Friday, May 21, 2004

Just Keep Telling Yourself That

The Nation:

In 1997 a 29-year-old schizophrenic inmate named Michael Valent was stripped naked and strapped to a restraining chair by Utah prison staff because he refused to take a pillowcase off his head. Shortly after he was released some sixteen hours later, Valent collapsed and died from a blood clot that blocked an artery to his heart.

The chilling incident made national news not only because it happened to be videotaped but also because Valent's family successfully sued the State of Utah and forced it to stop using the device. Director of the Utah Department of Corrections, Lane McCotter, who was named in the suit and defended use of the chair, resigned in the ensuing firestorm.

Some six years later, Lane McCotter was working in Abu Ghraib prison, part of a four-man team of correctional advisers sent by the Justice Department and charged with the sensitive mission of reconstructing Iraq's notorious prisons, ravaged by decades of human rights abuse.

While McCotter left Iraq shortly before the current scandal at Abu Ghraib began and says he had nothing to do with the MPs who committed the atrocities, his very presence there raises serious questions about US handling of the Iraqi prison system.

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Less than a year later, a team of Justice Department correctional experts was inside the Santa Fe jail investigating civil rights violations. In March 2003, their report concluded that certain conditions violated inmates' constitutional rights, and that inmates suffered "harm or the risk of serious harm" from, among other things, woeful deficiencies in healthcare and basic living conditions. The report documented numerous and horrifying examples, and threatened a lawsuit if things didn't get better. Amid the fallout, the Justice Department pulled its approximately 100 federal prisoners out of Santa Fe and MTC fired its warden and pressured its medical subcontractor, Physicians Network Association, to ax one of its medical administrators.

Then, on May 20, in a case of unfathomable irony, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that McCotter, along with three other corrections experts, had gone to Iraq. The very same day, Justice Department lawyers began their first negotiations with Santa Fe County officials over the extensive changes needed at the jail to avoid legal action.

The Justice Department won't comment on why it chose McCotter, whose company has been hounded by well-publicized and ongoing healthcare, security and personnel problems at many of the thirteen prisons it operates in the United States, Australia and Canada. Meanwhile, the Ontario provincial government is currently investigating an inmate death at MTC's Canadian prison on May 5, and inquests into three other mysterious deaths over the past year are expected, according to an article in the Barrie Examiner.

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While it seems unlikely Lane McCotter was involved in the unfolding abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, his hiring—given his troubled history and current employment at the equally troubled MTC—is yet another example of the unending and unabashed bumbling of the occupation. Perhaps most important, if this is the type of personnel decision we can expect from critical agencies like the Justice Department, there's probably more scandal to come.

Conservative War fluffers like Hannity, Limbaugh and Zell Miller keep trying to claim that the torture at Abu Ghraib is an isolated incident, and just some youngsters blowing off steam, don't you know. They'll say it so often that maybe even they'll start to believe it. But don't you.

This problem goes deep and moves backwards across years and decades. The fact of the matter ris, our prison system is flawed. While it may not instill the brutality that causes those in positions of power over others to act like swine, it does seem to encourage that behavior in people who already display brutal tendencies. And let's face it, if you want to be a correctional officer, there has to be something in your brain or soul that cries out to see your fellow humans in cages, beaten and mistreated.

This sort of behavior is beyond unexceptable. By now, in the twenty first century, there is not a man, woman or child alive who should not know that treating your fellow human beings like this is evil. And if you think this isn't bad, or endemic of a huge social problem in this country; that this is just the price of war, or the nature of man and just some pranks gone awry, well, you just keep telling yourself that. Then let me know how you sleep at night.

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