01 December 2010

No escape from Christmas music

In working with the imprisoned singer Lapiro de Mbanga over the last several weeks, I have had occasion to reflect on one of the unusual cruelties of being confined in a room with dozens of other people, day and night: the noise. Inescapable disturbance and sleep deprivation caused by constant noise are no doubt part of the reason that the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners–a non-binding agreement adopted in 1955 and approved in resolutions in 1957 and 1977–call for private sleeping quarters for all prisoners.

Noise is a perpetual cellmate not just in the prisons of the developing world. Overcrowding is an enormous problem in United States. The U.S. stands out among rich democratic countries not only in having the largest prison population and the highest per capita rate of incarceration, but also in not having an independent federal agency that ensures minimal standards of health, safety and humane treatment. For this reason, in addition to the fact that convicts in 48 of 50 states are deprived of the right to vote, most reform of the penal system has come about through lawsuits brought by prisoners themselves. The case of Hutto v. Finney, for example, which was eventually heard before the Supreme Court in 1978, concerned an Arkansas institution known as Cummings Farm in which prisoners slept in 100-man barracks.

Six lawsuits by inmates of Maricopa County Jails in Arizona have failed to stop the seasonal aural abuse by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and who once again this year began broadcasting Christmas songs into his institutions 12 hours a day, every day. The plaintiffs claimed that the forced exposure to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" and "Feliz Navidad" constituted cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of religious liberty. In dismissing the case last November, District Judge Roz Silver said that Sheriff Arpaio was free to “inject the holiday spirit into the lives of those incarcerated over the holiday season . . . ." The self-styled "toughest sheriff in America" has described his holiday selection as inclusive and multicultural, featuring "A Christmas Kwanzaa Solstice" and "Ramadan" alongside selections by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but he goes gooey over Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Saccharine, childish, mind-numbingly monotonous, much of the popular Christmas playlist would not be out of place in the U.S. Army's repertoire–which includes Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I Love You”–for use in disorienting and demoralizing detainees. Professional military interrogators call it "futility music."

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