Guest Commentary

By Rose Braz
The Public Eye - Vol. 18, No. 3

Condemning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners as "fundamentally un-American," Donald Rumsfeld ignores the strikingly similar circumstances facing two million U.S. prisoners.

While Congress, the military and pundits alike argue that the Abu Ghraib photos do not depict conditions in American prisons, they forget that a few months before atrocities were caught on tape at Abu Ghraib, we watched our own videotape of guards at the California Youth Authority beating youth under their watch.

A few years earlier, at California's Corcoran State Prison, guards staged and wagered on "gladiator fights" between prisoners. As in Iraq, there have been deaths in custody. For example, in Florida in 1999, guards beat prisoner Frank Valdez to death. And if there was any doubt that prisons beget torture, one need only remember Pelican Bay State Prison, where prison guards immersed a mentally ill prisoner in a tub of boiling water.

These are not isolated incidents, and the similarities do not end there. The Iraqi prisons are now run by the same people who run our prisons at home: two of the seven soldiers accused in the Abu Ghraib scandal are prison guards in the U.S. The man appointed to reopen Abu Ghraib last year was the director of the Utah Department of Corrections. He resigned that position in 1997 after a prisoner died while shackled to a restraining chair naked for 16 hours.

With additional revelations of more atrocities, the call rises to court martial Lynndie England and other abusers, get rid of the few "bad apples," reduce the number of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib and possibly even close the prison.

Unfortunately, history and research show that eliminating torture requires more than just removing so-called bad apples from the barrel. The Abu Ghraib catastrophe, and the atrocities that occur in American prisons everyday, should instead make us rethink the use of prisons as answers to what are social, economic and political problems - both in Iraq and here at home...

...Today, there are 78,000 prisoners 19 years old and under, and two million adult prisoners. Our society continues to label prisoners as less than human, lock them in cages, strip them naked and even allow their murder and rape...

...On top of it all, prisons don't make our communities safer. In the first national study on the impact of imprisonment on crime, the Washington, DC-based Sentencing Project found that people in states with more prisons and more people in prison were no safer than people in other states.

Since 1997, Critical Resistance has been working to debunk the myth that the prison industrial complex (PIC) will make our communities safer. After September 11, 2001, we found ourselves also working to debunk the myth that expanding the prison industrial complex, internationally and domestically, would make this nation safer. The same flawed principles of retribution and retaliation that have driven the growth of the PIC as an answer to what we label "crime" at home have now been employed as an answer to September 11. These policies have driven this nation to war and threaten to expand the PIC further at home and in Iraq. One result is the Abu Ghraib crisis.

Following September 11, we witnessed a myriad of proposals to expand the PIC, most coming under "The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001." Ironically, the restrictions on our freedom came in the guise of protecting our freedom.

Among the more alarming proposals made in the aftermath of September 11: indefinite detention of legal immigrants- without charge - and in some cases the mandatory detention of immigrants; deportation based on the suspicion that a person may be willing to help a terrorist; expansion of the power to summarily deport without judicial review; a six-month moratorium on student visas and broad new powers of surveillance including national identification cards and the authority to wiretap any phone or computer that might be used by a suspect.

While not all of the above proposals came to fruition, many did. Since September 11, more than 1,100 people- almost all from majority Muslim countries- have been detained. Almost three years later, more than 600 detainees remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without charge. One man, Mohammed Rafiq Butt, held uncharged for a month in a New Jersey INS lock-up, died before anyone, including his family in Pakistan, knew that he had been arrested. In the aftermath of September 11, the government has secretly moved detainees - they were "disappeared" - their attorneys unable to find them.

Meanwhile, the stock prices of companies that sell surveillance equipment doubled in value directly after September 11. And companies that build and run private prisons, which were on the brink of bankruptcy before September 11, experienced as much as much as 300% gains after September 11 in anticipation of internment camps and new prisons.

While the PIC and "homeland security" efforts claim to be about safety and order, in reality both have made the lives of most people - especially people of color and the poor - less safe and more disordered.

The behemoth prison industrial complex that was in place prior to September 11 did not prevent what occurred that day. Similarly, an expansion of those failed policies will not prevent further tragedies from occurring. In fact, we recently learned from the U.S. State Department that rather than making us safer, these draconian measures have led to a sharp increase in both the number of incidents labeled "terrorist" and the toll in victims in the last year.

The solution to the Abu Ghraib nightmare isn't as simple as locking up England and her fellow military personnel in the same cages that they oversaw. It won't be resolved by firing Rumsfeld or reducing the number of Iraqi detainees. Closing Abu Ghraib is at most a superficial gesture.

These proposed solutions will fail because, as Professor Philip Zimbardo recently told the New York Times, "It's not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that touches it." Americans are now faced with a choice: we must either relinquish our innocent selfimage or dismantle the barrel.


Rose Braz is the director of Critical Resistance, 1904 Franklin St #504, Oakland, CA 94612. See This guest commentary is excerpted from an original article titled "More Than Just a Few Bad Apples:" Confronting Prison Problems in Iraq and in the US" that was published in the RESIST Newsletter vol. 13, no. 6, July/August 2004, and is printed here with permission of the author and publisher. See

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