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Doesn't It Ring a (Prison) Bell?

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.17.2004 | POLITICS

If the president wasn't so forthright about his disinterest in the world, it would have been hard to believe him Wednesday when he said the abuse in Abu Ghraib prison "doesn't represent the America I know." But who can doubt him? To represent the America George W. Bush knows, there would have to be explosive snapshots of Iraqi detainees lounging by the Abu Ghraib pool, barbequing ribs and snorting primo Bolivian coke off empty cases of Coors Light. There would have to be shocking reports of prisoners with family members on the Iraqi Governing Council being handed sweetheart deals on professional sports franchises and energy firms.

But being stripped, hooded and urinated on while your friend is forced to masturbate next to you? The only member of the Bush clan who knows about that kind of thing is Jenna.

Of course, if the President were more of a newspaper-reading sort of feller, he wouldn't have been so shocked by the pictures. As a tough-on-crime Texan, he would have recognized such treatment immediately, perhaps even feeling a little swell of pride. If he'd ever put down the Bible for a broadsheet after his conversion, he'd know that "Texas prison" is one of the most feared phrases in the language--and he'd know why. When he sat down in front of Arab tv audiences on Wednesday to explain the true American way, he could have pointed to an October, 1999 story in the Austin American Statesman that detailed how female prisoners there were regularly kept in portable detention cells for hours at a time in summer heat with no water. "In fear of more time in the cages," the article explains, "many women submit sexually to their oppressors and are raped, molested and forced to perform sodomy on their captors."

And in 1996, if Bush hadn't been so busy handling the transfer of $9 billion in public funds over to the University of Texas Investment Management Company, the governor might have had time to read about the videotape that surfaced that year depicting prison guards brutalizing inmates in the Brazoria County Detention Center in Angleton, TX. The tape, which was originally shot for use as a training video, showed riot-clad guards beating prisoners (arrested on drug violations) and forcing them to crawl while kicking them and poking them with electric prods. Had Bush cleared a little time to watch this video, he would had an easier time digesting the images out of Abu Ghraib, and thus saved himself those few moments of humiliating supplication in front of all those Arabs, based as they were on the faulty assumption that those pictures "weren't America."

If only some governor's aide had told him in 1999 about the hunger strike at the notorious Terrel Unit facility in Livingston, TX, where death-row prisoner Michael Sharp said before his execution, many guards "think it is their patriotic duty to torture and brutalize prisoners." If only he had not been so busy reclining in box seats at Rangers home games, the governor might have known that prisoners' attorney Donna Brorby had described Texas' super-max prisons as "the worst in the country," where guards reportedly gas prisoners and throw them down on concrete floors while handcuffed. Then the president might have been better equipped to recognize his country in those pictures.

Considering all the downtime the President has spent in the Lone Star State since 2000, he might have even heard about the 2002 conclusion of the 30-year legal battle Ruiz v. Johnson. In its write up of the case, the Austin Chronicle reported the words of Texas Judge William Wayne Justice, written after hearing lengthy expert and inmate testimony on prison conditions:

Texas prison inmates continue to live in fear... More vulnerable inmates are raped, beaten, owned, and sold by more powerful ones. Despite their pleas to prison officials, they are often refused protection. Instead, they pay for protection, in money, services, or sex. Correctional officers continue to rely on the physical control of excessive force to enforce order. Those inmates locked away in administrative segregation, especially those with mental illnesses, are subjected to extreme deprivations and daily psychological harm.

But no, the abuse at Abu Ghraib does not represent any America that George Bush could possibly have known about. The America he knows never sets foot inside prisons. It just owns them and fills them and builds them. Anything that happens after that, well, it might as well be another country.

This article originally appeared on CounterPunch.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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