May 24, 2004 | Graham

Abu Ghraib: it could be worse in Brisbane

If the pictures taken in Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq had been taken in a Queensland jail, the person who took the photos would have been liable for 2 years jail. It is an offense to interview, photograph or record a Queensland jail inmate without official permission. As a result, in some instances in Queensland, prison guards have literally gotten away with murder.
I only became aware of these facts after reading this article by Bernie Matthews. This is the first of two articles that I commissioned Matthews to write for On Line Opinion, because I had a hunch.
My hunch was that the atrocities inside Abu Ghraib were little different from atrocities committed in hundreds of jails in the Western World. I knew that Corporal Charles Grane, the alleged ringleader, had worked at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution – Greene (see this website for more details). I also knew that prisoners die in our prison system at a much higher rate than Australians die anywhere else. And I also knew that anytime I had been in a prison, which I have been a number of times for “A” Grade QDU debates, the fear and hostility in the air between warders and inmates was palpable.
Matthews lays it all out. He talks of his own sexual abuse and sensory deprivation; he lists and explores a number of unexplained deaths; and lastly he looks at the brutalizing transformation of prisoners in the system. Through it all runs the thread of a system that knows the brutalisation is occurring, does nothing to prevent it, and sets the rules so that it is unlikely to be reported on, until it erupts into a royal commission. What a disgrace.
Which raises a number of very interesting questions. The first is how the US government could claim that it was surprised by this abuse. Not only are there precedents, like the My Lai massacre, from earlier wars, but it runs a prison system in the USA and must employ any number of criminologists who could tell it what was likely to happen if it ran a prison system in Iraq. It makes this claim because it is caught in the dichotomous argument that it is the “good” waging a war against “evil”, so it cannot admit that these were crimes that were always likely to happen because it is not a completely unequivocally good society.
It gets away with the claim because journalists are not asking the tough questions. I am waiting for the day a journalist pops up at a press conference and quotes estimates of those who die from unexplained causes in US prisons or are abused in a year and draws the obvious link – in a prison population of the size in Iraq’s, isn’t it likely that statistically speaking more abuse is happening than we know of? Maybe it will never happen. Some journalists of course want to believe that the good bad dichotomy is absolutely, rather than relatively, accurate, and don’t want to see the murkier reality where no-one has an absolute claim on vice or virtue.
Other journalists want to magnify the damage done to the US. If we could see that what has happened is an inexcusable but commonplace part of imprisonment, then we might be less shocked, and the negative impact minimised.
Neither view of the issue has an interest in looking at the state of imprisonment in the Western World because it either further undermines the alleged sanctity of the US, or takes attention away from the war.
The upshot of this is bastardization and vicimisation of another sort. We are taught to view the Iraqis as a special case aside from the general human condition – diminishing and exceptionalising them. And prisoners everywhere lose through the implication that imprisonment in the “civilized” countries is humane.
Oh, and by the way, the first reading yesterday in every Christian Church that uses the lectionary was Acts 16:16-34 which recounts the imprisonment of Paul and Silas. I wonder how many preachers tackled Abu Ghraib in their sermons?

Posted by Graham at 12:42 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Rumsfeld has been reading your blog, and now cameras are banned at Abu Ghraib too. Torture, it seems, is OK.
    If your point is to remind us that our prisons are not the Sunday picnic some commentators like to suggest, its well made. But it is a bit rich suggesting that Qld prisons could be compared with Abu Ghraib. For a start, the unfortunate inmates in Iraq have not been through any kind of legal process and have no idea when they may be released. The majority have been picked up at random. These prisoners are taken to Abu Ghraib primarily to extract information. Torture and “rough” interrogation processes are the means. If this is going on in Queensland, I’m leaving.

    Comment by Mark — May 26, 2004 @ 7:45 am

  2. The point I am making is that everywhere there is a jail these sorts of things are happening. And yes, that includes torture and “rough” interrogation. You migh like to check out this link to an account of the Zimbardo Prison study.
    The piece isn’t an attempt at justifying Abu Ghraib, it’s an attempt to provide some broader context.

    Comment by Graham Young — May 26, 2004 @ 8:11 am


    We can introduce something from Australia into Susan Sontag’s endeavours to make sense of the meanings of the photos from

    Comment by Junk for Code — May 27, 2004 @ 12:44 am

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