Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

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The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

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A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.

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