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."