Prisons say a lot about a military’s decency. During the first Gulf War, many Iraqi conscripts found the conditions in American POW camps preferable to those in Saddam’s army. They surrendered in droves. The sickening images of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners give many people pause: They belie the idea that Americans came as liberators and contradict America’s reputation for treating enemies humanely. With the glaring exception of the prison system, however, America’s fighting men and women have done a good job rebuilding Iraq: They have restored neighborhoods, revived the economy, and helped the Iraqi people make real steps toward self-government.
So why do the prisons in Iraq have so many problems? Perhaps it is because no single organization, particularly in government, can do everything. Well-run government agencies like FEMA, the Social Security Administration, and Apollo-era NASA focus on what James Q. Wilson calls a “critical task”: a series of behaviors that helps an agency confront a key critical problem (e.g., “Land a man on the moon by 1969 to support science and beat the Soviets”).
The American army has too much on its plate to focus on running prisons. War, particularly as armies from democratic nations wage it, involves using massive force to utterly destroy an enemy. Warriors can typically kill any enemy belligerent who gets in the way. Nation-building–essentially a glorified form of police work–entails active collaboration with the liberal, democratic, and law-abiding elements within a community in order to undermine and de-legitimize those who seek a return to the bad old days. It involves only carefully measured force. Similar tactics make sense in ordinary POW camps: While such camps contain a few bona fide war criminals, most POWs were simply obeying orders. They have a number of rights not afforded to civilian prisoners–such as wearing their own clothes–and, under the Geneva conventions, usually can’t be kept in real prisons at all.
Running facilities like Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, therefore, is entirely different from the work of warriors or peacekeepers. War-fighting techniques don’t work; corrections officers cannot lawfully kill or beat their charges. Particularly in a prison full of the murderers and torturers of one of history’s great tyrannies, nation-building tactics will also fail. Some prisoners may snitch or become trustees, but corrections officers–unlike peacekeepers–have to keep everyone at arm’s length.
Quite simply, creating an environment and culture that would turn American warriors into good prison guards is inconsistent with what the United States is trying to achieve in Iraq. Among the millions of tasks America has to complete there, running prisons simply isn’t the most important. Of course, somebody needs to run prisons in Iraq. Just as the military has contracted for everything from mess halls to toilets, it should consider privatizing its prisons. Private prisons currently house about five percent of America’s own prison inmates. Although clueless elements of the far Left paint them as a component of a sinister conspiracy, every bit of evidence indicates that they’re better on average than their public counterparts. Private prisons spend a little more per inmate on “programming”–everything from literacy classes to radio-repair training–and produce about the same number of substantiated complaints as their public counterparts. They’re just as safe as public prisons and sometimes save tax money. A few fly-by-night operations and negligent managers have run real hellholes, but the two large companies that would likely compete for a military contract–the GEO Group and the Corrections Corporation of America–run things better than most large state prison systems. Of course, like everything else, the Iraqis should eventually make decisions about this themselves.
Some demented men and women in the American armed forces, coupled with a poor supervisory regime, led to the abuse scandals in Iraq’s prisons. Working with the right private contractors could make things better.
–Eli Lehrer is associate editor of The American Enterprise.