Winning: The Great Prison Guard Abuse Scandal


May 11, 2006: The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incidents of late 2003, resulted in many changes in the way military U.S. military prison guards were trained, and how they operated inside prisons. In many respects, the prisoners have taken over.

In 2004, everyone assigned to these new prisons now receives a special 55 hour block of instruction on how to handle detainees. Initially, teams of trainers went to detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan to make sure everyone got the instruction. Now, troops get the training before they head overseas. But this is not the most important factor in avoiding another Abu Ghraib. Experience is, and the fact that more and more people arrested by American troops are being turned over to Iraqi run detention centers.

Another major change is the disappearance of the desperate attitudes that pervaded the detention centers in late 2003, when the worst of the Abu Ghraib incidents took place. Back then, the anti-government attacks on American troops rose sharply, doubling in October and November, versus the previous six months. Good intelligence work, and follow up raids, were bringing in lots of suspects, and some of them were giving up useful information. But not enough. There was a lot of pressure on the interrogators and military police to help the troops getting hit by more and more attacks. Trained prison guards would have been able to handle it, but some untrained reservists were not.

In addition to the new training, there are a lot more restrictions on what guards and interrogators can do. One is the prohibition on the use of dogs during interrogations. Dogs are considered particularly "unclean" by Arabs, so as not to offend suspected terrorists, dogs are not to be sued to assist in interrogations. The use of MPs in interrogation has also been prohibited. Other changes were also being made, many of them based on the findings of investigations (like those of the abuse at Abu Ghraib and during the investigation into allegations of abuse at Guantanamo Bay).

As a result of this, in Iraq, you have a replay of World War II, where hard core Nazis among prisoners, would get organized, terrorize the anti-Nazi, or indifferent Germans, and carry out attacks on the guards. Same thing with hard core communists during the Korean and Vietnam war. Now, in Iraq, you have the Baath Party and Islamic radicals organizing trouble. These fellows have lots of experience in terrorizing Iraqis, and would use less radical prisoners as cannon fodder. For example, at prisons like Abu Ghraib, the guards would have to fire rubber bullets several times a day, just to deal with groups of aggressive prisoners. Usually a couple of Baath or Islamic toughs using less militant, and cowed, prisoners, as shields. Guards would regularly sweep prisons for weapons, and find dozens of homemade nasties. Even with informers among the prison population, the hard core guys were able to organize large scale violence, and nearly get riots going once or twice a month. MPs have found that their guard dogs work very well with prisoners. The guard dogs are very good at controlling small groups, but risk getting ripped apart if there's a large fracas.

All this is old news to anyone who knows about the very similar situations dating back to the 1940s. Even though today's prison guards have closed circuit TV, rubber bullets (and other non-lethal weapons), it's still a nasty business, that has become much harder because prison guards operate under so many additional rules and restrictions. Prison commanders are told that their careers depend on their being no more scandal. But the prisoners picked up on this as well, as abuse the guards by making endless complaints, which they know will trigger an automatic investigations. These cause interviews with the guards and prisoners, more paperwork, all to the great amusement of the unharmed prisoners. Abuse of prison guards will never become a big media story, but the story won't go away, and will only get worse.


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