I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, of
a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring, I
thought of the Sacramento, Calif., city jail.
When I heard that dogs had been used to intimidate and bite
at least one detainee at Abu Ghraib, I thought of the training
video shown at the Brazoria County Detention Center in Texas.
When I learned that the male inmates at Abu Ghraib were forced
to wear women’s underwear, I thought of the Maricopa County
jails in Phoenix.
And when I saw the photos of the naked bodies restrained in
grotesque and clearly uncomfortable positions, I thought of
the Utah prison system.
Donald Rumsfeld said of the abuse when he visited Abu Ghraib
on May 13, “It doesn’t represent American values.”
But the images from Iraq looked all too American to me.
I’ve been reporting on abuse and mistreatment in our nation’s
jails and prisons for the last eight years. What I have found
is widespread disregard for human rights. Sadism, in some
locations, is casual and almost routine.
Reporters and commentators keep asking, how could this happen?
My question is, why are we surprised when many of these same
practices are occurring at home?
For one thing, the photos of prison abuse in the United States
have not received nearly the attention that the Abu Ghraib
photos did. And maybe we have so dehumanized U.S. prisoners
that we have become as distant from them as we are from foreign
captives in faraway lands.
In February 1999, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department settled
a class-action lawsuit alleging numerous acts of torture,
including mock executions, where guards strapped inmates into
a restraint chair, covered their faces with masks, and told
the inmates they were about to be electrocuted.
When I read a May 14 report in The Guardian of London
that it had “learned of ordinary soldiers who . . . were taught
to perform mock executions,” I couldn’t help but remember
Then there’s the training video used at the Brazoria County
Detention Center in Texas. In addition to footage of beatings
and stun-gun use, the videotape included scenes of guards
encouraging dogs to bite inmates.
The jail system in Maricopa County is well known for its practice
of requiring inmates to wear pink underwear, and it is notorious
for using stun guns and restraint chairs. In 1996, jail staff
placed Scott Norberg in a restraint chair, shocked him 21
times with stun guns, and gagged him until he turned blue,
according to news reports. Norberg died. His family filed
a wrongful death lawsuit against the jails and subsequently
received an $8 million settlement, one of the largest in Arizona
history. However, the settlement included no admission of
wrongdoing on the part of the jail.
The Red Cross also says that inmates at the Abu Ghraib jail
suffer “prolonged exposure while hooded in the sun over several
hours, including during the hottest time of the day when temperatures
could reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) or
higher.” Many of the Maricopa County Jail system inmates live
outdoors in tent cities, even on days that reach 120 degrees
in the shade. During last year’s heat wave, the Associated
Press reported that temperatures inside the jail tents reached
Two of the guards at Abu Ghraib, Ivan L. (Chip) Frederick
II and Charles Graner, had careers back home as corrections
officers. Graner, whom The New York Times has described
as one of “the most feared and loathed of the American guards”
at Abu Ghraib, worked at Greene County Prison in Pennsylvania.
According to a 1998 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,
guards at the Greene facility behaved in ways that eerily
anticipated the allegations from Abu Ghraib.
At Abu Ghraib, according to the investigation Maj. Gen. Antonio
M. Taguba carried out on behalf of the U.S. Army, there was
“credible” evidence that one inmate suffered forced sodomy
“with a chemical light and perhaps a broom handle.” The Taguba
report says U.S. soldiers were involved in “forcibly arranging
detainees in various sexually explicit positions for photographing”
and “forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves
while being photographed and videotaped.” Guards beat inmates
and wrote insulting epithets on their bodies.
The Post-Gazette reported that guards at the Greene
County prison beat inmates, sodomized them with nightsticks,
and conducted “nude searches in which every body orifice is
examined in full view of other guards and prisoners.” An inmate
claimed that guards had used his blood to write “KKK” on the
Although 12 guards eventually lost their jobs, Graner was,
according to The New York Times, “not involved in that
scandal.” A lawsuit by an inmate who had been held at Greene
accused Graner of beatings and other mistreatment, though
the lawsuit ended up being dismissed.
Guy Womack, attorney for Graner, told CNN, “And, of course,
in Abu Ghraib what he did—which was bad enough—is he was following
orders. So he did nothing that was wrong. He was following
lawful orders.” Womack failed to return several telephone
calls requesting comment for this article.
At the very least, Graner moved from one prison where abuse
was commonplace to another. Abu Ghraib was a familiar environment.
In a Utah prison, Michael Valent, a mentally ill prisoner,
died after spending 16 hours nude in a restraint chair in
March 1997. As it turns out, Valent’s death has a connection
to Abu Ghraib. Lane McCotter was serving as the director of
the Utah State Prison system on the day that Valent was put
in the restraint chair. After Valent died, McCotter resigned.
Six years later, McCotter was in charge of reconstructing
Abu Ghraib, though he has denied involvement in the abuses.
The point is not whether McCotter or Graner are personally
responsible for Abu Ghraib. They are part of a well-established
In another incident during McCotter’s watch and reported by
Amnesty International, an inmate at the Utah State Prison
“was shackled to a steel board on a cell floor in four-point
metal restraints for 12 weeks in 1995. He was removed from
the board on average four times a week to shower. At other
times he was left to defecate while on the board. He was released
from the board only following a court order.”
A preliminary injunction banning the restraint chair in Ventura
County, Calif., found that jail policy “allows deputies to
require restrained arrestees to either urinate or defecate
on themselves and be forced to sit in their own feces or ‘hold
The practice of forcing prisoners to soil themselves allegedly
occurred in Iraq, as well. On May 6, The Washington Post
published a description of the abuses Hasham Mohsen Lazim
said he had endured at Abu Ghraib. After guards beat, hooded,
and stripped him, Lazim said Graner handcuffed him to the
corner of his bed, where he remained for days. “We couldn’t
sleep or stand,” Lazim told the paper. “Even to urinate, we
had to do so where we sat.”
A few days later, the Post reported similar allegations
from Umm Qasr, where Satae Qusay, a chef, said he was forced
to “urinate on himself when he was prohibited from using bathrooms.”
One Iraqi prisoner says he was force-fed a baseball and claims
also to have been urinated on.
While most of the allegations from Abu Ghraib describe the
torture and mistreatment of men, Iraqi women have also been
subjected to rape behind bars, according to The Guardian.
“Senior U.S. military officers who escorted journalists around
Abu Ghraib . . . admitted that rape had taken place in the
cellblock where 19 ‘high-value’ male detainees are also being
held,” the paper reported in May.
Here, too, there is a resemblance between the reports coming
out of Iraq and incidents at prisons and jails in the United
States. In 1999, Amnesty International reported, “Many women
in prisons and jails in the USA are victims of sexual abuse
by staff, including sexually offensive language; male staff
touching inmates’ breasts and genitals when conducting searches;
male staff watching inmates while they are naked; and rape.”
was not part of my sentence, to . . . perform oral sex with
the officers,” Tanya Ross, who was jailed in Florida, told
Dateline NBC in 1998.
Amnesty International has reports of “prolonged forced standing
and kneeling” in Iraqi military prisons, as well as allegations
of “the excessive and cruel use of shackles and handcuffs”
at Guantánamo. Again, the Iraqi allegations seem almost to
be extracted from earlier Amnesty International writings on
human rights in the United States.
In a 1998 report on the treatment of women in U.S. prisons,
Amnesty International noted, “International standards restrict
the use of restraints to situations where they are necessary
to prevent escape or to prevent prisoners from injuring themselves
or others or from damaging property. In the USA, restraints
are used as a matter of course. A woman who is in labor or
seriously ill, even dying, may be taken to a hospital in handcuffs
and chained by her leg to the bed.”
In an earlier report on the United States, Amnesty observed,
“In Alabama, prisoners have sometimes been tied to a restraint
pole (known as the ‘hitching rail’) as punishment, sometimes
for hours in the sweltering heat or freezing conditions. At
Julie Tutweiler Prison for Women in Alabama, inmates have
been handcuffed to the rail for up to a day.”
In a deposition from the case Rivera vs. Sheahan, et al.,
the Cook County Jail acknowledged that it would shackle a
hospitalized inmate who was in a coma, reports Amnesty International.
According to a 1996 U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit filed
against Iberia Parish Jail in Louisiana, one inmate allegedly
spent eight days in a restraint chair. A pretrial settlement
led the parish to stop using the chair.
In Iraq, the Red Cross evaluated people who had been subjected
to solitary confinement, and the organization discovered indications
of psychological damage. The group’s medical delegate said
Iraqi prisoners were “presenting signs of concentration difficulties,
memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent
speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behavior, and suicidal
tendencies. These symptoms appeared to have been caused by
the methods and duration of interrogation.”
In one case, an Iraqi prisoner who had been “held in isolation”
proved to be “unresponsive to verbal and painful stimuli.
His heart rate was 120 beats per minute and his respiratory
rate 18 per minute. He was diagnosed as suffering from somatoform
(mental) disorder, specifically a conversion disorder, most
likely due to the ill-treatment he was subjected to during
Long-term use of solitary confinement happens in U.S. prisons
all too often. Supermaxes are the most avid users of the technique.
Prisoners at these ultra-high-security facilities often remain
in isolation cells for nearly 24 hours a day. American prisoners
also find long-term isolation psychologically traumatizing.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2000 on a woman
who had spent nearly four years in the hole at the secure
housing unit of California’s Valley State Prison for Women.
She claimed to have had no human contact except for food trays
that came through a door slot and threats from the guards
outside her cell. She also said that the guards often denied
her sanitary pads and toilet paper.
In 2001, a class action lawsuit filed by inmates of the Supermax
prison of Boscobel, Wisc., called the facility an “incubator
of psychosis” and alleged that mental illness was “endemic”
at the prison. A judge ordered the removal of all mentally
ill inmates, which Ed Garvey, a court-appointed attorney in
the case, says amounted to “about one-third of the prisoners.”
Some of the inmates at the Boscobel prison, including those
who had the most severe reactions to their isolation, were
was interesting that the International Red Cross was upset
that prisoners were held more than 30 days in isolation and
for 23 out of 24 hours,” says Garvey. “In Boscobel, that’s
the case every day. In the standards of the International
Red Cross,” the prison at Boscobel is “out of compliance with
the Geneva Convention, which doesn’t apply as such, but it
gives you a measuring stick.”
The Red Cross mentioned deaths in prison in Iraq, and the
Pentagon is now looking at the deaths of at least 33 detainees
in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of these deaths have already
been ruled homicides.
Inmates have died in U.S. prisons and jails under suspicious
circumstances, as well. U.S. deaths that occurred in connection
with the use of restraint chairs alone numbered at least 15
by 2002, according to Amnesty International. The Bureau of
Justice Statistics is currently compiling information on the
cause of death in custody in U.S. prisons and jails. Prisons
and jails around the country are self-reporting the data as
part of the bureau’s new Death in Custody Data Collection
Program. In U.S. prisons, in 2001 through 2002, there were
eight homicides against inmates in custody that were not committed
by other inmates. In U.S. jails, from 2000 through 2002, the
number was 30. The homicide numbers do not include deaths
that result from such factors as poor medical treatment.
How could such things happen in the United States? For one
thing, since the early 1990s, American prisons have acquired
a distinctly military cast. This influence is evident in boot-camp-style
punishment, in prison technology, and also in prison and law-enforcement
conferences like the one I attended in 1996. That conference
included long discussions on the ways military knowledge could
help police and corrections to control crime. The sponsor
of the conference, the American Defense Preparedness Association,
was at the time sponsoring other conferences with such names
as “Enhancing the Individual Warrior,” “Undersea Warfare,”
and “Bomb and Warhead.”
There is something else going on. Particularly in the last
couple of decades, with the rise of ever-harsher criminal-justice
laws, Americans have become hardened to the people we put
in detention or behind bars. We have acquired a set of unexamined
beliefs: (1) People who land in jail deserve to be there;
(2) criminals are bad people—almost subhuman—who can’t be
rehabilitated; and therefore, (3) punishment can be as harsh
as possible; and (4) we don’t need or want to know the details.
These beliefs are constantly reaffirmed—in the mouths of pundits,
in our news media, in our TV shows and movies, even in video
games. They may help to explain why revelations of prison
and jail abuse in the United States, which have been numerous
in the past two decades, can fall on deaf ears in this country
even as they prompt protest abroad. The revelations at Abu
Ghraib shock us because our soldiers abroad seem to have acted
out behaviors that we condone, yet don’t face up to, at home.
In conversations over the past few weeks, I have heard outrage
and anger over the abuse at Abu Ghraib. I have rarely heard
such reactions in connection with abuse of prisoners in the
When we tolerate abuse in U.S. prisons and jails, it should
not surprise us to find U.S. soldiers using similar methods
George Bush said he was exporting democracy to Iraq, but he
seems to have exported a much uglier aspect of American public
policy: some of the most sadistic practices employed in the
U.S. prison system.
Cusac is an investigative reporter at The Progressive,
where this story first appeared.