area. In September of 1991, only a month before Burge was suspended for torturing Andrew Wilson nine years before, several juveniles accused Burge's men of torturing and abusing them while interrogating them concerning a murder charge. One boy, thirteen years old, described being electric shocked, while others corroborated his claim and told of similar abuse. See, People v. Clemon, 259 Ill. App.3d 5 (1994); Wiggins v. Burge, 93 C 199, deposition of Marcus Wiggins.

Confessions obtained by torture at Area 2 resulted in at least eleven men being sentenced to death row, and numerous others to long terms in prison. While former Illinois Governor George Ryan recently pardoned four of these death row prisoners and commuted the sentences of the others to life in prison, Holmes, Cannon, and numerous other torture victims remain in prison on the basis of their tortured confessions. Evidence in the torture cases reveals that the successive State's Attorneys, including Richard Daley and Richard Devine, were aware of the torture and refused to investigate, and that the Felony Review Unit of the State's Attorney's Office was also deeply involved in knowingly eliciting and using tortured confessions. Chicago Reader, "Deaf to the Screams," John Conroy, August 1, 2003.

It is now also clear that successive police superintendents were aware of this pattern and practice of torture and suppressed internal investigative findings which found there to be such practices. Id. Additionally, approximately one-third of the presently sitting Cook County criminal court judges are former assistant state's attorneys or Area 2 detectives who had some involvement in the police torture cases. Id. Conversely, Burge has been fired for his torture of Wilson, anonymous police sources have confirmed that there was systematic torture known to command personnel, numerous courts and an internal police investigation have found there to be a pattern and practice of torture, and, some thirty years after the practice began, a special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate whether prosecutable crimes have been committed. Id.; see also, e.g., U.S. ex. rel. Maxwell v. Gilmore, 37 F. Supp.2d 1078, 1093-94 (N.D. Ill. 1999); Wilson v. City of Chicago, 120 F.3d 681, 683-85 (7th Cir. 1997); Wilson v. City of Chicago, 6 F.3d 1233 (7th Cir. 1993); Wiggins v. Burge, 173 F.R.D. 226, (N.D. Ill. 1997); People v. Patterson, 192 Ill. 2d 93, (2000).

New York City

In 1985, four white New York City police officers, including a Sergeant and a Lieutenant, were convicted of assault, collusion, and official misconduct for participating in repeated acts of torture. These officers, assigned to a precinct in Queens, used stun guns to repeatedly shock black and Latino arrestees while transporting them to the station and while questioning them there. These officers remained on the police force with "modified assignments" while their cases were pending, and were discharged from the force after they were convicted. New York Times, "Two Queens Officers Convicted in Stun-Gun Trial, May 3, 1986; "6th Man Describes Stun-Gun Assault, May 8, 1985; "McFadden, No. 3 on Police Force Retiring Amid Torture Case," April 30, 1985, "McFadden, Youth's Charges of Torture By an Officer Spur Inquiry," April 22, 1985.

In August 1997, four New York City police officers arrested Abner Louima after mistakenly concluding that he had knocked one of the officers, Justin Volpe, to the ground during an altercation. The patrol car made three stops en route to the stationhouse and during two of these stops Louima was taunted, then attacked and beaten with a radio and fists by the officers. U. S. v. Schwarz, 283 F.3d 76 (2nd Cir. 2002). At the station, Louima's pants were pulled down at the front desk, and he was taken into the bathroom. Upon entering the bathroom, Volpe picked up something by the garbage can and told Louima that if he made any noise, he would kill him. Id. Volpe then pushed him to the floor, with his head near one of the toilets, and kicked him in the groin. Medical evidence showed that Louima's penis was significantly swollen when he arrived at the hospital. Id. Louima yelled out and the driver of the squad car put his foot in Louima's mouth and told him to shut up. After he was kicked in the groin, both officers started hitting and punching him. Then the driver pulled him up by the handcuffs, and, while in this position, Volpe shoved an object into his rectum. Id. The medical evidence showed that Volpe forced a broken broomstick approximately six inches inside Louima, puncturing his rectum and bladder. Volpe removed the stick, which was covered with Louima's feces, and held it in front of Louima's mouth and taunted him. Volpe then slammed the stick against the wall, leaving traces of feces. U. S. v. Schwarz, 283 F.3d 76, 81, 81 n. 1 (2nd Cir. 2002).

Later, Louima was taken to Coney Island Hospital, where he was treated for head injuries and underwent surgery for internal injuries to his bladder and rectum. The officers all met outside the hospital to plan their cover-up, and Volpe was heard to say, "I broke a man down." U. S. v. Schwarz, 283 F.3d 76 (2nd Cir. 2002). The men were indicted, Volpe pleaded guilty and the other three were convicted of criminal civil rights violations, but their convictions were reversed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Id.

New Orleans

In November 1980, a white police officer was killed in a predominantly black area of New Orleans, and the Detective Division of the New Orleans Police Department launched a massive investigation that community leaders alleged was a "reign of terror." Houses were searched without warrants and ransacked, and numerous young black men were threatened, beaten, and "booked and bagged," in an attempt to obtain information as to who killed the police officer. According to the victims' accounts, much of which was corroborated by a police detective, several were tied to chairs with bandages, plastic bags were put over their heads and tied at the bottom and they were beaten, kicked, and hit on the head with telephone books so that the blows would not leave marks on their faces. One of them was taken to a desolate area of New Orleans, pushed onto the rail of a bridge, and threatened with a shotgun. Two of these terrified men gave some names in order to end the torture. See, Complaint and depositions in Singletary v. Parsons, No. 81-496 (E.D. La.); U.S. v. McKenzie, 768 F.2d 602 (5th Cir.1985).

On that basis, the detectives obtained warrants and made several early morning raids, during which they killed four blacks, including a mother who was cowering in the bathtub while her four-year-old son watched in horror. Id. The sergeant who headed up the investigation, and six of his detectives, were indicted for criminal civil rights violations and conspiracy, arising from the alleged torture, and the sergeant and two detectives were convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary. U.S. v. McKenzie, 768 F.2d 602 (5th Cir.1985).

Several damage suits were also filed on behalf of those who were beaten, tortured, and killed. In these suits the plaintiffs alleged that their injuries and deaths were pursuant to a police department policy and practice of "infliction of retribution or revenge against citizens suspected of assaults and/or killings of police personnel." In 1986 a settlement was reached with the City of New Orleans. The two main torture victims received a total of $1.25 million, the families of those killed by the detectives received a total of $1.525 million, and seven additional victims of torture and beatings receiving a total of $335,000. Singletary v. Parsons, No. 81-496 (E.D. La.).

U. S. Cooperation with Other Countries

Long before U.S. authorities sought to place certain post 9/11 suspects in the custody of other counties who could more easily torture them, U.S. law enforcement has collaborated with other countries to torture and kidnap suspects who are outside of U.S. borders. In 1974, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the particularly egregious case of Francisco Toscanino, who was kidnapped from Uruguay, and taken to Brazil where he was interrogated and tortured for 17 days with the participation of a U.S. Narcotics Agent and a U.S. Attorney. United States v. Toscanino, 500 F.2d 267 (2nd Cir. 1974). The Court of Appeals described the torture as follows:

"Later that same day Toscanino was brought to Brasilia . . . For seventeen days Toscanino was incessantly tortured and interrogated. Throughout this entire period the United States government and the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York prosecuting this case was aware of the interrogation and did in fact receive reports as to its progress. Furthermore, during this period of torture and interrogation a member of the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was present at one or more intervals and actually participated in portions of the interrogation. . . . [Toscanino's] captors denied him sleep and all forms of nourishment for days at a time. Nourishment was provided intravenously in a manner precisely equal to an amount necessary to keep him alive. Reminiscent of the horror stories told by our military men who returned from Korea and China, Toscanino was forced to walk up and down a hallway for seven or eight hours at a time. When he could no longer stand he was kicked and beaten but all in a manner contrived to punish without scarring. When he would not answer, his fingers were pinched with metal pliers. Alcohol was flushed into his eyes and nose and other fluids . . . were forced up his anal passage. Incredibly, these agents of the United States government attached electrodes to Toscanino's earlobes, toes, and genitals. Jarring jolts of electricity were shot throughout his body, rendering him unconsious for indeterminate periods of time but again leaving no physical scars. Finally on or about January 25, 1973 Toscanino was brought to Rio de Janeiro where he was drugged by Brazilian-American agents and placed on Pan American Airways Flight # 202 destined for the waiting arms of the United States government. On or about January 26, 1973 he woke in the United States, was arrested on the aircraft, and was brought immediately to Thomas Puccio, Assistant United States Attorney. At no time during the government's seizure of Toscanino did it ever attempt to accomplish its goal through any lawful channels whatever. From start to finish the government unlawfully, willingly and deliberately embarked upon a brazenly criminal scheme violating the laws of three separate countries." Id.

In 1988, federal police agents were alleged to have used torture against a purported drug dealer whom they kidnapped in Honduras and brought back to the United States for prosecution. Matta-Ballesteros ex rel. Stolar v. Henman, 697 F. Supp. 1036 (S.D.Ill. 1988); Matta-Ballesteros v. Henman, 896 F.2d 255 (7th Cir. 1990). Defendant Matta alleged that he was abducted from his home in Honduras by U.S. Drug Enforcement (DEA) agents, taken in a van to the U.S. Air Base and flown back to the United States. He further alleged that during his transport, U.S. agents placed a black hood over his head, beat him, and repeatedly shocked and burned him on the body, testicles and feet with a double pronged stun gun. Medical and scientific evidence confirmed that he had burns and abrasions on his neck, penis, feet, back, and arms; that the burn marks were "consistent" with those made by a stun gun, and that the stun gun described was currently in the U.S. Marshall Service's inventory. Id.

The Government denied Matta's claims, asserting that any mistreatment of Matta was at the hands of Honduran authorities before he was taken into U.S. custody.

In 1993, one of the alleged World Trade Center bombers was detained in Egypt and interrogated for ten days by Egyptian authorities. According to his lawyer, "He was blindfolded for 10 days, kept naked for 10 days. He was dangled from a board; burned, apparently with cigarettes; beaten with sticks or boards. They told him they should kill his brother, rape his wife, kill his father." the Houston Chronicle, "N.Y. bombing suspect details torture /FBI allegedly `played good cop to the Egyptian bad cop,'" May 1, 1993.

Medical evidence corroborated his account of torture. According to his lawyer, when the FBI brought him back, they said, "We're here to take you back to the United States away from torture," then proceeded to continue to interrogate him while he was still groggy from the effects of the torture. Id.

There also have been numerous reports of U.S. citizens who have been brutally tortured in Mexican jails, convicted on the basis of tortured confessions, then returned to the U.S. to serve their sentences. The only recourse for these victims is to petition for a sentence reduction to the Parole and Pardon Board in the U.S. jurisdiction to which they are transferred, a remedy which is difficult to obtain. Houston Chronicle, "Brutal Crossings: Jailed in Mexico/Torture," June 30, 1991.

Similarly, in 1993, a Texas Court stayed the execution of a man who was convicted of murder on the basis of a confession which he gave to El Paso police after Mexican police threatened to torture his mother with a cattle prod unless he confessed to the crime, and allowed her to relay that information to him via telephone while he was in custody. Houston Chronicle, "Court grants man a stay of execution/Fierro confessed after alleged police threats," August 6, 1994.

Present Day Torture

Electric Shields

New forms of systematic torture have become popular with U.S. law enforcement in the past decade. In a letter to the Washington Post, the president of the American Bar Association condemned the torture of INS detainees who had been held in a Florida county jail:

"In my home state of Arkansas in the `60s, inmates of Tucker Prison Farm routinely were beaten and tortured by despotic jailers. Among the tools used by jailers to control inmates was the diabolical `Tucker Telephone,' an old crank telephone adapted with electrodes that were attached to prisoners' genitalia and then hooked up to a car battery. When the telephone was cranked, inmates received a short, intense and paralyzing shock . . . Unbelievably, almost 30 years later, Florida jailers have invented another instrument to torture prisoners with electricity. In Jackson County, Fla., sadistic jailers wired a plastic, body-sized police shield, used in riot protection, to punish immigrant prisoners. The device was placed over a naked immigrant, who was subjected to an intense electrical shock."

Washington Post, "Legal Basics and Humane Treatment must Be Guaranteed by Federal Officials in Local Facilities Housing Immigrants," by Philip S. Anderson, December 23, 1998.

Stun Guns and Stun Belts

The Colorado ACLU in a March 16, 2004 letter to the Denver Mayor's Task Force on Police condemned Colorado law enforcement agencies for "using electroshock weapons in an abusive and cruel manner that constitutes unnecessary and unreasonable force and in some cases amounts to outright deliberate torture." The letter, which can be found at, summarizes complaints and letters received by the ACLU many of which are corroborated by police reports - - that document the use of the excruciatingly painful tasers and stun guns on suspects who had already been subdued and handcuffed or otherwise restrained. The complaints include the following:

¨ A man was shocked in the genitals by an electroshock weapon while he was handcuffed and seated in the back of a squad car. The police report confirms that the officer carried out what he called "a drive stun to the groin area."

¨ A woman six-and-one-half months pregnant was tased in the abdomen while she was handcuffed and seated in the back of a squad car.

¨ A county jail prisoner was shocked twice with a stun gun while he was handcuffed to a wall in the booking room. The officer's report explains that the prisoner was "mouthing off."

¨ Police responded to a call of a possible overdose and took an apparently intoxicated and possibly suicidal subject to a hospital. Hospital personnel put him in soft restraints on a hospital bed. When the subject failed to follow police orders to shut up, the police report states that police responded by shocking him with a taser.

¨ The author of a letter to the ACLU accuses police officers of laughing as they tased him repeatedly while he was handcuffed in a squad car, to extort his "consent" to take a drug test, which turned out negative. He further asserts that officers tased him again after covering his head with a pillow. In their reports, the police officers confirm that they covered the man's head with a pillowcase. They also confirm that they tased the highly intoxicated suspect at least 8 times while he was handcuffed.

¨ A county jail prisoner was strapped into a restraint chair for 3 hours for yelling and mouthing off. Officers periodically approached the prisoner, held a stun gun to his chest, and threatened to shock him. The prisoner has an enlarged heart and may be particularly vulnerable to adverse effects from electroshock weapons. Id.

A related device, called the stun belt, is worn by a prisoner, and allows a guard to transmit a fifty thousand volt charge for up to eight seconds from up to three hundred feet away. The Progressive, "Stunning Technology, Corrections Cowboys Get a Charge out of their New Sci-Fi Weapons," Anne-Marie Cusac, July 1996. While its most common use is in connection with transporting prisoners, some judges have required that prisoners wear the belt while testifying, and several prisoners have been shocked while in court. Id.

Another use of the belt, proposed in Wisconsin, is that it be worn by prisoners working on the newly reinstated chain gang, in order to keep them "in line." Id. Independent studies show that shocks from the belt can have serious physiological and psychological effects, and Amnesty International has condemned use of the belt, saying: "the stun belt looks to be a weapon which will almost certainly result in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, [it] will inevitably encourage prison authorities - - including those in torturing states - - to do likewise," and the chances are very high that the belt will eventually be used for torture. Id.

The Devil's Chair

A particularly widespread method of torture used in jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons across the U.S., as well as by the INS and the U.S. Marshall's Service is the "restraint chair," known to victims and their lawyers as the "devil's chair" or the "torture chair." The Progressive, "The Devil's Chair," Anne Marie Cusac, April 2000. [PLN, Sep. 2000] This chair has belts and cuffs which prevent the prisoner from moving, is recommended by the manufacturer for interrogation and up to two hours of restraint, and it is commonly used as a form of sadistic punishment. Id.

Prisoners are often kept in the chair for many hours, days, and, on at least one occasion, for more than a week, forcing them to sit in their own urine, feces, and vomit. Id. Some victims have reported that they have been forced to sit for hours with a hood on their head, others have been electric shocked with a stun gun, pepper sprayed, or beaten while held in the chair. Id. Some were subjected to mock executions when they were told that they would be electrocuted while strapped into the chair. Id. Many victims complained of being unable to walk after release from the chair, and over tightening of the straps has led to broken bones and blood clots. Id.

Children and naked women have been forced into the restraints, and from 1994 to 1999, at least eleven people have died as a result of being held in the chair. Id. A 1996 Department of Justice Report found that the chair was used in the Maricopa County Jail, located in Phoenix Arizona, over six hundred times in a six month period, that stun guns were used on prisoners while they were in the chair, and that on at least one occasion, the shocks were applied to the prisoner's testicles. Id.

Similarly, a class action lawsuit against the Ventura, California County Jail alleged that the chair was used three hundred and seventy-seven times during an eighteen month period, and that one prisoner had been left in the chair for thirty-two hours. Id.; Von Colln v. County of Ventura, 189 F.R.D. 589 (C.D. Ca. 1999). In granting a preliminary injunction against the use of the chair, the District Judge wrote:

"Data . . . shows that the Sheriff's Department's misuse of that chair flows from a practice of restraining nonviolent arrestees for extended periods of time in violation of the arrestees' Fourteenth Amendment rights. The policy allows deputies to require restrained arrestees to either urinate or defecate on themselves and be forced to sit in their own feces or `hold it.'" Id.

Amnesty International has called for "an urgent national inquiry" into the use of the chair, and in May of 2000, U.N. Committee Against Torture urged the United States to "abolish electro-shock stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining those in custody." The Progressive, "U.N. calls on the U.S. to abolish torture devices" Anne-Marie Cusac, May 25, 2000. Use of these devices, stated the committee, "almost invariably leads to breaches" of the international treaty against torture which the United States ratified in 1994. Id.


In his testimony in the Darrell Cannon case, the late Dr. Robert Kirschner, a leading expert in the field of investigating and documenting torture throughout the world, concluded that pattern of torture in Chicago was similar to the systemic police torture which he and his colleagues investigated in Turkey, Israel, and Mexico. Testimony of Dr. Robert Kirschner in People v. Cannon, 92-CR-28009, (Circuit Court of Cook County), November 1, 1999. Author John Conroy has made similar comparisons between Israel, Northern Ireland and Chicago in his comparative study of torture in these jurisdictions. Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, John Conroy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.

The history set forth above, while by no means all inclusive,1 graphically demonstrates that U.S. torture goes far beyond Chicago; it is both national and international in scope, is systematic and widespread, and is approved as a matter of policy by those officials who supervise and command the torturers. When seen in the context of this history, the torture at Abu Ghraib is no aberration, but rather is yet another sordid chapter in the long and continuing annals of systematic U.S. torture.

[Mr. Taylor is a PMCRLR editor who has been litigating torture cases in Chicago since 1987.]

Reprinted with permission from "U.S. Torture: A Sordid History of Official and Systematic Abuse" by G. Flint Taylor. Originally published in the Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, Vol. 7, No. 15 (May/June 2004). Copyright (c) 2004 West, a Thomson business.


1 For example, the systematic sensory deprivation and other extreme physical and psychological abuse that has been, and continues to be, regularly practiced in Federal and state maximum security prisons and prison "control units" across this country, sometimes on political prisoners, (see, e.g., Baraldini v. Meese, 691 F. Supp. 432, 449 (D.C. D.C., 1988)) is beyond the scope of this article.

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