No Comment — August 25, 2007, 11:04 am

A Soaring Prison Population in Iraq

True, it’s not quite up to the standards of Texas. The Lone Star state had to cede its greatest claim to national leadership when Alaska was admitted to the union, but it still manages to garner one title: it has more prisoners than any state—including states with a much larger population base, like California and New York. Fully 5% of the adult population of Texas are under criminal justice control. Is the Bush Administration attempting a Texas-style make-over in Iraq?

In a piece by Tom Shanker this morning, the New York Times reports this morning that the Iraqi prison population has soared 50% since the surge was commenced:

The number of detainees held by the American-led military forces in Iraq has swelled by 50 percent under the troop increase ordered by President Bush, with the inmate population growing to 24,500 today from 16,000 in February, according to American military officers in Iraq.

The detainee increase comes, they said, because American forces are operating in areas where they had not been present for some time, and because more units are able to maintain a round-the-clock presence in some areas. They also said more Iraqis were cooperating with military forces.

The balance of Shanker’s piece is an interesting and useful exercise in prison demographics—what it suggests about the changing course of military operations in the war, including some important successes in Sunni-populated areas. But it also invites attention to a choke-point. Shanker notes

Over all, the average length of detention is about a year, the officers said. So far this year, 3,334 detainees have been released, they said.

The U.S. detention camps are not part of the criminal justice system. They were never designed to hold criminals. They were designed as a short-term security measure, with the prison burden resting on the Iraqi Government. But things are not working as planned. And this break down is important, but not really addressed by Shanker.

The problem could be summarized in a single word: “through-put.” The great bulk of this detention camp population consists of people picked up in sweeps, not detained on specific suspicion of support of hostile activities—a fact that Shanker fails to convey. Moreover, the plan in connection with transitioning to Iraqi authority entailed—as it should have—handing these detainees over to the Iraqi court system to be charged, tried, and then either released or turned over to the Iraqi prison system. This key element of the plan is broken. Why?

Folks I have spoken to in the Baghdad command, including officers at Task Force 134, are pretty frank off the record. They say the Iraqi criminal justice system doesn’t work. They express fears that detainees are released because of institutional corruption (the suspicion seems to be that people bribe the judges, though no one puts it quite so sharply).

Iraqi lawyers and judges I spoke with put it differently: many of those picked up are not guilty of any crime, they say, and there is no evidence against them. There are some pretty easy explanations for this discrepancy in viewpoint. American soldiers are engaged in a security operation; they are not engaged in criminal justice measures. That means they nab people whom they consider suspicious and lock them up. They don’t devote resources to assembling a criminal case against them; in fact they don’t have such resources. So when cases are passed to the Iraqi authorities, there is no evidence and no case, and the system then most often produces an acquittal. A statement that “we think he’s a bad dude,” without any sort of evidence to support it, is enough to land someone in the military detention system, but not in an Iraqi prison.

This reflects a planning problem—the force that is configured is for the surge operation does not have the personnel or resources needed for a criminal justice process. The military has performed that function, and done it very well, in prior occupations (both in Germany and Japan in the period 1946-49, for instance).

This points out one of the fundamentally correct observations of the 82nd Airborne soldiers who wrote in the New York Times last Sunday: Iraq is a de facto occupation, and the Bush Administration’s refusal to plan and staff for an occupation in the end only makes the task of the troops on the ground much more difficult.

These prisons have been and will continue to be a breeding ground for the insurgency. Not devoting the resources necessary to maintain them and to filter the population—holding those who have committed crimes and present a threat and releasing those who were simply picked up in a sweep and do not—contributes to the problem, not the solution.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
On Free Will·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Philosophers have labored for more than two thousand years to explain consciousness. Innocent of biology, however, they have for the most part gotten nowhere.”
Collage (detail) by Frederick Sommer
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
Israel and Palestine·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If Israel believes it needs to make a wall eight meters high between us and them, let them have it eighty meters high. Under one condition: It has to be on the international border.”
Photograph (detail) © Ali Jadallah / APA Images / ZUMA Wire
Washington Is Burning·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Fueled by the national-security spending and corporate lobbying that followed 9/11, the flood of (mostly white) newcomers to the city appears irreversible.”
Portrait © © De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

Chances that an applicant to a U.S. police force in 1992 was found to be “overly aggressive” on psychological tests:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today