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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Amount traders on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange can be fined for fighting, per punch:

$1,000

Philadelphian teenagers who want to lose weight also tend to drink too much soda, whereas Bostonian teenagers who drink too much soda are likelier to carry guns.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today