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Exporting America's Prison Problems | The Nation

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Exporting America's Prison Problems

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In 1997 a 29-year-old schizophrenic inmate named Michael Valent was stripped naked and strapped to a restraining chair by Utah prison staff because he refused to take a pillowcase off his head. Shortly after he was released some sixteen hours later, Valent collapsed and died from a blood clot that blocked an artery to his heart.   

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Dan Frosch
Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly...

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The chilling incident made national news not only because it happened to be videotaped but also because Valent's family successfully sued the State of Utah and forced it to stop using the device. Director of the Utah Department of Corrections, Lane McCotter, who was named in the suit and defended use of the chair, resigned in the ensuing firestorm.

Some six years later, Lane McCotter was working in Abu Ghraib prison, part of a four-man team of correctional advisers sent by the Justice Department and charged with the sensitive mission of reconstructing Iraq's notorious prisons, ravaged by decades of human rights abuse.

While McCotter left Iraq shortly before the current scandal at Abu Ghraib began and says he had nothing to do with the MPs who committed the atrocities, his very presence there raises serious questions about US handling of the Iraqi prison system.

It's bad enough that the Justice Department picked McCotter--whose reputation in Utah was at best controversial and at worst disturbing. But further, the Justice Department hired him less than three months after its own civil rights division released a shocking thirty-six-page report documenting inhumane conditions at a New Mexico jail, run by the company where McCotter is an executive. Here was a man whose prisons had been plagued by reports of inmate mistreatment for nearly a decade. "Lane McCotter's administration here had a horrifying record on human rights" said Carol Gnade, who was executive director of the ACLU in Salt Lake City between 1992 and 2002.

Indeed, around the same time Michael Valent died, Jensie Anderson, then a lawyer for the group, interviewed close to forty mentally ill inmates who had also been restrained in the chair. "We found out they were being kept there far longer than necessary," says Anderson. "There were cases where inmates ended up sitting in their own feces. They were being tortured."

Shortly after Valent's family went to court, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against three Utah DOC doctors, this time for binding a mentally ill man, naked save his underwear, to a stainless steel pallet called 'the board' for eighty-five straight days. The case was settled out of court, according to newspaper reports.  "Generally, under McCotter's rule, human rights were not respected," notes Anderson. "After he left, things improved a great deal."

But they were soon to become worse in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where county officials decided to hire Management & Training Corporation, a private, Utah-based corrections company, to run its jail. McCotter, as it happened, now worked as MTC's director of corrections business development. In August 2001 McCotter, once secretary of corrections in New Mexico, traveled to Santa Fe to finalize MTC's three-year contract to operate the Santa Fe County Detention Center.

Less than a year later, a team of Justice Department correctional experts was inside the Santa Fe jail investigating civil rights violations. In March 2003, their report concluded that certain conditions violated inmates' constitutional rights, and that inmates suffered "harm or the risk of serious harm" from, among other things, woeful deficiencies in healthcare and basic living conditions. The report documented numerous and horrifying examples, and threatened a lawsuit if things didn't get better. Amid the fallout, the Justice Department pulled its approximately 100 federal prisoners out of Santa Fe and MTC fired its warden and pressured its medical subcontractor, Physicians Network Association, to ax one of its medical administrators.

Then, on May 20, in a case of unfathomable irony, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that McCotter, along with three other corrections experts, had gone to Iraq. The very same day, Justice Department lawyers began their first negotiations with Santa Fe County officials over the extensive changes needed at the jail to avoid legal action.

The Justice Department won't comment on why it chose McCotter, whose company has been hounded by well-publicized and ongoing healthcare, security and personnel problems at many of the thirteen prisons it operates in the United States, Australia and Canada. Meanwhile, the Ontario provincial government is currently investigating an inmate death at MTC's Canadian prison on May 5, and inquests into three other mysterious deaths over the past year are expected, according to an article in the Barrie Examiner.

In a May 7 statement, McCotter emphasized that he was mainly in Iraq to oversee the structural renovation of Iraqi prisons and to train Iraqi citizens for correctional duties. He stated that there were no inmates at Abu Ghraib while he was there and that he never supervised military personnel.

According to Gary DeLand, also a member of the correctional team and McCotter's predecessor at the Utah DOC, the two of them worked along with embattled Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and MPs from various battalions, but that "none of the faces on television look familiar."

DeLand says the Justice Department paid him $8,500 per month while he was in Iraq before bumping his salary up to $12,000 per month towards the end of the four-month trip. He defends McCotter as "one of the very best corrections administrators I've ever met."  

Judy Greene, a prison reform consultant, disagrees. "There are any number of correctional administrators, active or retired, that have good records and whom I would have rather seen tapped by the Justice Department for this kind of assignment. McCotter is no expert on how prisoners should be treated or on how prison staff should be trained."

Interestingly, Chase Riveland, former secretary of corrections in Washington and Colorado, who Greene says is respected both by prison reformists and corrections administrators, turned down an offer to join the Justice Department's team. "The philosophies of the individuals that were going did not match mine," Riveland told The Nation.

While it seems unlikely Lane McCotter was involved in the unfolding abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, his hiring--given his troubled history and current employment at the equally troubled MTC--is yet another example of the unending and unabashed bumbling of the occupation. Perhaps most important, if this is the type of personnel decision we can expect from critical agencies like the Justice Department, there's probably more scandal to come.

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