A brutal prison culture

Opinion

We have all seen the Abu Ghraib pictures, and steeled ourselves for worse to come. The brass are trying to fob this off as an aberration created by a few sadistic guards. Is this so?

Control over the prisoners was placed in the hands of a shadowy mix of military intelligence, “civilian contractors” and the CIA. The CIA has never been called to account for decades of mayhem and mass murder. In Vietnam, the CIA organized the murder of thousands of civilians thought to be against the United States (Operation Phoenix). In Latin America, the CIA trained many a local “interrogation expert” in the refinements of torture and degradation.

The civilian contractors are often adventurers hired to do the dirty work precisely because it is easier for them to avoid accountability for crimes they commit. For example, the civilian contractor employees in Iraq include many former members of South Africa’s apartheid-era death and torture apparatus, including the notorious “Koevoet” (crowbar) unit, which committed some of the worst crimes against the South African people.

But what about those members of the Abu Ghraib team who came from the U.S. criminal justice system? This is no source of comfort. The evil methods of “softening up” prisoners for interrogation (or for easier control) are widespread in the United States and in some places atrocities like those in Abu Ghraib, and worse, are standard practices.

In Illinois where I live, hardly a month goes by without a new scandal about such abuses. The best known is the saga of Jon Burge, a police commander who, through the 1980s and into the 90s, made a regular practice of torturing African-American prisoners in his South Side Chicago police station, mostly to get them to confess. Electroshock (applied to genitals, ear lobes, etc.), suffocation and near drowning were preferred because they left fewer signs on the body. Burge was fired after the scandal erupted, but was never prosecuted. Currently, a special prosecutor is investigating the Burge case. In 2002, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan released some of Burge’s victims from death row and put a moratorium on the death penalty.

Yet Burge could not have acted alone. His own and his subordinates’ activities in what came to be known as “the house of screams” were too well known. Prosecutors must surely have realized that they were presenting cases based on confessions extracted by torture. Implicated in this prosecutorial complicity are then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, now the mayor of Chicago, and present-day State’s Attorney Richard Devine, who then served under Daley.

Some writers have compared the U.S. sexual humiliation of prisoners in Iraq with Maricopa County, Ariz., where Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s made male prisoners parade around in pink female underwear. The person selected by Attorney General John Ashcroft to train prison guards in Iraq, Lane McCotter, was pushed out of his position as head of the Utah prison system in 1997 because of scandalously brutal conditions under his watch, which led to the death of a mentally ill prisoner who had been chained up naked for 16 hours. It is simply not believable that Ashcroft and others in the Bush administration did not know about McCotter’s background. Anyone who is up for an important government position these days is very carefully screened by the FBI. The Bush administration must not have cared, or perhaps they saw the brutality in McCotter’s resume as a “plus.”

Two of the worst abusers cited in the Abu Ghraib news reports had a corrections background. One, Spec. Charles Graner, worked at the Greene State Prison in Waynesburg, Pa., a notorious hellhole (where Mumia Abu Jamal is on death row).

“Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis” (Verso, 1999) by Christian Parenti depicts what may happen when you put stateside corrections officers in control of prisoners in a foreign country. He shows that prison authorities are often complicit in creating a prison culture that encourages homosexual rape (prisoner on prisoner), heterosexual rape (mostly male guards raping female prisoners), violent racial conflict and other forms of extreme brutality. Parenti and many others who have studied the situation conclude that this behavior is tolerated and even encouraged by prison authorities because it makes prisoners easier to control.

In one case cited by Parenti, California prison officials deliberately made use of a particularly vicious individual nicknamed the “Bootie Bandit” to control rebellious young male prisoners by raping them into submissiveness. The Bootie Bandit did not have to go looking for victims. Prison guards delivered them to his cell, and actually rewarded him for raping these men.

Although these things go on all the time in U.S. prisons, there is not nearly the public outcry about them that there has been concerning Abu Ghraib. What happened at Abu Ghraib constitutes war crimes. Surely what happens every day at the hands of police and prison authorities in the United States also are crimes against humanity, nothing less, and must be treated as such.



Emile Schepers is an activist in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.