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Video shows Ghraib-like torture by sheriffs lead to man's death, say groups, family

Jennifer Van Bergen
Published: Tuesday July 25, 2006

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On Feb. 6, 2006, Jessie Lee Williams, Jr., a 40-year-old black man in a Southern Mississippi jail, was allegedly hooded and hog-tied by police, beaten about the head and testicles and ultimately died from blunt injuries to the head.

The coroner determined the death was a homicide. The local sheriff indicated law enforcement agencies were investigating and that the individual targeted by the investigation is “no longer employed by the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department.”

Despite the fact that the beating was videotaped, no arrests have been made.

Williams’ family has filed a $250 million civil suit for damages. Last Friday, the sheriff’s attorney in the Williams case asked the court to halt the civil proceedings until the criminal investigation is complete in order to avoid self-incrimination.

The complaint documents numerous previous incidents of abuse in the Harrison County jail booking room where Williams died, including beatings, hooding, use of a restraint chair – called “the torture chair” or “the devil’s chair” by inmates – and a technique similar to water-boarding where a sheet was wrapped tightly around the head of a man in the restraint chair and water was poured into the breathing hole.

In April, US Attorney Dunn Lampton told reporters, “We’re moving at a good speed.” Lampton told Harrison County Sheriff George Payne not to discuss the investigation with anyone and Payne has not returned RAW STORY’s calls.

US Prisons the Training Ground for Military Detentions?

A recent Amnesty International report covered by RAW STORY revealed that nearly 200 African-American men in a Chicago prison have alleged torture between 1971 and 1991. The report concluded there are troubling similarities between detainee abuse allegations in US military prisons around the world and US prisons at home.

Williams’ treatment, like that of many of those in the Chicago cases, is similar to reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib, the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other US detention facilities in the Middle East. The nurse’s notes in Williams’ case states that Williams was placed in a restraint chair, hooded, sprayed with pepper spray, and had blood coming from both ears. He was told by the restraining officer that the officer would kill him, after which the man choked him until he couldn’t breathe.

Based on witness statements, the attorney for the Williams’ estate commissioned an artist to create an illustration which shows Williams being carried hooded and hog-tied.

The caption reads, “This picture is a depiction made of the Harrison County Adult Detention Facility's booking room on the night of February 4, 2006, based upon witness statements, in which Jessie Lee Williams, Jr. was hog-tied, shackled (hands to feet), sack on his head, blood dripping from the beating, and carried like a human suitcase – soon to be slammed/dropped on his face – two times.”

Such treatment closely resembles methods depicted in photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib.

James Johnson, an Australian with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters Degree in Psychology, who has been an advisor to the Australian government and has been researching the US penal system for eleven years for a book, says, “I believe that the principal method of torture applied in the prisons is psychological. However outright brutality is used quite regularly.”

Johnson provides examples from letters inmates have written him: solitary confinement, rapes, beatings, use of restraint chairs, hooding, shackling to the floor, sleep deprivation, extreme air-conditioning, reduction of food allowance, refusal of medical treatment, electric cattle prods, TASERs and water-boarding. Williams suffered serious burns on his back from being shot with TASERs.

“Everything you have read about them using in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo is used in American prisons,” Johnson avers. “ That is where most of the torturers gain their experience.”

The purpose, he says, is “to destroy the mind.” Johnson notes that all these methods were used “before the official policy of the American administration became known to the public.”

Human rights violations under international law

International human rights lawyer, Dr. Curtis F.J. Doebbler, who practices in the Middle East and teaches law at Tel Aviv University, told RAW STORY that if Williams was killed as the consequence of being beaten by law enforcement authorities, as alleged, “his right to life and right to humane treatment (prohibition of torture) would have been violated under both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.”

“A case could be brought to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” Doebbler adds.

After a recent Supreme Court ruling in which the court held that the military tribunals used on enemy combatants at Guantanamo violated the Geneva Conventions and laws of war, the Pentagon pledged to abide by Common Article 3 of the Conventions, which establishes minimum standards of humane treatment for detainees.

Joseph Margulies, the lead counsel in another Guantanamo case in which the Court decided last year that detainees have the right to due process, noted in a Washington Post editorial, “we know what the administration means by humane treatment.”

“These are the same people who said it was humane to hold a prisoner in solitary confinement with no human contact except interrogators and guards until . . . he became delusional,” Margulies wrote. “Then it was humane to subject the same prisoner to an eight-week series of interrogations that lasted 18 to 20 hours a day. Interrogators doused him with water if he fell asleep and forced him to stand at attention for hours at a time if he did not cooperate.”

Even when a detainee’s heartbeat had slowed to 35 beats per minute and he was placed in a doctor’s care, loud music was played in his cell to prevent him from sleeping.

Margulies says, “If this interrogation was not cruel, humiliating and degrading, if it did not offend personal dignity, then the words have no meaning.”