Why Are We Surprised?

Over the past few weeks, just about everyone has expressed shock and outrage over the treatment of the Iraqi prisoners. Why are we so surprised? Look at the people selected to create and run the Iraqi prisons.

In May 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft hand-picked a small group of former prison officials to re-make the Iraqi prison system. Many of those chosen, including former Connecticut Department of Correction Commissioner John Armstrong, left their state jobs under a cloud of scandals involving inmate deaths, brutality and unconstitutional practices. All of the men chosen hold extreme correctional philosophies that are in stark contrast to modern concepts of humane and dignified treatment.

Armstrong, who left state office in March 2003 in the wake of a scandal involving the sexual harassment of female guards by male guards, presided over a department whose staff members were responsible for the fatal restraint of at least two mentally ill inmates, the use of unconstitutional and excessive force against others, and a code of silence that allowed and encouraged a culture of brutality and degradation. Notwithstanding the DOC’s internal findings of misconduct in the most notorious cases, Armstrong imposed no meaningful discipline and required no re-training of officers involved. In calling recently for an investigation into Armstrong’s service in Iraq, U.S. Sen. Charles Shumer (D-NY) reminded us of Armstrong’s ill-fated decision to transfer Connecticut inmates to Virginia, where some of them died and others were abused. While Armstrong was not directly responsible for conditions in the Virginia prison, he knew about them and he did nothing to transfer our inmates out of that abusive system until a neutral government investigation threatened to uncover it.

Since August 2003, Armstrong has been the Assistant Director of Operations in Iraq.

Lane McCotter, the former Director of the Utah Department of Corrections, was hand-picked by Ashcroft less than three months after the Department of Justice’s own Civil Rights Division released a 36-page report documenting inhumane and unsafe conditions at a jail run by a private prison company, Management & Training Corporation, where McCotter is a senior executive.

The Nation reports that, due to these findings, the Justice Department transferred 100 federal prisoners to other jails. In 1988, according to The American Statesman, McCotter was accused by a court-appointed monitor of erasing part of a videotape showing prisoner abuse. McCotter was forced to resign from his position at the Utah DOC in 1997 after a schizophrenic inmate, Michael Valent, died while shackled naked to a restraining chair for 16 hours. That incident mirrored the treatment of another mentally ill inmate in McCotter’s custody, Steven LeRoy Nelson, who was strapped to a steel plank for 85 consecutive days in a cell where the lights were never turned off.

The New York Times reported that McCotter “directed the re-opening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year,” and McCotter himself admitted he worked closely with American military police officers at the prison complex.

Gary Deland, another member of Ashcroft’s team, also is a former Director of the Utah DOC as well as the Salt Lake City County Jail ­ and he, like McCotter, is an executive at Management & Training Corporation. Deland was the named defendant in Littlefield v. Deland, where, according to the Court, a young mentally ill man was kept naked for 56 days in a “strip cell” with no windows, no interior lights, no bunk, no floor covering, and no toilet except for a hole in the concrete floor.

The Nation reports that Deland and McCotter “worked along with Brig. Gen. Karpinski and MPs from various battalions” at Abu Ghraib.

Perhaps John Ashcroft did not know about the legacies of the people he hired to run the prisons in Iraq. This conclusion seems especially plausible given the poor planning and execution that has marked virtually every other aspect of our post-war occupation. On the other hand, perhaps Ashcroft picked these men with full knowledge of their backgrounds but did not consider this to be offensive or inconsistent with penological objectives, either in the U.S. or in Iraq. Such a conclusion would be inconsistent with the fact that the DOJ itself has condemned mistreatment of prisoners; but this would not be the first time that Bush administration officials, and President Bush himself, have been hypocritical on these issues. Indeed, it has been widely reported that, while George Bush was Governor of Texas, some of the worst prison abuse cases in our nation’s history occurred at the Texas Department of Corrections. In one appalling case, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice imposed a decree on the Texas DOC after finding that guards allowed inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

A third possibility is that at the time Ashcroft picked these men to re-build the Iraqi prison system, he and others knew about, and were actually offended by, the men’s sordid history of inhumane policies and philosophies, but he was unable to find any other experienced correctional officials untainted by a record of excessive force, humiliation, degradation and unconstitutional practices inflicted upon prisoners in their custody.

The prisoner abuse scandal reveals the Bush administration’s failure to uncover, understand and care about the personal histories of the experts chosen to impose their correctional philosophies and predilections on the people of Iraq. The scandal in Iraq also shows that Americans have failed miserably to hold ourselves to a higher standard, to require that our correctional officials be held publicly accountable, and to demand a minimum level of humanity and dignity for the millions of American citizens behind bars.

Major General Antonio Taguba told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the prisoner abuse in Iraq is a result of a failure of leadership, supervision, training and discipline. This indictment is just as accurately applied to this country’s prison administrators as it is to the occupation forces, and to the CIA operatives and private contractors who worked with them in Iraq. If one lesson can be learned from the photos and other evidence coming out of Abu Ghraib, it is this: until these four basic qualities of good prison administration are required of anyone holding a position of authority in our state Departments of Correction, the horrors that we are seeing come out of Abu Ghraib, and the horrors that we see every day in American prisons, will continue to haunt us and will continue to be the measure against which we will be judged.

ANTONIO PONVERT III, a partner and civil rights lawyer at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, Bridgeport, CT, has represented the families of Connecticut inmates killed and abused by guards.