Coddling Is Cheaper


How to Produce Gladiators

Teach me to feel another's woe, to hide the fault I see, that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.

- Alexander Pope

by Robert Worth

For several years journalists and politicians all over the country have spoken and written angrily about prisons being "resorts" or "country clubs."  They have railed against a philosophy of rehabilitation that "coddles" inmates with too many amenities.  Punishment is in vogue, along with hard labour and "no frills" prisons, stripped of weight rooms, TVs, and computers.  Republicans in Congress have added a no-frills-prison section to the Contract with America's "Take Back Our Streets Act" and they have passed an amendment to the 1994 Crime Bill.  Massachusetts Governor William F Weld has argued that prisons should be "a tour through the circles of hell," where inmates should learn only "the joys of busting rocks."  Alabama has already reinstituted the chain gang, forcing inmates to do hard labour in leg irons for up to 10 hours a day.  State administrators and sheriffs, sniffing the political wind, have begun to crack down, cutting educational and treatment programmes, making prison life as harsh as possible.

Yet McKean Federal Detention Centre in Bradford, Pennsylvania, by several measures, may well be the most successful medium-security prison in the country.  Badly over-crowded, housing a growing number of violent criminals, it costs taxpayers approximately $15,370 a year for each inmate.  That is below the average for prisons of its type, and far below the overall federal average of $21,350.  It is about 2/3 of what many state prisons cost.  And the incident record since McKean opened in 1989 reads like a blank slate: No escapes.  No homicides.  No sexual assaults.  No suicides.  In six years there have been three serious assaults on staff members and six recorded assaults on inmates.  State prisons of comparable size often see that many assaults in a single week.  The American Correctional Society has given McKean one of its highest possible ratings.  No recidivism studies have been conducted on its former inmates, but senior staff members claim that McKean parolees return to prison far less often than those from other institutions, and a local parole officer agrees.  According to the Princeton University criminologist John Dilillio, well-known for his harsh pessimism about rehabilitation, "McKean is probably the best-managed prison in the country."  And that has everything to do with the warden, a man named Dennis Luther, a life-long corrections officer.

The root of Luther's approach is an unconditional respect for the inmates as people.  "If you want people to behave responsibly, and treat you with respect, then you treat other people that way," Luther says.  McKean is literally decorated with this conviction.  Plaques all over the prison remind staff members and inmates alike of their responsibilities; one of these plaques is titled "Beliefs about the Treatment of Inmates."  There are 28 beliefs, the product of Luther's many years as a warden, and they begin like this:

  1. Inmates are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.
  2. Correctional workers have a responsibility to ensure that inmates are returned to the community no more angry or hostile than when they were committed.
  3. Inmates are entitled to a safe and sane environment while in prison.
  4. You must believe in man's capacity to change his behaviour.
  5. Normalise the environment to the extend possible by providing programmes, amenities, and services.  The denial of such must be related to maintaining order and security rather than punishment.
  6. Most inmates will respond favourably to a clean and aesthetically pleasing physical environment and will not vandalise or destroy it.

Whatever its effect on recidivism rates, education clearly makes prisons easier and less expensive to run.  Prison costs are rapidly spinning out of control.  In the past decade state and federal prison expenses have risen from approximately $12 billion to $26.4 billion.  That estimate is low because some costs are invariably left out in the process of reporting and because prisons put fiscal pressure on other government agencies as well.  For instance, the cost of lawsuits that are brought by federal prisoners are borne by the Attorney General's office, not the Bureau of Prisons.  And state attorneys general bear the costs of constitutional challenges to their prison systems.  Prison costs are continuing to rise with the implementation of the 1994 Crime Omnibus Bill, which puts financial pressure on states to adopt harsher sentencing guidelines, and which includes a "three strikes" mandatory life-sentence provision for three-time violent offenders.  By the turn of the century corrections are likely to be the largest item in many state budgets.  Already California is spending more on its prisons than on its universities, and the state's correctional officers union has lobbied Governor Wilson and other conservative politicians hard for even tougher sentencing.

Intelligent prison policy is necessary now more than ever before.  Yet politicians have been unwilling to forsake the popular fixation with "getting tough on crime" by getting tough on prisoners.  The 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill authorised $7.9 billion for prison construction, and House Republicans have added another $2.3 billion to that.

"It's easy for politicians to advertise building more prisons, because up-front costs are negligible," according to Norman Carlson, who directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1970 to 1987.  "Construction costs are just the tip of the iceberg."  Operating costs are much higher and indeed the lack of operating funds has prevented the opening of several prisons recently.

Luther, his staff and his inmates don't expect his example to hold up under the tough-on-crime pressures though.  One McKean inmate wrote an MA thesis arguing that prisoners should have the opportunity to earn back the cost of their incarceration and then get an education.  This is similar to arguments from inmates throughout the country: providing a long-term goal helps them to stay sane and makes them less prone to violence.  It also makes the entire prison easier and less expensive to manage.  But prisoners know very well that the current political trend is in the opposite direction.  And none of them have any doubt about what the result will be.  As one inmate serving a life term at East Jersey State Prison puts it, "You create Spartan conditions, you're gonna get gladiators."

Source: Anderson Valley Advertiser 20 December 1995

Uncaptive Minds

by Ian Buruma

The main business of Napanoch, New York, is a maximum-security prison, Eastern New York Correctional Facility, also known as Happy Nap.  The population of Eastern, 1,250 men, many from New York City, is about the same as that of Napanoch itself.  Imposing in a hideous kind of way, the prison, built at the end of the 19th century, is modeled after a medieval fortress, with towers and turrets and a pyramid roof.  The overall effect - stony pomposity framed by lush green hills - is rather Germanic.

There is nothing particularly happy about Napanoch, situated on the raffish edges of the Catskills about 70 miles north of Manhattan; its better days as an affordable resort area for New York and New Jersey Jews have long gone.  There are a few motels nearby with cracked signs that read Starlite and Eldorado; a diner; a Jewish cemetery; and a "colony farm," where the original inmates of Eastern, mentally impaired delinquents, were put to work in the early decades of the 20th century.

There is, however, a reason that inmates call the prison Happy Nap.  Eastern is more relaxed than other maximum-security prisons, or "maxes," in upstate New York, with less hostility between staff and prisoners, and as a result fewer UIs, or "unusual incidents" - stabbings and the like.  It is said that the farther upstate you go, the harsher the prison conditions can be.  Among New York's maxes, Eastern has one of the best reputations.  It is one of only 3 maximum-security prisons in the state where you can still get an education - not just in manual skills, but a proper college education with a degree at the end, thanks to privately financed initiatives.

One person to have benefited from such an education is Mika'il DeVeaux, a slim, 48-year-old black man who served 25 years for murder.  DeVeaux studied theology at Sing Sing and got an MA in sociology.  After he was released in October 2003, he founded an organisation in New York with his wife called Citizens Against Recidivism.  DeVeaux likes to point out how much prison education reduces the chances of ex-convicts falling back through the revolving door of crime and imprisonment.  That's why, according to DeVeaux, "Eastern is the place to be."

Education programs used to be widely available in prisons in the US, especially after the notorious Attica rebellion in 1971, which left 43 dead.  Among the demands of the inmates, who were pressing for improved prison conditions, was a better education program.  This demand was met, not only at Attica but also in prisons around the country.  Over the next decades, prison education flourished.  Then, in 1994, Congress effectively abolished all federally financed college education for prison inmates when it voted to eliminate Pell Grants for federal and state prisons, despite strong resistance from the Department of Education.  Critics pointed out that education greatly reduces recidivism; only one-tenth of 1% of the Pell Grant budget went to the education of prisoners anyway.  But Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican of Texas, argued that it was unfair for felons to benefit from Pell Grants when as many as 100,000 low-income students were denied them each year.  Why should prisoners be educated for nothing when so many honest folks failed to get a break?  And besides, she said, the federal government already spent upward of $100 million on prison education and training programs.  Today, what federal money is spent on prisoner education goes largely toward vocational training.

Hutchison's arguments arose from a more generalised desire - not just among Republicans - to get tough on crime, or more precisely on criminals.  Even though crime rates were actually dropping in the 90's, many argued that judges were letting felons off too lightly and that the "rights" of victims needed to be taken into account.  Thus, beginning in the early 90s, prison regimes were tightened, even as mandatory minimum sentences and 3-strikes laws meant more and more people came into the system and stayed.  In this climate few politicians were ready to stand up for higher-education programs for prisoners.  Before 1995 there were some 350 college-degree programs for prisoners in the US.  Today there are about a dozen, four of them in New York State.

The Bard prison initiative was set up by Max Kenner, who graduated from Bard College in 2001.  After Kenner finished school, he spent the summer driving around from prison to prison, meeting with staff members and inmates to find out what kind of education program was most needed.  He found many administrators receptive to the idea of a higher-education program; there was overwhelming enthusiasm among the inmates.  And Eastern, thanks to its relatively liberal regime under its superintendent, David Miller, was the most hospitable, and agreed to be host of the pilot program.

The Bard Prison Initiative now runs an associate degree program at Eastern.  There are plans to introduce a bachelor's program soon.  Inmates have to go through an application process like any prospective college student: an essay, test scores, transcripts (GEDs for those who didn't finish high school) and an interview by Kenner and his colleague Daniel Karpowitz.  "The admission process," Kenner said recently, "is emotionally the hardest part of our work.  Up to 200 apply for 15 spots."  Only 50 students, out of a prison population of more than 1,200, are now enrolled.

I'd been teaching at Bard during the spring semester for several years, commuting from London, where I lived, so I knew about the program.  When I signed up last year, Kenner told me the students would be interested in learning about East Asian culture.  So, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself teaching a course in modern Japanese history.  The idea of talking about samurai rebellions, Japanese imperialism and General MacArthur's occupation to men who were in for drug dealing, grand larceny and murder, was certainly intriguing but also somewhat daunting.  How much did they know?  How should I approach the material?  Would they be at all receptive?

I entered Eastern on a cold day last February.  Flurries of sleet made the fortress-like prison look even bleaker than usual.  After being put through a metal detector and frisked, I heard the iron gates close behind me with a thud.  My "escort," in charge of education, was a friendly woman named Theresa with the jaunty air of a popular coach.

The first thing you notice inside is the spotlessness of the floors, which is no wonder, since there are always men around mopping and buffing.  We walked through a narrow corridor with yellow lines on the floor.  Inmates in olive green uniforms filing past us greeted Theresa with elaborate courtesy.  Several blind men were being led around by fellow prisoners.  Being physically impaired has its advantages; a bit more leniency is shown by the guards, which is why, Kenner told me, some prisoners pretend to be blind or deaf, a ruse that rarely works for long.  One young white prisoner greeted me in German.  I showed my surprise.  "Ja," he said, "I'm the only one."  Then I noticed a peculiar smell.  Theresa must have spotted my wrinkled nose.  "Skunks," she explained.  "There are skunks under the floors."

My first class was held in the vocational section, where inmates engage in metalwork and other manual tasks.  Eastern is well known as a producer of dog tags and street signs.  Since prison rules dictate that all men in "voc" wear work boots and pass through metal detectors, my students did not like coming here.  It meant they had to take off their boots and belts and submit to a body search, always a humiliating business.  My class of 9 consisted of a Puerto Rican, who had been to the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York's prestigious magnet schools; two white military veterans; a Vietnamese-American; 4 black men, 2 of them Muslims; and one young white man who had been incarcerated since he was 16.

I had been assured by Kenner and Karpowitz that the students would be enthusiastic.  This was an understatement.  But as I learned in my first weeks of teaching, the main difference between these students and those on the Bard campus was their polite formality.  I was invariably addressed as "professor," not so much for my sake, I sensed, as for their own self-respect.  Somewhat patronisingly, I suppose, I had expected talk about sword-fight movies and Oriental wisdom.  Instead, from the very start, questions of a far more sophisticated kind came quick and fast: about the economics of the Opium Wars in China, about the criminal activities of unemployed samurai, about the impact on Japanese cultural identity of Western ideas.  One of the black Muslims, a tough New Yorker, mentioned Alexis de Tocqueville in the context of the Meiji Restoration.

The students were smart, streetwise and funny, and I found it impossible not to be charmed by them.  They were also clearly grateful to be in class, where they were treated as intelligent adults.  It is easy to feel a little smug about dealing with these men, to feel a sentimental solidarity with them against the guards and the rest of their oppressive world.  This soon leads to the kind of phoniness that any inmate can see through in an instant.

One form observed in prison is that you don't ask what someone is in for - unless you're in for something, too.  You may not get a straight answer anyway.  Deputy Superintendent Sheryl Butler, a spirited woman in her 50s, told me that I didn't want to know the students' crimes.  "Otherwise you can't deal with them objectively," she said.  Kenner told me the same thing.  But I couldn't contain my curiosity and looked up their sentences on the department of corrections website.  Of course, even what I could find out didn't tell me much: second-degree murder could be armed robbery, a gangland killing, the murder of a wife.  But it helped me to keep some perspective whenever I was tempted to see the inmates purely as victims, suppressed by vicious guards.

I never witnessed any serious oppression, just the imposition of endless petty rules.  The students remained remarkably calm, even when they were provoked.  They knew they had no choice.  It was hard enough getting into the education program.  One false move could cost a student his place in the classroom, and in Happy Nap too.

It is a tricky situation. Education widens the gap between students and corrections officers and can easily increase hostility.  Many of the officers have not been to college themselves and probably don't expect their children to either.  But higher-education programs should also make life easier for the COs, since the prisoners who benefit from them are more inclined to behave themselves.  Indeed, a CO. once told a colleague of mine that life at Eastern was a trifle dull.  At the previous institution where he'd worked there were shakedowns, stabbings on the galleries, mayhem in the solitary-housing unit.  At Eastern, a guard was liable to fall asleep.

My second class was on the failed samurai rebellion in the 1870's against the Westernised Meiji government, on which the movie The Last Samurai was very loosely based.  I mentioned a book, by Ivan Morris, titled The Nobility of Failure, and explained the admiration in Japan for rebels who die for lost causes.  We discussed how this ethos compared with the American celebration of success.  Perhaps, I said a bit facetiously, there was no such thing as a noble failure in America.  One Muslim among my students laughed and said, "This room's full of them."

Everyone had his own story, one that could quickly curdle into despair.  One warm day in April, after 2 months of teaching, I attended an anniversary celebration of the Bard Prison Initiative at Eastern.  A jazz band of inmates and volunteers was playing in the yard, while prisoners in white aprons served lemonade and chocolate cake.  Speeches were made, by inmates and by Superintendent Miller, who has the avuncular manner of a rural bank manager.  Words like "respect" and "future" and "self-improvement" flew thick and fast.  The sun was shining, but one of my students, catching my eye, whispered, "It's miserable."

Stories of failure and despair vary.  You can never be sure how much is true.  His came in a flood of words: regularly beaten by a drunken stepfather, kicked out of the house at 14, placed in a foster home, where he felt sheltered for the first time in his life until he discovered that the foster father was sexually abusing his charges.  He was so incensed, he said, that he killed the man with a kitchen knife.  He told me that he still becomes enraged at the thought of men abusing innocent women and children.  Since he's been in jail, he has spent most of his time reading and writing.  Books are his salvation, he said.  He dreams of being a famous author.  He has at least 12 1/2 more years of his sentence to go.

It was obvious to me, as a teacher, how precious education was to the students, not only because they could practically recite every sentence of the books and articles I gave them to read but also because of the way they behaved to one another.  Prisons breed cynicism.  Trust is frequently betrayed and friendships severed when a prisoner is transferred without warning to another facility.  The classroom was an exception.  We talked about Japanese history, but also about other things; one topic led to another.  One day a guest lecturer spoke about pan-Asianism in the 1930's - the Japanese aim to unite and dominate Asia by defeating the Western empires.  My Vietnamese student remarked that he was a pan-Asianist with "a small a," but that really he was a "panhumanist," for "we are all one race, right?"  One of the black students snorted in a good-natured way.  The Vietnamese smiled and said: "I know we have disagreements about that."

There cannot be many places - in or outside prison - where blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims and Caucasians can discuss race and religion without showing hostility.  A Muslim student, a big man from the Bronx, said he'd encountered little animosity to Muslims in prison.  "Sure, that's because we know each other," another student said.  I found this surprising, since prisons are not known for racial or religious tolerance.  But perhaps they were referring not to the prison system in general, or even to the narrower confines of Eastern, but simply to the class.  Then a black student, in for robbery, piped up: "If I hadn't been in prison, I'd never have met any Jewish guys.  I had all the stereotypes in my head, you know, cheap and mean.  But now I'm hanging with a Jewish guy the longest time."

Eastern is different.  But why?  Why was Eastern more receptive to the Bard Prison Initiative than other prisons in the state?  Why is Eastern "the place to be"?  Several men pointed out that "the tone is set by the top."  The superintendent and his deputy both started their careers as teachers.

Deputy Superintendent Butler likes to refer to Eastern as a "therapeutic community."  She has spent decades of her life inside the prison.  Her son works there now. Eastern is her community, too.  Walking around the prison one day, she sounded almost wistful when she told me about the flowers she'd received from inmates when she was hospitalised for a serious illness.  I asked her about the trouble that inmates had making friends, when they know they might be transferred at any time.  She replied that inmates get "very attached to staff, too, you know.  They have tears when they leave.  We bring them up, like our children."

This is not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from corrections officers in most maximum-security facilities.  There is no doubting Butler's benevolent intentions.  Like her boss, Butler has been consistently supportive of education programs at Eastern.  And the relative decency with which inmates are treated by the COs has much to do with the example set by Miller and Butler.

Something Butler said to me still sticks in my mind.  She was speaking about the benefits of education for men who would never leave prison.  "You know," she said, "if you have a body" - that is, if you've been involved in a murder - "you're in for life."  She kept returning to this point, even though most men do eventually get out.  It was almost as if Butler did not really want her charges to leave.  I spoke about my impression to Mika'il DeVeaux, the ex-convict who started Citizens Against Recidivism.  "Deputy Butler," he said, "wants to be the Eastern mother.  She'll mother you, and if that's not what you want, she'll bully you."  This can be disconcerting to some inmates.  I heard one of them say that at least in more "old-fashioned" institutions, you knew where you stood; it was "us" against "them," and a prisoner would not even dream of talking to a CO.  And yet, as DeVeaux also pointed out, "it is a rare man who asks to be transferred out of Eastern."

Butler has known some prisoners for many years.  I knew my students for only a few months.  Yet I, too, found it hard to say goodbye.  It is difficult to know what they really think of the teachers.  We were not COs, to be sure, but still people on the outside.  I do know what they think of Max Kenner, who threw them a lifeline when the government refused them an education.  He is a hero to men who had little confidence left in humanity, including their own.  It isn't much - a few dozen men out of a thousand who can study for a Bard College degree, but to those men it is everything.  It costs the state about $32,000 a year to keep a person in jail.  It costs the Bard Prison Initiative only $2,000 to provide a student with a year of college education.

On my last day at Eastern, I turned back toward the prison as I was leaving.  There, high above me, I could just make out a face, pressed against the bars of a cell.  It was my youngest student, the one who knifed his foster father.  As I drove off, I glanced into my rearview mirror.  All that moved in the mass of brick and steel bars behind me was a pale arm waving.

Ian Buruma, a teacher at Bard, last wrote for the magazine about Iraq

Source: 20 February 2005

Millions Needed to Fix Prisons

New Zealand jails need up to $420 million to fix big security and sanitation problems.  A Corrections Department report says between $234 million and $420 million is required to bring the 17 jails up to modern standards.

Slop-bucket toilets, safety issues for prison guards and earthquake and fire hazards in the rundown facilities are among the issues identified in the report.

One-third of the New Zealand's cells pre-date World War II.

A Prison Maintenance and Development Plan report identifying these concerns was produced in July and recently made public under the Official Information Act.  The age of buildings and the lack of replacement or maintenance over a long period created "unacceptable security and safety risks," the report said.  It recommended better monitoring, scheduling routine repairs and the completion of statutory inspections in jails.

"What is also needed is a significant capital and operational injection over several years to upgrade plant and equipment to a reasonable but basic standard."  Money had gone toward building new low-security cells, but prisons lacked resources to improve other parts of their infrastructure after more than a decade of tight restraint on spending, the report found.  Prison facilities were also under pressure as they dealt with more violent offenders, drug users, inmates with mental health and severe psychological disorders, as well as infectious diseases such as hepatitis.  "Much of the deferred maintenance cannot reasonably be further deferred," the report said.  It set out three options. The most critical work would mean spending $233 million over the next five years, while the best scenario cost $420 million.  A middle alternative was $259 million.

Corrections Association health and safety coordinator Brian Davies said on Wednesday that prison staff were considering taking the department to the Employment Court over the state of their workplaces.  One of the worst examples of poor conditions was the slop-bucket toilets in some cells, Mr Davies said.  It was unhygienic and disgusting for prisoners and the guards who had to deal with them.  While most cells had flush toilets, prisoners in some central North Island and South Island prisons still used buckets.

One of the worst examples he had seen was the four punish cells at Christchurch Women's Prison, where inmates could be locked up for up to 23 hours a day with only a canvas mattress blankets, and a pot in the corner.  Corrections Department spokeswoman Alison Welch said yesterday the use of slop buckets was not widespread.  "I think we've pretty much knocked most of them out now, Dunedin was the last prison that was being done I think."

Mr Davies said the association was beginning its own inspection at all prisons this week to point out what needed to be done.  "If they don't take steps to improve things, then we'll go to the Employment Court." - NZPA

Source: The Dominion Friday 5 January 2001

Mistreatment of Prisoners Is Called Routine in US

by Fox Butterfield

Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern, according to corrections officials, inmates and human rights advocates.

In Pennsylvania and some other states, inmates are routinely stripped in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit within their prison.  In Arizona, male inmates at the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix are made to wear women's pink underwear as a form of humiliation.  At Virginia's Wallens Ridge maximum security prison, new inmates have reported being forced to wear black hoods, in theory to keep them from spitting on guards, and said they were often beaten and cursed at by guards and made to crawl.  The corrections experts say that some of the worst abuses have occurred in Texas, whose prisons were under a federal consent decree during much of the time President Bush was governor because of crowding and violence by guards against inmates.  Judge William Wayne Justice of Federal District Court imposed the decree after finding that guards were allowing inmate gang leaders to buy and sell other inmates as slaves for sex.

The experts also point out that the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours.  The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.  The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq as part of a team of prison officials, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to rebuild the country's criminal justice system.

Mr McCotter, 63, is director of business development for Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based firm that says it is the third-largest private prison company, operating 13 prisons.  In 2003, the company's operation of the Santa Fe jail was criticiced by the Justice Department and the New Mexico Department of Corrections for unsafe conditions and lack of medical care for inmates.  No further action was taken.

In response to a request for an interview on Friday, Mr McCotter said in a written statement that he had left Iraq last September, just after a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Abu Ghraib.  "I was not involved in any aspect of the facility's operation after that time," he said.

Nationwide, during the last quarter century, over 40 state prison systems were under some form of court order, for brutality, crowding, poor food or lack of medical care, said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group in Washington that calls for alternatives to incarceration.

In a 1999 opinion, Judge Justice wrote of the situation in Texas, "Many inmates credibly testified to the existence of violence, rape and extortion in the prison system and about their own suffering from such abysmal conditions."  In a case that began in 2000, a prisoner at the Allred Unit in Wichita Falls, Texas, said he was repeatedly raped by other inmates, even after he appealed to guards for help, and was allowed by prison staff to be treated like a slave, being bought and sold by various prison gangs in different parts of the prison.  The inmate, Roderick Johnson, has filed suit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Mr Johnson.

Asked what Mr Bush knew about abuse in Texas prisons while he was governor, Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said the problems in American prisons were not comparable to the abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib.  The corrections experts are careful to say they do not know to what extent the brutality and humiliation at Abu Ghraib were intended to break the prisoners for interrogation or were just random acts.  But Chase Riveland, a former secretary of corrections in Washington State and Colorado and now a prison consultant based near Seattle, said, "In some jurisdictions in the United States there is a prison culture that tolerates violence, and it's been there a long time."  This culture has been made worse by the quadrupling of the number of prison and jail inmates to 2.1 million over the last 25 years, which has often resulted in crowding, he said.  The problems have been compounded by the need to hire large numbers of inexperienced and often undertrained guards.  Some states have a hard time recruiting enough guards, particularly Arizona, where the pay is very low.  "Retention in these states is a big problem and so unqualified people get promoted to be lieutenants or captains in a few months," he said.  Something like this process may have happened in Iraq, where the Americans tried to start a new prison system with undertrained military police officers from Army reserve units, Mr Riveland suggested.

When Mr Ashcroft announced the appointment of the team to restore Iraq's criminal justice system last year, including Mr McCotter, he said, "Now all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land, and we will help make that freedom permanent by assisting them to establish an equitable criminal justice system based on the rule of law and standards of basic human rights."  A Justice Department spokeswoman, Monica Goodling, did not return phone calls on Friday asking why Mr Ashcroft had chosen Mr McCotter even though his firm's operation of the Santa Fe jail had been criticiaed by the Justice Department.

Mr McCotter has a long background in prisons.  He had been a military police officer in Vietnam and had risen to be a colonel in the Army.  His last post was as warden of the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth.  After retiring from the Army, Mr Cotter was head of the corrections departments in New Mexico and Texas before taking the job in Utah.  In Utah, in addition to the death of the mentally ill inmate, Mr McCotter also came under criticism for hiring a prison psychiatrist whose medical license was on probation and who was accused of Medicaid fraud and writing prescriptions for drug addicts.

In an interview with an online magazine, , last January, Mr McCotter recalled that of all the prisons in Iraq, Abu Ghraib "is the only place we agreed as a team was truly closest to an American prison.  They had cell housing and segregation."  But 80 to 90% of the prison had been destroyed, so Mr McCotter set about rebuilding it, everything from walls and toilets to handcuffs and soap.  He employed 100 Iraqis who had worked in the prison under Saddam Hussein, and paid for everything with wads of cash, up to $3 million, that he carried with him.

Another problem, Mr McCotter quickly discovered, was that the Iraqi staff, despite some American training, quickly reverted to their old ways, "shaking down families, shaking down inmates, letting prisoners buy their way out of prison."  So the American team fired the guards and went with former Iraqi military personnel.  "They didn't have any bad habits and did things exactly the way we trained them."  Mr McCotter said he worked closely with American military police officers at the prison, but he did not give any names.

Correction: Wednesday 26 May 2004

An article on May 8 about the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison referred incompletely to an agreement in a federal lawsuit by inmates against the Texas Department of Corrections that was intended to improve treatment of those held in Texas prisons.  While the agreement was in force while President Bush was governor of Texas, it began before then, in 1981, and was lifted in 2002.

Source: 8 May 2004

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