Abu Ghraib in America

The seemingly endless stream of photos emerging from Abu Ghraib has shocked the conscience of America and the world. Yet such depraved acts are not confined to military prisons in Iraq. They are committed in prisons and jails in our country every day, but receive scant press attention and virtually no public scrutiny.

Indeed, reports suggest that abuses in our correctional system here at home were directly exported to our military in Iraq. The U.S. Department of Justice sent to Iraq at least two former American prison administrators who are accused of allowing grave abuses to occur under their watch in the United States. Lane McCotter, who headed a team that reopened Abu Ghraib after the American invasion, resigned as director of the Utah Department of Corrections after a mentally ill prisoner died when officers left him strapped to a restraint chair for 16 hours. John J. Armstrong, now assistant director of American prison operations in Iraq, was commissioner of Connecticut’s prison system and the sole defendant in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit representing Connecticut prisoners shipped to a Virginia super-maximum prison. In the Virginia facility, prison guards routinely punished prisoners for petty offenses like kicking cell doors by strapping them into five-point restraints for up to 48 hours, while binding their wrists and ankles to steel beds and having a strap tied across their chests. One of the prisoners, who suffered from diabetes, died after being restrained and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun. A second prisoner committed suicide. These tragedies were a direct result of the lack of oversight by officials like McCotter and Armstrong, and not surprisingly, similar tragedies manifested themselves in Iraq as well.

Such abusive prison conditions, whether at home or abroad, usually stem from a combination of inadequate supervision and misbehaving correctional staff. Most guards want to do the right thing, however, currently accepted correctional standards invite humiliating abuses to occur. For example, male officers are allowed to work in housing quarters that provide views of women showering, undressing and using the toilet. Male guards are sometimes allowed to strip search incarcerated women, many of whom are victims of sexual abuse, leading to unnecessary trauma and pain. Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio is notorious for policies requiring prisoners to wear pink underpants and striped uniforms, and for spending less money to feed prisoners than to feed his police dogs.

Unfortunately, our legal system offers little help for victims of prison abuse. Congress has barred U.S. prisoners who have experienced treatment similar to what the Iraqi detainees suffered from bringing a lawsuit in our federal courts to gain redress for their injuries. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), enacted in 1996 without any congressional hearings, prevents prisoners, jail detainees and even confined juveniles from seeking money damages for deliberate sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse if the prisoner does not suffer a “physical injury.” If a prisoner in our nation’s capital were threatened with electrocution by his captors and suffered a heart attack or a mental breakdown as a result, he would have no remedy in federal court.

Congress did pass legislation last year that begins to address the problem of prison rape (the best available data suggests 22 percent of all male prisoners are threatened with sexual assault or actually raped), but regrettably, the law failed to remove another major obstacle for prisoners to gain access to the courts. The PLRA requires prisoners to “exhaust” the prison’s grievance process before filing suit. Grievance systems are often very difficult for poorly educated prisoners to navigate, frequently taking months for prisoners to get responses to complaints, if a response is ever issued. Some grievance systems require sexually assaulted prisoners to confront their attacker face-to-face, discouraging the reporting of incidents. And for those prisoners who have the temerity and persistence actually to comply with the process, they are often subjected to additional attacks and retaliation from prison guards and other prisoners. As a result, many prisoners choose to avoid filing complaints. The PLRA virtually ensures that the many injustices carried out in American prisons and jails will never be exposed to judicial scrutiny.

The National Prison Project of the ACLU has successfully litigated on behalf of over 100,000 men, women and children enduring abusive conditions in America’s jails and prisons. Many of the thousands of prisoners who write us each year document conditions that are at least as serious as the actions depicted in the disgusting photos from Abu Gharib.

As our elected leaders continue to deal with the fallout from the scandal, they should extend their concern to prison and jail conditions here at home. A first step in doing so would be repealing the physical injury and exhaustion provisions of the PLRA and allow aggrieved prisoners their day in court.

Elizabeth Alexander is director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.