Abu Ghraib Right Here At Home

This post is by Helen Gerhardt, AFSC Intern for the PA Network Against Torture


On May 1, 2004, just back from a week-long transport mission to Mosul, I sat in a military recreation tent in southern Iraq and watched the TV on mute as it flashed photographs of men in hoods, their nakedness smudged by the fig leaves of digitized blur. Text marched across the bottom of the screen to explain the smiling faces, the thumbs-up sign, the pyramid of human bodies, the hoods, the man’s neck in the dog collar, the hand that held the leash emerging from the uniform bearing our own American flag, the electric cords trailing from the outstretched arms of a man standing in the  shape of a cross. A few other soldiers sat on the metal folding chairs of the darkened TV room, but none of us looked at each other in the flashes of sketchy screen light. No one moved to turn up the volume to compete with the Hollywood soundtrack playing in the movie room just across the hall. We didn’t say a word to each other. We made no exclamations of disbelief. Occasionally someone would unfold their arms, push off their chairs, and head back to their tent, to platoon chores, to the weight room on down the hall, to the chow tent, to video games or laundry or email or to the phone where we would not talk to our loved ones about what we had seen.

It has been over seven years since the news of Abu Ghraib first broke in mainstream media venues across the world.  Now it feels like yesterday.

Corrections Officer Harry Nicoletti Jr. at the State Correctional Institute in Pittsburgh is charged with brutally raping and assaulting inmates for over two years, flushing their heads in toilets, striking them, urging other inmates to urinate and defecate in the alleged victim’s food and beds, threatening them with death. At least eleven other Department of Corrections employees at SCI Pittsburgh will face charges ranging from conspiracy, to official oppression to assault. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has said “There’s a lot more evidence. There’s staff, records, videotapes.”

DOC  spokeswoman Susan McNaughton has asserted: “The Department of Corrections does not tolerate violence in its prisons and we will seek prosecution of such acts, and this case sends that strong message.”

But the Human Rights Coalition, which documents abuse in prisons across Pennsylvania reports that the evidence:

“…depicts a situation of intimidation, coercion, and physical assault wielded against inmates who tried to refuse the guards or to expose the abuse. Beatings, filing of false charges against inmates, and retaliatory time in solitary confinement were common…All of this transpired with the full knowledge and inaction of the prison management, including Superintendent Lockett. John Doe’s parents made repeated calls to the DOC and the Commonwealth while their son was incarcerated at SCI Pittsburgh, to no avail.”

And over a thousand reports of abusive guard behavior at prisons across Pennsylvania have been repeatedly filed by legal advocates and HRC in just the last four years indicates a far wider pattern:

In April 2010, 6 men at SCI Dallas covered their cell windows in protest of ongoing human rights violations in solitary units.  Over a period of five days, prison staff subjected seven men to abusive tactics starting with deprivation of food and water, racist slurs, and threats of violence, and culminating in physical assaults with pepper spray, electroshock weapons, fists, and boots. Seven men were beaten bloody and several were left naked in cells without property and in restraints for hours…To date, no meaningful investigation of these events has been conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections or by law enforcement agencies. 

The details are hard to keep reading. I know from my own experience in Iraq that it is all too easy to literally close one’s eyes to such suffering, even in the face of eyewitness reports.

About six weeks before the first media reports of Abu Ghraib hit the television airwaves of the world, I listened to the stories of three soldiers of my own unit that had delivered water to the prison. I was recording a history of our unit’s deployment. I thought I was determined to tell the best and worst of what had happened during our year traveling through Iraq. But I stopped taking notes.

I remember the word, “hood.”  I remember the word, “naked. I remember feeling like I was at the dentist. My lips and tongue and cheeks felt numb.

Did I disbelieve whatever it was I heard? But I believed the look in the eyes of the men telling the story. I can remember the set of their mouths. They’d seen something ugly. But how do I name that look? Not disgust, or anger, or guilt. Was it acceptance of what could not be changed? A determination to believe that what they’d witnessed was acceptable? The naked men in hoods were probably all terrorists. They would see the terrorists that they had been told to see. That was part of their job.

I got very sleepy, so sleepy I could hardly keep my eyes open, and I told the men that I would come back later to hear and write down the rest of the story. I never went back to their tent. I did not think about what I had heard. I did not want to remember. And so I did not. I did not think about what I’d heard until I was faced with the actual pictures.

The Department of Defense’s own 2004 report written by General Antonio Taguba carefully detailed how the methods applied at Abu Ghraib by low-ranking National Guard soldiers had been encouraged by Military Intelligence to “soften up” civilians for interrogations The Department of Defense has publicly acknowledged that the vast majority of the thousands of civilians detained and tortured at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and other such prisons never committed any violent aggression against the U.S.  Widely available evidence makes it clear that the highest authorities of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet planned, ordered, and now boast of the widespread use of “enhanced interrogation” without any due process, including sexual humiliation, as an official policy of the executive branch.

Our government has suppressed the photos of numerous rapes at Abu Ghraib by U.S. soldiers. Rape itself was never officially sanctioned, but as in prisons across Pennsylvania, the supervisors of the perpetrators turned their heads.  Then, after the photos of the abuse broke, prison administrators prosecuted those low-ranking guards as “examples.”

The Human Rights Coalition has reported that similar photographs from our own prison system have also been suppressed.

Frederick John Davis reported to HRC that he was sexually assaulted by CO Newman at SCI Fayette in January of 2010…Davis contested that the photographs of the incident were at the prison the whole time, but when an Internal Investigation was conducted that the Office of Professional Responsibility found no fault, and that the photographs were withheld from the investigation by the Security Captain. 

It is all too common to dismiss such victims as “the worst of the worst,” but the vast majority of the prisoners who suffer from such abuse are non-violent offenders. Will we hold our Department of Corrections administrators accountable or allow ourselves to be lulled into letting them off the hook by using that well worn cliché, “a few bad apples?” Will we close our ears, our eyes, and our memories to the reports of the daily suffering of men and women only a few miles from our own homes? Will we participate in the cruel and unusual punishment of our fellow Pennsylvanians by choosing to remain silent?


The Choice She Made

This post by Helen Gerhardt, intern for The American Friends Service Committee: Pittsburgh

The Choice She Made

Miriam had been beaten for hours. Her jaw was broken. Her face was so puffed up that no one would recognize her. She could not stand up. Her whole body hurt very badly. She stared at the men who had beaten her.

By their clothing and the ways they spoke to each other, and some of the things they said, and by the way they screamed at her for not wearing the hijab, and for wearing slacks to work, Miriam believed that this Shi’a group had originally been trained, funded and armed by the United States. But now they had switched sides.

In the Fall of 2003, Paul Bremer fired all members of the Baath Party, including many highly responsible and talented men and women who had administered the infrastructure of Iraq. Because Miriam had never joined the Baath Party, she had been invited to take on many crucial roles in her ministry after that decree. She had much valuable information and access to a lot of resources. She kept her mouth shut about almost everything. She let just a few things out of her mouth during the torture.

Finally, they said, “You must give us the names and addresses of your friends and colleagues in your Ministry. If you do not, we will go and get your children.” They told Miriam the address that her children lived at to show they knew exactly where to go. They said, “We will go and get them and we will torture them. We will torture them much worse than what we have done to you. You will have to watch us do that until they die. Then we will kill you.”

Miriam stared back at them

Miriam thought that these men would take any names and numbers that she gave them and they would go and bring many other men and women to this room and do the same to them as they were doing to her. She thought that they would also torture and kill many of their children to make them give up more names.

Miriam said:

No. You will do what you will do. I will obey Allah.”

She would not open her mouth again. She waited for the men to go and get her children. She held onto herself, huddled on the floor.

The leader went outside in the hall and talked to someone a long time. She could not hear what he said. He came back into the room. He said, “You are the strongest woman we have ever seen here. Most people do not ever leave this building alive. We are going to let you go.”

The men put a blindfold around her eyes and they drove her around and around the streets of Baghdad, and then they put her out on the sidewalk. She waited until the noise of the car had receded to nothing, and then a little bit longer. She made herself get up. She moved very slowly. She was crying. She waited for a taxi to come by and she did not have to raise her hand, the man stopped his taxi and carefully helped her into the back seat. He was very scared because he thought that the people who tortured her might still be watching and would follow him, but he drove around and around and then he asked her the way home.

She was crying. He said, “Please don’t cry, lady.” He looked so sad for her. She told him the way home, but she could not stop crying.

He took her to her family. None of them recognized her. They helped undress her and bathe her very, very gently. Not gently enough, but the best they could do. They all cried.


For all those who care for survivors of torture, war trauma, solitary confinement, we have listed links for training, information, and support in our Resources section on the sidebar.


The PA Network Against Torture –  PANAT –  is a network of individuals, faith groups and civic organizations committed to:

  • Ending U.S. sponsored torture in Guantanamo, Bagram, and other US bases in other countries
  • Ending U.S. participation in the practice of extraordinary rendition
  • Advocating for a Commission of Inquiry on U. S.involvement in torture
  • Public education about psychological and physical torture in our prisons, including solitary confinement
  • Advocacy and supportive care for survivors of torture
At this blog, we’ll consider our ongoing work to carry out those commitments, as well as the most current news, research and policy issues related to our efforts and coordination. We very much hope readers will share their own concerns, ideas, and projects.