Jailhouse Iraq

Brutalizing inmates is a proud American tradition

Last week, photographs of American guards torturing Iraqi prisoners hit television screens around the world. President George W. Bush expressed shock and amazement at the brutalities—sexual abuse, humiliation, beatings and sodomy—that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. "What took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know," said Bush, whose father's 1992 America did not include checkout scanners. "That's not how we do things in America."

Well, Dubya, maybe you were too busy executing marginally retarded convicts in Texas to notice that allowing poorly trained prison guards to wield unlimited power over inmates, with predictably horrifying results,is a time-honored American tradition. You don't need to travel to Bagram or Baghdad to find evidence that brutalizing prisoners is "how we do things in America." In fact, you don't need to look any farther than your local county jail or state prison. At the Orange County Men's Jail in Santa Ana, a recent federal lawsuit charged a group of sheriff's deputies—known by inmates as the "psycho crew"—with randomly beating, harassing and intimidating inmates. Guards also allegedly forced inmates to fight one another in staged gladiator-type combat.

At the higher-security Theo Lacy Men's Jail in Orange, guards recently punished an inmate who struck a guard by sitting on top of him and pummeling his face with a pepper-spray can. After a Weekly reporter saw the injuries during a tour of the jail, officials sent the inmate to the hospital to have his face repaired with metal plates. A month earlier, another inmate who was beaten by police during his arrest spent several days at the jail complaining of stomach pains before he was sent to the hospital, where he died of internal bleeding.

On Jan. 25, the Associated Press revealed, guards at Corcoran State Prison watched the Super Bowl while a 60-year-old inmate removed himself from his dialysis machine and bled to death in his cell. Corcoran is the same prison where in 1998, eight guards were accused of staging gladiator fights among inmates that typically ended when guards shot one of the combatants. Dozens of inmates were injured, and seven died at Corcoran during this period. A year later, four Corcoran guards were acquitted of aiding and abetting rape when they placed a 230-pound sexual predator known as the "booty bandit" in the same cell as a 120-pound inmate, who was being punished for kicking a guard.

Abuse of prisoners by American guards is so widespread that a Lexis/Nexis search for articles with the words "prison guard" and "inmate's death" returned 599 articles with headlines such as:

•"Arizona Prison Guard Charged in Inmate Death," United Press International, April 28, 2004.

•"Jail Guard Won't Be Charged in Inmate's Death," Associated Press, April 1, 2004.

•"Corcoran Guards Mute in Inmate's Death," Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2004.

•"Inmate's Death Raises Questions; Convict Feared Prisoners Were Going to Carry Out 'a Hit' on Him Because Guards Wanted Him Dead," Chicago Tribune, Jan. 1, 2004.

•"Inmate Says Guards Beat Inmate Who Later Died," Associated Press, May 10, 2003.

•"No Charges Filed Against Guard Who Fought With Juvenile Inmate," Associated Press, May 9, 2003.

•"FBI Reviews Two Fatal Shootings by Guards at Pen," Associated Press, March 1, 2003.

•"Officers Testify About Barnes' Foot on Reynold's Head, Prosecutors Allege Jail Guards Tried to Cover Up Action," The Courier-Journal, Oct. 8, 2002.

•"Guards Won't Face Charges in Inmate's Death," St. Petersburg Times, May 11, 2002.

•"Three Florida Prison Guards are accused of stomping an inmate to death," Associated Press, Feb. 8, 2002.

And on May 7, the same day Donald Rumsfeld answered questions from a Senate committee about the Iraqi abuses, the lead story of the local section of the LA Times ("Attack by Prison Dog Revealed") detailed how guards at a youth prison in Stockton used a dog to attack a juvenile inmate while he was obeying orders.

 
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