If You Can’t Export Democracy, Try Prisons!
Although America’s attempt to export its version of democracy to Iraq has been a resounding failure, it has found more success at introducing to the region one of its world-renowned skills: building (and filling) prisons.
In 2006, as the U.S. State Department completed its $20 billion “reconstruction” program in Iraq, the only new rebuilding money requested was for prisons. State Department Iraq coordinator James Jeffrey asked Congress for $100 million for the sole significant building project --- prison construction (or, in the administration’s bureaucratic-speak, for “additional bed capacity for the Iraqi legal system”). This year, the United States has sought expansion of its prisons as its “security” operations around Baghdad have increased.
Even amid the human rights horrors of torture at Abu Ghraib and indeterminate detention at Guantanamo Bay,
the United States has built, maintained and expanded its prison complexes in Iraq, steadily filling them with more and more people. Stick to what you’re good at, right? Not so good at peace, let’s try prisons! We’ve managed to incarcerate 2.3 million inside of our own country, and turn prison construction into one of our most profitable enterprises, why not take our show on the road?
Many of these new prisons have been established at military bases and airports, such as the US Military compound at Al-Dhiloeia, Camp Cropper at Baghdad International Airport, the Hilla military compound, as well as in old Iraqi military barracks and public buildings, including schools and colleges across Iraq converted into detention centers.
And as prisons are being built, they are being filled. In June 2004 there were less than 5,500 people being held by American forces in Iraq. By June 2006 that number has risen almost three times to 14,500. Today, it stands at 21,000 (which does not include over 20,000 people being held in Iraqi custody or others detained outside of Iraq in the CIA’s secret prisons operating outside of the reach of international law).
While prisons in the United States are harsh and unforgiving, in Iraq they are worse. According to Amnesty International, for example, after a joint Iraqi-Multi-National Force team inspected Site 4 detention center in Baghdad, where 1,431 detainees were held under the control of the Interior Ministry, it found that detainees had been systematically abused and were being held in unsafe, overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.
Much like the prisoners stuck in Guantanamo’s abyss, thousands of people have been held by Multi-National Forces in Iraq without charge or trial, deprived of the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention. Many have been released absent explanation after years in detention, while many others continue to be held without any effective remedy.
One of the few unfiltered glimpses of life inside the Pentagon's detention operations came from Donald Vance, a Navy veteran and American security contractor detained in error for 97 days at United States military's maximum-security detention site in Baghdad (Camp Cropper). He described being shackled, blindfolded, interrogated, and forbidden to cover his face to block light, noise and cold. He also described a haphazard system of detention and prosecution, where detainees are often held for long periods without charges or legal representation.
So as America has found “liberation” to be a far more bloody and complicated issue than anticipated, it has yet again turned increasingly to one of its favorite (and most disastrous) short-term solutions to any social, economic, and political quagmire (in addition to preemptive acts of military aggression): incarceration.