From Wallens Ridge to Abu Ghraib

The object of torture is torture.

George Orwell, 1984

Senator James Inhofe (R. Ok.) never ceases to amaze and amuse with unique and mindless view of the world. It was he who recently described global warming a “hoax.” In the recent hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the prisoner abuse scandal that is in full flower in Iraq, he again amazed. He said that he, too, was outraged by the scandal but not, it turned out, by its substance. As he explained: “I’m probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than . . . by the treatment. The idea that these prisoners­you know, they’re not there for traffic violations. If they’re in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners- – 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.”

What Senator Inhofe didn’t know when those remarkable words flew from his mouth was that he was quite right in saying the prisoners were not there for traffic violations. Many of them were not there for any offenses at all. At the time of the release of 293 prisoners on May 14, American officials said that at least 60 percent of Iraqis taken into custody by American forces were arrested by mistake. What Senator Inhofe might have said, had he known, was that the treatment accorded inmates in Iraq was not special.

Maricopa County, Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is a poster child for people who think like Sen. Inhofe. Were he a bit younger he would probably have been in Iraq. The jail website’s welcoming message says: “No other detention facility in the country, state or county can boast of 1200 convicts in tents . . . Costs of under 45 cents per meal per inmate; few others can say they have women in tents or on chain gangs. . . .” In the summer the temperature in the tents can exceed 100 degrees. Prisoners have to pay for their own food but that’s not so bad since in 1999 the daily cost for food was $.90 a day. (Thanks to the sheriff’s frugality and eagerness to avoid imposing financial hardship on his wards he has managed to get the daily food cost down to $.45 a day.)

Although Sheriff Arpaio may be the poster boy for how to get tough with prisoners, his is not the only prison in the country that mirrors what took place in Iraq.

Shortly after the release of the pictures from Iraq, the New York Times’, Scott Butterfield, disclosed statistics that would shock all but Senator Inhofe. According to Mr. Butterfield, in Pennsylvania as well as other prisons, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to new facilities. In the Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates are forced to wear black hoods. During the time Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, the prison system operated under a federal consent decree because of the brutal conditions to which prisoners were subject, including abuse of inmates by guards. Commenting on conditions in Texas prisons, Federal District Judge William Wayne Justice said: “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.” When White House spokesman Trent Duffy was asked what Mr. Bush knew about the conditions of prisons in Texas during the time he was governor, Mr. Duffy said the conditions in Texas prisons were not comparable to what was going on in Iraq. He didn’t say why.

The good news is, not to worry. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller is now overseeing Abu Ghraib. He comes to the job from Guantánamo. He visited Iraq in August and helped set rules for detention and interrogation. The procedures adopted following his visit were modeled in part on procedures used under his supervision in Guantánamo. Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba who reported on the abuses said that General Miller’s recommendation of a guard force that “sets the conditions for the successful interrogation and exploitation of internees/detainees” violated army doctrine and may have contributed to the climate permitting abuses. Helping create the climate that resulted in abuse is not Gen. Miller’s only claim to fame. Gen. Miller was, reportedly, the officer who succeeded in having charges brought against Capt. James J. Yee, the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo. Those charges, if proved, would have qualified Capt. Yee for the death penalty. They were not proved-instead, all charges against Capt. Yee were dropped. Gen. Miller’s new assignment gives him an opportunity to improve his record but Iraqi prisoners scant reason for optimism.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney based in Boulder, Colorado.