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Old 05-21-2004, 11:14 PM
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Default Screening of Prison Officials Is Faulted by Lawmakers

New York Times

Published: May 21, 2004

The use of American corrections executives with abuse accusations in their past to oversee American-run prisons in Iraq is prompting concerns in Congress about how the officials were selected and screened.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, sent a letter yesterday to Attorney General John Ashcroft questioning what he described as the "checkered record when it comes to prisoners' rights" of John J. Armstrong, a former commissioner of corrections in Connecticut.

Mr. Armstrong resigned last year after Connecticut settled lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the families of two Connecticut inmates who died after being sent by Mr. Armstrong to a supermaximum security prison in Virginia. One of the inmates, a diabetic, died of heart failure after going into diabetic shock and then being hit with an electric charge by guards wielding a stun gun and kept in restraints.

In his letter, Mr. Schumer requested that the Justice Department conduct an investigation into the role of American civilians in the Iraqi prison system. Mr. Armstrong is assistant director of operations of American prisons in Iraq, and Mr. Schumer said he was apparently working under contract for the State Department.

State Department officials had no comment on the case and could not confirm whether Mr. Armstrong worked for the department in Iraq or not. Mr. Armstrong, who has an unlisted phone number, could not be reached for comment.

Another official, Lane McCotter, who was forced to resign as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an incident in which a mentally ill inmate died after guards left him shackled naked to a restraining chair for 16 hours, was dispatched by Mr. Ashcroft to head a team of Americans to reopen Iraq's prisons.

After his resignation in Utah, Mr. McCotter became an executive of a private prison company, the Management and Training Corporation, one of whose jails was strongly criticized in a Justice Department report just a month before the Justice Department sent him to Iraq. The report found that the jail, in Santa Fe, lacked adequate medical and mental health care and had no suicide prevention plan, which had contributed to an inmate's hanging himself.

In Iraq, it was Mr. McCotter who first identified Abu Ghraib as the best site for America's main prison and who helped rebuild the prison and train Iraqi guards, according to his own account, given to Correction .com, an online industry magazine

Officials at the Justice Department would not say who decided to give Mr. McCotter the assignment or whether the Justice Department was aware of his history when Mr. Ashcroft announced his appointment.

"The contractors were all vetted in the normal process," said a senior Justice Department official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "They all came highly recommended by corrections experts."

Speaking of the two cases in an interview, Mr. Schumer said: "One might be an aberration. Two is getting awfully close to a pattern."

He said, "Of all the people who have experience running prisons in this country and haven't run into trouble, how did they pick these guys?"

Vincent Nathan, an expert on prison management, said "I find it somewhat mystifying that the Justice Department failed to involve its own professional administrators in the federal Bureau of Prisons" in running the prisons in Iraq.

The Bureau of Prisons, Mr. Nathan noted, is part of the Justice Department and has long experience in running prisons that hold foreigners, including illegal immigrants.

The Justice Department official said Mr. McCotter's role in overseeing prison operations in Baghdad was limited to what are regarded as civilian prisoners, rather than military ones. But the unclear chain of command at Abu Ghraib has made it difficult to distinguish between the two groups.

"What is the civilian side?" Mr. Schumer asked. "Many of the people who were abused were civilians."

Mr. Armstrong returned from Iraq last week to attend his daughter's graduation and has not decided whether to go back, said a Michael Lawlor, the chairman of Connecticut's House Judiciary Committee and a neighbor in West Haven.

During his eight years as commissioner of corrections in Connecticut, Mr. Armstrong was also criticized by the guards' union and the National Organization for Women for failing to deal with repeated complaints by female guards that they were being sexually harassed by male guards.

But his most difficult time came when he sent more than 200 Connecticut inmates to Wallens Ridge, a supermaximum security prison in Big Stone Gap, Va.

One inmate, Lawrence Frazier, the diabetic, died after being hit with an electric charge. Another, David Tracy, who had been diagnosed with mental illness, jumped off his bunk with a makeshift rope around his neck in plain sight of a guard who did nothing to come to his aid, said David Fathi, a senior staff counsel for the A.C.L.U.'s National Prison Project.

Mr. Fathi, who oversaw a lawsuit against Connecticut and Mr. Armstrong, said the state had deprived the prisoners at Wallens Ridge of their constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.

Inmates at Wallens Ridge were frequently strapped down in four point restraint, meaning their arms and legs were fastened down, and were then hit by stun guns "for trivial things," Mr. Fathi said. The guards, who were all white, often used racial slurs in talking to the prisoners, he said.

Mr. Lawlor, who visited Wallens Ridge, said the warden's office had been decorated with photographs of Confederate generals and Confederate battle flags.

Connecticut in two separate out-of- court settlements agreed to remove all of their inmates from Wallens Ridge and to pay $1.9 million to the families of the inmates who died.
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