First Published: 2006-11-18

Supermax Lockdown

The US military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantnamo and elsewhere are administered by Army reserves, many of whom have worked in the civilian prisons in the United States. The administration of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was not particularly brutal in comparison to conditions in ordinary "supermax" prisons in the United States, says Avery Gordon.


Middle East Online

The expansion of the United States war on terror and its overseas military bases has given the army and marine corps custodial responsibility for a large number of prisoners of war, enemy combatants and civilian security threats. The new demand for military prison guards has mostly been filled by the Army Reserve. Since April 2003, over 5,000 civilian prison guards have been called up for active military duty and the American Corrections Association estimates the figure could reach 9,000.

There is no official information on the specific jobs to which these civilian guards are assigned but, according to Mark S. Inch, who is corrections and internment branch chief at the Office of the Provost Marshal General: The military personnel who are more likely to perform enemy prisoner of war and detention operations during war reside almost exclusively in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard. Therefore, the synergy between the reservists civilian employment in the corrections field and his or her duty to confine enemy combatants in Afghanistan, Cuba [Guantnamo] and Iraq . . . could not be more evident and essential to mission success.

The synergy is extensive. The 300th Military Police Brigade, and a number of Michigan prison guards, designed Camp Delta at Guantnamo. The brigades senior non-commissioned officer, John Vannatta, is the superintendent of the Miami Correctional Facility in Indiana. Sixty other professional correctional officers are in key administrative and leadership positions in Cuba. The 327th Military Police Battalion, including many Chicago prison guards and policemen, currently runs detention operations in Afghanistan. The now notorious 800th Military Police Brigade was put in charge of re-establishing Iraqis jail and prison system as well as staffing and managing army prisons for enemy combatants and prisoners of war. Captain Michael Mcintyre and Master Sgt Don Bowen, two builders of the Iraqi prison system, work at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana.

Several reservists convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib were civilian prison guards. Ivan L Chip Frederick II, identified in the Taguba report as one of the ringleaders because of his expertise in corrections, was a guard in Virginia. Charles A Graner Jr, shown with Lynndie England smiling behind a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners, had been repeatedly implicated in violence against prisoners at the Pennsylvania super-maximum security State Correctional Institute at Greene, where he was employed. Army reports indicate that Graner was called up in May 2003 and given supervisory positions at Abu Ghraib because of his guard experience.

History of abuse accusations

Graner was not the only one assigned command responsibilities despite a known history of abuse accusations. John J. Armstrong, who in 2004 was the assistant director of operations of U.S. prisons in Iraq, had resigned as the Connecticut commissioner of corrections after settling lawsuits brought by the families of two of 200 Connecticut prisoners who died after being transferred to Wallens Ridge prison in Virginia.

Lane McCotter is an executive with Management and Training Corporation, a private prison company, which he joined after being forced to resign as director of the Utah Department of Corrections, following the death of a prisoner who had been shackled naked to a chair for 16 hours. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft chose McCotter to direct the reopening of the Iraqi prisons under U.S. rule and to train Iraqi guards; McCotter chose Abu Ghraib as the best site for the main prison and then oversaw its organisational transition.

Only a month before the Justice Department sent him to Iraq, it issued a report criticising the lack of medical and mental health care at one of Management and Training Corporations jails. The report followed the death of a prisoner.

The practices exposed in overseas military prisons are not unique. Despite a sanctioned ignorance that pretends otherwise, violence in U.S. prisons is common. Torture, humiliation, degradation, sexual assault, assaults with weapons and dogs, extortion and blood sports always have been part of U.S. prison culture and behaviour. This normalcy of brutality explains why there was, as the Taguba report showed, an easy collaboration between the reservists and the professional military police, a collaboration that was approved and unremarkable until the photographs became a public scandal. The normalcy of the behaviour also explains why no one who the FBI interviewed had observed any misconduct or mistreatment at Abu Ghraib.

As documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) demonstrate, nothing that Abu Ghraib personnel saw -- prisoners with nylon bags over their heads, handcuffed to the wall, naked prisoners spread-eagled on wet floors in isolation, prisoners deprived of sleep, prisoners repeatedly kicked in the stomach by guards, prisoners shocked and stunned, burnt or branded, and their family members threatened -- rose to the level of mistreatment in the minds of the observers. These were, to quote the respondents in the report, no different from . . . procedures we observed used by guards in U.S. jails.

Not just a few bad apples

The Abu Ghraib photographs did not expose a few bad apples or an exceptional instance of brutality or perversity. They exposed the modus operandi of the lawful, modern, state-of-the-art prison. Nowhere is this clearer than in the growth over the past 25 years of what is called super-maximum imprisonment, the cutting edge in technology and the prototype for re-tooling the military prison for the war on terror.

In the United States today, 6.9 million people, disproportionately black and Latino, are imprisoned or on probation/parole. Well over 50% were convicted of merely non-violent drug-related and petty economic crimes, yet nearly 2% of the prison population is in administrative segregation; these supermax prisoners are housed in fortified security units, prisons within a prison, electronically monitored and locked-down 23-24 hours a day in small windowless cells, sealed with solid steel doors, periodically allowed to leave for showers and caged exercise only when shackled and accompanied by armed guards.

U.S. prisons are highly militarised, with vertical command structures, obedience norms, and paranoid us/them cultures indistinguishable from soldiering. The militaristic aspects of policing have intensified with unfettered permission to use lethal force and the presence inside the prison of sophisticated weaponry and surveillance equipment: The list includes metal detectors, x-ray machines, leg irons, waist chains, black boxes, holding cages, restraint chairs, tasers and stun guns, pepper sprays, tear gas canisters, gas grenades, mini-14 and 9 millimetre rifles and 12 gauge shotguns.

In supermax units, excessive force is routine: Forced cell extractions, tasers, chemical sprays, shotguns, pacification with drugs, sensory deprivation or overload are the normal detention regime. The convergence is striking: Waging war looks more and more like a high-security prison; prison looks more and more like waging a security war.

Over the past 10 years, prisoners political and civil rights have been severely disabled. It is as easy to find in the United States as outside it prisoners without access to independent legal counsel, who are being held incommunicado in secretive locations inaccessible to the public, charged with violating internal arbitrarily bureaucratic rules, and promised trials adjudicated by the authorities who hold them. Pre-emptive civil death has become an effective and intimidating means to prevent the exercise of political and social will by destroying a person, and replacing him or her with that wartime designation, the enemy.

The language of security has authorised supermax imprisonment by treating it not as punishment but as a set of administrative procedures for managing high-security populations. The procedures used, now legally sanctioned as ordinary and acceptable norms of prison life, were once considered violations of the U.S. Constitutions Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Courts Eighth Amendment cases are the legal and linguistic basis for the detainee interrogation memos prepared for the war on terror.

Memos from President George Bushs White House that decide what is torture and what is only abuse, prolonged harm or lasting or permanent damage just echo a deadly social reality, as does the insistence that Eighth Amendment violation requires demonstration of specific, deliberate intent [not outcome] to inflict cruelty or excessive punishment. This reality has been already settled, in law and in practice, in the civilian prison, where the sovereign states power over life and death goes unchallenged; the state has impunity and immunity.

The war on terror is a perpetual and general war without end, waged against shifting spectral enemies. In this security war, the foreign enemy captured, tortured, humiliated and detained indefinitely, often secretly, finds his complement in the internal enemy: Both are subject to crushing punishment described as administration, a necessary price for our safety and security.

Avery F Gordon is professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

2006 Le Monde diplomatique


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