info 04.27.09

Shower Baths
"Let them go to swell the rubbish of buried barbarisms."

Why exactly are we continuing to have this conversation about waterboarding? Nearly 100 years before the Geneva Conventions were signed, the question of waterboarding was asked and answered.

Waterboarding, and its 19th century rough equivalent called a 'shower bath', can be traced back to the Spanish Inquisition; it was in the 1800s that there was enough revulsion against the practice that some countries banned it.

In New York State, the Prison Association of NY (now the Correctional Association of NY) was formed in 1844 with the mission of improving prison conditions and prisoner treatment, particularly at Auburn, Clinton and Sing Sing. (More info can be found here).

It was much needed. Harper's Weekly described the various punishments meted out to unruly prisoners, with the shower bath the most dreaded. Prisoners receiving it were either standing or essentially in a stockade, pinioned at the arms, legs, and neck. "The string is then pulled, and the stream falls. If the convict does not keep his head well erect, with his mouth as high above water as his position will allow, he will suffocate. Indeed his attitude and the machine are such that he feels perpetually in imminent danger of suffocation."

The NY Times wrote in 1852 that, "Nothing was ever more distinctly manifested by legal enquiry, than that the shower-bath is a barbarous engine of torment." The Auburn's prison physician said the shower baths were "a modification of the water punishments of the Spanish Inquisition, and will as certainly extort truth or falsehood from the sufferer, either to gratify the wishes or confirm the suspicions of a keeper of Auburn prison."

Nevertheless, in Auburn Prison alone during 1852, the warden recorded the shower bath punishment being used 223 times.

After an inmate was killed during a cold-water shower bath in 1869, there was a riot at Sing Sing protesting the shower bath, other tortures, and prison conditions. That same year, legislation was passed to forbid water torture in prisons.

At the time, the Prison Association wrote: "Away with the … lash, shower-bath, yoke, buck, hooks, and the whole array of degrading and torturing devices, in which the perverse ingenuity of man has been so fertile. Let them go to swell the rubbish of buried barbarisms."

And when you hear 'yes, but waterboarding is effective', it's a reminder that the barbarians are at the sluices.

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