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.