Katharine Webster, Rights Groups Say Prisoner Abuse Similar in Iraq, U.S., Associated
Press, May 12, 2004.
CONCORD, N.H. - A man shackled to a post for hours in the blazing sun.
Prisoners controlled with stun guns and shotguns. Guards sexually
These are not photographs and accounts from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq,
but documented cases from American prisons and jails.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently called the abuses at
Abu Ghraib "fundamentally un-American." Indeed, many Americans have
reacted with horror to photos showing naked Iraqi prisoners shackled to
cell bars and wearing black hoods, or piled in a heap with smiling
American guards looking on.
But human rights groups say similar abuses occur with alarming frequency
in American jails and prisons. There is little public outcry in part
because there are no photos, said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the
Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Beating prisoners, sexually abusing prisoners - all of these things go on
in American prisons," Alexander said. "The public doesn't see it."
Jamie Fellner, director of U.S. programs at Human Rights Watch, said there
are no national or state statistics on guard abuse of prisoners. But "what
we see in terms of court cases and monitoring reports is the tip of the
iceberg," because there is no system of outside investigations, she said.
"Individual prisoners may exaggerate, officials may be minimizing ... but
where we see a pattern of inmate complaints, we know there's a problem,"
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics says 10 percent of state
prisoners and 3 percent of federal prisoners report being injured in
fights. Academic studies of state prison systems have found 14 percent to
22 percent of male inmates report being raped by other inmates, Fellner
And in prisons where rape and violence are rampant, officers and managers
are tolerating or even facilitating the abuse, she said.
Often it takes a death or riot to bring prisoner abuse to public
attention, Fellner said.
At Virginia's Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons, corrections officers
routinely used stun guns and shotguns loaded with rubber pellets to
control prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. One prisoner from
Connecticut died in 2000 after being repeatedly zapped with a stun gun at
Wallens Ridge; Virginia paid $350,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by his
family and Connecticut paid $1.1 million.
In Massachusetts, one corrections officer punched pedophile priest John
Geoghan and another defecated in his cell, a state commission found.
Geoghan was transferred to another prison, where an inmate known to hate
pedophiles killed him last year.
In Alabama, corrections officers handcuffed prisoners to a metal post in
the scorching sun for hours until a judge outlawed the practice in 1998.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed it was "cruel and unusual
In Texas, evidence in a class-action lawsuit "revealed a prison underworld
in which rapes, beatings and servitude are the currency of power" and
"prison officials at all levels play a game of willing disbelief," U.S.
District Judge William Wayne Justice wrote.
In New Hampshire, federal officials removed 250 immigration and U.S.
Marshal detainees from the Hillsborough County jail in 2000 over
allegations that guards physically abused male inmates and sexually abused
female inmates. Inmates have filed more than 150 lawsuits against the jail
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women, male corrections officers routinely
sexually assaulted women or trade privileges for sex, and women who
complained were put in isolation as punishment, according to a December
report by Stop Prisoner Rape based on testimony by three former prison
And it's common in American prisons and jails for female corrections
officers to watch male inmates shower and use the toilet, and vice versa,
Fellner and Alexander said.
The root causes of prisoner abuse are the same in Iraq and the United
States - bad training and supervision, overcrowding, lack of outside
scrutiny, and the near-total control guards exercise over prisoners, said
James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional
"You have almost absolute power over other individuals, and that is a
system that could easily breed abuse," he said.
But Gondles said there are important differences between the situation in
Iraq and at home.
"I've never seen any written reports that allege that (American) inmates
are stripped naked and either shackled to bars or made to pile on one
another or stand in front of women and pose for pictures," he said.
He also says abuse is not routine in American prisons and jails.
"It's an exception, and when it's found out it's quickly investigated and
actions are taken to either demote or punish the individual if they were
found to be guilty ... or they're charged criminally," he said.
Gondles said professionalism among American prison officials has increased
greatly in recent decades, especially among wardens and command staff.
Fellner agreed, but said at the same time, the mushrooming incarceration
rate means guards are often poorly trained and inexperienced.
Another difference, said Hans Scherrer, spokesman for Prison Legal News of
Seattle, which reports on prison conditions and prisoners' rights: The
American guards in the Abu Ghraib photos appear proud, like victors in a
"There are a lot of photos from World War II where German soldiers took
pictures of atrocities they committed - they were proud of it," he said.
Here, guards are afraid that if a photo "gets in the wrong hands, they're
going to be sued."
In Iraq, a soldier immediately alerted superiors when he discovered photos
of fellow 372nd Military Police Company personnel abusing prisoners at Abu
In this country, successful criminal prosecutions of abusive guards are
extremely difficult, "because you don't have picture evidence and it's
rare that a guard will actually testify against another one," Scherrer
Alexander and Scherrer wish the American public would get as outraged by
inmate abuse in the United States as at Abu Ghraib.
But they believe too many Americans share the attitude expressed by U.S.
Sen. Daniel Inhofe, R-Okla., who said Tuesday he was "more outraged by the
outrage" from some quarters than by the way Iraqi prisoners were treated.
"They're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them
probably have American blood on their hands, and here we're so concerned
about the treatment of those individuals," Inhofe said.
Scherrer said he has heard similar sentiments about abuse in U.S. prisons
"People in prison are perceived as criminals who deserve their treatment,"
he said. "Part of (their) punishment is to be treated as something less
than a human being, with no thought to what happens when that person gets
ON THE NET
"Medical Problems of Inmates, 1997," U.S. Dept. of Justice Statistics: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/mpi97.pdf
American Correctional Association: http://www.aca.org/
ACLU Prisons Project: http://www.aclu.org/Prisons/PrisonsMain.cfm
Human Rights Watch prison reports: http://www.hrw.org/prisons/reports.html
"The Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Ohio" by Stop Prisoner Rape: http://www.spr.org/pdf/sexabuseohio.pdf
Prison Legal News: http://www.prisonlegalnews.org/