LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The treatment of suspected al Qaida terrorists now idling under the tropical sun at Camp X-ray has shocked many in the human-rights community and overseas, but experts say the controversial measures are not at all dissimilar to the way the hard cases in American prisons are handled.
The uninitiated may be appalled at the sight of prisoners in orange jumpsuits shuffling along, blindfolded, shackled at the hands and feet. And while they may be repulsed by the specter of a couple of brawny Marines who appear capable of tuning up a smart aleck twice the size of the hapless al Qaida men they are escorting, this scenario is de rigueur in maximum high-security American prisons.
"The U.S. system is known for being very aggressive; perhaps the most violent correctional penal system anywhere in the world," Joseph Garcia, a team leader with U.S.Corrections Department; Special Operations Group, told United Press International. "As a result, we have a proven track record dealing with individuals who are very violent."
Garcia's forte is preparing officers to handle violent situations that may arise in the nation's toughest lock-ups, and like any other corrections officer, he is keenly aware that the seemingly draconian measures used on inmates were largely born out of necessity.
"In the United States, we handle violent individuals with absolute security," Garcia said. "Absolute security means the officer can complete his job without being hurt."
The brilliant ingenuity of inmates at devising weapons, smuggling contraband and engaging in all manner of Machiavellian mischief is well known, which explains the need for prison officials to stay one step ahead of the inmates. Some criminologists and civil libertarians have raised questions about whether the inmates subjected to such rigorous control are truly the worst of the worst, or if they don't truly deserve such special treatment.
The American Civil Liberties Union last year filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that some 450 inmates sent to the "super-max" penitentiary at Youngstown, Ohio, for instance, may not have been so dangerous and but were instead in desperate need of mental health treatment. The lawsuit didn't demand monetary damages, but did demand changes in harsh conditions that include the high-risk prisoners spending 23 hours a day in a small cell illuminated by fluorescent lights that are never turned off.
"All the evidence suggests that incarceration in conditions like those at Youngstown breeds violence and mental illness to a frightening degree," opined Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio. "Our prisons should provide opportunities for reform, not breeding grounds for aggression and mental illness."
The United States contends that nothing improper is going on at Camp X-ray, but some critics question whether the short leash the inmates are kept on is warranted given the fact that the detainees haven't been convicted of a violent crime and face only nebulous charges of being on the wrong side of the battle.
"These individuals haven't been convicted of a crime, so the institution we should be comparing (Camp X-ray) to is a county jail rather than a maximum security prison," said Kevin Wright, a professor of criminology at State University of New York at Binghamton who specializes in prison administration.
"By the time a person makes it to prison, we have some idea of what their behavior might be," Wright told UPI. "These are individuals that are only suspected of being high-risk inmates."
U.S. authorities have yet to sort out which Camp X-ray guests are merely ideological zealots who never fired a shot or planted a bomb as part of a fanatical jihad against the west, and which prisoners are hardened killers and virulent anti-American psychos.
While hardened killers and psychos remain a threat to guards in American prisons and to one another and need to be watched constantly, Wright said much of the trouble they get into comes through their contact with relatives and others on the outside and from their time working in metal shops, kitchens and at other prison jobs.
"These individuals at Camp X-ray have no access to anything," he said. "Their ability to make a weapon is very limited, so their control should be relatively easy."
Camp X-ray does have one major difference in that the prisoners are all from the same radical group, which observers warn could make it easier for a leadership cadre to develop and possibly organize attacks on guards or even an escape attempt.
"The fact that they are all of a similar hostile mind against their keepers makes them much more unified, increasing the potential of an uprising," said Chris Menton, assistant professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. "Their ilk has shown a disregard for their own lives so they are en masse, a far more dangerous group than most narcissistic psychopaths that populate the most dangerous prisons stateside."
Wright said the sight of blindfolded Middle Eastern prisoners in Cuba reminded him of the sight of blindfolded American flyers in the custody of North Vietnamese troops.
"We were outraged," he said.
Garcia said, however, that even something as humane as allowing prisoners to see where they were going could be asking for trouble.
"We don't want inmates or terrorists to be able to see or communicate via eye contact," he said. "We don't want them to be able to identify the officers (guards) who are watching them. The prisoners may be able to pick out the weakest link or the officers who appear to be less capable."
"Also, sight depravation prevents an inmate from developing a clear picture of his surroundings," he added. "If an inmate escapes, it would be because he had a chance to study his environment."
The debate over the al Qaida prisoners in Cuba boils down to two immoveable objects -- the need to sit on more than 100 presumed terrorists waging jihad on the United States, and the requirements for humane treatment of prisoners contained in the Constitution.
"Probably the most significant issues are symbolic," said Wright. "Shouldn't we, from a diplomatic and governmental standpoint, be showing the rest of the world, particularly the Arab nations, that we are going to treat these prisoners in a humane manner?"
According to the U.S. government, they aren't being treated any worse than Americans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.