America's Abu Ghraibs

By BOB HERBERT
Published: May 31, 2004

Most Americans were shocked by the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. But we shouldn't have been. Not only are inmates at prisons in the U.S. frequently subjected to similarly grotesque treatment, but Congress passed a law in 1996 to ensure that in most cases they were barred from receiving any financial compensation for the abuse.

We routinely treat prisoners in the United States like animals. We brutalize and degrade them, both men and women. And we have a lousy record when it comes to protecting well-behaved, weak and mentally ill prisoners from the predators surrounding them.

Very few Americans have raised their voices in opposition to our shameful prison policies. And I'm convinced that's primarily because the inmates are viewed as less than human.

Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, represented several prisoners in Georgia who sought compensation in the late-1990's for treatment that was remarkably similar to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. An undertaker named Wayne Garner was in charge of the prison system at the time, having been appointed in 1995 by the governor, Zell Miller, who is now a U.S. senator.

Mr. Garner considered himself a tough guy. In a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of the prisoners by the center, he was quoted as saying that while there were some inmates who "truly want to do better . . . there's another 30 to 35 per cent that ain't fit to kill. And I'm going to be there to accommodate them."

On Oct. 23, 1996, officers from the Tactical Squad of the Georgia Department of Corrections raided the inmates' living quarters at Dooly State Prison, a medium-security facility in Unadilla, Ga. This was part of a series of brutal shakedowns at prisons around the state that were designed to show the prisoners that a new and tougher regime was in charge.

What followed, according to the lawsuit, was simply sick. Officers opened cell doors and ordered the inmates, all males, to run outside and strip. With female prison staff members looking on, and at times laughing, several inmates were subjected to extensive and wholly unnecessary body cavity searches. The inmates were ordered to lift their genitals, to squat, to bend over and display themselves, etc.

One inmate who was suspected of being gay was told that if he ever said anything about the way he was being treated, he would be locked up and beaten until he wouldn't "want to be gay anymore." An officer who was staring at another naked inmate said, "I bet you can tap dance." The inmate was forced to dance, and then had his body cavities searched.

An inmate in a dormitory identified as J-2 was slapped in the face and ordered to bend over and show himself to his cellmate. The raiding party apparently found that to be hilarious.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Garner himself, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, was present at the Dooly Prison raid.

None of the prisoners named in the lawsuit were accused of any improper behavior during the course of the raid. The suit charged that the inmates' constitutional rights had been violated and sought compensation for the pain, suffering, humiliation and degradation they had been subjected to.

Fat chance.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, designed in part to limit "frivolous" lawsuits by inmates, was passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. It specifically prohibits the awarding of financial compensation to prisoners "for mental or emotional injury while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury."

Without any evidence that they had been seriously physically harmed, the inmates in the Georgia case were out of luck. The courts ruled against them.

This is the policy of the United States of America.

Said Mr. Bright: "Today we are talking about compensating prisoners in Iraq for degrading treatment, as of course we should. But we do not allow compensation for prisoners in the United States who suffer the same kind of degradation and humiliation."

The message with regard to the treatment of prisoners in the U.S. has been clear for years: Treat them any way you'd like. They're just animals.

The treatment of the detainees in Iraq was far from an aberration. They, too, were treated like animals, which was simply a logical extension of the way we treat prisoners here at home.  

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com