The titles of others have a simple, timeless quality, viz. the "Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners," or the "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners."

All of the agreements I reviewed seem to say that conditions in Maricopa County jails, as described by an official U.S. Justice Department report, constitute serious violations of international human rights standards--the types of violations the United States government is always attributing to the North Koreans or Cubans or Iraqis or mainland Chinese. Under the Geneva Convention, it seems, even prisoners of war are supposed to receive better treatment than U.S. citizens have been getting at Sheriff Arpaio's jail.

I know that international law is a tricky subject, though, so I called an expert on these situations. I called Amnesty International.

Over the phone, William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., seems a careful, precise person. In fact, he agreed to comment only if I made it clear that his remarks were based on the assumption that the Justice Department's conclusions about Maricopa County jails are true. So let me make it clear. Neither William Schulz nor Amnesty International has studied Maricopa County jails. It is the Justice Department that has investigated Sheriff Arpaio's jails and found them revolting. (That investigation is continuing.)

Although the Justice Department sent its initial findings on the jails to Maricopa County officials in the summer, for some reason the most interesting findings are seldom discussed in daily newspapers. I don't know why this is; perhaps editors more sensitive than I think details of the report will spoil breakfast for weak-stomached subscribers. They may be right.

For whatever reasons, Schulz knew Sheriff Arpaio's name and had read of the recent riot at Arpaio's Tent City jail, but was unaware that the federal government had made an official pronouncement that Sheriff Joe's detention officers had been behaving barbarically. So I recounted a modest amount of the barbarism for him. It included:

* Strapping inmates in chairs and using electrical stun guns to shock their testicles and other body parts.

* Handcuffing prisoners, then punching and kicking them.
* Hog-tying inmates--that is, cuffing their hands and feet behind their backs and then tying the cuffs together (from time to time, the report notes, this method of restraint kills the "hog").

* Letting seriously injured and sick inmates languish days or weeks before they are seen by doctors.

Although I could tell he did not like what the Justice Department had reported about Arpaio's jails, Schulz responded to the report in measured tones.

"There is absolutely no question that what the Justice Department has described constitutes very serious violations of human rights and human rights covenants to which the United States is signatory," Schulz said.

I thought I understood his point ("I am so horrified by what I just heard that I can only speak in extremely formal language"), but I wanted to be certain. So I asked a question so direct it was almost rude: What would Amnesty International do if it learned that prisoners were being--say--strapped down and shocked in the nuts somewhere outside the United States?

"Those practices are something Amnesty has denounced in other countries," Schulz responded.

I waited a moment, hoping he would come up with an example, and he did: China. Amnesty International vehemently protested, Schulz recalled, when the Chinese government used electrical shock on the genitalia of defiant monks and nuns in Tibet. The Chinese communists didn't target only genitals, Schulz explained; they sometimes hot-wired the ear canals of religious men and women who were misbehaving. (Or was it misbelieving?)

After a few seconds of imagining what high-voltage electricity would feel like inside of my ear, I changed the subject slightly: If the Justice Department report on Maricopa County jails were accurate, it seemed to me that Sheriff Arpaio's jailers might be judged to have engaged in torture. Could that be? Official torture in Phoenix, Arizona?

But Schulz could not help me with this question.
Now, if the Justice Department report were correct, jailers here had clearly violated the human rights of inmates at the county jails. After all, Amnesty International's most recent annual report criticized South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia, among other nations, for the use of electric shock on restrained prisoners.

So there really couldn't be much doubt: Maricopa County detention officers had subjected inmates in Phoenix jails to the type of cruel, degrading treatment that the nations of the world had banded together to denounce as inhumane.

But torture . . . well, Schulz insisted on being careful about using that word. Whether mistreatment of prisoners constitutes torture, Schulz explained, "is a subtle and subjective judgment." Generally speaking, he said, an activity cannot be considered torture unless it causes an extreme level of pain and is repeated in a regular fashion or is aimed at a particular purpose--extracting confessions, for example.

Shocking the genitals of restrained prisoners would certainly cause the requisite pain, Schulz said. So could punching or kicking them. But the Justice Department report gives no clear indication as to whether the shocking of the testicles of restrained inmates in Maricopa County jails has been systematic, or aimed at a general purpose. Neither does the report say how regularly inmates have been kicked and punched while under restraint.

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