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?


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