May 17, 2004 – As US officials continue to insist that the actions of abusive soldiers at Abu Ghraib do not represent the character of the United States, human and civil rights groups are pointing to widespread physical and mental assaults endured by prisoners within the United States. Insisting the problem of prisoner abuse is well-documented and is endemic to the US prison system at home and abroad, such groups are challenging the American public and political figures to end human rights violations in Iraqi and US prisons.
"Like most Americans, I am horrified by the sexually degrading photographs and the reports of Iraqi detainees being threatened with electrocution and rape by members of our military at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq," Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prisons Project, said in a press statement.
"Those who are shocked by these human rights violations, however, should be aware that equally depraved acts are committed against prisoners in the United States regularly without the outrage and disgust currently being expressed by US officials in response to conditions in Iraq," Alexander added.
Instead of seeing the torture and humiliation propagated at Abu Ghraib and other US-run prisons in Iraq as an aberration, these groups view the situation as an extension of the US prison system, which they say has been plagued by a history of systemic prisoner abuse.
As revelations that some of the people involved in the human rights violations at Abu Ghraib had previously worked in the US prison system, where they had been accused of mistreating inmates, the groupsâ€™ assertions are gaining traction.
At least two of the soldiers implicated in the abuses at Abu Ghraib were former US prison guards. Specialist Charles Graner Jr., who is alleged to be the ringleader of some Abu Ghraib incidents, faced allegations of prisoner abuse in the US before his tour in Iraq. According to USA Today, Graner was never convicted of mistreating prisoners while acting as a prison guard in Pennsylvania, but the accusations against him during that time were similar to those filed against him in Iraq. Another suspected leader of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, was also formerly a prison guard in Virginia.
"The Pentagon has said it wants to send more people to Iraq who have US prison experience," wrote Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a recent press release. "But before it does, it should look closely at the human rights records of their prisons." HRW is an international, non-profit organization that investigates and challenges human rights violations.
Heavily researched studies as well as anecdotal accounts point to systemic violence in US prisons.
Amnesty International (AI), a human rights organization that has conducted numerous investigations into the treatment of prisoners in the US, reports that women in American prisons are routinely raped, sexually extorted, groped during body searches, and viewed by male officers while undressing, showering or using the toilet. According to the rights group, guards threaten female inmates with loss of visitation rights and extended prison sentences in order to keep the women silent about the abuse.
Human Rights Watch reports that in recent years, prisoners "have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them."
The group has also documented widespread rape in US prisons of both women and men. "Correctional officers will bribe, coerce, or violently force inmates into granting sexual favors, including oral sex or intercourse," writes the group. "Prison staff have laughed at and ignored the pleas of male prisoners seeking protection from rape by other inmates."
The results of the physical abuse, says HRW, include broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars, and sometimes death.
In 1999 a federal judge said, "The culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the Texas prison system violates contemporary standards of decency." Judge William Wayne Justice found that inmates are routinely subjected to violence, extortion, and rape, officers are aware of inmate-on-inmate victimization but fail to respond to the victims, and there are high barriers preventing inmates from seeking safekeeping or protective custody.
"[W]hen taken together," he said, "[these factors] have the mutually enforcing effect of rendering prison condition cruel and unusual by denying inmates safety from their fellow inmates." The judge attributed the "abuse of force" not to "deficient policies" but to "the seeming inability of correctional officers to keep their hands off prisoners."
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are over two million incarcerated people in the US, a disproportionate number of them people of color, poor, or mentally disabled.
Inmates who have suffered abuse in US prison have limited recourse because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which was passed in 1996 and was designed to limit judicial oversight of prisons and reduce lawsuits stemming from prisoner abuse. Human rights groups decry this law because it prevents survivors of sexual assault, psychological attacks and other forms of mistreatment where physical injury cannot be proved from bringing lawsuits against their abusers.
"If a prisoner in our nationâ€™s capital were threatened with electrocution by his captors and suffered a heart attack or a mental breakdown as a result, he would still have no remedy in federal court," explained Alexander, of the ACLU.
The Act also requires those prisoners who do suffer physically from abuse to exhaust their prisonsâ€™ grievance procedures before filing a claim in federal court, a process that can take months and often opens survivors of assault to retaliation from guards and staff.
"Perhaps if photos or videotapes of abuse in U.S. prisons were to circulate publicly, Americans would be galvanized to protest such treatment as they have the treatment of Iraqi prisoners," writes HRW. "When the news about Abu Ghraib broke, the Bush administration tried to suggest it was the work of a few rogue officers. But in over two decades of monitoring prisons in the United States and around the world, Human Rights Watch has learned that abusive officers do not operate in a vacuum."
While the group is careful to say that most of the people working in the US prison system are not known to have abused an inmate, they also refuse to accept assertions that abuse in the US and in Iraq is the work of a few rogue officers. They point the finger at "a culture of brutalityâ€¦ in which correctional officers know they can get away with excessive, unnecessary, or even purely malicious violence."
Rights groups are hoping the revelations of prisoner abuse in Iraq will lead to an investigation of US prison conditions and a change in the laws currently inhibiting reforms. But they say this is unlikely to happen without more external scrutiny of prisons, which are typically inaccessible to the press, human rights groups, and the public.
Absent graphic and unavoidable evidence of abuse in US incarceration facilities, such as the photos of inmates being humiliated at Abu Ghraib, writes HRW, "it is all too likely that abuse will continue to be a part of many prison sentences."