Are Americans finally seeing the connections that the incidents of U.S. soldiers beating and humiliating detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison have direct parallels in patterns of inmate abuse reported in our own state and local prison systems?
For some of us, the answer is yes. The Abu Ghraib news has triggered the biggest wave of interest in U.S. penal conditions in many years, says Kara Gotsch, spokesperson and trend-watcher for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
Careful media watchers can hardly miss the direct Iraqi-U.S. penal connections, highlighted by The New York Times' Fox Butterfield, The Washington Post's David Finkel and others.
Lane McCotter, selected by Attorney General John Ashcroft to head a team of Americans to reopen Iraq's prisons, was forced in 1997 to resign as director of Utah's prisons after a case in which a mentally ill inmate died after guards left him shackled naked to a restraining chair for 16 hours. McCotter is the official who suggested that Abu Ghraib be used as the main U.S. prison in Iraq, and directed training of the guards there.
Charles Graner, called the ringleader of the guards who assaulted and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, was formerly a guard at State Correctional Institution in southwestern Pennsylvania. An inmate accused Graner of slipping a razor blade into his food, then joining with other guards in punching, kicking and slamming him to the floor. When the inmate yelled "Stop, stop," one of the guards said: "Shut up ... before we kill you." Among other allegations made at the same facility: guards beat prisoners, spit in their food, wrote "KKK" in one beaten prisoner's blood.
Are such incidents highly isolated in American prisons? Not likely. More than 40 state prison systems have been under court order in recent decades to remedy conditions of overcrowding, poor food or lack of care, according to Marc Mauer of the Washington-based Sentencing Project.
During much of the time George W. Bush was governor of Texas, state prisons there were under a federal consent decree. U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice wrote in a 1999 opinion: "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system."
Mauer cautions that while there have been "horrendous abuses" in American prisons, torture-like practices are far from the norm. The character of a prison's leadership is critical; even an overcrowded prison that sets clear rules and treats prisoners with respect can avoid abusive situations.
But there's an inherent problem, Mauer insists: "Prison is a degrading, humiliating, negative experience. Prisons keep people in cages against their will. Prisons are inherently tension-laden places."
And then factor in the pressures of rising inmate numbers and budgets. The United States now incarcerates a stunning 2.1 million people, one of every 143 residents. Facilities, notes the ACLU's Gotsch, are increasingly overcrowded, staffs stretched to the limit, training spotty, recruitment tough. Young guard recruits, just out of high school, may be paid as little as $16,000 to $18,000 a year while working in violent and hostile environments.
Then there's race. In 2002, 10 percent of black males age 20 to 39 (prime developmental and production years) were in prison, but only 2.4 percent of Hispanic males and 1.2 percent of white males the same age.
Increasingly, prisons aren't close to inmates' homes and relatives, but in distant rural areas. Prisons are a big growth industry in rural America about 350 new ones since 1980, representing more than half of all new prison construction.
So what do we get? Overwhelmingly white, rural guards using state-sanctioned lethal force to imprison a heavily black inmate population. The result is a huge cultural chasm. And as it has been through American history, whites are in control as they were during our long national history with slavery, as they were from the 1870s to the 1920s, when lynchings of African Americans were widely tolerated in the Deep South and some Northern states too.
As for Muslim inmates, American guards rubbing pork on their dishes didn't just occur in Abu Ghraib; it has happened in U.S. prisons too.
It's clear we Americans have a huge problem on our hands. We passed and maintain harsh sentencing policies that reach far beyond the truly dangerous criminals who clearly need to be kept locked up. We consistently ignore the tensions, the brutality, the racism engendered in our prisons. We fail to pursue alternatives to incarceration very seriously. No national leaders step forward with a clear, effective reform strategy.
Abu Ghraib blew the whistle on us the whole world knows what can happen in an American-run prison. But are we listening ourselves? Will we change?
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.
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