"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
"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."
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. …