Lessons from Hobbes, Edward X, Abu Ghraib

By James O. Castagnera

On a Sunday afternoon in 1988 in Cell Block D of the old (now closed) Holmsburg Prison in north Philadelphia, the prisoners were outside their cells, watching a game on TV. Suddenly, one man emerged from the crowd, his head swathed in a towel. Leaping on the only guard inside the cell block, he succeeded in stabbing the lone correction officer 21 times with a hand-made "shank" comprised of a sharpened spoon handle taped to a small piece of wood. By the time a rescue party arrived to lock-down the block, the assailant had melted back into the mob.

Later that same Sunday, a group of guards entered the locked-down Cell Block D. According to their leader, nicknamed Big Red, they came to collect the prisoner suspected of the assault. He was Edward X, an imam of a Black Muslim prison gang, the Fruit of Islam. At trial Big Red testified that Edward X had confronted the guards with a sharpened broom handle when they opened his cell door.

Edward X, who became my client when he sued the City of Philadelphia along with the warden and eight guards for civil rights violations, said he was innocent of the assault but singled out for a severe beating because he was a leader of the gang blamed for the attack. The scars on his shaved head confirmed that he'd been hit. Why the guards had tuned him up remained in sharp dispute at the end of a three-day jury trial in the US District Court. Treated to a liars' festival of contradictory correction officers and convicts, the jury of suburban housewives and retirees ruled in favor of the defendants. My client went back to Graterford State Prison to serve out his sentence. I went back to practicing employment law, where my clients were only accused of unfairly firing people.

In 1660 Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher, wrote Leviathan, in which he justified Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship after the English Civil War by presenting a picture of primitive man in a state of nature. Leviathan is a world of unceasing warfare where every man's hand is raised against every other. Having read Hobbes in college, I only appreciated his point after representing Edward X in his civil rights lawsuit. For some six months in 1989 I glimpsed -- during personal visits to the prison and through the testimony of guards and prisoners -- a world of warring tribes ... Fruits of Islam, Aryan Brothers, and, yes, the guards as well.

During the past two weeks, as ever-more horrific pictures and stories emerged from Abu Ghraib Prison, Edward X v. City of Philadelphia et al. has been much on my mind. How, the shocked and incredulous have asked, could Americans have committed those atrocities? Old Tom Hobbes, who saw society for the slaughterhouse it is, wouldn't be surprised by the Abu Ghraib images. Nor am I surprised ... only saddened.

Better than Hobbes, Edward X and Big Red taught me 15 years ago that, even during normal times and on American soil, a prison is a swarming jungle in which every inmate is armed -- whether with a shank or a sock weighted down by old radio batteries -- and violence lies crouched behind every cruel word and provocative gesture. The correction officers, members of a paramilitary "tribe" if ever there was one, take their cues from above. That's why Edward X was allowed to sue Philadelphia and Holmsburg's warden, along with the guards he said assaulted him. Edward's three days in court confirmed the rule of law and probably discouraged the defendants from future excessive violence, even though the jurors finally found in their favor; this time, their verdict implied, the guards' use of force was not excessive under the facts jurors chose to believe. But maybe next time ...

But what if the "next time" is in a war zone? What if the word from on high -- explicit or only implied -- is "soften these prisoners up" for a successful interrogation? What if the prisoners have no civil rights? And what if the contract mercenaries assigned to work with you are subject neither to the American nor the Iraqi criminal code?

Another famous, old English philosopher (and lawyer), Thomas More, warned that, if you chop down the trees which are our laws, the wind just might blow you over. Pick the analogy you prefer. Either way, without laws and leaders standing in their way, even decent young Americans -- when left alone in the jungle -- can become savages.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia lawyer and writer, is associate provost at Rider University and president of Pinnacle Employment Law Institute, an advocacy organization.

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