Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Dissecting the Prison Abuse

Andrew Sullivan is agonizing over the Abu Ghraib incident (bad news, by the way: it's far from over, and more "worst" is yet to come). A few bad-to-the-bone types say, "so what?" Most of the pro-liberation people I have read are devastated and disappointed, but grimly determined to carry on in spite of the setback, and eager to see the guilty punished swiftly and openly, to prove our system works. At the same time, they wish to keep the abuses in perspective, especially by comparing them to what Saddam did.

Parents fed alive into plastic shredders in front of their children. The day the tanks rolled into al-Hillah with "No Shiites after Today" painted on their turrets, and the Republican Guards made the citizens lie down in a row in the street and ran over their heads.

But Sullivan is one of those who considers Abu Ghraib to be a crippling blow, because, "how we conduct this war is as important as winning it. We cannot lose our soul in the process." I commend his effort to plumb the moral and ethical depths of the prison abuse scandal. My shift from complacent liberalism to support of a Republican president's pursuit of war is a post-9/11 experience and I'm still a bit woozy from the swing. I'm still trying to parse all this out, too, and his posts on the matter do help clarify the complexities.

He is trying to trace the problem down from the top, seeing it in terms of ripples from Rumsfeld-Bush decisions to aggressively pursue counter-terror intelligence.

How did those new relaxed rules get moved from Guanatanamo against high-profile Qaeda terrorists to people dragged in off the street in Baghdad? We don't yet know. But we do know that the administration debated various methods of torture - because Rumsfeld signed off on some and then had a change of heart and restricted some of the more horrifying methods.

There certainly are two strains to what went wrong in Abu Ghraib. The one, which Sullivan articulates well, is the top-down problem of sanctioned abuses.

But also bear in mind that there is likely a strong strain of sadism in the U.S. prison system. I say "likely" only because my evidence is anecdotal. I don't have statistics, but, I have had some experience in the BDSM community (it's a long story), and I can tell you I probably encountered more self-identified prison guards there than any single other occupation.

I also know that, as a newspaper editor, after the Abu Ghraib photos were printed, I took several phone calls from people who had been in the local county prison who told me you could see the same things happening there in any given week: snarling dogs and naked men cowering. Court and police beat reporters I work with, as well as public defenders, had no trouble believing this.

[Yet for some reason my fellow editors, all in a lather over Abu Ghraib, don't seem to think this cllose-to-home problem is worth investigating. We don't report this with scandalous page one coverage and scathing editorials.]

Just so you know it's not just me, I plucked a few observations from the Calpundit blog discussion forum on the wrangling earlier this year between Gov. Schwarzenegger and the California prison guards' union:

"A significant part of my professional life is defending prison guards (in a relatively civilized prison system) from lawsuits by inmates. It is certainly true that most claims are bogus. Nevertheless, I can tell you of my own knowledge (the attorney-client privilege prevents my giving specifics) that abuse, often quite astounding abuse, is far too common."

Or this one.

"The abuse of prisoners by guards is something that happens. Such violence surely has its origin in the need to assert control over a population of prisoners -- which is a very sticky proposition if you have to look over violent, half-crazy offenders. It is no joke that many criminals are mentally ill or close to it -- and violent chaos can and will erupt despite the best layed plans. I have some sympathy for the difficulty of the job.

"That said, it is clear to anyone who wants to examine the facts that a culture of sadism has developed in some of our prisons, and in the spirits of some, perhaps many, guards. Gladiator matches and organized rape-sodomy are documented realities. To say nothing of the general dehumanization of prisoners -- 90% of whom will be released eventually and live among us with their scarred psyches. Only fools argue against aggressive rehabilitation programs: education and mental health treatment."

Combine that aspect of many -- certainly not all -- prison guards, with the fluid, violent, and unrestrained atmosphere of Abu Ghraib in late 2003, and you don't necessarily need a Rumsfeld dictum or a Bush legal team memo to arrive at the scenes we've seen.

Certainly something as idiotic as taking video footage and photographs of your escapades is far more consistent with a sexual fetish than it is with a government trying to cheat on international laws.

Yet the extensive Human Rights Watch report on Abu Ghraib makes no mention whatsoever of U.S. prison culture. Instead, its damning report allows only Bush Administration officials any direct responsibility. You'd think a worldwide human rights group would be as concerned with U.S. prisoners as with Iraqi prisoners. But apparently not so, at least when there's partisan hay to be made.

The top-down problem collided head-on with the bottom-up (pardon that) problem at the level of the prison supervisors, who were -- I suspect -- feeling heat from higher up to get better information and at the same time neglecting to supervise their people on the floor.