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Wardens Chosen to Establish Iraq Prison System Had Past Abuse Allegations

by Brian Ross
ABC News

May 20, 2004

A number of former state prison commissioners chosen by the Bush administration to establish a prison system in Iraq left their old posts after allegations of neglect, brutality and inmate deaths, an investigation by ABCNEWS has found.

Last year, the former head of Utah's prison system, Lane McCotter, was hired by the U.S. government to help set up Iraq's new prison system and train guards.

He even led a tour of Abu Ghraib for U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who attended the reopening of the Baghdad prison.

But in 1997, guards at a Utah prison, then under McCotter's charge, made a videotape showing the abuse of Michael Valent, a mentally ill inmate who allegedly would not follow orders.

Inmate Kept in Restraints for Hours

Valent was stripped naked, marched down the halls and, under an approved procedure at the time, placed in a special restraint chair, where he was left for 16 hours.

"By the time he was finally released from that restraint chair, he developed blood clotting and, through a pulmonary embolism, died," said Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.

The use of the restraint chair was stopped soon after, and McCotter resigned in a shake-up two months later, going to work as a consultant.

McCotter denied any wrongdoing. He told ABCNEWS in a written statement that Valent was "placed in a restraint chair for his own protection" and "observed by correctional officers every 15 minutes and by medical personnel every 30 minutes."

McCotter, who left the Iraqi prison system in August, is one of four former prison officials sent to Iraq whose selection and backgrounds are now being questioned by civil rights lawyers.

"[The allegations are] very, very much like the kinds of things we are hearing [now] out of Abu Ghraib," said attorney Tony Ponvert. "They're no strangers and, in fact, are quite intimate with brutality and with degradation and with humiliation."

Ties to Abu Ghraib Abuse?

Gary Deland, another controversial former head of the Utah Department of Corrections, worked at Abu Ghraib last summer.

Anderson said he was sadistic in the way he ran the state prison system in the mid-to-late-'80s — a claim Deland denied.

Deland told ABCNEWS that no one can run a state prison system without being accused of prisoner mistreatment.

Anderson, who was working as an civil litigation attorney at the time, brought lawsuits against both former Utah corrections officials on behalf of the inmates.

"They seemed to have nothing but total disdain for the rights and interests of inmates," Anderson said.

A Culture Where Beating Inmates Was OK

John Armstrong, another member of the team sent to Iraq, served as head of the Connecticut prison system from 1995 to 2003. The tactics used by prison guards during his tenure were blamed in three inmate deaths.

Videotapes made by guards showed prisoners who did not follow orders being restrained, smothered and beaten by guards during the time Armstrong ran the corrections department.

"He established a culture where that was acceptable conduct and where if you did it, you wouldn't be punished, you wouldn't be disciplined, and in some cases you would be rewarded," Ponvert said.

The widening scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers has raised eyebrows about whether the influence of the former prison commissioners might be partly to blame.

"[Armstrong's] appointment raises serious questions, including whether he had anything to do with the Abu Ghraib crimes, and I asked Attorney General [John] Ashcroft what was being done to investigate the role of civilian contractors in the Iraqi prison scandal," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "I'm still awaiting a response."

Armstrong has been in Iraq since August 2003, been training Iraqis and recruiting Americans to work in the country's prison system. He did not respond to questions about his work for Connecticut's prison system.

‘I Was Absolutely Uninvolved’

The former prison directors in question all said they do not condone prisoner abuse, and McCotter denied suggestions that his leadership might have led to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

He told ABCNEWS in a written statement: "Everyone seems to be ignoring one simple and irrefutable fact: my obligation in Iraq was over and I was back in the United States before any inmates ever arrived at the facility.

I did not oversee the inmates, nor did I train or supervise the military personnel who did oversee them," McCotter added. "I was absolutely uninvolved and cannot understand this attempt to tie me to those incidents."

A senior Justice Department official said the department was aware of the backgrounds of the men before they were sent to Iraq, but they were among the few willing to go there.