05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Torture, American-Style

What does torture have to do with America? The answer is, unfortunately, a rich one.

In 2004, when Seymour Hersh and Sixty Minutes II broke the news of Abu Ghraib, I had spent eight years reporting on American prisons and jails.

Abu Ghraib looked familiar.

As I demonstrate in Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale University Press, 2009), in the decade or so before Abu Ghraib, American prisoners had been hooded, intimidated with dogs, threatened with electrocution, shackled for days in situations where they had to defecate and urinate on themselves, sodomized with objects, exposed for long periods to intense heat, and raped by guards -- all forms of treatment that allegedly occurred in Iraq.

What astonished me was not the Abu Ghraib torture, but the public's shock and dismay. How could people be so surprised when so many of the same practices had already happened here?

Abu Ghraib was not the only atrocity with American antecedents, as the recent release of the torture memos shows. The August 1, 2002 memo from Jay S. Bybee considers considers "ten techniques," among them slapping, "cramped confinement," "stress positions," and "the waterboard." The Red Cross report leaked in March thanks to Mark Danner offers evidence of other torture modes, including cold water and exposure to extreme temperatures.

As the New York Times reported, the techniques in the memos came from Communist and fascist governments. But I want to caution against assumptions that the CIA torture techniques -- forcing people into a state of near-drowning, for instance, or chilling people in ice water -- are not American. Unfortunately, they are ours, too.

For instance, cold water:

From the Red Cross report: "I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets....I would be kept wrapped inside the sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation."

As Darius Rejali, the author of Torture and Democracy, observed in Slate in March, "American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted."

Cold water also has a history in civilian U.S. jails and prisons. And here is where we find the link between ordinary domestic punishments and what we might otherwise tend to think of as torture -- something exotic, unusual, far away.

Rejali notes, "In the 1920s, the Chicago police used to extract confessions from prisoners by chilling them in freezing water baths. This was called the 'ice-water cure.' "

My own research found cold-water punishment in numerous early American prisons.
Nineteenth-century guards punished inmates with the "douche or bolt-bath" at the Auburn, New York, and Trenton, New Jersey prisons, according to the writings of prison reformer Dorothea Dix, who notes both wardens banned the treatment. As the Auburn warden explained to Dix in a letter dated July 17, 1844, "Punishment with cold water has often been most effectual, in subduing the refractory, but I believe is often detrimental to health, and has therefore been discontinued at this prison."

Two years later, "severe flagellation" killed an inmate at Auburn. The government banned flagellation. Thus, cold-water treatment revived at the prison. In 2003, the Cayuga Museum in Auburn, New York, held an exhibit featuring this description of "the shower bath": This "true torture device...consisted of a barrel about 4-feet high with a discharge tube at the bottom. The prisoner was stripped naked, bound hand and foot, with a wooden collar around his neck to prevent his moving his head. The barrel, with the inmate inside, was placed directly under an outlet pipe, where water, sometimes iced, would pour down." Auburn abandoned the shower bath "in 1858, after the death of an inmate from this punishment."

The Red Cross report also describes torture through exposure to cold air: "I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room....[T]he cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold."

Rejali mentions a 1961 case at the Parchman, Mississippi, penitentiary, where officers "blasted civil rights detainees with a fire hose and then turned 'the air-conditioning system on full blast' for three days."

As the Parchman case implies, American prisons applied pain through temperature well into the twentieth century. But heat seems to have been at least as common as cold. For instance, in 1947 a researcher named Mabel Elliott wrote, "prisoners may be locked in the 'hot box' with the heat turned on and suffer all manner of torture. Some men have even died in such metal cages."

Other early twentieth-century writers mention deaths in hot boxes, also called "dog houses" and "sweat boxes." "The sweat boxes are small coffin-like cells just large enough to suspend a man in an upright position," says one account. "A small hole the size of a silver dollar lets in the only air. The cell is placed in the hot tropic sun, or sometimes a metal plate underneath is heated with fire."

"Cramped confinement" also appeared in early American prisons. For instance, an 1839 pamphlet from the Boston Prison Discipline Society, describes a container at the Pittsburgh penitentiary "just large enough to hold one man." The box is "so fixed, that the inmate cannot lean one way or the other; while, to prevent kneeling down, there is a piece of hard wood or iron put through the box."

Now to the most notorious of the tortures in the memos: the waterboard.

Simulated drowning occurred in early twentieth-century American prisons. A "water crib," three feet deep and six feet long was what historian David Rothman, in Conscience and Convenience, calls "perhaps the most incredible torture instrument of the period." As Rothman's work shows, guards would handcuff inmates and place them stomach-down in the trough. Water flowed into the device. "The effect was of slow drowning," writes Rothman, who cites one guard's exaltation at how well the crib caused inmates to "wilt" into compliance.

Recently, our domestic jails and prisons have returned to tools once condemned as cruel. To take just one example, in the early 1990s, something called the restraint chair appeared. It was actually a reinvention of something its original inventor, Founding Father Benjamin Rush, called "the tranquilizing chair." Rush's "tranquilizing chair" had a history of torture at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, one of the early American prisons.

Like its predecessor, the restraint chair immobilized prisoners and mental patients. Its reappearance in the 1990s soon led to serious abuses, including torture and death. The manufacturer claims that the restraint chair is humane and intended to be so--an echo of Benjamin Rush's words about the "tranquilizing chair."

These declarations of humaneness are not that distant from the Bush Administration memos' assertions that the time-honored tortures they invoke are not really tortures.

It is no accident pain returned as an acceptable means of prisoner control not long before the U.S. government decided to adopt torture techniques overseas. The two shifts are part of a cultural continuum. In both cases, we can see an increasing acceptance of pain as useful, a return to once-taboo behaviors, and public pressure on officials to do something about crime -- whether domestic crime or terrorism. All too often, the results veer in the direction of physical pain.

Unfortunately, recent decades show how American torture is.