Iraq 'Supermax' Prison Won't Wipe Away Abu Ghraib Stain

In his five-point plan for Iraq reconstruction, President Bush touted his plan to build a modern maximum-security prison in Iraq as one way to wipe away the horrid stain of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The irony is that the type of maximum-security prison Bush wants to build has come under fierce assault from prison reformers, lawmakers and even some prison officials in the United States. These prisons, popularly known as a supermax prisons, have been the target of prisoner lawsuits in Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, and Illinois. In 2000, the Justice Department brought federal charges against prison guards for shooting inmates at Pelican Bay, California's supermax prison.

Supermaxes have been called by the prisoners, "torture chambers," where they are subjected to flagrant human rights and civil liberties violations, and appalling psychological and physical abuses. In a lawsuit filed by Ohio prisoners at the state's supermax prison in 2002, Keith Garner, a prisoner confined at the prison, bluntly told a judge that the conditions at the prison were "like being in a tomb."

Garner is one of twenty thousand prisoners held in supermax prisons in 22 states, the District of Columbia and at a federal supermax in Colorado. The prisons were built to hold the worst of the worst prisoners. That is prisoners deemed so violent, dangerous or incorrigible that they threaten prison stability, and are an extreme menace to other prisoners.

Garner may or may not fit that category of a violent, dangerous offender.

Prisoners are often dumped in supermaxes for petty, non-violent offenses, for being a suspected gang member even if they have not been accused of any misconduct, if serving a long prison sentence, or are mentally ill, or simply to relieve prison overcrowding. A disproportionate number of the prisoners in supermaxes are black and Latino. The lawsuits have documented a long litany of abuses that include: the misuse of the restraints, punitive shackling, the use of electro shock weapons, and pepper spray, random strip searches, confinement to prolonged isolation in a tiny cell with lights on for 24 hours, few or no books, minimal recreation and exercise, and denial of psychological treatment and counseling.

These abuses are eerily similar to those inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Many of those prisoners that were subjected to the inhumane torture had not committed any terrorist acts, or were members of militias fighting against American forces. Many of the prisoners in America's supermaxes also can be held indefinitely as the Iraqi prisoners were. There are virtually no uniform standards, or guidelines that spell out when and under what circumstances a prisoner is no longer considered a behavior threat and can be returned to a regular prison. The warden generally makes that decision, and it's a decision that's fraught with whim, capriciousness and more often than not, racial bias.

Though legally flimsy, the rationale for abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is that a de facto state of war exists and that the prisoners there could give aid and comfort to those who kill American soldiers. That hardly applies to the prisoners held in America's supermaxes. Though their treatment may not be considered torture in the strict definition of the term, the psychological and physical damage of isolation and segregation is, by any standard a human rights, abuse. That puts the U.S. squarely in violation of the two international treaties that it signed in 1992 and 1994 that specifically bar abusive or coercive treatment of prisoners. The treaties also spell out minimum standards for prisoner treatment.

Supermax prisons were built during the 1980s and early 1990s when states were flush with cash, and lawmakers and much of the public were in a lock em' up and throw away the key mood with criminals. The mounting evidence that supermax prisons were not being used solely to confine dangerous and violent prisoners, and that the prisoners in these jails were being abused and their rights violated, stirred no outcry from politicians or the public. But with cash strapped states facing ballooning deficits upwards of $80 billion, the extravagant cost of building and running these prisons finally forced some lawmakers to rethink their worth. The average cost to maintain a prisoner in a supermax prison is double that of maintaining a prisoner in a regular state prison. Worse, there is no real evidence that supermax prisons are any more effective in making bad behaving prisoners more compliant or the prisons any safer than providing prisoners with counseling, rehabilitation, drug treatment and education programs that are far less costly. This makes supermaxes even more wasteful white elephants.

Bush claims that demolishing Abu Ghraib and replacing it with a modern maximum-security prison would be a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning. Like so many other claims that Bush has made about the glowing future of Iraq, the horror of America's supermaxes mocks that claim as well.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).

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