US sets up new Iraqi prison system

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States, which came under fire for abusing detainees in Iraq, has spent millions of dollars creating a new prison system there as part of a programme to revamp the criminal justice system from top to bottom.
A Bush administration official, who asked not to be named, said around 70 US “correctional experts” including prison wardens, managers and instructors, had been involved in getting the new Iraqi correctional service up and running.

The US experts established a training academy for Iraqi guards and administrators near Baghdad in December 2004, and the first class graduated the following month.

“They have now graduated 4,029 Iraqi correctional officers, including 20 women who have undergone nine-week training courses,” the official said.

It was part of a programme to help Iraqis build a new criminal justice system, including a police force, court system and prisons. The total cost of the prison programme so far, according to an administration official, was $41.6 million.

The world was shocked in 2004 when pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad of US military personnel and contractors abusing Iraqi security detainees.

The new prison service is also using a wing of Abu Ghraib.

Its mission is to house regular criminals rather than security detainees suspected of belonging to or helping insurgents fighting the US occupation and the Iraqi government.

Seven soldiers were convicted in courts martial in 2004 and 2005 and sentenced to prison terms for their actions at Abu Ghraib.

Human rights groups said the abuse was part of a deliberate policy rather than isolated acts of “rogue” soldiers and that thousands of Iraqi “security detainees” continued to be held without trial in harsh conditions for months without access to a lawyer or contact with their families.

The new prison service only houses a fraction of detainees held in Iraq, which is racked by violence across religious and ethnic lines and by a fierce insurgency against the US-led foreign force there. US and Iraqi troops uncovered two Iraqi interior ministry detention centres late last year at which prisoners had been tortured and abused.

9 prisons in system

The Iraqi correctional service is operating nine prisons scattered around the country with around 10,000 inmates, of whom 6,000 have been sentenced for crimes and the rest are awaiting trial. Another prison is under construction and the US administration has requested funding to build an additional prison in 2007.

One US prison expert questioned whether the US prison system offered the best model for Iraq to follow.

“I would have liked them to take a look at the practices of some of the European countries where they have an independent prison inspectorate, or Canada. The US model is not exactly the best,” said Jenni Gainsborough of Penal Reform International, which promotes cooperation between governments and non-governmental organisations to promote good prisons.

The US prison and jail system, with around 2.2 million inmates, accounts for a quarter of all the world’s prisoners. Reports of violence, rape, abuse and medical neglect regularly emerge from the system.

The official said conditions at the Iraqi prisons were “pretty basic.” The only recreational facilities most provided was a soccer field within the prison grounds.

“We’re not into rehabilitation at this point. There are health and food services at all the prisons but we don’t have educational programme or sophisticated counselling,” he said.

US advisers had originally hoped to work with Iraqis who had staffed the prison system under former president Saddam Hussein but quickly abandoned the idea.

“There was broad-based, widespread corruption so the decision was made to start from scratch,” the official said.

He said no abuses had been reported in the new system and Iraqi prison guards received human rights training.

“We’re attuned to honouring human rights, avoiding abuse, maintaining appropriate levels of security and avoiding corrupt practices and prosecuting them if they occur,” he said.

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