Gary McKinnon: perceptions of prison…

by endlesspsych

The case of Gary McKinnons extradition to the United States has attracted much attention – most of it opposing the extradition for various reasons.

As former hacker, Kevin Poulson explains the facts of the case over on the socialist unity blog (a link I gacked from the badscience discussion)

Federal prosecutors in New Jersey and Virginia have been trying to extradite the 42-year-old Londoner for six years to put him on trial for penetrating over 90 unclassified Pentagon systems in 2001 and 2002 — and allegedly crashing some of them. In interviews, McKinnon has admitted the hacking spree (though not the damage), which he says was a search for evidence of a military UFO coverup.

Apparently he was stoned through a lot of it, which explains why most of the intrusions were into Army computers, when everyone knows the Air Force is hiding the UFOs. McKinnon’s noble quest for the truth about extraterrestrial life also obliged him to leave this message on an Army computer in 2002: “U.S. foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days … It was not a mistake that there was a huge security stand down on September 11 last year … I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.”

McKinnon has also been backed by PR company in a way that has similarities to the similar case of the Natwest (or Enron) Three.  As pointed out by Si_B over on badscience the following interesting similarities can be seen in both cases:

1) It was indeed Bell Yard driving it then as now.
2) In both cases most of the evidence was in the US, and the US was/is the obvious place to hear the evidence.
3) The Daily Fail took the Bell Yard feed, hook, line & sinker. (They even gave one of the “Three” his own comment piece – highly unusual for a suspect facing trial)
4) Opposing the extradition then, as now, was an odd mix of right-wing British Nationalists and left-wing Anti-Americans, not to forget Liberty and Shami Chakrabarti.
5) The head of the SFO then took the opinion that “in this case the evidence that was produced would have been enough to secure extradition under the old act” – most of the legal comment on McKinnon takes the same view on this case.
6) The PR team then managed to suppress the unpleasantness of the men’s previous documented behaviour and painted them as lovable family men who were going to be locked up in shackles and subject to thirty-five year sentences of hard-labour (when actually as soon as they arrived they got bail, the proscecutor showed that the maximum sentence was nine years and in the end with plea bargains they got a lot less). Bell Yard are doing a similar job on McKinnon

In both cases the outrage caused by the extradition hinges on the fact that there is a disparity between American and British citizens – this disparity is down to the fact that for Britain to extradite US citizens a US court must hear the Prima Facie evidence (as I understand it) however for a British citizen to be extradited to the US no British court need see the evidence (although the evidence must be considered by a US court before applying for the extradition). Again my understanding of the legal in’s and out’s is by no means perfect and I await jackofkents promised blog about this as it will surely do much to clarify the issue (despite him revealing on twitter recently that he is a big dirty euroskeptic!). The problem with this being the basis for outrage is that… well in both cases the parties were guilty… The Natwest three of banking fraud and Gary McKinnon of hacking into a foreign states military computer systems.

If the treaty were not disparate these people would still have been extradited. Indg: eed the only thing I can think of that would stop such an extradition would be on human rights grounds. Which brings me to my next point.

A lot of people have been mentioning, to my mind an irrelevance to the extradition process, McKinnons Aspergers diagnosis. Now I am unaware of any rational reason why people with Aspergers should be above the law but you’d be forgiven for thinking they should given some peoples use of this as a reason to avoid the extradition. McKinnons Aspergers may be an issue but its an issue for the court to mull over during the trial not for the public to decide that someone with Aspergers can’t possibly be culpable to stand trial. All of which seems more to be based on the ideas we hold in the UK about the American prison system. Indeed I’ve seen people state that McKinnons Aspergers condition will make it difficult for him to form the social networks he will need to “survive” in prison. Which makes me think that many peoples position on this issue is being informed by a perception of American prisons as somewhere between HBO’s OZ and Guantanamo bay.

Admitadly people like Joe Arpaio don’t really help matters with their “idiosyncratic” approach to crime and punishment…

Changes to jail operations
Arpaio began to serve inmates surplus food and limited meals to twice daily.

He banned inmates from possessing “sexually explicit material” including Playboy magazine after female officers complained that inmates openly masturbated while viewing them, or harassed the officers by comparing their anatomy to the nude photos in the publications. The ban was challenged on First Amendment grounds but upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In February 2007, Arpaio instituted an in-house radio station he calls KJOE.[18] Arpaio’s radio station broadcasts classical music, opera, Frank Sinatra hits, patriotic music and educational programming. It operates from the basement of the county jail for five days a week, four hours each day.

In March 2007, the Maricopa County Jail hosted “Inmate Idol”[19], a takeoff on the popular TV show American Idol.

Starting in July 2000, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s website hosted “Jail Cam”, a 24-hour Internet webcast of images from cameras in the Madison Street Jail, a facility which processed and housed pretrial detainees. The goals of the broadcasts were the deterrence of future crime and improved public scrutiny of jail procedures. The cameras showed arrestees being brought in handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked, and taken to holding cells; with the site receiving millions of hits per day. Twenty-four former detainees brought suit against the Sheriff’s office, arguing that their Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process had been violated.

Tent City
Arpaio set up a “Tent City” as an extension of the Maricopa County Jail (33°25′40″N 112°07′26″W / 33.42778°N 112.12389°W / 33.42778; -112.12389 (Maricopa County Jail)). Tent City is located in a yard next to a more permanent structure containing toilets, showers, an area for meals, and a day room.It has become notable particularly because of Phoenix’s extreme temperatures. Daytime temperatures inside the tents have been reported as high as 150 °F (65 °C) in the top bunks.[22] During the summer, fans and water are supplied in the tents.

During the summer of 2003, when outside temperatures exceeded 110 °F (43 °C), which is higher than average, Arpaio said to complaining inmates, “It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents, have to wear full body armor, and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.” Inmates were given permission to wear only their pink underwear.

Tent City has been criticized by groups contending these are violations of human and constitutional rights, as well as by Erwin James, currently on parole from a life sentence in Britain, who wrote a series of articles about his experiences in British prisons for The Guardian.

Volunteer chain gangs
In 1995, Arpaio reinstituted chain gangs. In 1996, Arpaio expanded the chain gang concept by instituting female volunteer chain gangs. Female inmates work seven hours a day (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.), six days a week. He has also instituted the world’s first all-juvenile volunteer chain gang; volunteers earn high school credit toward a diploma.

Pink underwear
One of Arpaio’s most visible public relations actions was the introduction of pink underwear, which the Maricopa County Sheriff’s website cites as being “world famous.”Arpaio subsequently started to sell customized pink boxers (with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s logo and “Go Joe”) as a fund-raiser for Sheriff’s Posse Association. Despite allegations of misuse of funds received from these sales, Arpaio declined to provide an accounting for the money.

Arpaio’s success in gaining press coverage with the pink underwear resulted in him extending the use of the color. He introduced pink handcuffs, using the event to promote his book, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, America’s Toughest Sheriff.

ETA: It should be noted I definatly do not endorse Mr Arpaoi’s methods in the slightest – not least because they don’t work but also because they are, to my mind, inhumane and stupid.

But in comparison with Britain’s prisons are Americas much worse? Well in terms of mental health services probably as the following quote from Human rights watch indicates:

Without the necessary care, mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms and their conditions can deteriorate. They are afflicted with delusions and hallucinations, debilitating fears, or extreme mood swings. They huddle silently in their cells, mumble incoherently, or yell incessantly. They refuse to obey orders or lash out without apparent provocation. They beat their heads against cell walls, smear themselves with feces, self-mutilate, and commit suicide.

Doing time in prison is hard for everyone. Prisoners struggle to maintain their self-respect and emotional equilibrium in facilities that are typically tense, overcrowded, fraught with the potential for violence, cut off from families and communities, and devoid of opportunities for meaningful education, work, or other productive activities. But life in prison is particularly difficult for prisoners with mental illnesses that impair their thinking, emotional responses, and ability to cope. They are more likely to be exploited and victimized by other prisoners. They are less likely to be able to adhere to the countless formal and informal rules of a strictly regimented life and often have higher rates of rule-breaking than other prisoners.

Although this piece from the BBC reports murders and suicides are plunging in American prisons due to separation of violent and non violent offenders and…

Civil rights groups say the figures reflect improvements in mental health care and medical treatment in prisons which currently have about 2.1 million people.

“There’s much more awareness about the problem of suicides in jails,” Lindsay Hayes of the National Centre on Institutions and Alternatives, told the Associated Press news agency.

Which suggests that there is a growing awareness and sensitivity towards mental health issues such as Aspergers in the modern US prison system. Now I don’t think the system is perfect (indeed reading Zimbardos work on the subject leaves me thoroughly convinced we do have the better system) but I do contend that the nightmarish vision people seem to have of the US system as some sort of violent ninth circle of hell is perhaps unrealistic.

Yes prisons are generally unpleasant places, yes they can exacerbate mental health issues and I also think in this case incarceration would achieve little. Perhaps some form of negotiated house arrest would achieve more? But really in real terms what objections can we have? Either the American prison system is unfit for purpose in which case we should abandon any extradition treaties with one of our closest allies (no doubt a populist move but with probable and possibly major implications globally for Britain) and not allow any British citizen to serve prison time abroad. Or we should be more realistic and consider that American prisons probably are worse than our own but they probably aren’t bad enough not to let a naughty man potentially go to jail…

I’m sure if there is any issue that could stir up some debate then this will be it, I look forward to reading your comments.