May 08, 2004

The Real Scandal

Just the other day, I documented the decades-long history of severe abuse and officially-sanctioned rape in prisons here in the United States. Today, The New York Times discusses some of these same issues.

What the story makes indisputably clear is where the real nature of the Iraq abuse-torture scandal lies: it does not lie in the fact that it occurred at all, or that it supposedly involved only "a few" aberrant U.S. personnel. No: the true scandal lies in the fact that, given the history of prison abuse and rape here in the United States, and given how the U.S. went about reconstituting the criminal justice and prison system in Iraq --and given the particular individuals they selected for positions of authority and power -- the current scandal was the logical and inevitable result.

In other words, the current scandal was completely predictable, and in fact unavoidable, for anyone who was paying attention -- and for anyone who thought about these issues at all. Those qualifications would appear to exclude everyone in the current administration. That alone is grounds to fire every single one of them, either now or in the November elections.

Here are some excerpts from the Times article:
Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates.

In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison. In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation.

At Virginia's Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates have reported being forced to wear black hoods, in theory to keep them from spitting on guards, and said they were often beaten and cursed at by guards and made to crawl.

The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates. Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.

The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq as part of a team of prison officials, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to rebuild the country's criminal justice system.

Mr. McCotter, 63, is director of business development for Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based firm that says it is the third-largest private prison company, operating 13 prisons. In 2003, the company's operation of the Santa Fe jail was criticized by the Justice Department and the New Mexico Department of Corrections for unsafe conditions and lack of medical care for inmates. No further action was taken.

In response to a request for an interview on Friday, Mr. McCotter said in a written statement that he had left Iraq last September, just after a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Abu Ghraib. ...

In a 1999 opinion, Judge Justice wrote of the situation in Texas, "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions."

In a case that began in 2000, a prisoner at the Allred Unit in Wichita Falls, Tex., said he was repeatedly raped by other inmates, even after he appealed to guards for help, and was allowed by prison staff to be treated like a slave, being bought and sold by various prison gangs in different parts of the prison. The inmate, Roderick Johnson, has filed suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Mr. Johnson.
And note this well:
Asked what Mr. Bush knew about abuse in Texas prisons while he was governor, Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said the problems in American prisons were not comparable to the abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib.
Really? Why not? They appear to be precisely identical in many, if not most, fundamental ways.

These words of Ashcroft's now have a particularly awful and unintended resonance to them:
When Mr. Ashcroft announced the appointment of the team to restore Iraq's criminal justice system last year, including Mr. McCotter, he said, "Now all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land, and we will help make that freedom permanent by assisting them to establish an equitable criminal justice system based on the rule of law and standards of basic human rights."

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Monica Goodling, did not return phone calls on Friday asking why Mr. Ashcroft had chosen Mr. McCotter even though his firm's operation of the Santa Fe jail had been criticized by the Justice Department.
These additional details should also be noted:
In Utah, in addition to the death of the mentally ill inmate, Mr. McCotter also came under criticism for hiring a prison psychiatrist whose medical license was on probation and who was accused of Medicaid fraud and writing prescriptions for drug addicts.

In an interview with an online magazine,, last January, Mr. McCotter recalled that of all the prisons in Iraq, Abu Ghraib "is the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison. They had cell housing and segregation."

But 80 to 90 percent of the prison had been destroyed, so Mr. McCotter set about rebuilding it, everything from walls and toilets to handcuffs and soap. He employed 100 Iraqis who had worked in the prison under Saddam Hussein, and paid for everything with wads of cash, up to $3 million, that he carried with him.

Another problem, Mr. McCotter quickly discovered, was that the Iraqi staff, despite some American training, quickly reverted to their old ways, "shaking down families, shaking down inmates, letting prisoners buy their way out of prison."

So the American team fired the guards and went with former Iraqi military personnel. "They didn't have any bad habits and did things exactly the way we trained them."
Don't be distracted by the inconsequential fact that McCotter left Iraq last September. That doesn't matter.

What does matter is that he was selected in the first place -- and that the entire system and culture of incarceration that he represents appears to have been transplanted intact from America to Iraq. And that system and that culture is one that relies on physical abuse, including rape, as a key means of prisoner control. That story has been a neglected scandal here at home for far too long -- and now the scandal has erupted in Iraq, as well.

As I said in my earlier post about U.S. prisons, it is long past time for people to wake up and face the truth about all this. It is a national disgrace of enormous proportions that the U.S. part of this story has been neglected for so long. Thus, inadvertent though it obviously was (in terms of drawing attention to these matters), the fact that these ghastly practices have now been carried into Iraq may finally shed some light on them.

There is one other aspect of this story that deserves extended attention: the use, both here and in Iraq, of humiliation based in the abhorrence of homosexuality. It is not true, as so many would prefer to believe, that our forces in Iraq use this particular means of humiliation only because of certain Muslim views of homosexuality. Remember the telling detail from the story excerpted above: "male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation." This practice in Phoenix has nothing to do with Muslim beliefs.

Such means of humiliation, which are reported with great regularity here in the United States (if one cares to read about them), arise out of our own culture's view of homosexuality: that it is disgusting, that it represents "weakness" in some unspecified way, and that it represents a failure of "masculinity." These views then serve as the basis for particularly heinous acts of humiliation, which serve to "break" the prisoner by making him appear to be one of the supposedly disgusting and "weak" homosexuals, whether or not he is in fact.

I will discuss these particular issues further, in a separate entry.