Uncle Sam Wants You Anyway


If you're an American ex-prison official whose tenure was tainted by federal investigations, state hearings, inmate deaths, allegations of torture, civil rights lawsuits, even an outcry from Amnesty International, despair not. There's a job for you in Iraq.

In what appears to be an emerging pattern of ill-advised hires, the Justice Department has sent a virtual who's-who of prison tough guys to Iraq over the past year – their collective track record on human rights essentially one enormous red flag – and paid them to reconstitute that country's detention system.

Already, two of the Justice Department's 'corrections advisors' are making headlines: Lane McCotter, former director of the Utah Department of Corrections, and John Armstrong, his Connecticut counterpart, both resigned after inmate abuse scandals occurred under their respective watches.

McCotter stepped down from his Utah post in 1997 following the case of a schizophrenic inmate who died shortly after being strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours. McCotter later became an executive of a private prison company whose Santa Fe jail was investigated by the Justice Department in 2003 for healthcare, sanitary and safety deficiencies.

Armstrong left Connecticut's top corrections job last year amidst the fall-out from an ACLU lawsuit over his decision to transfer inmates to a notorious Virginia prison (two Connecticut inmates died in custody there), and a state human rights commission hearing which took him to task for failing to deal with sexual harassment of female guards. Armstrong also attracted the ire of Amnesty International, which called for an investigation into the state's York Correctional Institution for women in November, 2000, after the group received complaints from inmates and former employees alleging sexual abuse by guards.

The Justice Department's hiring of McCotter and Armstrong could be relegated to an eyebrow-raising turn of events; two occasions do not necessarily constitute a trend. However, there are signs that the hirings were not necessarily a mind-boggling oversight attributable to the chaos of the occupation's early days, but perhaps indicative of a decision to contract the roughest, toughest prison people around regardless of their histories.

AlterNet has learned that two more corrections advisors sent by the Justice Department to Iraq, former Arizona Department of Corrections director Terry Stewart and his top deputy Chuck Ryan, have controversial pasts as well.

In 1995, the year Stewart was appointed to head the Arizona DOC, the Justice Department began an 18-month investigation of alleged sexual abuse of female inmates. A subsequent report found "an unconstitutional pattern of practice of sexual misconduct"; documented the cases of 14 female inmates who were raped, sodomized or assaulted by guards; and criticized DOC officials for not dealing with the problem.

In response, Stewart wrote a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno claiming the report represented isolated incidents, but in 1997, the Justice Department sued Arizona for failing to protect its female inmates from guards and DOC staff. The suit named Stewart as one of the defendants and accused him and other DOC officials of knowing about the abuses but doing nothing. (Eventually, despite never admitting any wrongdoing, the DOC agreed to further protect female inmates from sexual abuse and the suit was dismissed.)

Stewart could not be reached for comment before we first published this story, but he later sent us an e-mail saying he was not the director when the alleged abuses occurred and that he "fashioned the mutually agreed upon corrective measures" which led to the Justice Department suit being dismissed.

Ryan, a 25-year Arizona DOC veteran, became Stewart's deputy director in 1996 and was seen by some as an integral part of his regime, which also drew criticism for the long-term, intense segregation of high-risk inmates, and for a failed effort to build a private prison exclusively for the state's foreign inmates, who happened to be overwhelmingly Mexican.

Dan Pochoda, a New York civil rights lawyer, was assigned by the federal government to monitor the conditions in the Arizona prison system just prior to Stewart's taking the reigns. "Even in the spectrum of corrections administrators, they are uniquely hard line, and in my opinion, acknowledged proponents of conditions that are damaging on a human level," he said of Stewart and Ryan.

"There was an absolute brutality in the way the Stewart regime saw the correctional purpose," added Caroline Isaacs, criminal justice program coordinator for the Arizona American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for prison reform. "The prison system was taken from a place that cared at least a little about rehabilitation to a dictate that was all about control and security and nothing more."

In a May 20 Justice Department press release, Stewart was listed as one of the corrections advisors who was sent to Iraq. In a subsequent interview for an online magazine, The Corrections Connection, Stewart, Lane McCotter and Gary DeLand – another former Utah Corrections official – discuss their trip there.

DeLand told me that Chuck Ryan was part of a second shift of corrections advisors, along with John Armstrong, that came to Iraq to replace Stewart, McCotter and himself after they'd left. A Feb. 3 Asia Times story, referring to Ryan as the Coalition Provisional Authority's deputy director of prisons, confirmed what DeLand told me. Ryan could not be reached for comment.

And while it's unlikely any of the corrections advisors in question were part of the unfolding abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, their presence in Iraq is causing a gathering storm. Over the past two weeks, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has written two letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding answers to why and how McCotter and Armstrong were hired and calling for an investigation into the role of civilian contractors in Iraqi prisons.

So far, the feds have been tight-lipped. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo would not return phone calls, and a Defense Department spokesman refused comment. In an email, Coalition Provisional Authority press officer Shane Wolfe noted the corrections advisors were not interrogating any inmates but training police and correctional officers and assessing the needs of Iraqi civilian prisons.

Meanwhile, as more information is unveiled, prison reformists are increasingly aghast at why an agency responsible for keeping America's correctional system humane has been hiring people whose own prisons, they allege, were anything but.

A May 21 New York Times story quoted an anonymous senior Justice Department official as saying its contractors "were all vetted in the normal process" and came highly recommended. Such a revelation, coupled with the resumes of McCotter, Armstrong, Stewart and Ryan, suggests that perhaps the Justice Department actually sought out perceived hard-nosed corrections types that they thought could bring order to an Iraqi detention system in shambles.

"It makes you wonder what kind of criteria they were using," said Brooklyn-based prison reform consultant Judy Greene. "It's hard to imagine the Justice Department were looking for candidates with a proven track record of tolerating or condoning abusive treatment of prisoners, but that's what they got."

Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly section of the Los Angeles Times, The Source magazine, the Pacific Palisadian Post and most recently the Santa Fe Reporter.

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