Max Blumenthal, America's Rape Rooms: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, Buzzflash, May 12, 2004.

"This is war... We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that's what they are, rotten little cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." -- Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates, April 1988

"Freedom was attacked this morning by faceless cowards... Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." -- President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001


In December 2003, a guard at a notoriously brutal prison used a German shepherd to attack a 20-year-old prisoner lying on the ground and not resisting. The attack, reported on May 9th by the Los Angeles Times, was not carried out at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where Americans were photographed torturing Iraqi prisoners; it occurred in Stockton, California at a juvenile correctional facility. Such abuse runs rampant throughout America's prison system, where prisoners are routinely raped, tortured, beaten and humiliated by guards employing brutality to enforce order.

Thus it is not surprising that two of the alleged ringleaders in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal are both former civilian prison guards. Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick was a guard at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, part of a state prison system where violent abuse of inmates by prison guards is common. Specialist Charles Graner was a guard at Pennsylvania's Greene State Correctional Institute, a notorious death row facility described by an attorney who visited it as "a concentration camp."

Frederick and Graner's experience in the US prison system made them prime candidates for posts at Abu Ghraib. As Sgt. Frederick wrote in a letter to his family in 2003, "I was placed in [Abu Ghraib] because of my civilian background working as a correctional officer.... The [commander] wanted it run like a prison in the US." [Le Monde PDF] Because Abu Ghraib was indeed run like a US prison, the torture that occured there can not be viewed as an aberration. Abu Ghraib symbolizes the exportation of the prison system spawned by President George Bush Sr.'s War on Drugs to the battlefields of his son's War on Terror. Thus, for any attempt by America to repair the damage inflicted by prisoner abuse abroad to succeed, it must be accompanied by a thorough examination and reform of its prison system at home.

The story of Abu Ghraib begins during the War on Drugs, when the American prison system was super-sized. In his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, Bush Sr. officially launched the War on Drugs with a bellicose warning shot: "My administration will be telling the dealers, 'Whatever we have to do, we'll do. But your day is over. You're history.'" Which dealers Bush was referring to was left unstated; however, as he urged states across the country to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws for minor drug offenses, it became evident he was gunning for the small timers.

To take his war to the streets, Bush tapped Los Angeles' police chief Darryl Gates, a longtime Republican activist with his eye on the California governorship. Gates devised a military-style anti-gang program called "Operation Hammer" to impose de facto martial law on LA's ghettoes and round up gang members with a set of tactics reminiscent of Vietnam. As Hammer began in April 1988, Gates declared, "This is war... We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that's what they are, rotten little cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." In the operation's first phase, Gates created a "narcotic enforcement zone" in the heavily Latino Pico-Union neighborhood, fencing off a 27 block area with barricades and checkpoints and arresting thousands.

As young Black and Latinos were captured in droves and sentenced to lengthy, mandated terms for usually minor drug-related offenses, the US prison population skyrocketed: According to a study by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London, between 1973 and 2000, America's prison population quadrupled to a whopping 6.6 million inmates. Today that's about 3% of the total population -- and rising. In federal prisons, by 2002, 54.7% of inmates were non-violent drug offenders.

While the War on Drugs devastated inner cities, for rural America, the rapid spike in incarceration rates resulted in a booming job market. To fill guard positions at the new penitentaries sprouting up across the Heartland, states offered good salaries and generous benefits to lure a crop of mostly young, white males from racially homogenous, economically depressed small towns. Thrust into often overcrowded, chaotic prisons full of Black and brown people from far away cities, the new generation of guards were overwhelmed. Consequently, many resorted to violence -- and even torture -- to exert control on a prison population they perceived as hostile and culturally alien.

Virginia's prison system, where Frederick worked for 6 years, was no exception to this phenomenon. According to a December 2000 Amnesty International report on torture in US prisons entitled "The Pain Merchants," a 2000 lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners at Virginia's Sussex 11 State Prison alleged "they were routinely stripped to their underwear and strapped to a steel bed by the wrists and ankles" where they were "forced to lie in their own waste." At Wallens Ridge prison, according to the report, prisoners are placed in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and are shackled when outside their cells. The report also alleges painful "five point restraints" are routinely applied by guards "for 48 hours or longer" as punishment for offenses as minor as "throwing clothes and kicking cell doors." Unfortunately, the public may never know the full extent of the abuse in Virginia state penitentiaries. Under a law passed by former Republican Gov. George Allen, now a US senator, reporters are banned from interviewing inmates there.

Like Virginia's prisons, Graner's former workplace, Greene Correctional Institute, is a place where sadists thrived. A lawsuit filed in 1996 by a Greene inmate, Antonio Noguerol, alleges he was bludgeoned by a prison guard who then used the blood from his mouth to scrawl the initials "KKK" on his back. After visiting Greene in 1998, attorney Gabriel Ybarra wrote a searing 19 page letter to then Governor Tom Ridge, who is now Homeland Security chief. "What they're running [at Greene] is a concentration camp," Ybarra wrote. "It's like an Alcatraz mentality. It's horrible. In my 22 years as an attorney, I have never seen such a place as Greene. I have never seen such bigots in my life." [Post Gazette] Though Graner was employed at Greene during the wave of prisoner abuse in late 1990's, officials there refused to tell a New York Times reporter this month whether he was a participant.

The brutality that occurred at Greene is not isolated. A 1999 opinion federal judge William Wayne wrote about the prisons Bush Jr. oversaw as Texas governor throughout the 1990's stated, "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." Down in Gov. Jeb Bush's Florida, the family of a death row prisoner beaten to death by prison guards, Frank Valdes, sued the governor after prison officials blamed his death on a heart attack despite an autopsy revealing bruising and massive internal trauma. And according to Lara Stemple, director of the prisoner rights group, Stop Prison Rape, one of five male inmates in the US has faced forced sexual contact in custody; for women, whose abusers are often prison guards, the rate of sexual abuse is one in four.


On the morning of 9/11, the young Black and Latino men demonized by the War on Drugs were replaced with a new national boogeyman: the Arab terrorist. With urban cops focused on rooting out terror cells, incidents of racial profiling declined sharply and tensions eased. For inner city America, the heat was off, at least momentarily. LA Gangsta rap icon Dr. Dre, who had produced a wildly popular protest anthem during the height of Operation HAMMER called "Fuck The Police," embraced the new climate with an underground single that quickly became a club hit: "Fuck Bin Laden." Sadly, Bush did not seek to understand inner city America's response to 9/11. There would be no investment in the disinvested; no reconciliation for the excesses of his father's War on Drugs. For him, the ghetto was merely a fertile source of cannon fodder for the War on Terror's impending battles.

Bush's worldview, informed by his experience in frat-houses, faux ranches and prayer groups, lent him to a sense of Calvinistic destiny and a pulp-Western understanding of justice. These traits were boldly revealed in his first major public statement on 9/11, which was indistinguishable from Gates' comments during Operation HAMMER: "Freedom was attacked this morning by faceless cowards... Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." On that day, Bush took America by its trembling hand and began ushering it down a dark hallway toward a big, scary rape room.

And soon the War on Terror began to look depressingly familiar. With American troops charged with the dubious task of extracting terrorists from civilian populations in teeming Iraqi slums, Bush's "cowards" became Any Brown Guy That Moves. Young Arab men were swept off the streets of Baghdad aggressively and arbitrarily like petty drug dealers from South Central Los Angeles and herded into prisons modeled after US maximum security complexes. As a former interrogator at Abu Ghraib told The Guardian on May 7, "A unit goes out a raid and they have a target and the target is not available; they just grab anybody because that was their job. The troops are under a lot of stress and they don't know one guy from the next. They're not cultural experts." [Guardian] Operation HAMMER had been exported.

Though most of Abu Ghraib's inmates had little to do with terrorism, they were treated as vital intelligence assets. To maximize information gathering potential, the Bush administration secretly authorized interrogators to use "stress and duress" on prisoners. At a September, 2002 hearing of House and Senate intelligence committees, Bush's counter-terrorism czar, Cofer Black, said of prisoner treatment, "This is a very highly classified area, but I have to say that all you need to know is there was a 'before 9/11,' and there was an 'after 9/11.' After 9/11 the gloves come off." Bush was more direct during his 2003 State of the Union address, stating, "More than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies." Bush's message, carried live to US troops in Iraq and elsewhere, was a wink and a nod to torture.

At Abu Ghraib, Frederick and Graner apparently heeded Bush's message. In a letter he wrote to a relative in 2003, Frederick described handcuffing prisoners to their cell doors, putting them in isolation chambers without "clothes, lights, ventilation, window, water, or to use the toilet," and headlocking a prisoner until he was "choked out." For his part, Graner is infamous as the man photographed standing behind a pile of naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners with a big smile and a thumbs up sign.

Frederick and Graner's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, described their sadism in terms of their experience in US prisons. "Taking these prisoners out of their cells and staging bizarre acts were the thoughts of a couple of demented M.P.'s who in civilian life are prison correction officers who well know such acts are prohibited," he told the New York Times on May 9th.

Like in US prisons, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib had a racial dimension. "The inmates here are of a complete different culture and person," Frederick lamented in a letter home. A British officer was more succinct about the attitude of some American troops to Iraqis. "They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen," the officer told The Telegraph. [TheAge.com]

Though abuse is well documented in US prisons, it has almost never been photographed. The closest thing to prisoner abuse documented on camera and broadcast to a national audience was the Rodney King beating, an event that sparked massive riots in central Los Angeles in 1992. Like the Rodney King beating footage before them, the Abu Ghraib photos are disseminated to mainstream America enthusiastically by local news programs. With local news viewers accustomed to a steady diet of shooting sprees, police chases and hockey fights followed by episodes of "Cops," the photos from Abu Ghraib are another installment of Guys Gone Wild and thus, a guarantee of good ratings. Ironically, while the Bush administration works to crack down on the porn industry and crush broadcast indecency, it has managed to transform Iraq into a steady supplier of kinky sex pictures and snuff films to American living rooms.

As media interest in the Abu Ghraib scandal holds steady, Bush tries to obscure its framework by characterizing the torture as the work of "a few." This explanation is consistent with his analysis of the the war in general: the forces of the civilized world waging an inevitably victorious battle against "a few" militants, Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters. But as the insurgency continues to spread like a California wildfire, so does the prisoner torture scandal. In the coming week, more photos of hulking soldiers assaulting bone-thin, naked Iraqi prisoners will explode in the media like dirty bombs, staining America's reputation and crippling its historical role as a bearer of democracy to the world. Bush's act as Pericles, the wise War President rallying a besieged nation to "stay the course," has reached its conclusion. He is now Caligula, the depraved adolescent-king of late Rome whose motto was, "Let them hate as long as they fear."

History teaches that after imperial leaders falter and colonial enterprises collapse, societies turn inward to reflect on the origins of their failure and heal the wounds inflicted on their social fabric. America should not be an exception. The roots of Abu Ghraib lie in America's prison system, an institution where brutality too often substitutes for order. Thus, if Americans are sincere in their outrage over the torture, rape and humiliation of prisoners, they must work to end the abuse where it began. Ousting Bush from office is a useful start, but it will take nothing less than a new civil rights movement to reform America's prison system and regain the country's moral ballast.