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.
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.”