In Some US Prisons, Echoes of Abu Ghraib ; Complaints of Prisoner Abuse Crop Up at Home as Well as in Iraq - and May Now Get Attention

Article excerpt

"Simply stated, the culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the ... prison system violates contemporary standards of decency."

That conclusion, written by Judge William Wayne Justice, does not describe Abu Ghraib in Iraq last fall, but the Texas prison system in 1999 when George W. Bush was still governor there.

As courts-martial get under way in Baghdad for the prison-abuse scandal, critics are urging Americans to look inside their own criminal justice system for the root of the problems in Iraq.

On the surface, there are appear to be several parallels. One of the Abu Ghraib defendants, Spc. Charles Graner, is a former guard at a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania that has a history of prisoner abuse. Although accused, he was never found guilty. And Lane McCotter, a senior contractor brought in to reopen Abu Ghraib and train guards, was forced to resign as the head of corrections in Utah: A mentally ill inmate died there after being strapped naked to a restraining chair for more than 16 hours.

Indeed, inmates, human rights activists, and even some corrections officials contend that abuse, humiliation, and gang rape are common in some US prisons.

But after a generation of litigation and concerted efforts to increase the professionalism in the corrections establishment, American prisons have, in general, become far more humane. Few believe that the kind of extreme sexual humiliation that occurred in Abu Ghraib would be tolerated in most US prisons - at least not for long.

"I don't think abuse is common in American prisons, but there are some abuses in all American prisons," says Robert Johnson, a professor at American University in the department of Justice Law and Society. "And in some cases, the abuses can be widespread."

The renegades

It is in the so-called renegade prisons, and whole renegade jurisdictions, where some abuses may be even worse than those in Iraq. And there, experts say, the same factors will be at play that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"If you find one of those renegade prisons, you'll find there's a problem with leadership, that there are either abused or flawed policies or procedures, little or no training, and poor supervision," says Chase Riveland, a former corrections commissioner in Colorado and Washington State. "And when you combine that with a deviant culture, then you have problems like we saw in Iraq."

Prisons by nature are volatile, difficult places no matter where they are. People are held in cells, essentially cages, against their will by others who are charged with trying to keep them in line.

Overcrowding, a problem that has escalated in American prisons over the past 25 years as the prison population has quadrupled to more than 2.1 million, has intensified that tension between guards and inmates. It's also created fiscal pressures, leaving less experienced guards dealing with larger populations and fewer resources for education, rehabilitation, and recreation. And then there are cultural and racial gaps: Most US inmates are people of color from urban areas, while most prisons are in predominantly white rural areas.

Many of these same dynamics were at work in Abu Ghraib, where inexperienced American reservists were charged with guarding large numbers of Iraqi detainees. …