Friday, September 28, 2007

America's Rape Rooms - Time to Look in the Mirror

May 12, 2004

America's Rape Rooms

From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror
by Max Blumenthal

"This is war... We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that's what they are, rotten little cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." -- Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates, April 1988

"Freedom was attacked this morning by faceless cowards... Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." -- President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001

In December 2003, a guard at a notoriously brutal prison used a German shepherd to attack a 20-year-old prisoner lying on the ground and not resisting. The attack, reported on May 9th by the Los Angeles Times, was not carried out at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where Americans were photographed torturing Iraqi prisoners; it occurred in Stockton, California at a juvenile correctional facility. Such abuse runs rampant throughout America's prison system, where prisoners are routinely raped, tortured, beaten and humiliated by guards employing brutality to enforce order.
Thus it is not surprising that two of the alleged ringleaders in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal are both former civilian prison guards. Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick was a guard at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, part of a state prison system where violent abuse of inmates by prison guards is common. Specialist Charles Graner was a guard at Pennsylvania's Greene State Correctional Institute, a notorious death row facility described by an attorney who visited it as "a concentration camp."
Frederick and Graner's experience in the US prison system made them prime candidates for posts at Abu Ghraib. As Sgt. Frederick wrote in a letter to his family in 2003, "I was placed in [Abu Ghraib] because of my civilian background working as a correctional officer.... The [commander] wanted it run like a prison in the US." [Le Monde PDF] Because Abu Ghraib was indeed run like a US prison, the torture that occured there can not be viewed as an aberration. Abu Ghraib symbolizes the exportation of the prison system spawned by President George Bush Sr.'s War on Drugs to the battlefields of his son's War on Terror. Thus, for any attempt by America to repair the damage inflicted by prisoner abuse abroad to succeed, it must be accompanied by a thorough examination and reform of its prison system at home.

The story of Abu Ghraib begins during the War on Drugs, when the American prison system was super-sized. In his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, Bush Sr. officially launched the War on Drugs with a bellicose warning shot: "My administration will be telling the dealers, 'Whatever we have to do, we'll do. But your day is over. You're history.'" Which dealers Bush was referring to was left unstated; however, as he urged states across the country to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws for minor drug offenses, it became evident he was gunning for the small timers.
(Of course he is not going to put himself in jail and people are basically jailed for selling drugs in opposition to the Bush drug market through the CIA)

To take his war to the streets, Bush tapped Los Angeles' police chief Darryl Gates, a longtime Republican activist with his eye on the California governorship. Gates devised a military-style anti-gang program called "Operation Hammer" to impose de facto martial law on LA's ghettoes and round up gang members with a set of tactics reminiscent of Vietnam. As Hammer began in April 1988, Gates declared, "This is war... We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that's what they are, rotten little cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." In the operation's first phase, Gates created a "narcotic enforcement zone" in the heavily Latino Pico-Union neighborhood, fencing off a 27 block area with barricades and checkpoints and arresting thousands.
As young Black and Latinos were captured in droves and sentenced to lengthy, mandated terms for usually minor drug-related offenses, the US prison population skyrocketed: According to a study by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College in London, between 1973 and 2000, America's prison population quadrupled to a whopping 6.6 million inmates. Today that's about 3% of the total population -- and rising. In federal prisons, by 2002, 54.7% of inmates were non-violent drug offenders.
While the War on Drugs devastated inner cities, for rural America, the rapid spike in incarceration rates resulted in a booming job market. To fill guard positions at the new penitentaries sprouting up across the Heartland, states offered good salaries and generous benefits to lure a crop of mostly young, white males from racially homogenous, economically depressed small towns. Thrust into often overcrowded, chaotic prisons full of Black and brown people from far away cities, the new generation of guards were overwhelmed. Consequently, many resorted to violence -- and even torture -- to exert control on a prison population they perceived as hostile and culturally alien.

The complete article is available here:

... it closes this way:

As media interest in the Abu Ghraib scandal holds steady, Bush tries to obscure its framework by characterizing the torture as the work of "a few." This explanation is consistent with his analysis of the the war in general: the forces of the civilized world waging an inevitably victorious battle against "a few" militants, Saddam loyalists and foreign fighters. But as the insurgency continues to spread like a California wildfire, so does the prisoner torture scandal. In the coming week, more photos of hulking soldiers assaulting bone-thin, naked Iraqi prisoners will explode in the media like dirty bombs, staining America's reputation and crippling its historical role as a bearer of democracy to the world. Bush's act as Pericles, the wise War President rallying a besieged nation to "stay the course," has reached its conclusion. He is now Caligula, the depraved adolescent-king of late Rome whose motto was, "Let them hate as long as they fear."
History teaches that after imperial leaders falter and colonial enterprises collapse, societies turn inward to reflect on the origins of their failure and heal the wounds inflicted on their social fabric. America should not be an exception. The roots of Abu Ghraib lie in America's prison system, an institution where brutality too often substitutes for order. Thus, if Americans are sincere in their outrage over the torture, rape and humiliation of prisoners, they must work to end the abuse where it began. Ousting Bush from office is a useful start, but it will take nothing less than a new civil rights movement to reform America's prison system and regain the country's moral ballast.

Max Blumenthal is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in, the American Prospect and the Washington Monthly. He is the media director of the Free Maria Suarez Committee (


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