Abused Iraqis 'experienced standard fare of US jails'

By Salamander Davoudi

Published: May 29 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: May 29 2004 5:00

For weeks, the WhiteHouse has struggled to cope with the unfolding detainee-abuse scandal at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. The scandal has damaged many Americans' confidence in the war in Iraq, provoked demands for investigations and cabinet-level resignations, and weakened President George W. Bush's approval rating.

The controversy has obscured questions about where and how such tactics ever developed. US corrections experts and former inmates agree that the Iraqi detainees experienced the standard fare of US prisons, where authorities largely ignore abuse by guards, squalid conditions and danger from other inmates.

"In the United States there is an implicit mandate that our prisons really need to punish," said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "As far as many politicians are concerned rehabilitation and treatment are no longer a great concern."

"Just like in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, nakedness is often used in American prisons to humiliate and to punish," agrees Alan Elsner, author of Gates of Injustice,a study of corruption and brutality in US prisons.

"Dogs are often used to intimidate and bite. Sexual intimidation and abuse occurs not only between inmates but also between staff and inmates - it happens frequently," says Mr Elsner, a Reuters journalist. The "brutality of prison life" and widespread human rights violations pervade the US prison system, he says.

Specialist Charles Graner and Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, two Abu Ghraib guards now facing courts martial for alleged involvement in prisoner abuse, worked as former correctional officers in US prisons. The New York Times reported this month that Spc Graner once worked in a Pennsylvania prison where guards routinely beat and humiliated prisoners.

The Times also reported that Lane McCotter, who reopened Abu Ghraib last year, formerly ran the Utah department of corrections but was forced to resign in 1997 when a prisoner died while shackled naked to a chair for 16 hours.

Mr McCotter then joined a private prison security company before John Ashcroft, US attorney-general, sent a team of prison officials to rebuild Iraq's criminal justice system. Mr McCotter left Iraq when Abu Ghraib, a notorious torture centre under Saddam Hussein, reopened for US-held captives in September.

"There is no question that abuses take place in US prisons. It's the best-kept secret in the system," says Herbert Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a prison-reform organisation.

"The buzzword for the prison warden is population management," he says. "When you go to American correctional association conventions, it's all about technology and stun-guns and barbed wire, not care."

Nearly 2.1m people are held in US prisons today - an incarceration rate five to 10 times greater than that of any other democracy.

"Some people say there is the same level and type of abuse in US prisons [as in Iraq]. There is not," says Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch. "There is certainly abuse in US prisons, but the similarities with Abu Ghraib deal with the failure of leadership command or incidents where senior staff look the other way, which is taken as tacit approval."

The "lack of scrutiny and extreme secrecy that surrounds what goes on inside of prisons" tends to obscure the picture, Ms Fellner says.

Roderick Johnson, who served a three-year prison sentence in Texas' Allred Prison, said guards laughed at his complaints of repeated rape by other inmates.

"I was approached by gangs in prison and raped hundreds of times. I reported it nine times and each time the administration ignored me," Mr Johnson says. "They humiliated prisoners by stripping us down and making us stand around naked. There is a lot of abuse but there are no pictures to show like in Iraq."

Mike Viesca, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said: "We pursue our mission without the use of intimidation or inhumane treatment."