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When I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, of a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring, I thought of the Sacramento, California, city jail.
When I heard that dogs had been used to intimidate and bite at least one detainee at Abu Ghraib, I thought of the training video shown at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas.
When I learned that the male inmates at Abu Ghraib were forced to wear women's underwear, I thought of the Maricopa County jails in Phoenix, Arizona.
And when I saw the photos of the naked bodies restrained in grotesque and clearly uncomfortable positions, I thought of the Utah prison system.
Donald Rumsfeld said of the abuse when he visited Abu Ghraib on May 13, "It doesn't represent American values."
But the images from Iraq looked all too American to me.
I've been reporting on abuse and mistreatment in our nation's jails and prisons for the last eight years. What I have found is widespread disregard for human rights. Sadism, in some locations, is casual and almost routine.
Reporters and commentators keep asking, how could this happen? My question is, why are we surprised when many of these same practices are occurring at home?
For one thing, the photos of prison abuse in the United States have not received nearly the attention that the Abu Ghraib photos did. And maybe we have so dehumanized U.S. prisoners that we have become as distant from them as we are from foreign captives in faraway lands.
In February 1999, the Sacramento Sheriff's Department settled a class-action lawsuit alleging numerous acts of torture, including mock executions, where guards strapped inmates into a restraint chair, covered their faces with masks, and told the inmates they were about to be electrocuted.
When I read a report in The Guardian of London of May 14 that it had "learned of ordinary soldiers who . . . were taught to perform mock executions," I couldn't help but remember the jail.
Then there's the training video used at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas. In addition to footage of beatings and stun gun use, the videotape included scenes of guards encouraging dogs to bite inmates.
The jail system in Maricopa County is well known for its practice of requiring inmates to wear pink underwear, and it is notorious for using stun guns and restraint chairs. In 1996, jail staff placed Scott Norberg in a restraint chair, shocked him twenty-one times with stun guns, and gagged him until he turned blue, according to news reports. Norberg died. His family filed a wrongful lawsuit against the jails and subsequently received an $8 million settlement, one of the largest in Arizona history. However, the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing on the part of the jail.
The Red Cross also says that inmates at the Abu Ghraib jail suffer "prolonged exposure while hooded to the sun over several hours, including during the hottest time of the day when temperatures could reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher." Many of the Maricopa County Jail system inmates live outdoors in tent cities, even on days that reach 120 degrees in the shade. During last year's heat wave, the Associated Press reported that temperatures inside the jail tents reached 138 degrees.
Two of the guards at Abu Ghraib, Ivan L. (Chip) Frederick II and Charles Graner, had careers back home as corrections officers. Graner, whom The New York Times has described as one of "the most feared and loathed of the American guards" at Abu Ghraib, worked at Greene County Prison in Pennsylvania. According to a 1998 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, guards at the Greene facility behaved in ways that eerily anticipate the allegations from Abu Ghraib.
At Abu Ghraib, according to the investigation Major General Antonio M. Taguba carried out on behalf of the U.S. Army, there was "credible" evidence that one inmate suffered forced sodomy "with a chemical light and perhaps a broom handle." The Taguba report says U.S. soldiers were involved in "forcibly arranging detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing" and "forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped." Guards beat inmates and wrote insulting epithets on their bodies.
The Post-Gazette reported that guards at the Greene County prison beat inmates, sodomized inmates with nightsticks, and conducted "nude searches in which every body orifice is examined in full view of other guards and prisoners." An inmate claimed that guards had used his blood to write "KKK" on the floor.
Although twelve guards eventually lost their jobs, Graner was, according to The New York Times, "not involved in that scandal." A lawsuit by an inmate who had been held at Greene accused Graner of beatings and other mistreatment, though the lawsuit ended up being dismissed.
Guy Womack, attorney for Graner, told CNN, "And, of course, in Abu Ghraib what he did--which was bad enough--is he was following orders. So he did nothing that was wrong. He was following lawful orders." Womack failed to return several telephone calls from The Progressive requesting comment.
At the very least, Graner moved from one prison where abuse was commonplace to another. Abu Ghraib was a familiar environment.
In a Utah prison, Michael Valent, a mentally ill prisoner, died after spending sixteen hours nude in a restraint chair in March 1997. As it turns out, Valent's death has a connection to Abu Ghraib. Lane McCotter was serving as the director of the Utah State Prison system on the day that Valent was put in a restraint chair. After Valent died, McCotter resigned. Six years later, McCotter was in charge of reconstructing Abu Ghraib, though he has denied involvement in the abuses.
The point is not whether McCotter or Graner are personally responsible for Abu Ghraib. They are part of a well-established system.
In another incident reported by Amnesty International that happened during McCotter's watch, an inmate at the Utah State Prison "was shackled to a steel board on a cell floor in four-point metal restraints for twelve weeks in 1995. He was removed from the board on average four times a week to shower. At other times he was left to defecate while on the board. He was released from the board only following a court order."
A preliminary injunction banning the restraint chair in Ventura County, California, found that jail policy "allows deputies to require restrained arrestees to either urinate or defecate on themselves and be forced to sit in their own feces or 'hold it.' "
The practice of forcing prisoners to soil themselves allegedly occurred in Iraq, as well. On May 6, The Washington Post published a description of the abuses Hasham Mohsen Lazim said he had endured at Abu Ghraib. After guards beat, hooded, and stripped him, Lazim said, "Graner handcuffed him to the corner of his bed," where he remained for days. "We couldn't sleep or stand," Lazim told the paper. "Even to urinate, we had to do so where we sat."
A few days later, the Post reported similar allegations from Umm Qasr, where Satae Qusay, a chef, said he was forced to "urinate on himself when he was prohibited from using bathrooms."
One Iraqi prisoner says he was force-fed a baseball and claims also to have been urinated on.
While most of the allegations from Abu Ghraib describe the torture and mistreatment of men, Iraqi women have also been subjected to rape behind bars, according to The Guardian. "Senior U.S. military officers who escorted journalists around Abu Ghraib . . . admitted that rape had taken place in the cellblock where nineteen 'high-value' male detainees are also being held," the paper reported in May.
Here, too, there is a resemblance between the reports coming out of Iraq and incidents at prisons and jails in the United States. In 1999, Amnesty International reported, "Many women in prisons and jails in the USA are victims of sexual abuse by staff, including sexually offensive language; male staff touching inmates' breasts and genitals when conducting searches; male staff watching inmates while they are naked; and rape."
"That was not part of my sentence, to . . . perform oral sex with the officers," Tanya Ross, who was jailed in Florida, told Dateline NBC in 1998.
Amnesty International has reports of "prolonged forced standing and kneeling" in Iraqi military prisons, as well as allegations of "the excessive and cruel use of shackles and handcuffs" at Guantánamo. Again, the Iraqi allegations seem almost to be extracted from earlier Amnesty International writings on human rights in the United States.
In a 1998 report on the treatment of women in U.S. prisons, Amnesty International noted, "International standards restrict the use of restraints to situations where they are necessary to prevent escape or to prevent prisoners from injuring themselves or others or from damaging property. In the USA, restraints are used as a matter of course. A woman who is in labor or seriously ill, even dying, may be taken to a hospital in handcuffs and chained by her leg to the bed."
In an earlier report on the United States, Amnesty observed, "In Alabama, prisoners have sometimes been tied to a restraint pole (known as the 'hitching rail') as punishment, sometimes for hours in the sweltering heat or freezing conditions. At Julie Tutweiler Prison for Women in Alabama, inmates have been handcuffed to the rail for up to a day."
In a deposition from the case Rivera vs. Sheahan, et al., the Cook County Jail acknowledged that it would shackle a hospitalized inmate who was in a coma, reports Amnesty.
Abuses of restraints in the United States sometimes involve different technologies from those apparently in use among some soldiers in Iraq these days. According to a 1996 U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed against Iberia Parish Jail in Louisiana, one inmate allegedly spent eight days in a restraint chair. A pretrial settlement led the parish to stop using the chair.
In Iraq, the Red Cross evaluated people who had been subjected to solitary confinement, and the organization discovered indications of psychological damage. The group's medical delegate said Iraqi prisoners were "presenting signs of concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behavior, and suicidal tendencies. These symptoms appeared to have been caused by the methods and duration of interrogation."
In one case, an Iraqi prisoner who had been "held in isolation" proved to be "unresponsive to verbal and painful stimuli. His heart rate was 120 beats per minute and his respiratory rate eighteen per minute. He was diagnosed as suffering from somatoform (mental) disorder, specifically a conversion disorder, most likely due to the ill-treatment he was subjected to during interrogation."
Long-term use of solitary confinement happens in U.S. prisons all too often. Supermaxes are the most avid users of the technique. Prisoners at these ultra-high-security facilities often remain in isolation cells for nearly twenty-four hours a day. American prisoners also find long-term isolation psychologically traumatizing.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2000 on a woman who had spent nearly four years in the hole at the secure housing unit of California's Valley State Prison for Women. She claimed to have had no human contact except for food trays that came through a door slot and threats from the guards outside her cell. She also said that the guards often denied her sanitary pads and toilet paper.
In 2001, a class action lawsuit filed by inmates of the Supermax prison of Boscobel, Wisconsin, called the facility an "incubator of psychosis" and alleged that mental illness was "endemic" at the prison. A judge ordered the removal of all mentally ill inmates, which Ed Garvey, a court-appointed attorney in the case, says amounted to "about one-third of the prisoners." Some of the inmates at the Boscobel prison, including those who had the most severe reactions to their isolation, were juveniles.
"It was interesting that the International Red Cross was upset that prisoners were held more than thirty days in isolation and for twenty-three out of twenty-four hours," says Garvey. "In Boscobel, that's the case every day. In the standards of the International Red Cross," the prison at Boscobel is "out of compliance with the Geneva Convention, which doesn't apply as such, but it gives you a measuring stick."
The Red Cross mentioned deaths in prison in Iraq, and the Pentagon is now looking at the deaths of at least thirty-three detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of these deaths have already been ruled homicides.
Inmates have died in U.S. prisons and jails under suspicious circumstances, as well. U.S. deaths that occurred in connection with the use of restraint chairs alone numbered at least fifteen by 2002, according to Amnesty International. The Bureau of Justice Statistics is currently compiling information on the cause of death in custody in U.S. prisons and jails. Prisons and jails around the country are self-reporting the data as part of the bureau's new Death in Custody Data Collection Program. In U.S. prisons, in 2001 through 2002, there were eight homicides against inmates in custody that were not committed by other inmates. In U.S. jails, from 2000 through 2002, the number was thirty. The homicide numbers do not include deaths that result from such factors as poor medical treatment.
How could such things happen in the United States?
For one thing, since the early 1990s, American prisons have acquired a distinctly military cast. This influence is evident in boot-camp-style punishment, in prison technology, and also in prison and law enforcement conferences like the one I attended in 1996. That conference included long discussions on the ways military knowledge could help police and corrections to control crime. The sponsor of the conference, the American Defense Preparedness Association, was at the time sponsoring other conferences with such names as "Enhancing the Individual Warrior," "Undersea Warfare," and "Bomb and Warhead."
There is something else going on. Particularly in the last couple of decades, with the rise of ever-harsher criminal justice laws, Americans have become hardened to the people we put in detention or behind bars. We have acquired a set of unexamined beliefs: 1) people who land in jail deserve to be there; 2) criminals are bad people--almost subhuman--who can't be rehabilitated; 3) therefore, punishment can be as harsh as possible; and 4) we don't need or want to know the details. These beliefs are constantly reaffirmed--in the mouths of pundits, in our news media, in our TV shows and movies, even in video games. They may help to explain why revelations of prison and jail abuse in the United States, which have been numerous in the past two decades, can fall on deaf ears in this country even as they prompt protest abroad. The revelations at Abu Ghraib shock us because our soldiers abroad seem to have acted out behaviors that we condone, yet don't face up to, at home.
In conversations over the past few weeks, I have heard outrage and anger over the abuse at Abu Ghraib. I have rarely heard such reactions in connection with abuse of prisoners in the United States.
When we tolerate abuse in U.S. prisons and jails, it should not surprise us to find U.S. soldiers using similar methods in Iraq.
George Bush said he was exporting democracy to Iraq, but he seems to have exported a much uglier aspect of American public policy--some of the most sadistic practices employed in the U.S. prison system.