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:

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

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today