May 24, 2004
I had a curious reaction when I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison photo, of a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring. I thought of the Sacramento, Calif., city jail.
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 them they were about to be electrocuted.
But the similarities between the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and the treatment of prisoners in the United States go well beyond Sacramento.
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 is casual and, in some locations, almost routine. So when I saw the photos from Abu Ghraib, I was sickened, but I wasn't surprised.
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, which included scenes of guards encouraging dogs to bite inmates.
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, which are notorious for requiring inmates to wear pink underwear.
When I saw the photos of the naked bodies restrained in grotesque positions, I thought of the Utah prison system. I remembered that Michael Valent, a mentally ill prisoner, died after spending 16 hours nude in a restraint chair in a Utah prison in March 1997.
When I read the report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba that there was "credible evidence" that inmates suffered forced sodomy "with a chemical light and possibly a broom handle, " I found a 1998 article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which reported that guards at the Greene County prison sodomized inmates with nightsticks and conducted "nude searches in which every body orifice is examined in full view of other guards and prisoners."
When I read in Amnesty International's report of "prolonged forced standing and kneeling" in Iraqi military prisons, as well as "excessive and cruel use of shackles and handcuffs," I thought of the abusive use of restraint chairs, boards, and cuffs in U.S. prisons. Some people have been restrained in chairs for up to eight days. And at one prison for women in Alabama, "inmates have been handcuffed to the rail for up to a day," according to Amnesty International.
When I read in The Washington Post that prisoners in Iraq were cuffed and tied down for so long they ended up urinating on themselves, I recalled what happened at the Utah State Prison. Amnesty International reported that an inmate there "was shackled to a steel board on a cell floor in four-point metal restraints for 12 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."
When I read in the Guardian of London that senior U.S. military officers "admitted that rape had taken place" against Iraqi women, I thought of Amnesty's 1998 report on the treatment of women in U.S. jails and prisons. Many women, the report said, "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."
And when I saw that the Red Cross and Time magazine had mentioned suspicious deaths of Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S. military, I remembered that 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 15 by 2002, according to Amnesty International.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics says in U.S. prisons, in 2001 and 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 30.
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 look all too American to me.
Anne-Marie Cusac is the investigative reporter for The Progressive magazine (www.progressive.org), based in Madison, Wis. She won a George Polk in 1996 for her work on the stun belt. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.