From Supermax to Abu Ghraib

Just a year ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft pointed to the Iraqi prison system as a shining example of the freedoms that the U.S. would bring to Iraq.

He said, “Now, all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land, and we will help make that freedom permanent by assisting them to establish an equitable criminal justice system, based on the rule of law and standards of basic human rights.”

The rhetoric of law and justice was in full force after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but now, in the wake of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the discourse concerning Iraqi prisons has become far removed from the self-congratulatory statements of Ashcroft. As U.S. credibility disintegrates in Iraq, there is public outcry to assign blame to those responsible for torture, rape and murder.

There are the obvious culprits: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his initiation of a special access program that encouraged harsher interrogations at Abu Ghraib, the government officials who pestered lawyers with questions about the legality of torture, and the U.S. prison guards turned soldiers who let the dogs loose, literally and figuratively.

But as the military continues to shift the blame up and down the chain of command, some lesser known officials have managed to slip past public scrutiny. Their involvement implicates the American government and its domestic policy of mass imprisonment and brutalization in the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

History of ICITAP

In May 2003, Ashcroft appointed an envoy of mostly American prison officials to help “restore law and order in Iraq” by chipping away at Hussein’s much feared torture chambers until they resembled something closer to American prisons. For six months, the envoy would take on the monumental task of preparing preexisting Iraqi prisons for prisoners. Through the International Criminal Investigative Training Program (ICITAP), these officials would decide details such as the number of bunks per prison and the training of Iraqi prison guards.

ICITAP is based in the Department of Justice, but receives funding for individual projects through the Department of State. ICITAP has embarked on many missions since its inception in 1986, from the former Soviet Union to Haiti to Indonesia.

The missions change locations, but their teams have managed to accrue a consistent record of questionable activities while operating under the guise of rebuilding criminal justice systems.

Typically, ICITAP serves to prop up the police and prison systems of American client states. It is a successor to the police training program run by the Agency for International Development. That program was halted in the mid-70’s after the Watergate scandal when it became public knowledge that U.S. AID officials were training police and prison officials around the world in techniques of murder and torture, mostly for use against leftist insurgencies. The activities of ICITAP are not new, only the name is.

In Russia throughout the mid-90’s, Department of Justice officials were accused of illegally acquiring visas for their Russian girlfriends, sharing classified information with uncleared parties and cronyism, in what the Department’s inspector general summed up as “egregious misconduct.”

ICITAP has had a continuous role in Haiti. ICITAP has been sent to train the Haitian police force and restore the criminal justice system. After millions of dollars in funding, the Haitian police force was still deemed “largely ineffective” and accused of serving only “a small segment of the population,” according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Terry Stewart

Terry Stewart accepted his invitation to participate in the ICITAP mission to Iraq. Like the others serving on the team, Stewart had numerous years of experience in prisons, both as former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections (1995-2002) and as a consultant for the private prison firm Advanced Correctional Management.

Donna Hamm, founder and Executive Director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, witnessed Stewart in action in Arizona, where he accumulated many accusations of human rights violations. She said, “Twenty years of credentials is just one year repeated 20 times. There’s no change.”

In 1995, after prisoners set fire to buildings at Safford Arizona State Prison in response to unacceptable conditions, all 613 prisoners were gathered in a central area outside, handcuffed and forced to lie face down. During the first day, prisoners claimed that prison guards would not allow them to eat or to use the bathroom, and, as a result, they urinated and defecated on themselves. Prisoners also suffered from severe sunburns and heat strokes. The prisoners were kept outside for a total of four days. Eventually, the case went to trial, but the jury sided with the Department of Corrections, claiming that the department’s actions were “rational.”

Though the abuses weren’t attributed to Stewart directly, Hamm said that the director’s attitude sets the climate within the department. “They don’t have to adopt a policy of abuse, it’s a given that people will not be fired and will not be held accountable. The guards abuse the prisoners, and they know that they won’t be charged under the current director.”

In a reference to Abu Ghraib, Hamm said, “This isn’t a leash on the neck, but the intent is the same: degradation, humiliation and complete denial of humanity.”

Stewart’s record in Arizona did not prevent him from obtaining a position on the ICITAP team sent to Iraq. A documented record of human rights abuse seems to be a boon for overseas employment by ICITAP, not a hindrance.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has recently criticized the Department of Justice for allowing individuals with checkered pasts, like Stewart, to assist with prison oversight in Iraq.

In June 2004, Schumer said, “When you ask yourself why is there a mess in the Iraqi prisons, just look at the kind of oversight and checking that was done with the people that were put in charge – hardly any, obviously, or these people wouldn’t have been put in the prison system. With these kind of people in charge, was there any hope that the prison system would be run in a decent way? Absolutely not.”

Upon arrival in Baghdad, Stewart and the ICITAP team found that out of 151 prisons, none were operational. Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer informed them that they were to start assessing and re-opening prisons immediately. One of those prisons was Abu Ghraib.
In a interview, Stewart said that at Abu Ghraib, “The CPA, at the request of the Iraqi people, took the execution chamber and made a memorial out of it.” Stewart also put together a three-day training program for future Iraqi prison workers on human rights and anti-corruption. “I gave them an eight-hour course on human rights and anti-corruption and the daily regiment of prisons,” Stewart said. “It was interesting teaching through an interpreter. And when I said, ‘You can’t physically hit an inmate,’ I thought the staff would riot. They said, ‘How can we control them?'”

DeLand of DeFree

Gary DeLand arrived in Iraq three weeks after Terry Stewart. DeLand’s history in prisons, though abundant, was mired with allegations of misdeeds and abuse. As director of the Utah Department of Corrections in the 80’s, DeLand faced numerous charges of denying prisoners adequate medical treatment and subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorney Brian Barnard tried civil action suits against DeLand while he was head of the Utah Department of Corrections. During DeLand’s reign, Barnard claims he would receive at least two to three letters a week of complaints from prisoners, which could possibly stem from what Barnard calls DeLand’s philosophy: “to lock [prisoners] up until they were too old to commit crimes.”
DeLand met up with the rest of the ICITAP team in Baghdad and then set out to do the most fundamental task of re-opening prisons: hiring prison employees. The ICITAP team posted recruitment flyers and passed out applications to Iraqis, and when they ran out of applications, DeLand claims, “The [Military Police] had to run over and fire shots in the air because the crowd got so angry.”

Finding willing Iraqis to fill prison positions was not a problem, but, according to DeLand, training new Iraqi employees was filled with obstacles. “We had a very high attrition rate. Some people found out they couldn’t take bribes and just got up and left. We explained that this was a new system and that this is how we did things in the United States. They would get up and walk out. Or they would ask, ‘What happens when an inmate has a problem, don’t you beat them up?’ We would tell them that we just don’t do that in the U.S.,” DeLand said in a interview.

Maybe DeLand was confused by the question, because prisoners endured horrendous treatment under his watch at the Utah Department of Corrections. In 1981, a prisoner brought a lawsuit against DeLand, both individually and as supervisor at the Salt Lake City County Jail, for cruel and unusual punishment.

The man, who was suffering from a mental illness, had been arrested and charged with disorderly but nonviolent conduct. While in detainment, the prisoner was kept naked for 56 days in a “strip cell,” described in court documents as having “no windows, no interior lights, no bunk, no floor covering, and no toilet except for a hole in the concrete floor which was flushed irregularly from outside the cell.”

John J. Armstrong

Before John J. Armstrong became the assistant director of operations of American prisons in Iraq he was the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Corrections from 1995- 2003. Like Stewart and DeLand, Armstrong was appointed to his post by a Republican governor, John G. Rowland, who has since been impeached. Governor Rowland complained that prisons in Connecticut resembled “Club Med-style” resorts; he wanted a commissioner that would toughen up the prisons that, he claimed, had gone soft under the previous commissioner.

Armstrong vowed to put security above all else, and, during his first months in office, he oversaw the opening of Connecticut’s first “Supermax” prison, Northern Correctional Institution. The Connecticut Department of Corrections website describes Northern as a “highly structured, secure and humane environment,” while a representative from National Prison Project called Northern a “high-tech dungeon” in a 1996 Hartford Courant article.

Northern is an autocratic guard’s dream: prisoners locked up in their closet- sized cells for 23 hours a day, and almost everything can be operated by remote control. Though the prison was intended to house only prisoners who pose “a threat to the safety and security of the community, staff and other inmates,” many prisoners were sent there on minor offenses, like participating in a work stoppage protest.

During Armstrong’s command, it wasn’t necessary to travel to Northern to find examples of abuse. In a 2001 Amnesty International report studying abuse of women in prisons, Connecticut was used as an example of how not to treat female prisoners. At the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, there were numerous allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct by male guards against female prisoners, including sexual assault and voyeurism.

In 1999, Timothy Perry, a 21-year-old mentally ill prisoner, was beaten to death by guards at Hartford Correctional Center. Perry put up no resistance when guards entered his cell and beat him to death. To cover up the murder, the guards continued to act as if Perry was alive and put him in four-point restraints. A nurse even injected Perry’s corpse with Thorazine, a psychotropic drug that he was allergic to. At no time did anyone bother to call a doctor or to check if Perry was breathing. All was caught on film.

None of the staff involved in Perry’s murder were disciplined. The state of Connecticut paid $2.9 million to Perry’s estate for the murder.

To ease the burden of overcrowding on the prison population, Armstrong initiated the exodus of 484 prisoners to Virginia’s “Supermax” Wallens Ridge Prison in 1999. Some contended that it was principally minorities being sent to Wallens Ridge, but Armstrong maintained that the numbers being sent were representative of the prison population. As the prisoners settled in at Wallens Ridge, allegations of mistreatment began to fly. Yet these charges went ignored by Armstrong, and it was the prisoners who paid the price for his negligence.

In April 2000, guards at Wallens Ridge saw a prisoner in his cell jump from his top bunk. Four minutes later, the guards entered the cell of David Tracy, 20, and found that he had hung himself with his bed sheet. Tracy had been transferred to Wallens Ridge from Northern Correctional Institute with Connecticut officials knowing that the transfer would endanger both his mental health and life.

Before his transfer, Tracy had attempted suicide three times and even requested to be placed on suicide watch. As a result of his actions and mental illnesses, his mental health status had been classified as “Mental Health 4,” the highest level possible. Wallens Ridge would not be able to meet Tracy’s needs and Connecticut officials knew it. At Wallens Ridge, Tracy was not given frequent access to mental health staff and was not monitored.

Months after Tracy’s suicide, James Lawrence Frazier, another transferred prisoner, went into a diabetic shock and was shocked repeatedly with 50,000 volts of a stun gun. Days later, Frazier died of heart failure.
After two years, two deaths, an ACLU class action suit, and over 70 other lawsuits, the prisoners were brought back to Connecticut. Now, public attention was focused on the multiple charges of sexual harassment brought upon Armstrong and others by female prison employees.

Armstrong was implicated both directly and indirectly in sexual harassment. Female prison employees asserted that there was a sustained atmosphere of disrespect towards women in the department, with charges ranging from male guards watching pornographic movies while on duty to vandalism and theft of female employee’s belongings.

In one incident, Deputy Warden Murdoch made explicit comments in front of 80 employees. He said that women are sensitive during “that time of the month” and that he would keep a box of underwear in his office in case any women had “an accident at work.” At staff meetings, others made similar comments, and Armstrong was aware of and condoned the behavior.

When female employees would file sexual harassment complaints, many were called “snitches” or would face further retaliation from their harassers. Armstrong claimed that sexual harassment would not be tolerated within the department, but many of the perpetrators were never disciplined and were sometimes promoted.

While Armstrong left office in a cloud of controversy, it did not impact his ability to find employment with ICITAP.

Lane McCotter

Lane McCotter has been shuffled in and out of the prison business for the past three decades. He has been director of corrections in three states, Texas (1985-1987), New Mexico (1987- 1991) and Utah (1992-97) and is currently working as the director of business development for Management and Training Corporation, a private, Utah-based prison firm that operates 16 facilities.

In 2003, McCotter was appointed to the ICITAP team headed to Iraq. McCotter may feel comfortable in many of America’s prisons, but according to a interview, flying in the plane headed to Iraq felt just “like coming home.” He did two tours in Vietnam and worked as an MP.

McCotter and DeLand both oversaw the rebuilding of Abu Ghraib prison and attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the first 500 beds were opened. The team had started rebuilding Abu Ghraib when they saw that it was “the only place that we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison,” according to a interview. McCotter said that he spent $1.9 million dollars in government funds reconstructing Abu Ghraib so it could house prisoners captured by the U.S. military.

On his experience in Iraq, McCotter said in a 2003 interview, “It was almost like you have been preparing for something like this your whole life ­ to bring together everything you have ever learned and to put an entire system together and watch it come to life from absolute and utter chaos and destruction and operate the way you know it should or could. It was such a fascinating and personally rewarding experience for all of us.”
When McCotter left for Iraq, he was leaving behind an extensive record of misdeeds in American prisons.

In Texas, where McCotter served as director of the Department of Corrections for two years, he faced allegations in 1985 of erasing the parts of a video that showed the beating of a prisoner by a guard. McCotter said that it was an “accident,” but the incident leading up to and after the beating were still on the tape. McCotter was only in the nascent stages of his prison administrator career, and, by the time he arrived in Utah, he was a seasoned prison official.
In Utah, McCotter served five years as director of the Director of Corrections. In July 1994, prisoner Lonnie Blackmon was stabbed 67 times by another prisoner in a Utah state prison while eight guards looked on and did nothing. The lawsuit filed by Blackmon’s family said that Blackmon was placed in an area of the prison that housed a majority of white supremacist gang members. Guards cuffed Blackmon and left him in the area “defenseless.” While Blackmon was being stabbed, cameras were recording everything. The guards had a high-pressure hose and weapons at their disposal, yet no one acted.

In March 1997, the death of another prisoner was also caught on tape. Michael Valent, a 29-year-old schizophrenic, died of a blood clot that had formed in his legs and traveled to his lungs after being strapped naked to a restraining chair for 16 hours. Prison officials claimed that Valent had been restrained in the chair because he was banging his head against the wall and posing a threat to his own safety.

The videos show the 115-pound Valent in his cell with a pillowcase wrapped around his head, some claim to shut out the voices in his head, while the guards forcibly remove him from his cell and cut off his clothing. He was then strapped to the chair, the leg restraints strapped to the tightest level. After 16 hours, Valent was removed from the chair, and he died in the shower three hours later. Valent’s death was ruled a homicide, and his mother received a $200,000 settlement McCotter claimed that Valent could’ve developed those clots anywhere.

The photographic evidence showing American soldiers subjecting Iraqi prisoners to sexual abuse, assault and torture; at least 20 known murders of prisoners; and hiding prisoners from the International Committee of the Red Cross have been seen around the world. These well-documented abuses were carried out after the ICITAP team had refurbished the Iraqi prison system and prepared it for its new users.

The four American leaders of the ICITAP team have a lot in common. They were all Republican Party-connected prisoncrats with lengthy track records of brutality throughout their careers in American prisons. Internationally, the U.S. runs one of the most regressive prison systems in the world.
Something positive may come from the international exposure of the Abu Ghraib scandal: educating the world about what the term “human rights” means, and has meant, for American prisoners and what other countries can expect under U.S. occupation.

Torture continues

In January, 2004, President Bush said of Iraq, “One thing is for certain: there won’t be any more mass graves and torture rooms and rape rooms.”

On June 29, 2004, an Oregon National Guard unit told a different story. According to an article in The Oregonian, a solider saw several Iraqi prisoners blindfolded and bound at the Iraqi Interior Ministry. They were being beaten and tortured by Iraqi officials.

The soldier radioed for assistance, and the unit was sent to the Interior Ministry to investigate. When they arrived, the soldiers passed out water and moved the prisoners far from the Iraqi officials. The bound Iraqis said they hadn’t eaten anything in days. Upon further investigation, the unit found metal rods and other torture mechanisms.

They also found 78 more Iraqi prisoners in a 20-by-20 foot room. The Iraqi officials claimed that they hadn’t beaten anyone and the unit was soon ordered by their superiors in the U.S. military to return the prisoners back to the officials. Several of the soldiers took pictures showing Iraqi prisoners being beaten by officials. Since then, there have been no new developments on the status of the Iraqi prisoners.

Contrary to what President Bush has said, the rape and torture rooms of Iraq haven’t closed. They’re just open for business under new management.

LEAH CALDWELL lives in Austin, Texas. This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News. She can be reached at: