PEOPLE ARRESTED for political reasons are often more likely to be mistreated by their jailers than ordinary criminals. While police in many countries may hassle, threaten or strike a prisoner to obtain a confession to, say, murder or robbery, a political prisoner often provokes a stronger reaction. Perhaps it is because he represents a threat to the establishment that the police uphold, or because he comes from a despised class or advocates controversial ideas. Such a prisoner is often the target of humiliating abuse, emotionally charged assault and even torture.

South Africa now verges on revolution, and violence is an everyday occurrence. Since January more than 7,500 persons have been arrested, most of them under the provisions of new emergency security regulations. In addition, the police have been given a blanket immunity in this crisis, saving them from prosecution or civil lawsuit on account of any act committed while carrying out their duties. It is in this framework that charges of abuse of prisoners have begun to mount. The latest report appears in a memorandum published by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an American organization working to provide legal assistance to the detainees.

The Lawyers' Committee report charges that police brutality is occurring on a "massive scale," with prisoners being hooded, beaten, given electric shocks and subjected to death threats. Specific examples of more ingenious tortures are described in affidavits, and the first-person accounts of a black minister, pharmacist, labor organizer and others are reproduced.

This police misconduct is not openly tolerated by all white South Africans. One young physician, Dr. Wendy Orr, who works in the Port Elizabeth district prisons, filed suit with 43 churchmen and relatives of detainees and won a temporary restraining order against the police. The judge also ruled that police immunity did not extend to wanton assaults on those in custody. According to the Lawyers' Committee, however, routine abuse of prisoners continues outside the Port Elizabeth area. By these practices, South Africa deepens its isolation and its shame.