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May 27, 2004 - Straits Times Interactive (Asia - Web)

Some US Prisons As Bad As Abu Ghraib

by Robert Perkinson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AS MORE images of debased Iraqi detainees ricochet around the world, many viewers are as bewildered as they are outraged. How could ordinary American soldiers, whether they were following orders or acting on their own, appear so untroubled, even exhilarated by their brutish conduct?

To be sure, overeager military intelligence interrogators, as well as the Bush administration's highhanded attitude towards international law, helped precipitate the crisis. But few commentators have focused enough attention on the site of this macabre theatre - not a battlefield, but a prison.

Prison experts are the least surprised by the grotesque reports filtering out of Abu Ghraib. They recognise that prisons, as divisive and authoritarian institutions, regularly give rise to behaviour that appears depraved to the wider world but comes to seem acceptable - even normal - behind bars.

Indeed, some of the most publicised prison scandals have erupted in the United States, which incarcerates more people in absolute and per capita terms than any other country.

Compared to Saddam Hussein's murderous regime at Abu Ghraib, of course, American prisons are relatively well managed. But as mandatory sentencing rules have landed more and more Americans behind bars, incidents that bear a disquieting resemblance to the degenerate cruelties photographed in Iraq have come increasingly to light.

The connection is no accident. Some of the US scandals tie American prison personnel directly to Abu Ghraib.

Excessive Force

In Virginia, for instance, human rights advocates report that inmates at two 'supermax' prisons have been hooded and subjected to 'excessive and malicious use of force by prison staff', often involving electric shock devices and rubber bullets.

Mr John Armstrong, now the assistant director of operations for US prisons in Iraq, resigned from his previous post when he was named in two wrongful death lawsuits at one of those prisons. Sergeant Ivan Frederick, the man directly in charge of the infamous Abu Ghraib 'hard site', previously worked as a Virginia corrections officer.

In Pennsylvania, a 1998 inquiry into a supermax prison notorious for racist guards revealed videotapes of routine beatings and elaborate rituals of humiliation. Specialist Charles Graner, identified as a ringleader in the Abu Ghraib depravity, has worked at that prison since 1996.

Some of the worst abuses have surfaced in Texas, America's death penalty state and home to more prisoners than Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. When President George W. Bush was governor, a federal judge ruled that the state's entire penal system was pervaded by a 'culture of sadistic and malicious violence'. Texas prison guards regularly rely on excessive force, the judge concluded, officials ignore sexual enslavement and the state isolation units function as 'virtual incubators of psychoses'.

Despite this appalling record, the US occupation authorities in Iraq appointed a former director of the Texas prison system, Mr Lane McCotter, to help set up operations at Abu Ghraib in May last year. Two months earlier, Mr McCotter's private prison company was cited by the US Justice Department for lax supervision and mistreatment of inmates in a New Mexico jail. Before that, Mr McCotter led Utah's corrections department, but was forced to resign after the death of a schizophrenic inmate who had been stripped naked and strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours.

Ghastly Scandals

Of course, malicious imprisonment is by no means uniquely American. Even in Western Europe, which boasts the most rehabilitation-oriented penal systems, ghastly scandals erupt periodically.

In 2000, the chief physician at Paris's crumbling La Sante penitentiary, Dr Veronique Vasseur, wrote a scathing expose of 'virtually mediaeval' conditions, complete with rat infestations, rotten food, extreme temperature variations, desperate self-mutilations, bullying, drug-dealing guards, and widespread sexual assault, often perpetrated by staff.

According to a report last year, conditions have worsened since Dr Vasseur's report, and France's overcrowded prisons are on a 'descent to hell'.

Particularly troubling is France's protracted incarceration of pre-trial suspects. In a country that regards itself as a civilised counterweight to belligerent American hegemony, nearly half of all prisoners have never been convicted of a crime.

Why do prisons the world over concentrate such suffering and misconduct?

Partly by design.

Prisons herd together angry, unruly people against their will. While the best facilities provide programmes to help prisoners reintegrate into society, prisons also subject inmates to strict, often arbitrary discipline and depersonalising rituals like numbering and strip searches - practices that foster more rage than reformation.

On the other side of the bars, lowly paid, often poorly trained corrections officers exercise near-absolute authority over an irascible population. In time, even the most well-meaning come to regard their wards with cold detachment, if not dehumanising contempt.

Not all prisons succumb to these corrosive and polarising dynamics. But penologists recognise that certain factors - including overcrowding, insufficient guard training, detached management, shoddy infrastructure, racial tensions and lack of public accountability - make disaster almost inevitable.

Many of these conditions pervade prisons worldwide. All of them were present in Iraq - in addition to the strains of combat and officially approved interrogation techniques that senior US officials now admit violated the Geneva Convention. Rather than heed warnings from the Red Cross and others, however, Pentagon officials let dangerous prison dynamics spin out of control.

A flurry of investigations will now try to figure out what went disastrously awry at Abu Ghraib. But ensuring 'justice is done', as Secretary of State Colin Powell promised, means judgment must not stop at the low-ranking soldiers who were foolish enough to pose for demented snapshots. More important, the abuses in Iraq demand careful scrutiny of detention practices not only there, but in our own communities as well.

The writer is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii and is writing a book on the history of Texas prisons. Copyright: Project Syndicate.

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