Many people were shocked to see the photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Few Americans are aware that similar abuses take place every day in jails across the country. Marijuana prisoners and other non-violent offenders are often subject to similar violence and degradation.
Last year, a 19-year-old college student in Gainesville, Florida, was sentenced to four weekends in jail after being found guilty of “providing marijuana.”
The student was placed in a jail cell with 35-year-old Randolph Jackson, who was awaiting trial for allegedly raping a Gainesville woman.
Jackson was surprisingly popular with the jail’s guards. Two guards were fired for giving lenient cellblock privileges to the accused rapist, and for bringing other inmates to Jackson’s cell at his request. According to police reports, Jackson raped some of those inmates, while four guards looked the other way.
On the student’s first Friday night behind bars, Jackson held a weapon to the 19-year-old marijuana provider’s throat, and raped him.
The fallout from these rapes included the official “discovery” that non-violent marijuana “criminals” were often jailed in cells with violent felons. The sheriff in charge of the jail said overcrowding and guard shortages made it difficult to segregate harmless offenders from violent criminals.
Prisoner rape is so epidemic in America that last year President Bush signed the largely-symbolic Prison Rape Elimination Act. It was promoted by lobbyists like Tom Cahill, who was beaten and raped in a Texas prison in 1968 after being arrested for anti-war protesting.
Cahill’s experience is emblematic of another problem: police like arresting people for non-violent free speech protests, and for victimless “crimes” involving marijuana. The arrestees are almost always peaceful, first-time offenders, but they are frequently housed with violent criminals.
A high percentage of people arrested for marijuana or civil disobedience spend time in jails rather than prisons. Many have not been found guilty of any crime; they’re in jail because they can’t afford to post bail, or due to delays in getting a court hearing. If they go to trial and are convicted, they’re usually sentenced to jail rather than prison, because most marijuana possession sentences are under a year, and sentences under a year are served in jails.
Most American jails are poorly-funded and dangerous. The Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City, California, is typical of US jails. It’s supposed to house no more than 688 inmates; but it houses 978. Some inmates are crammed 15 to a room, with no toilets, windows, or water.
It can be worse. In Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio brags that he spends more per day to feed his police dogs than he does to feed the 8,000 prisoners under his control.
Arpaio houses 2,000 prisoners in tents in the desert. In the summer, temperatures soar to 120?F (49?C). Arpaio’s jails have been the subject of lawsuits and federal investigations since the early 1990’s. His guards have been found guilty of brutality.
He also set up the first all-women’s chain gang in history. The female inmates work as county cemetery gravediggers in the desert sun, burying indigents and dead babies.
Arpaio also created an Internet “JailCam” that showed prisoners being strip-searched, shackled in “restraint chairs,” and women using the toilet.
In Arpaio’s jails, inmates work seven days a week, are fed only twice a day, and have to pay $10 if they need medical care. The sheriff bought a military tank to assist in drug busts ? but investigators say gangs and drug dealers pervade his jails.
In 1996, an inmate named Jeremy Flanders was beaten nearly to death by gang members in Arpaio’s tent city jail; the Arizona Court of Appeals recently upheld a jury’s damage award that gave Flanders $635,000 of taxpayer’s money to compensate him for the injuries, which the court found “could have been prevented” if Arpaio had not been “deliberately indifferent” to existence of violent gangs in his jails.
There is a very clear trail from the abuse of American prisoners in US jails, to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
In 1997, a 29-year-old schizophrenic inmate named Michael Valent put a pillowcase on his head at a Utah State Prison.
The director of Utah’s prison system, a former Vietnam-era military police officer named Lance McCotter, later alleged Valent was behaving violently, but a videotape showed this to be a lie. What is true is that a SWAT team burst into the mentally ill patient’s cell, dragged him out naked, then too tightly bound him in a restraint chair for 16 hours without medical care. Released from the chair, Valent collapsed and died.
Valent’s death was attributed to prison officials and guards, who were already on the defensive for abuse of other prisoners. McCotter denied wrongdoing in the Valent death.
The previous director of Utah prisons, Gary Deland, was also no stranger to prisoner abuse charges. When Deland was commander of the Salt Lake County jail, a mentally ill prisoner was held for 56 days without bedding, medical treatment, or a hearing.
McCotter and Deland resigned their Utah prison jobs amidst widespread prisoner abuse scandals. Insiders say they were forced to resign. Yet the two were hired as directors for Management & Training Corporation (MTC), a Utah private prison company that operates a dozen prisons.
Despite McCotter’s abysmal record in Utah, MTC was hired in 2001 to run Santa Fe County, New Mexico’s adult detention center. This surprised long-time residents of Santa Fe, who remembered that New Mexico’s corrections system had severe prisoner abuse problems when McCotter was running New Mexico’s prisons during the 1980’s.
Two years after McCotter was hired in Santa Fe, the Justice Department found a pattern of prisoner abuse, mismanagement and neglect at Santa Fe’s detention center.
In 1997, the head of Arizona’s prison system, Terry Stewart, was sued by the Justice Department because female prisoners complained that they were repeatedly raped, assaulted, and watched by prison guards while they dressed, showered, and defecated.
In 2003, the director of Connecticut’s prison system, John Armstrong, resigned in the midst of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by female prison guards.
Other than being tainted by domestic prisoner abuse scandals, what do McCotter, Deland, Stewart and Armstrong have in common? In 2003, the four were chosen by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department to spend millions of taxpayer dollars rebuilding Iraqi prisons and training those who worked in them. One facility the quartet was involved with is Abu Ghraib.
When George W Bush was Governor of Texas from 1994 until he was selected by the Supreme Court to be president in 2000, the Texas prison system was embroiled in numerous prisoner abuse scandals.
In 1996, Missouri prisoners housed in Texas prisons due to overcrowding in Missouri prisons sued Missouri and Texas officials, claiming they were being abused in Texas prisons. Missouri officials, the media, members of Congress, and prisoners themselves asked Governor Bush to help stop the abuses. Bush did nothing about the abuses until late 1997, when a videotape surfaced showing guards at the Brazoria County jail using strip-searches, beatings, vicious dogs, racism, and electric shocks on non-violent inmates. According to penal experts, such tactics are commonplace in America’s jails and prisons.
In 1999, Brazoria County and the private prison contractor in charge of the Missouri prisoners, Capital Correctional Resources Inc, paid $2.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the prisoners.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a prison rape report that said Texas prisons were among the worst in the nation, while a federal judge sanctioned Texas prisons for allowing guards and gangs to run inmate “sex slave” businesses.
Bush and the Texas Department of Corrections did little to ensure that Texas prisons were made safer, but Bush did make sure some Texas prisoners had less time to worry about being abused in prison: he earned the nickname “Governor Death” because he executed 152 death row inmates at a rate that exceeded that of any Governor of any other state at any time.
After Bush was selected president, his administration began planning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When 9-11 happened, Bush used the attacks to justify war plans for both countries.
In January 2002, the Ashcroft Justice Department was looking for ways to use torture on Afghani “terror suspects” being held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A 2002 Justice Department memo argued that the Geneva Convention and other anti-torture laws did not prevent Americans from torturing prisoners.
In March 2003, as the Iraq war began in earnest, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush were asking government lawyers to dissect domestic and international laws that prohibit torture of prisoners.
Classified attorney memos circulated at the highest levels of the Bush administration asserted torture was not illegal under certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, the head of US forces in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, crafted a list of abusive interrogation techniques to be used at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where thousands of Iraqis were being held. The Red Cross estimates that as many as 80% of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent of any crimes. Most prisoners had been rounded up at random, without due process.
Some were wives or other relatives of Iraqis sought by US forces, imprisoned so they could be used as hostages to assist in capture of a brother or husband.
In Abu Ghraib and other US prisons overseas, US military personnel, CIA operatives and private contractor employees viciously abused prisoners. Some were raped; some were killed.
The Red Cross and other human rights organizations told US officials in 2003 that abuses were taking place in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan, but Bush did nothing to stop the abuses and only tried to cover them up until April 2004, after horrific photographs taken in Iraqi prisons appeared in the press. The photos documented sexual assault, religious humiliation, sleep, food, and water deprivation, beatings, dog attacks, psychological torture, and killings.
Some who allegedly carried out these actions were military employees or private contractors who had jobs as prison guards back home in the US. At least two guards accused of abusing Iraqis have also been accused of prisoner abuse in US prisons.
One of those guards is Charles Graner, who is pictured in some of the abuse photos from Iraq. Graner was a guard at Greene State Correctional, a death row prison in Pennsylvania. An inmate of a Pennsylvania prison accused Charles Graner in a lawsuit of slipping a razor blade into his mashed potatoes and clubbing him with a baton. The case was later dismissed.
Graner, described as a “ringleader” in the Abu Ghraib abuses, has also been accused of physically abusing his ex-wife.
War against pot people
As of June 2003, US federal and state prisons and jails housed 2,078,670 people, at an annual cost of $57 billion.
The US incarcerates people at a rate six to 10 times higher than most other “democracies.” The US incarceration rate of 715 imprisoned per 100,000 residents compares to rates of 114 for Australia, 116 for Canada, 95 for France and 96 for Germany.
Approximately half of the 2.1 million people in America’s prisons and jails are behind bars due to drug laws. The high incarceration rate is fueled by a high arrest rate; just over 697,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana crimes in 2002, and 88% of those arrests were for possession. Since 1992, nearly seven million Americans have been arrested for marijuana.
What harms can happen to a person arrested for marijuana? At minimum, being busted involves a gun-toting authority figure oppressing a person who feels that use of the plant should not be a crime. Being arrested for pot involves being detained, interrogated, forced to provide identification, held against one’s will. It involves fear of punishment. It involves entering the byzantine labyrinth of the criminal justice system, at the mercy of guards, violent prisoners, bail bondsmen, jurors, judges, and attorneys. It involves expenditure of money.
In some cases, arrest and consequences of arrest are much harsher than the minimum. The arresting officers might injure or kill the arrestee, either by mistake or deliberately. The arrestee’s family, loved ones, or friends might be harmed physically and emotionally. Police or courts might take an arrestee’s possessions or money. If convicted of a marijuana crime, a person can lose school funding, child custody, professional credentials, the right to vote, the ability to get a good job.
If a marijuana “criminal” is sentenced to jail or prison, the prisoner is subject to many dangerous external forces. Most marijuana prisoners are gentle people, unequipped to defend themselves against the hardships of arrest and incarceration. They are often raped and beaten. They are scarred for life.
Trail of tears
The trail that links Abu Ghraib prisoners with prisoners in the US leads to places like Texas, and to people like George W Bush.
The victims of American police, prison guards and military employees are Iraqi, American, Afghani, young, old, male, female, victims like 14-year-old Maria Mendoza, who choked to death in a private Texas youth prison after being restrained by staffers. Or, 15-year-old Latasha Bush, who died after being restrained and choked by staff at a youth detention facility in Southeast Texas in 2002.
Consider Mohamed Maddy, a middle-aged father of two, stripped, cursed, and beaten by guards after being rounded up and incarcerated in New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) during anti-Muslim hysteria just after 9-11. Justice Department investigators found that Muslims held at MDC were regularly stripped, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep, beaten.
Lance McCotter, who reportedly walked around handing out wads of cash, three million dollars worth, to people rebuilding Abu Ghraib prison last year, is well-qualified to judge the similarities between American prisons and Abu Ghraib.
In January, McCotter told a reporter that Abu Ghraib “is the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison.”