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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.

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