Human rights abuses similar to those revealed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal have occurred regularly in U.S. prisons, but they have sparked far less attention and outrage, critics say.
A week after the Iraqi prison scandal broke in April, President Bush sat for an interview with the Arab-language Alhurra, a U.S.-financed satellite television network .
"The people in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent," the president said in the interview. "They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know. The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. The America I know cares about every individual."
But Alan Elsner says the America he knows is not as compassionate as it should be, and does not care about every individual.
Elsner is the author of Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons, a book that takes a critical view of the human rights situation in the U.S. penal system. He says he "was not that surprised" when he first heard allegations that U.S. soldiers had abused Iraqi detainees, "especially when it became clear that two of the correctional officers who were involved in Abu Ghraib actually had been prison guards in the United States."
Elsner is referring to Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, who recently announced he plans to plead guilty to some charges, and Spc. Charles Graner Jr. Both men are military police with the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Maryland.
Frederick worked at the Buckingham Correctional Center in Dillwyn, Va., for more than five years before going to Iraq. Graner began work at the State Correctional Institute at Greene, Pa., in 1996, and is still considered an employee there, receiving a $500 per month stipend on top of his military salary.
Others from the U.S. penal system were involved in Iraqi prisons. In May, ABC News reported that four of the six former state prison commissioners chosen by the Bush administration to help set up prisons in Iraq had left their previous posts after allegations of neglect, brutality and prisoner deaths.
One of the four, Terry Stewart, was sued by the Justice Department in 1997, when he ran Arizona's Corrections Department. The lawsuit charged that at least 14 female inmates were repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and watched by corrections workers as they dressed, showered and used the bathroom.
At the time, officials also charged prison authorities had denied investigators access to staff and prisoners to examine abuse complaints. After the state agreed to provide more stringent oversight of employees handling female inmates, the suit was dropped. Neither Stewart nor any other state officials admitted any wrongdoing.
Another former state prison commissioner was "Lane" McCotter, who resigned as head of the Utah Department of Corrections after a mentally ill inmate died after spending 16 hours strapped to a restraining chair.
Allegations of prison abuse continue to surface all over the country, including recent cases in Massachusetts, California and Texas.
Consider the following scenario: Some rather frightening prisoners — ones that might not elicit your sympathy — are placed in a situation where many are abused. Complaints are made to the proper authorities; it remains unclear if any of them made their way to chief executive George W. Bush. Those complaints largely go nowhere. Then months later, photographic evidence of the abuse emerges, whipping up a media outcry and a promise by Bush to get to the bottom of the atrocities.
This scenario is not just the story of Abu Ghraib circa 2004. It was also a prisoner abuse scandal from 1997 in Brazoria County, Texas, when Bush was governor.
Texas Prisons: ‘The Second Circle of Hell’
Texas has one of the largest penal systems in the country, with a prison population of 150,000, and it is widely considered one of the most punitive systems.
Because of a prison abuse case in 1972, Judge William Wayne Justice eventually ruled that a sentence to a Texas prison amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.
"It's like a picture of the second circle of hell that emerges from that judgment," Elsner said.
At the time of the Brazoria County incident, the system had been under court supervision for nearly 30 years — a period that began long before Bush became governor, and continued after he left. But the story of the Brazoria County scandal is an interesting one.
The story broke in August 1997 when a videotape was broadcast on the local Fox affiliate in Austin, Texas. The tape — shot on Sept. 18, 1996 — showed deputies in a Brazoria County private prison assaulting prisoners, wielding stun guns against them and allowing a German shepherd to bite a few of them. Some inmates were poked with electronic prods and ordered to say, "I love Texas."
"I think 'appalling' is the right way to describe the treatment of those prisoners," then-Gov. Bush told the TV station. "As I understand, the DA is calling in the FBI and the state of Texas will fully cooperate with any investigation."
The prisoners — originally from Missouri, but shipped to the private Texas facility — had been complaining about the abuse for months. Two of the prisoners sat down with ABC News to tell us about that day.
"I had never endured anything like that in my life," said Aundray Wright, who is now serving a five-year sentence for a different charge, second-degree assault.
Wright remembers the guards coming toward him as if it were yesterday: "He said, 'Move it. Get your ass,' and I'm trying to move. So I see the guy, he's walking with the dog, and I'm thinking he's going inside the module, but he comes beside me. [The guard], he gets real close to my ear. He's like, 'Move your ass, get down there.' And all of a sudden, I'm crawling, and I feel a bite, you know, on my leg."
Wright says "you can see where the dog bites pierced the skin right here and kind of just, you know how dogs, when they grab a hold of something, they kind of jerk a little bit and up, you know." Of the incident, he says, "I call it more than abuse. I mean, it was a mental and physical abuse."
Toby Hawthorne — still in prison for second-degree murder — has similar memories: "I got scars on my leg that look like I been shot, and I ain't never been shot before, you know what I'm saying? Here it is we're supposed to be trying to rehabilitate ourselves, you know what I'm saying, by being in the penitentiary for the things that we did done in the past, and here it is you've got guards treating us like we're dirt, like, you know, like we ain't human, you know."
Those incidents of alleged prisoner abuse did not occur in a vacuum. Months before the scandal broke Missouri state Rep. "Quincy" Troupe, a Democrat, wrote to then-Gov. Bush to alert him to the Brazoria incident. "There were red flags going up all over Missouri that our inmates were being brutalized by prison guards in Texas," Troupe told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Texas was lax in responding, and so was Missouri. We had an obligation to take action, too, because they were our prisoners," having been shipped to the private Texas facility.
A spokesman for then-Gov. Bush said that he had received Troupe's letters in December 1996 and January 1997. Bush referred the letters to James Crump, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which conducted a two-day investigation into the matter and ultimately let it drop.
"I sent a note to the governor's office stating that I recommended that the Brazoria County sheriff and the district attorney's office continue to monitor the situation in that facility," Crump told reporters. "Of course, I was not made aware of the videotape until August 13," 1997. Some questioned how thorough Crump's investigation could have been considering the videotape had been described in a federal lawsuit filed in 1996 by an inmate.
"Thank God that in this case, there was a video," said Troupe.
Parallels with Abu Ghraib
In the Brazoria County Prisoner abuse scandal, as with Abu Ghraib, the emergence of photographic evidence changed things.
"I think in retrospect had I known the videotape existed, and I'm confident had other state officials known the videotape existed, we would have pushed for harsher action, quicker action," then-Gov. Bush told the local Fox affiliate.
The 415 Brazoria County inmates were immediately returned to Missouri, which canceled its contracts with all Texas facilities. The FBI announced it would investigate the incident. It was soon disclosed that one of the guards Wright says abused him had pleaded guilty in 1983 to beating a prisoner.
Texas defense attorney Guy Womack successfully defended a prison guard and a dog handler against federal charges in the Brazoria case, and he currently represents Graner in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
"Clearly, in the Brazoria County case, had photographs, videotape not surfaced and aroused the interest of the FBI and the civil rights section of the Department of Justice, that would have never been a case," Womack said. "And likewise, from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but for the still photographs that Sgt. Darby had, there would have been no case there." Sgt. Joseph Darby is the military policeman who blew the whistle on the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
Hawthorne said that without the images, inmates' complaints would not have been believed.
"The pictures of them treating the inmates in Iraq like they did, if them wouldn't have never came up, they would have never knew about it, just like the tape of the Texas incident," he said. "If the tape wouldn't have never come up, they'd have never knew about it."
Elsner says there are similarities between the Texas and Abu Ghraib cases. "Some of the parallels that I noticed immediately, [include] the use of nudity as a means to humiliate and, and to abuse the prisoners. That goes on in the United States in almost a routine manner in some places. The use of guard dogs to intimidate; that also happens in the United States. But I think the most important parallel was a sense that the guys in Abu Ghraib viewed the prisoners as almost of a different species."
The matter of blame is also interesting to consider. President Bush told Alhurra "people will be held to account. That's what the process does. That's what we do in America. We fully investigate, we let everybody see the results of the investigation, and then people will be held to account."
But in both the Brazoria County and the Abu Ghraib cases those facing charges were — and are — low-level officers. "In both cases the jailers or the MPs were following orders that they felt to be lawful," says defense attorney Womack. "In both cases the superiors who gave the orders, who planned everything that was done, were never charged at all."
Though the report about Abu Ghraib issued Wednesday by three Army generals offered a scathing indictment of failures throughout the chain of command, no direct blame was assigned to top military or civilian leaders. The report identifies 35 military intelligence personnel, 11 MPs and two medics as either committing or failing to report abuse. As of today, seven MPs are the only ones who have been charged with criminal conduct.
The View of a Texas Prison Guard
David Cisneros, one of Womack's clients from the Brazoria County case, was a patrol deputy in charge of one of the German shepherds.
"It still makes me mad," he told ABC News, "because the senior people that were involved in this, that were in the background, they were the ones that were pumping us up. You know, they were the ones that were telling us that, how bad these inmates were, the threats that they had made. They led us in blindly and I think they really pumped us up to make us believe that we were going into a dangerous situation, and that's what we believed."
Lon Bennett Glenn, a retired Texas prison warden, cautions anyone who would be overly critical of any prison guard.
"It's not a benign system," said Glenn. "It's dangerous and some of the stuff that happens is not nice. There are use of force that occur regularly. Employees get hurt. Inmates get hurt. It's part of the job."
"There's a sign on the gate of every facility," he said. "It says — and I'm paraphrasing — but it basically says that if, if you are taken hostage inside this facility we are not going to deal for your freedom. It doesn't matter if you're an officer, a visitor, the governor, or whoever you are, we don't negotiate for hostage release. So that, right there, should tell you something about the nature of the environment that you're entering when you walk past those compound gates into a, into a prison facility."
"I mean, those, those fences are there for a reason," Glenn says. "The bottom line is those officers are pretty much at the mercy of those inmates, and the inmates, in a lot of cases, don't have a lot to lose."
Some former Texas inmates would dispute that, of course — to the point that they would identify with the Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib.
"It took me straight back to Texas when I was in Brazoria County," said inmate Wright about the first time he heard about the Abu Ghraib scandal. "I mean, those prisoners that were there, I felt their pain. I felt the, the, you know, the 'frightenness,' the 'scaredness.'
"A big percentage of hidden abuse is in prisons," he said. "Society has been blinded for so many years. Society has painted one picture, but if they actually came inside and saw, with their own eyes, without talking to staff or administration, and just got a glimpse of their everyday life in certain situations, they would stop paying their tax dollars, I guarantee you."
ABC News' Brian Ross, Lee Culp and Zena Barakat contributed to this report.