Prison is a State of Mind

Ideas and Issues International

          New Orleans   I can not get over this mayhem we have created in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  I am not sure any of us should ever get over it.  There are very few times when — in all honesty — one finds it embarrassing to be an American, but this is absolutely one of them.  This feeling is made worse obviously by the fact that as a country, we also seem unable to take responsibility for this depravity and cruelty.  Each day brings a deeper look at how out of control and predictable it was that we would have in fact been guilty of this travesty of justice.  Donald Rumsfeld should be ashamed, everyone else in America is — what an amazing world he must live in to be able to shower off the responsibility for this mess!

            It kills me how predictable it was.  We start with the fact that in America we have one of the worst and most punitive prison systems in the world.  Frequently when studies are published we lead in the number of people incarcerated and drag the bottom of the list when it comes to sentencing and capital punishment.  Virtually all modern, industrialized countries, except the United States, have long ago determined that capital punishment undermines the social fabric, but we are still out here in the land of denial, pulling the switch over and over no matter how little it means to anyone.

            Take a gang of thugs who used to work in the U.S. corrections complex and put them over in the middle of anarchy where there are questionable rules of engagement, where there is a ready rationalization for any behavior no matter how aberrant, where the lines of authority are blurred between soldiers, spooks, and subcontractors, and it’s a wonder that anyone survived.  As a country we had seemingly already allowed the mucky-mucks to conclude that common standards of decency like the Geneva Conventions had no meaning to us, so who is surprised.

            Turns out we had also made Iraq a dumping ground for prison officials from the U.S. who had been cashiered out of the corrections complex for an array of questionable conduct.  John J. Armstrong was a former commissioner of corrections in Connecticut.  He had to resign after the settlement of an ACLU lawsuit over a couple of folks who died after he pushed tem over to a super maximum security operation in Virginia.  Lane McCotter was forced to quit as director of the Utah Department of Corrections after an incident where a mentally ill inmate died after being left naked and shackled to a chair for 16 hours.  And, even after that he had similar problems on his watch.  Of course, why would it matter — they may not have realized that at least in Iraq no one in charge ever has to take final responsibility, so at least there are still some differences between the old-school values in Connecticut and Utah as opposed to the run and gun cowboys running the Pentagon with Rumsfeld.

            If we allow it here and look the other way, how can we really be surprised that the same standards of cruelty and abuse which have become banal in the American correction systems should turn up repeatedly on our watch in Iraq?  Rumsfeld and his crew from geepers to generals are probably only surprised to see that the world is shocked and stunned by our handling of prisons when they finally get a good look in Iraq.

            I shudder to think that a couple of digital cameras in U.S. prisons might show us this and more.

            Some feet need to come down and some voices need to rise saying STOP to all of this!