In some US prisons, echoes of Abu Ghraib

Complaints of prisoner abuse crop up at home as well as in Iraq - and may now get attention.

"Simply stated, the culture of sadistic and malicious violence that continues to pervade the ... prison system violates contemporary standards of decency."

That conclusion, written by Judge William Wayne Justice, does not describe Abu Ghraib in Iraq last fall, but the Texas prison system in 1999 when George W. Bush was still governor there.

As courts-martial get under way in Baghdad for the prison-abuse scandal, critics are urging Americans to look inside their own criminal justice system for the root of the problems in Iraq.

On the surface, there are appear to be several parallels. One of the Abu Ghraib defendants, Spc. Charles Graner, is a former guard at a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania that has a history of prisoner abuse. Although accused, he was never found guilty. And Lane McCotter, a senior contractor brought in to reopen Abu Ghraib and train guards, was forced to resign as the head of corrections in Utah: A mentally ill inmate died there after being strapped naked to a restraining chair for more than 16 hours.

Indeed, inmates, human rights activists, and even some corrections officials contend that abuse, humiliation, and gang rape are common in some US prisons.

But after a generation of litigation and concerted efforts to increase the professionalism in the corrections establishment, American prisons have, in general, become far more humane. Few believe that the kind of extreme sexual humiliation that occurred in Abu Ghraib would be tolerated in most US prisons - at least not for long.

"I don't think abuse is common in American prisons, but there are some abuses in all American prisons," says Robert Johnson, a professor at American University in the department of Justice Law and Society. "And in some cases, the abuses can be widespread."

The renegades

It is in the so-called renegade prisons, and whole renegade jurisdictions, where some abuses may be even worse than those in Iraq. And there, experts say, the same factors will be at play that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"If you find one of those renegade prisons, you'll find there's a problem with leadership, that there are either abused or flawed policies or procedures, little or no training, and poor supervision," says Chase Riveland, a former corrections commissioner in Colorado and Washington State. "And when you combine that with a deviant culture, then you have problems like we saw in Iraq."

Prisons by nature are volatile, difficult places no matter where they are. People are held in cells, essentially cages, against their will by others who are charged with trying to keep them in line.

Overcrowding, a problem that has escalated in American prisons over the past 25 years as the prison population has quadrupled to more than 2.1 million, has intensified that tension between guards and inmates. It's also created fiscal pressures, leaving less experienced guards dealing with larger populations and fewer resources for education, rehabilitation, and recreation. And then there are cultural and racial gaps: Most US inmates are people of color from urban areas, while most prisons are in predominantly white rural areas.

Many of these same dynamics were at work in Abu Ghraib, where inexperienced American reservists were charged with guarding large numbers of Iraqi detainees. "In Iraq, on top of those huge gaps in race and culture increasing tensions, you get language barriers that for the most part are insurmountable," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal-justice reform think tank in Washington. "In the day-to-day interactions, the prisoners become dehumanized because there's no communication, and much less sympathy or compassion for anyone's plight."

Such dehumanization is usually a key ingredient when abuse occurs, say experts. In California, where allegations of widespread abuse throughout the system have prompted a state Senate investigation, experts blame overcrowding, a gang culture, and a poorly educated workforce for creating a culture of dehumanization. That has been exacerbated by guards protecting one another.

"There is a code of silence in California prisons that turns good officers to bad," says Richard Steffen, staff director for the Senate Government Oversight Committee looking into the abuse. "They are forced not to report wrongdoing because if they do, they could be ostracized."

Prison accreditation

California is one of a handful of states where no prisons are accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), the national organization of professional correctional officials. Out of the nation's almost 1,600 prisons, about half are fully ACA accredited. To win that designation, correctional officers have to be fully trained, and the facilities must be fully transparent - which means community members have access so that if there are abuses, they can be addressed.

"I believe that when abuses are brought to the attention of directors of corrections, wardens, and jail managers, they're fully investigated, and appropriate sanctions are taken, including dismissal from position and prosecution, when appropriate," says James Gondles, executive director of the ACA.

But plenty of inmates in places like Texas, which since the 1999 court ruling has been working to reform its prisons, still find too many correctional officials uninterested in abuse allegations. While Roderick "Keith" Johnson was serving time for passing a bad check in the Allred prison in Wichita Falls, Texas, he claims he was made a sex slave by rival gangs of inmates. He pleaded for help from all levels of the prison system, right up to the commissioner, but claims he was ignored.

He's now suing, and his case will be heard in July. "Seeing those pictures of those people in Iraq and the way they were abused, I saw a lot of similarities with what goes on here," says Mr. Johnson, who's out of prison and helping other ex-offenders reenter local communities. "At least there you've got pictures to show what was happening, but here we don't, so it harder to prove."

Even Mr. Gondles admits that abuses do occur in US prisons. "But I don't believe that it's endemic in American jails and prisons," he says. "And what happened in one institution in Iraq is not representative of what goes on in America."

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