From Texas to Abu Ghraib: The Bush Legacy of Prisoner Abuse

Heather Wokusch, 5/18/2004

Published on Monday, May 10, 2004 by CommonDreams.org

While administration officials express shock and outrage over allegations of the torture and murder of Iraqi prisoners by US forces, a deeper look into Bush's stateside prison-system record shows disturbing similarities.

Despite Taguba's report detailing US "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses" of Iraqi detainees, the President declared, "We acted, and there are no longer mass graves and torture rooms and rape rooms in Iraq."

In George Bush's America, denial about inmate mistreatment runs similarly rampant. As Texas governor, Bush oversaw the executions of 152 prisoners and thus became the most-killing governor in the history of the United States. Ethnic minorities, many of whom did not have access to proper legal representation, comprised a large percentage of those Bush put to death, and in one particularly egregious example, Bush executed an immigrant who hadn't even seen a consular official from his own country (as is required by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the US was a signatory). Bush's explanation: "Texas did not sign the Vienna Convention, so why should we be subject to it?"

Governor Bush also flouted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by choosing to execute juvenile offenders, a practice shared by only Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Significantly, in 1998 a full 92% of the juvenile offenders on Bush's death row were ethnic minorities.

Conditions inside Texan prisons during Bush's reign were so notorious that federal Judge William Wayne Justice wrote, "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 September 1996, for example, a videotaped raid on inmates at a county jail in Texas showed guards using stun guns and an attack dog on prisoners, who were later dragged face-down back to their cells. Funding of mental health programs during Bush's reign was so poor that Texan prisons had a sizeable number of mentally-impaired inmates; defying international human rights standards, these inmates ended up on death row. A prisoner named Emile Duhamel, for example, with severe psychological disabilities and an IQ of 56, died in his Texan death-row jail cell in July 1998. Authorities blamed "natural causes" but a lack of air conditioning in cells that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a summer heat wave may have killed Duhamel instead. How many other Texan prisoners died of such neglect during Bush's governorship is unclear.

As president, Bush presides over a prison population topping 2 million people, giving America the dubious distinction of having a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country. When considering that the US has three times more prisoners per capita than Iran and seven times more than Germany, the nation looks more like a Gulag than the Land of the Free.

Abu Ghraib has left administration officials falling over themselves with protestations of compassion, but it's worth remembering that the Bush White House has fought hard against the International Convention Against Torture.

It's not difficult to see why: if even a fraction of Bush's devastating legacy with Texan prisoners has been transferred to the US prison system as a whole, then the scandal over Abu Ghraib will seem like child's play.

The White House also wants to stifle investigation into the roughly 760 aliens (mainly Muslim men) the US government rounded up post-911, ostensibly for immigration violations. Amnesty International reports 911 detainees have suffered "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by some corrections officers" and a denial of "basic human rights."

Then of course, there's Guantanamo, where the US is holding hundreds of detainees in top secrecy and without access to courts, legal counsel or family visits. Add to that the roughly 1000 civilians the US imprisons in Afghanistan, the 10,000 civilians thought to be detained in Iraq and who knows how many others across the globe, and it looks as if incarceration is the nation's best export.

But blame can't stop with Bush. A recent CNN poll asking "Is torture ever justified during interrogation?" yielded 47% of respondents answering in the affirmative, which explains why there hasn't been much stateside outrage over prisoner neglect in the past. It's that Faustian with-us-or-against-us mentality rearing its ugly head once again, promising safety but tempting us to dehumanize others and lose our souls in the process.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer, and can be reached via her web site: Heather's latest project is "A Woman's Political Primer: 100 Easy Steps to Owning Your Power and Making a Difference" to be released in the fall.