Abu Ghraib in Pennsylvania
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On May 1, 2004, just back from a week-long transport mission to Mosul, I sat in a military recreation tent in southern Iraq and watched the TV on mute as it flashed photographs of men with sacks over their heads, their nakedness smudged by the fig leaves of digitized blur. Text marched across the bottom of the screen to explain the hoods, the pyramid of human bodies, the man's neck in a dog collar, the hand that held the leash emerging from a uniform bearing our American flag, the smiling faces, the thumbs-up sign, the electric cords trailing from the outstretched arms of a man standing in the shape of a cross.
A few other soldiers sat on the metal folding chairs of the darkened TV room, but none of us looked at each other in the flashes of sketchy screen light. No one moved to turn up the volume to compete with the Hollywood soundtrack playing in the movie room just across the hall. We didn't say a word to each other. We made no exclamations of disbelief. Occasionally someone would unfold their arms, push off their chairs and head back to their tent, to platoon chores, to the weight room on down the hall, to the chow tent, to video games or laundry or email or to the phone where we would not talk to our loved ones about what we had seen.
It has been more than seven years since the news of Abu Ghraib first broke in mainstream media across the world. Now it feels like yesterday.
Corrections Officer Harry Nicoletti Jr. at the State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh has been charged with raping and assaulting inmates for more than two years, flushing their heads in toilets, striking them, urging other inmates to urinate and defecate in alleged victims' food and beds, threatening them with death. At least 11 other corrections employees at SCI Pittsburgh will face charges, ranging from conspiracy to official oppression to assault.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has said, "There's a lot more evidence. There's staff, records, videotapes." Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton has asserted: "The Department of Corrections does not tolerate violence in its prisons and we will seek prosecution of such acts, and this case sends that strong message."
But the Human Rights Coalition, which documents abuse in prisons across Pennsylvania, reports that the evidence "depicts a situation of intimidation, coercion and physical assault wielded against inmates who tried to refuse the guards or to expose the abuse. Beatings, filing of false charges against inmates and retaliatory time in solitary confinement were common ... All of this transpired with the full knowledge and inaction of the prison management ... "
More than a thousand reports of abusive guard behavior at prisons across Pennsylvania have been filed by legal advocates and the Human Rights Coalition in just the last four years, which indicates a far wider pattern.
The coalition reports that in April 2010 over a period of five days, "prison staff subjected seven men to abusive tactics, starting with deprivation of food and water, racist slurs and threats of violence, and culminating in physical assaults with pepper spray, electroshock weapons, fists and boots. ... To date, no meaningful investigation of these events has been conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections or by law enforcement agencies."
The details are hard to read. I know from my own experience in Iraq that it is all too easy to close one's eyes to such suffering, even in the face of eyewitness reports.
About six weeks before the first media reports of Abu Ghraib hit the television airwaves, I listened to the stories of three soldiers in my unit who had delivered water to the prison. I was recording a history of our unit's deployment. I thought I was determined to tell the best and worst of what had happened during our year traveling through Iraq. But I stopped taking notes.
I remember the word "hood." I remember the word "naked. I remember feeling like I was at the dentist. My lips and tongue and cheeks felt numb.
I may have disbelieved what I heard. But I believed the look in the eyes of the men telling the story. I can remember the set of their mouths. They'd seen something ugly. But how do I name that look? Not disgust, or anger or guilt. Was it acceptance of what could not be changed? A determination to believe that what they'd witnessed was acceptable? The naked men in hoods were probably all terrorists.
I got so sleepy that I could hardly keep my eyes open, and I told the men that I would come back later to write down the rest of the story. I never went back to their tent. I did not think about what I had heard. I did not want to remember. I did not think about what I'd heard until I was faced with the actual pictures.
The Department of Defense's own 2004 report carefully detailed how the methods applied at Abu Ghraib by low-ranking National Guard soldiers had been encouraged by Military Intelligence to "soften up" civilians for interrogations. The Department of Defense has acknowledged that the vast majority of the thousands of civilians detained and tortured at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other such prisons never committed violent aggression against the United States. Widely available evidence makes it clear that the highest authorities of the Bush administration ordered the widespread use of "enhanced interrogation" without due process.
Our government has suppressed photos of numerous rapes at Abu Ghraib by U.S. soldiers. Rape was never officially sanctioned but supervisors turned their heads. Then, after photos of some of the abuse broke into the open, prison administrators prosecuted low-ranking guards as "examples."
The Human Rights Coalition has reported that similar photographs from our prison system in Pennsylvania also may have been suppressed. Frederick John Davis reported to the coalition that he was sexually assaulted at SCI Fayette in January 2010. Mr. Davis contended that photographs of the incident were withheld from internal investigators who found no fault.
It is all too common to dismiss such victims as "the worst of the worst," but the vast majority of prisoners who suffer abuse are nonviolent offenders.
Will we hold our Department of Corrections administrators accountable or allow ourselves to be lulled into letting them off the hook by using that well-worn cliche, "a few bad apples?"
Will we close our ears, our eyes and our memories to the reports of the daily suffering of men and women only a few miles from our homes?
Will we participate in the cruel and unusual punishment of our fellow Pennsylvanians by choosing to remain silent?
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am