“That isn’t what America stands for” has been the refrain of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al., as the horrifying Abu Ghraib prison atrocities hit the eyes of the world. Maybe it isn’t what America should stand for, but it is very often standard practice in the U.S. prison system to deny human rights to its “own” prisoners. Capitalists are unable to control struggling human beings without the tools of murder, torture, lies, misinformation, racism, exploitation, railroading, and all-out war. As well, capitalist America does stand quite often for torture in its own prisons.
There is a link between Abu Ghraib prison and the State Correctional Institution at Greene (SCI-Greene), a super-maximum-security prison in western Pennsylvania. On May 6, Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty (PAUADP) issued a press release revealing that Army Specialist Charles Graner, Jr., of Uniontown, Pa. – displayed to the world in photos (along with Pfc. Lynndie England) of piles of naked, dehumanized Iraqi men – is in civilian life a prison guard at SCI-Greene. It is the prison in which Mumia Abu-Jamal is being held (wrongly convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner). It holds most of Pennsylvania’s death row prisoners. Complaints of abuse have been reported repeatedly at SCI-Greene.
According to The New York Times, the 35-year-old reservist was called for active duty in Iraq on May 4, 2003. At that time, he was chosen by the U.S. military to work at Abu Ghraib because of his experience in the Pennsylvania prison system. Graner had worked at the state prison since 1996.
The PAUADP press release states, “Reports of prisoner abuse have plagued SCI-Greene since it opened less than a decade ago as a ‘shining jewel in the crown’ of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections [DOC].” It was in 1998 that a DOC investigation discovered “many instances of abuse of prisoners.” Internal videotapes showed instances of the abuse. The Greene County district attorney refused to prosecute the guards involved in some cases. Other alleged perpetrators received slaps on the wrist. According to a May 12 Associated Press story, Graner was accused in two separate 1999 lawsuits of abusing prisoners. The state attorney general’s office succeeded in getting one of the lawsuits dismissed.
Nicholas Yarris was housed on death row at SCI-Greene for 22 years. He had been convicted of the 1981 kidnap, rape and murder of Boothwyn, Pa., resident Linda Mae Craig. He was released Jan. 16, the first death row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence in Pennsylvania. After Graner was charged with torturing Iraqi prisoners, Yarris told reporters that he had been routinely stripped naked for cavity searches by Graner and other officers while at SCI-Green.
Yarris said, “We all learned if Charlie [Graner] was working in your cell block that day, you were in for a bad day. Seeing those photographs in Iraq with those prisoners was a tough reminder on how he used to torment, humiliate and abuse us, and then turn around to other guards and just laugh about it.” Indicating the problem at SCI-Greene, as at Abu-Ghraib, came from the top down, Yarris told the Uniontown, Pa., Herald-Standard, “It isn’t Charles [Graner]; it’s the people producing Charles … they think abuse is acceptable.”
PAUADP said in its press release, “Inmates and advocates for prisoner rights asserted in 1998 that guards at the prison routinely beat and humiliated prisoners, including through a sadistic game of Simon Says in which guards struck prisoners who failed to comply with barked instructions.” The group wonders if more aggressive investigation and a “zero-tolerance for abuse” policy by Pennsylvania DOC administrators might have prevented some of the inexcusable human rights abuses in Iraq that have “further disgraced the U.S. and increased the likelihood of future terrorist acts.”
Abu-Jamal wrote about abuse against prisoners at SCI-Greene from his death row cell there on May 4, 1998: “SCI-Greene was, and is, a creation of the state’s political will, with terrorism merely a tool of state policy.” He may as well have been talking about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay today. The fault lies at the feet of those who crafted an illegal preemptive war and who craft conditions in which people in the U.S. are railroaded into prison hell-holes and then tormented day after day.
Graner and the other U.S. soldiers being court-martialed, if found guilty, must pay for their criminality. Those who sanctioned the criminality must pay as well. As we watch the happenings around the trials, we must remember that the best way in the short term to show the world that the U.S. working class is against prisoner abuse both in the U.S. and all over the world is to vote out of office those who set up the conditions for abuse in Iraq and in U.S. prisons. Let’s really mean it when we say what America doesn’t stand for.
Barbara Jean Hope is a reader in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.