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Iraqi Torture is Home Grown in the US Prison System

Alice Kim is a national organizer of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
The horrific images of U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners have shocked the world. "People in Iraq must understand... that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know," said George W. Bush. Following suit, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called the degradation of Iraqi prisoners "un-American." But the truth is that torture and prisoner abuse are as American as apple pie.

"Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions," wrote federal judge William Wayne Justice in a 1999 opinion regarding abuse the prisons in George W. Bush's home state of Texas.

A videotape of a 1996 drug raid at the Brazoria County jail in Texas showed guards forcing prisoners to strip and lie on the ground, jabbing them with stun guns while forcing them to crawl along the floor. A police dog attacked several prisoners and bit one of the prisoners on the leg. The guards then dragged the prisoners face down back to their cells. Bush was the governor of Texas in 1996.

The irony is that the videotape of the raid was to be used as a training tool. The images on the tape of prisoners lying on the floor, dragged by guards, and threatened by dogs are eerily similar to the now infamous Abu Ghraib photographs.

But the abuse is not limited to Texas. In Chicago, it is now common knowledge that a group of white Chicago police officers systematically tortured mostly African American men at police precincts Areas Two and Three on the city's south side. For a span of two decades, a police torture ring, led by former Commander Jon Burge, employed electroshock, suffocation, Russian roulette, and other brutal methods of physical and mental torture to obtain "confessions."

Officers repeatedly slapped, shocked, and suffocated Leroy Orange as they interrogated him for nearly twelve hours straight when they arrested him in January 1984 for a multiple homicide. A legal brief to the police board filed by Daniel Reidy in 1992, a special counsel to the police, states that Orange's "pants were pulled down while electroshock was applied to his body, including his buttocks." Detailing seven cases of suspects who were tortured to confess, Reidy described an "astounding pattern" of conduct by Burge and men under his command. The Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards concluded, "abuse did occur and that it was systematic."

The city was embarrassed enough to fire Burge in 1993-after spending $1 million of taxpayers' money to defend Burge in a civil suit filed by a torture victim. However, none of the officers involved has ever faced criminal charges. Burge's victims, on the other hand, were not so lucky.

Orange was one of fourteen African American men tortured to "confess," then convicted, and sentenced to death. He finally won his freedom when former Governor George Ryan pardoned him in 2003. In prison, however, Orange faced further abuse. While housed at Cook County jail in Chicago, Orange was one of 400 prisoners ordered out of their cells three days after a stabbing in February 1999.

According to a fifty-page report by the Sheriff's Internal Affairs Division, the elite Special Operations Response Team forced the prisoners to strip, face the wall and keep their hands behind their heads. Guard dogs without muzzles threatened the prisoners at every turn. Like the raid in Texas and the images from Abu Ghraib, naked prisoners were ordered to lie on the ground where they were kicked and beaten by guards. The report documented that at least forty-nine prisoners had been beaten, including Orange. "Everybody who had a tattoo got their ass whipped," Orange told the Chicago Tribune. "It was scary. The dogs were barking and the guards were just beating the [expletive] out of everybody. I've never seen anything like it."

Pattern of mistreatment

More recently, the Justice Department's inspector general cited the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for physical abuse of its detainees, mostly Muslim men who were picked up as suspects after September 11, but never charged. The inspector general, who had obtained videotapes showing officers brutalizing inmates, described a pattern of mistreatment there. For example, a lawsuit filed by Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani immigrant, and Ehab Elmaghraby, an Egyptian immigrant, details how both men were picked up shortly after September 11 and held for two years. An account of the lawsuit posted on CounterPunch's Web site alleges that they "were slammed into walls, dragged across the floor in shackles, manacled, kicked and punched until they bled, cursed at, called 'Muslim bastards' and subjected to body cavity searches."

The lawsuit also charges that one of the guards inserted a flashlight into Elmaghraby's rectum with such ferocity that it caused him to bleed. He was forced to strip and walk naked in front of a female worker. And for days, Elmaghraby was confined to a small cell with the lights on twenty-four hours a day without any blankets, mattress, or toilet paper. Iqbal was repeatedly forced outdoors in the rain and returned drenched to his air-conditioned cell.

The tough-on-crime agenda touted by Democrats and Republicans alike for nearly three decades has not only resulted in an unprecedented explosion in the prison population, it has given the green light to prisoner abuse and torture. Crime continues to be used by politicians as a scapegoat while everyday problems like the lack of job security, health care, and a decent education are ignored. "Criminals" (i.e., prisoners) are regarded as predators of society, the scum of the earth. It is no surprise, then, that their rights are frequently violated.

At least two Abu Ghraib guards involved in the abuse of Iraqis were previously prison guards in the United States. Specialist Charles Graner, who appears in some of the most lurid photographs, according to a Reuters report, was previously a guard at State Correctional Institution at Greene County when revelations of physical brutality and humiliation of prisoners there became known. In 1996, Graner's attorney, Guy Womak, represented two of the prison guards in the Brazoria County jail raid cited above.

U.S.-trained torturers in Iraq aren't limited to the bottom of the lowest levels. O.L. "Lane" McCotter, who was appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft to oversee the reconstruction of Abu Ghraib, has his own troubling history. McCotter served as the director of prisons in Texas until he resigned in 1987-when he came under intense scrutiny regarding the state's compliance with federal guidelines set up to alleviate overcrowding. When McCotter was the head of New Mexico's prison system from 19871991, a court-appointed prison monitor accused prison officials of covering up brutality by tampering with a videotape of a disturbance at the prison. In 1997, when McCotter was head of Utah's prisons, he was again forced to resign when a mentally ill prisoner died after spending sixteen hours strapped naked to a restraining chair.

At the time McCotter was sent to Iraq in 2003, he was an executive at a private prison corporation under investigation by the Justice Department for unsafe conditions and lack of medical care for its prisoners. The Justice Department even transferred all of its approximately one hundred federal prisoners out of the Santa Fe prison McCotter's company ran.

Prior to the Iraq torture revelations, in an interview with  http://www.corrections.com , an online magazine, McCotter praised Abu Ghraib as "the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison." McCotter was right about that.

10 May 2004 08.Aug.2004 00:31

Movement for a Socialist Future

When the American and British governments declare that the systematic torture of Iraqi detainees is contrary to "our values" and is the work of a few rogue elements among the military, they only add another layer to the mountain of lies and hypocrisy that have accompanied their illegal war and occupation.

The torture at Abu Ghraib and other centres was systematic and began almost as soon as the Saddam Hussein regime was overthrown. This is clear from the Red Cross reports that have now become public. That being the case, it is inconceivable this organised torture was the work of a few elements. There was a chain of command that stretches all the way up to the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld.

In any case, the techniques used are commonplace in both the US and British military and are taught to members of the so-called special services. Abu Ghraib is no exception but part of a long history of brutality. In Vietnam, US forces tortured and killed thousands of prisoners. They threw Vietnamese fighters out of helicopters and kept them in cages. US "specialists" have trained torturers and death squads throughout Central and South America. Systematic torture and assassinations by British forces were commonplace in the north of Ireland.

In Iraq, the torturers have taken their cue from the racist regimes that sent them in the first place. Barely distinguished from the Crusades of the Middle Ages in ideology, the armies were supposedly on a mission to "civilise" an inferior people (never mind that their civilisation predates Europe and North America by many centuries). The same civilising missions were carried out against native Indians in the US and colonial peoples under the British empire and are the social roots of racism today. Add to all this that American troops were given the lie that the Iraqis were behind the September 11 attacks and it is not difficult to see how torture of detainees becomes commonplace.

The political crisis in Washington that has resulted from the publication of photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib expresses a number of deeper currents. Firstly, the invasion of Iraq on the basis of inventions about "weapons of mass destruction" met resistance as soon as it became clear to Iraqis that the objective was not limited to removing Saddam's regime. The US-British plan was and is to install a client regime that will privatise Iraq's economy, especially oil, and open up the country to the global capitalist market in trade and investment. That has sparked off a justified national resistance to foreign occupation. This shook the Americans especially, resulting in the widespread use of torture to try and break the resistance.

Secondly, it is not possible to hide for ever the venality of the George W. Bush presidency from the American people, who are beginning to realise the systematic lying and corruption at the heart of the White House. The democratic ideals and values ordinary Americans aspire to stand in stark contrast to the nature of the Bush regime. The Pentagon knew about the torture six months ago and conducted a massive cover-up. This is the principal reason why Congress is angry. It was kept in the dark despite voting through countless billions for the war. In effect, Rumsfeld and the military had conducted a putative coup against both Congress and the White House under the cover of the spurious "war on terror".

In Britain too, the "values" promoted by Blair and the New Labour regime are not shared by the majority of the population. They opposed the invasion and are angered by the deceptions, half-truths and state propaganda over the issue of WMD. Just as in the US, the British government bases itself on the power of the corporations and the spy agencies. In fact, New Labour and the spooks are virtually indistinguishable from each other. John Scarlett, who as head of the Joint Intelligence Committee sanctioned the infamous WMD dossier, was characterised as "my mate" by Alistair Campbell when he was Blair's spokesman. Scarlett's reward for total loyalty to Blair is to be made the new head of MI6.

The political crisis in Washington and London, driven on by the impossible task of trying to run Iraq through a combination of stooges and armed force, is testimony to the weakness of the Bush/Blair regimes. What seemed all-powerful and all-conquering to those bemused by the appearance of things, in fact has feet of clay. Corporate-led globalisation has resulted in economies based on intense exploitation, immense amounts of credit and wholesale ecological abuse. It has also undermined the legitimacy and authority of governments and traditional parties which defend the status quo. Working for regime change in Washington and London, with the aim of creating a truly democratic society based on economic co-operation, popular ownership and control, is the way to give our values real meaning.