The Georgian Prison Scandal: This Is Democracy

This week, Georgia’s prisons were reformed.

This could never happen in America. There is no event that would cause every prison guard to be suspended, that would cause the police to be sent in to run America’s prisons, that would cause conditions to improve overnight.

In California – arguably America’s most liberal state – the state prisons were so bad that the US Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional last year because it was “incompatible with human dignity.” By all accounts, the city and county prisons could be even worse. And that’s just what we know about. The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate and in 2008 over 17,000 minors were sexually abused in America’s prisons.

Two weeks ago, all indications were that Georgia was aspiring to be just like America (in this as in so many other ways). Then a series of videos depicting prisoner abuse went viral, and suddenly Georgians were up in arms.

Well, not arms. The Georgian people protested, exercising their democratic right to peaceably assemble and petition their government for the redress of grievances.

In response, the Georgian government did not crack down on protesters (like the American government does) by putting up “free speech zones” and infiltrating dissident groups with undercover police officers and illegal warrantless wiretaps and email hacks. The Georgian government did not deploy the secret police (as in Syria, an actual dictatorship) to brutally murder random civilians in retribution for the demonstrations.

Instead, the Georgian government suspended the prison guards, ousted the people responsible from the government – right up to the Cabinet level with the resignations of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze and Bacho Akhalaia – and took immediate steps to prevent future abuses.

Again – this would never happen in the U.S. Could anyone imagine even one Cabinet-level resignation in the U.S. over a prisoner abuse scandal? President Bush didn’t accept Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation after Abu Ghraib, and no one’s even thinking of resigning over all of this.

The Georgian people are angry. Outraged. As well they should be. However, it must be noted that this information was in the public record, reported on to Georgian Parliament year after year, and no one cared to do anything about it until now.

This is what democracy is. The people demanded action, and the government took action. When the people were content to leave things be, the government let things be.

A lot of Georgians seem to think that democracy means having a virtuous government. It does not. Democracy means having a government that responds to the will of the people.

Some people have pointed out that the timing of this episode – two weeks before an election – is suspicious. Some say that President Saakashvili was content to allow abuses and has only now made changes because the election is coming. That may be so – but that’s the point of having elections. Elections are the incentive for politicians to do what the people demand. Politicians are supposed to govern in such a way as to convince the people to vote for them.

But of course it’s not just about elections. It’s about exercising those rights to assemble and to speak and to petition your representatives. It’s about what Georgians did this week just as much as what they’re going to do next week.

Democracy is a tough responsibility. For years, Georgians have benefited from incorruptible police officers and one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Georgians knew that meant locking up a huge number of people – about 1 person in 187; the fourth highest in the world per capita – and in a small country like Georgia with large extended family connections, almost everyone knows someone who knows someone in prison.

In other words, the Georgian people may not have directly seen video evidence of prison abuses, but they heard reports about them. For a time, they did nothing, and neither did their government Now, they’ve chosen to act – and I have to give them credit because in the US there are no mass protests over prisoner mistreatment – and their government acted as well. Hopefully, the Georgian people have learned that they cannot stand by and allow injustice to occur – that they all bear the burden and responsibility of making sure that their government governs with justice and respect for human dignity, and that if they abdicate this responsibility, they will end up like Americans: a nation in decline, whose leaders offer no real alternatives in terms of substantial policy, whose people sit by and allow the senseless torture and slaughter of millions of people throughout America and the world in their name (that is, when they’re not cheering it on).

It’s nice to live in a country that’s discovering the power of democracy, rather than spurning it.

And to the cynics who say that things will go back to normal right after the elections: don’t let them. Keep investigating. Keep listening to the NGO reports and the Ombudsman’s reports. Keep marching. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Democracy is a tough responsibility, and a constant one, but the payoff can be magnificent.

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7 Responses to The Georgian Prison Scandal: This Is Democracy

  1. Anonymous says:

    With prison reform you cannot compare a country of 4.7 million people with that of over 300 million. Liberals point to nations like Norway as an example of humane prisoner treatment. But again, Norway is not only a small nation, but a relatively homogeneous one. Organizing and maintaining a prison system is far easier when you’re only dealing with 10,000 or so prisoners nationwide. It’s better to compare nations like Brazil, Russia, and China to the United States, nations with similarly large populations and complex crime/immigration problems. Georgia simply doesn’t have a systemic and violent criminal element like the aforementioned countries. I’d like to see a liberal Disneyland like Norway deal with prisoners from San Quentin—i.e. Aryan Brotherhood members, Chicano gangsters, drug kingpins.

    Now, you can certainly argue that elements of American culture contribute to the violence on the streets, and create hardened criminals. I’d most likely agree with your points. But the prison system is a response to that environment. Hardened criminals beget hardened prisons.

    Most Americans appreciate the level of violence in their country. And that’s why they tend to uphold the punishment model, rather than the Continental model of rehabilitation. Prison is meant to be a terrifying, horrible place under the punishment model, not a place where you learn job skills and finger paint.

    That Americans are unwilling to change this system isn’t really a legitimate critique against their democratic values. They don’t want to change it. Perhaps this makes Americans backwards or medieval, but it doesn’t make them less democratic.

    • panoptical says:

      “Georgia simply doesn’t have a systemic and violent criminal element like the aforementioned countries”

      Sorry to be blunt, but you’re talking out of your ass here.

      I’m not sure what you think you know about Brazil, Russia, China, or Norway, but you clearly don’t know the first thing about Georgia. Ten years ago most of Georgia was controlled by the mafia and the parts that weren’t were ruled by a corrupt police force who were frankly little to no better than the mafia. The thieves-in-law may not have participated in ethnic gang warfare, but they were certainly systemic and violent and it seems unlikely that they would behave any differently now if Georgia were to let them out of prison.

      “Organizing and maintaining a prison system is far easier when you’re only dealing with 10,000 or so prisoners nationwide.”

      “Prison is meant to be a terrifying, horrible place under the punishment model, not a place where you learn job skills and finger paint.”

      Okay, so which is it? Is it that America can’t fix its prisons, or that America’s prisons are exactly how they should be? I’m used to people who try to turn every issue into an excuse to deride liberals contradicting themselves from one argument to the next, but you’ve managed to do it in a single comment.

      “They don’t want to change it.”

      I’m assuming you don’t have any data to back up this claim. You might want to look at the recent Pew Report on public opinion on corrections (.pdf) which finds that the vast majority of Americans support prison reform. The fact that it’s not happening, or is happening but at a glacial pace, despite widespread public support, is an indication that American democracy is broken. One indication of many, that is.

      • Anonymous says:

        “Ten years ago most of Georgia was controlled by the mafia and the parts that weren’t were ruled by a corrupt police force who were frankly little to no better than the mafia.”

        Emphasis on the past tense. Since the Rose Revolution Georgia is among the safest countries in the world. Tbilisi is among Europe’s safest major cities. Try visiting Camden, East St. Louis, Rio de Janeiro, Tijuana, Barcelona, Guatemala City, or Moscow at 2am in the shady districts. There you’ll find real violence. Chances are you’ll be mugged—and that’s a good outcome. If you think any part of Georgia is unsafe then you’ve never been anywhere truly dangerous. (We’re talking street crime, not separatist groups.)

        Brazil and Russia in particular have homicide rates that far eclipse the rest of the world, including the US. Georgia doesn’t deal with a crippling drug trafficking problem. There simply isn’t much of an organized crime presence no matter how you spin it. And even if mafioso still exist in Georgia, they’re not battling it out in the streets like they are in other countries.

        “Okay, so which is it? Is it that America can’t fix its prisons, or that America’s prisons are exactly how they should be?”

        You’re confusing my assessment and how I see most Americans looking the at situation. I don’t think it’s possible to reform prisons with the current level of violence in the United States. And most Americans don’t really want to reform it. Those are two different points.

        Congratulations on possessing the ability to churn up some studies and polls from a Google search. But that Pew Research study has nothing to do with my argument, which is that Americans by and large desire to punish violent offenders. Those poll questions mainly ask opinions about non-violent offenders, which I assume means marijuana-related offenders and thieves. The average American wants to see murders and rapists punished severely—and many Americans want to see them outright executed.

        There’s no doubt problems in the US prison system. But given the complexity and size of the bureaucracy, it’s the best in the world if you compare it to similarly large nations like Brazil, China, and Russia.

        • panoptical says:

          Okay, I think I see what you’re saying now, but I still disagree.

          I think you’re suggesting that since Georgia is an extremely safe country, its people have little desire to see its prisoners abused; whereas since the US is a country with more dangerous spots, its people want to see prisoners raped/tortured/executed.

          I actually do think that Georgians are less bloodthirsty than Americans, but not because they view crime as less of a problem. I think Americans are desensitized to violence by American culture, which promotes war and torture and murder as easy solutions to every problem; I think Georgians – who are more likely to be victims of war than victors – connect violence with the tragedies they themselves have suffered.

          As for prison reform – yes, Americans may only want reform for non-violent offenders, but the point remains the same: about half of America’s prisoners are non-violent offenders, and most Americans want to move those people out of prisons faster. Most Americans don’t want people going into prison as non-violent offenders and coming out as violent criminals, which is what Americas prison system actually accomplishes. Most Americans don’t want some kid who smoked pot to be raped in a shower stall in juvie – which, as I said, seems to occur about 17000 times a year in America.

          And you’re right – America has a large and complex bureaucracy, which means that the will of the people – that these problems be fixed, that we spend less money on prisons, that we punish non-violent offenders effectively rather than turn them into hardened criminals – doesn’t get realized. I wouldn’t be bragging about the fact that America’s government is comparable to that of Russia or China when arguing for the idea that the US is a democratic country.

  2. Victor Oniani says:

    I agree with Panoptical that the Georgian government reacted swiftly and firmly to the prison protests; I also agree that sending the police to take over the prisons is a bold and daring move and surely an initiative that comes along the sacking of the entire Traffic Police Force in 2004; this initiative will be also given as an example of a drastic and successful reform in the future;
    I believe however that this reform should have happened long time ago and not as a knee jerk reaction to public outrage ten days before a major election.
    It makes no doubt that unlike in the US the torture of prisoners in Georgian prisons occurred with the blessing and protection of high ranking officials and this atmosphere of terror was a good tool in the hands of the prosecutors to conclude financially advantageous plea bargain deals with arrested people who were ready to pay any amounts to avoid time in prison.
    Now that the prison reform is underway it is vital to undertake simultaneously a reform of the judiciary that is totally bias and controlled by the all mighty Minister of Justice/Prosecutor General. Georgia will be on the right track ONLY when the judiciary will be totally independent.

    • panoptical says:

      It’s interesting because I have spoken to any number of Georgians about judicial reform – specifically the idea of jury trial – and many of them have said that jury trial could never work because the juries would never convict. This prison scandal sheds some light on why – regardless of what someone did, could you sentence them to be raped and beaten regularly? So I think that prison and judicial reform, in a sense, go hand-in-hand.

  3. Pingback: What To Expect When You’re Electing | Georgia On My Mind

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