While photos of similar abuse at Abu Ghraib have provoked international outrage and apologies from President George W. Bush, published reports of atrocities in Virginia and other states have generated little public notice.
Alan Elsner is a Reuters reporter who discusses Virginia prison abuses at length in his recently published book “Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons.” Elsner points out that a videotape made by Texas correctional officials when Bush was the state’s governor in 1996 shows guards using dogs and stun guns to torment naked prisoners as they crawled on the ground.
Bush didn’t appear disgusted then. In fact, he regarded himself as admirably tough on crime. In a 1999 interview with the now-defunct Talk Magazine, he even mocked a condemned inmate. “‘Please don’t kill me,’” the future president was reported to have whimpered in imitation of Karla Faye Tucker, “his lips pursed in mock desperation.”
Why is the governor who joked about killing a prisoner five years ago now sick to his stomach as president? Has inmate abuse, practiced here for so long with such relish, suddenly become un-American?
Jenni Gainesborough, director of the Washington office of Penal Reform International, believes a combination of factors is at work. Photos are powerful, she says. And although the occasional videotape of abuse sometimes surfaces here, U.S. prisons are generally careful to prevent or destroy such documentation. In addition, most Americans tend to view their prisons as places of punishment where inmates get what they deserve.
But there is a sharp disconnect between what the government says it is doing in Iraq and what the Abu Ghraib photos show the United States doing in Iraq. It is that disconnect, combined with the damage wreaked on the country’s international reputation, that has shocked Americans.
From Gainesborough’s perspective, the resultant national discussion about the treatment of inmates is a silver lining of sorts. “Suddenly, people are realizing there are international standards, and that there are good reasons to adhere to them,” she says. The lesson for Virginia, she says, is one of culture.
“The reason abuse flourished in Virginia,” Gainesborough says, “is because it was encouraged and tolerated by [former Virginia Department of Corrections Director Ronald] Angelone. The reason it flourished in Iraq is because of [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and everyone else who says the rules don’t apply, and we can do whatever we want to do to certain people.”
Angelone, currently a director of the prison contracting company Compudyne, retired from the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2002. But he routinely dismissed allegations of prison brutality throughout his eight-year tenure. The incidents recounted by out-of-state prisoners like those from New Mexico were “lies by convicted felons who don’t like being in a tough prison,” he told the Virginia State Crime Commission in 2000.
Angelone ignored a 1999 Human Rights Watch report condemning the treatment of supermax prisoners. He fired a prison doctor who ruled that an inmate had died because of mistreatment. Gene M. Johnson, who succeeded Angelone as director of the agency, has quietly de-supermaxed Wallens Ridge and most of Red Onion, the state’s other supermax. In doing so, he has lowered their security levels to more appropriately reflect the population they actually contain.
The department’s information officer, Larry Traylor, did not respond to requests for comment by Style Weekly.
Virginia opened both its supermaxes at about the same time Bush was making fun of Tucker in Texas. Angelone had insisted the state needed the institutions and oversaw their construction and design. But he soon ran out of “violent predators” to fill them. To solve that problem, he did two things. First, he redefined the state’s definition of a violent offender so that more state prisoners would be eligible for transfer to a supermax. And second, he began to fill the supermaxes with inmates imported from the overcrowded prisons of other states.
According to testimony cited by Elsner’s book, correctional officers in Virginia’s supermaxes routinely punished inmates for minor infractions with “the Ultron II, a handheld device that delivers 50,000 volts of electricity; the Taser, which fires electric darts connected to wires; and the ICE shield that is activated to deliver a powerful electric shock whenever a prisoner touches it.” Black and Hispanic prisoners at Wallens Ridge were threatened and made to crawl on the floor. Larry Frazier, a Connecticut prisoner, was stun gunned to death by guards who mistook his diabetic convulsions for combative behavior. Although the Virginia Department of Corrections investigated the incident and found no wrongdoing, the state paid $350,000 to Frazier’s family last year.
In Elsner’s view, the Virginia prison system “is one of the worst in the country. The most violent, the most racist, the most ready to resort to force. There’s no accountability anywhere, no independent oversight, and the prisoners have no recourse. The Department of Corrections deems 90 percent of their complaints unfounded. You’re right there with Mississippi, Texas and Alabama. That’s the company you’re in.”
Elsner’s opinion of Virginia jails is not much better. In 2002, he visited the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville with human rights lawyers and talked to numerous foreign detainees who described beatings, pepper-spray attacks, medical neglect and an incident in which Iranian women were forced to stand naked in front of video cameras.
One Piedmont inmate, Malik Jarno, was a West African juvenile with an IQ of 47 who spoke only Puhlar and rudimentary French. Another African prisoner told Elsner that, when Jarno asked a guard in French why she had attacked him with pepper spray, the guard replied “Blah, blah, blah, the same to you.” Her colleagues then beat the boy, handcuffed him and carried him away. Elsner wrote about the abuses. In retaliation, the jail closed its doors to human rights lawyers for two years.
Elsner’s book doesn’t discuss the Patrick County Jail in Stuart where a Department of Justice civil rights investigation last year found pretrial detainees in crowded, unsanitary conditions with no on-site medical care, according to a letter written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ralph F. Boyd. Among other findings cited in the letter, the jail was illegally denying inmates access to the courts and had an unconstitutional co-payment system requiring diabetics and other chronically ill prisoners to pay for their own insulin and medications because their conditions pre-existed their incarceration.
David Fahti, a lawyer for the National Prison Project, who litigated on behalf of the Connecticut inmates sent to Wallens Ridge, was not surprised when he heard that Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, accused of torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib, is a Virginia correctional officer.
“I don’t think it’s an accident,” Fahti says. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing in the U.S. prisons in Iraq is not qualitatively different from what goes on in American prisons on a fairly routine basis. I hope this is a teaching moment.”
So does Virginia ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis. Even with Angelone gone, he says, Virginia still has a long way to go in regard to the treatment of its inmates.
“We continue to be flooded with mail from prisoners in Virginia describing everything from poor medical care to physical abuse by guards,” says Willis. “It will be ironic if the abuse of foreign prisoners abroad somehow becomes the impetus for improving conditions here in Virginia. It’s as if we have to see the cruelty in a mirror before realizing what was happening in front of us.” S
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