When the US prison system created more terrorism in Iraq

Locking someone in a cage is never justice. It’s only a punishment or justified isolation of someone who’s a danger to others. Even for its stated objectives, a punitive prison system is a dangerous and ineffective tool… I wrote this in my book FREEDOM! About the prison system in America, but occasionally something will remind me of the prison scandals back in Iraq.

I remember when the news about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke out in 2004. I was on deployment in Fallujah at the time and I clearly remember, as a Civil Affairs marine, having to stare down crowds of angry Iraqis the day after the scandal broke on international TV. I even saw the prison for myself when we convoyed there briefly. That was only one of several US-run military prisons in the country. The military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex got married in Iraq.

Apart from my sad realization that torture and prisoner abuse was actually happening all over the country, something else terrible happened: yesterday’s detainees became tomorrow’s terrorists. One petty thief who became radicalized in prison was Abu Nuwab al-Zarawi, an al-Qaeda in Iraq commander we were hunting. Another petty criminal turned jihadist would go on to found ISIS.

Iraq is the place where the military industrial complex met the prison industrial complex, and to horrifying results. The US military prisons in Iraq were being called “jihadi universities” because people with weak or suspect ties to terrorism showed up as bewildered detainees and left as hardened Islamists, more ready than ever to wage their holy war against the occupation authority. Concentrating large numbers of terrorists and insurgents gave them the ability to network, coordinate, and educate. The cases of only loose association or mistaken identity became easy recruits for Al Qaeda.

Psychologists Jesse Shapiro and Keith Chen find that it’s possible, and statistically verifiable, for prison conditions to further harden criminals. By studying the post-incarceration behaviors of 1,000 federal prisoners, they conclude that “harsher prison conditions cause higher rates of post-release criminal behavior, behavior which is also measurably more violent.” The Economist backs this up with testimonies from ex-convicts in American prisons, noting that many of the abusive correctional officers are ex-military, and in their perceived role as strict disciplinarians, the guards utterly fail to protect inmates from other inmates.

In my book, I write that the machine of government “justice” convicts people of victimless crimes to keep the police busy, keep politicians and their sponsors happy, and provide a flow of bodies into the prisons. The more we question the assumptions of modern prison systems, the more aware we are of their disastrous effects. The effects of that prison system were particularly disastrous in Iraq. With the triple grievance of foreigners invading their country, arresting them by mistake, and being subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, combined with the uncertainty that comes with indefinite detention, it’s no wonder the military prisons became universities for terrorism.

Just as politicians make nonviolent offenders into criminals with their laws, and then those offenders become hardened criminals in the prison system, we were creating hardened thugs in Iraq. Just as the war on drugs made every pot smoker a federal criminal, enforcing a policy that all military aged males must remain in a city as its being bombed by C-130 Specter gunships was creating insurgents in Iraq faster than we could kill them. The images of those detainees at Abu Ghraib were like gasoline on the fire that was already burning from Basra to Kirkuk.

The way forward for America is a complete rollback of the present system of government and empire. The American government has a mass incarceration problem in which too many people are violently torn from society in a way totally out of proportion to the “crimes” they committed. The American government also has an “empire problem.” A government with 900 military bases in over 130 countries is not fighting for your freedom. It is an empire. I was one of the occupation troops. The sick marriage between the military and prison industrial complexes made an incredibly bad situation even worse.