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Abu Ghraibs in our Backyard

Zein El-Amine
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

As a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, stories proliferated on the conditions inside US prisons and there were numerous editorials in mainstream newspapers that drew parallels between the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the abuse of US prisoners. Every abuse at Abu Ghraib that was revealed in the media is part of the daily routine in US jails: fatal beatings by prison guards, hooding of prisoners for endless hours and raping and sodomizing both male and female prisoners by the guards. In a January interview with, Lane McCotter, who was appointed by the Pentagon to administer Abu Ghraib, recalled that of all the prisons in Iraq, Abu Ghraib “is the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison.”

In fact, all of the lead administrators of Abu Ghraib were actually current or former US prison administrators who were facing lawsuits for human rights violations of stateside prisoners under their watch. Lane McCotter was cited by the US Justice Department for mistreatment of inmates in a New Mexico Jail just two months before his appointment to Abu Ghraib. He had also been forced to resign as head of Utah’s Corrections Department after the death of an inmate who had been stripped naked and strapped to a chair for 16 hours.

John Armstrong managed a Virginia prison where inmates at two Supermax prisons were hooded and subjected to “excessive and malicious use of force by prison staff” involving electric shock and rubber bullets. Terry Stewart and Chuck Ryan, both involved in setting up Abu Ghraib, ran an Arizona jail where 14 women were raped, sodomized and assaulted by correctional officers. Finally, the now infamous Charles Graner, who was identified as a ringleader in the Abu Ghraib debacle, came from a notoriously racist Pennsylvania prison where beatings and “elaborate rituals of humiliation” were videotaped after an inquiry into abuses there.

The same architects of violence that administered the stateside brutal institutions were deliberately sent to ration the same kind of violence to Arabs who, like people of color in the US, are perceived as subhuman by the US government. As James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, wrote in a recent article about the crisis in US prisons: “It appears that the culture of abuse cultivated at home was, in this instance, exported with devastating consequence.”

Three strikes

The latest report by the Justice Department indicates that 68% of prison and jail inmates in the US are members of racial or ethnic minorities. A more compelling fact is that 1 in 3 African American males and 1 in 5 Hispanic males will most likely be imprisoned in their lifetime.

The latest figures also show that the number of women in state and federal prisons grew at almost twice the rate as that of men. Over two-thirds are mothers and most are preyed upon by male prison guards or other inmates. This is happening as the US is posing as a “liberator” of women in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Justice Department attributes the increase in prison population to “tough on crime” policies that were enacted in the 1980s and 90s. Specifically, these policies consist of the “three strikes” laws for repeat offenders, mandatory minimums for drug sentences and “truth in sentencing” laws that restrict early release.

The prison crisis in the US has drawn criticism from unlikely sources. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative, Reagan appointee, recently told an American Bar Association gathering that “our resources are being misspent, our punishments are too severe and our sentences are too long.” He went on to say: “The political slogan ‘tough on crime’ should not lead us into moral blindness when there are over 2.1 million people in prison in the United States. In my former state, California, when the cost is about $27,000 per year per prisoner, when school children in California’s schools are allocated only about $5,000-plus each, this society better ask itself how it’s allocating its resources.”

In this election year, Democrats will not be able to blame the rise in incarceration on the Republicans. Historically, both parties have been equally shrill in their support of tough-on-crime policies. It is more apparent than ever that “security” is a commodity under this system. It is defined for us and made rare because, the more scarce a commodity, the more profitable it is under a capitalist economy.

Security is being defined for us as locking more people up, instead of what it really means: affordable housing, healthcare, education, good wages and adequate recreation for youth. There are now ideological and material openings for people who want to work towards the abolition of the defunct prison industrial complex. It is an important time for prison activists to reclaim real security from both parties, while the brutal results of mass incarceration and its adverse economic impact are on the minds of the American people and the world.