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Selling Segregation

US high-security prisons are a big export, but critics doubt their success. 

Conflict has long been a source of misery for innocent people around the world. But it has equally long been a source of profit for big business.

The Sofex exposition in Amman, Jordan, is one of the world’s largest showcases of the latest developments in the art of war.

Passing through the throng of exhibits one can do anything from being voluntarily “Tasered” to opening negotiations on a ballistic missile.

Tucked in among the 7,500 buyers and sellers is a booth run by the Kerik Group purveying one of the latest exports of US defense, a weapon of mass detention – supermax prisons.

Criminal detention has become ?big business

The consulting company is seeking to answer the question of what to do with alleged terrorist suspects once they are in custody.

Frank Ciaccio from the group says that business has been brisk at Sofex and amongst interested clients is the Palestinian prison authority while the group is already helping construct a facility for the Jordanian government.

“Billions of dollars are being spent by military and law enforcement in fighting the war on terror. No money’s going back to the prison systems to increase security,” he says.
“If we can help a country who’s having a problem with their prisons then we’re doing a good thing.”

‘Prisoners are prisoners’

The business’ founder, Bernard Kerik, has plenty of experience with prison systems, having served as former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani’s, police commissioner between 2000 and 2001 and as the interim interior minister in Iraq in 2003.

He is also a controversial figure, having withdrawn the acceptance of his nomination as US homeland security secretary in 2004 for ethical reasons. Pending federal charges, including for tax fraud, mean his passport has been suspended and he was unable to be in Jordan.

The high-security supermax system the Kerik Group is exporting gained popularity in the US throughout the 1990s and Kerik cites his own success with the prison on New York City’s Riker’s Island.

When Al Jazeera met Kerik in New York he refused to discuss his clients, but did discuss reasons why nations should be keen to buy in to his products.

“You know what, prisoners are prisoners, and inmates are inmates. I don’t care if they’re in New York City, if they’re in Hong Kong, if they’re in Saudi Arabia.

Social isolation

“It makes no difference. When you walk through a facility in any one of these places, pretty much they look the same, they smell the same, and they think the same.”

Kerik’s stark vision of criminal internment is not one that is shared universally, however.

“The essence of supermax confinement is a couple of things: it is almost complete social isolation,” David Fathi of Human Rights Watch says.

“It is a level of social isolation and environmental deprivation that certainly most of us cannot even imagine … These conditions are extremely damaging for some people.”

 Fathi claims the success of supermax prisons has been overstated and that their decrease in popularity in the US mirrors a similar decline in efficacy.

“The environment was so stark, so deprived, so harsh, that some prisoners became more defiant, and more oppositional, and more difficult to manage.

“It is ironic that just as the fad had run its course in this country, it seems to be being exported to at least some other countries.”

One of those countries is Iraq, yet the US-run prisons there have provoked huge criticisms and outrage in the last few years, most notoriously at Abu Ghraib where prisoners were routinely abused by US personnel.

“The biggest problem for Abu Ghraib, besides the problem itself – the mismanagement, the failure to supervise, the crimes that were committed – The bigger problem for us in my opinion, is world opinion,” Kerik says.

He denies he is exporting one of the worst aspects of the US justice system and that his firm is advising countries how to implement proper training procedures.

“As bad as things may seem at times, our management systems in government are some of the best in the world,” he says.

Different approach

The need for secure and effective prison management is a point General Douglas Stone concurs with Kerik upon.

When he arrived to take command of Camp Bucca, a huge prison in southern Iraq, 84 of the facility’s compounds were on fire.

The 24,000 Iraqi inmates were running the show to an extent that Stone labeled the country’s detention facilities as “Jihadist universities.”

“It belonged to extremists, that’s the group who was controlling it through fear and intimidation – through violence,” Stone says. “Cutting eyes out, cutting tongues off, breaking legs, killing.”

When Al Jazeera visits Camp Bucca it is outwardly very much the epitome of a US high-security prison and order has been restored.

But Stone has taken a very different approach to that espoused by Kerik, adopting a policy he calls to “sift and winnow,” separating moderates from so-called extremists.
About 2,000 prisoners the US military says are known al Qaeda members have been segregated and housed in a facility called the Rock.

Armed soldiers man the gate and protective goggles are required when walking along the gangways to avoid damage from projectiles launched at the guards by prisoners below.

US soldiers tell Al Jazeera that the extremists are, unsurprisingly, not particularly

However by speaking to many of the separated prisoners considered more moderate, the camp authorities say they have been able to form a portrait of a typical prisoner who is a family man, economically motivated, but not particularly ideological or religious.

Stone decided to wage the battle for these hearts and minds with an open approach that encourages regular prison visits for family members where there are no glass partitions separating them so the men can embrace their children.

Open hearings

Another innovation has been open hearings where detainees can respond to the charges brought against them.

“Nobody sat down with them and said, ‘what was your side of the story?’” Stone says.
Imams, considered moderates by the US, are also brought in to educate prisoners, many of whom are illiterate.

Stone admits that he gets “pounded” by critics who believe the US is making judgments on what is acceptable or not in religion but he believes by educating moderate prisoners, the more radical forces in Iraq will become marginalized.

He says release rates of prisoners are up and that these former prisoners provide valuable intelligence.

“Only eight per cent of inmates were being released. Today, the corps is on balance releasing 50 per cent of everybody they talk to.”

“That equates to 8,400 in the space of 10 months in 2007 and 2008, with only 28 recaptured engaging in “insurgent activity.”

Such figures might seem impressive but prompt the question of why so many innocent men are detained in the first place, and it is worth noting there are financial rewards for prisoners who complete rehabilitation courses, such as reading.

Chakar, a doctor, was held for 70 days before being released. As he prepares to walk out of the camp gates he informs Al Jazeera he was well treated.

“It is harmful, but when you study the situation in Iraq, you can realize that everything could happen these days, mistakes happen,” he says.

“But what is good – they have corrected their mistake and they are releasing me.”
 Stone admits that mistakes have been made in Iraq

“Abu Ghraib was a shameful act on behalf of the United States, towards a people,” he says.

“And you can never assume that it won’t happen again. If you do not pay attention to it, the best of people will do the worst of things.”

After allowing Al Jazeera rare access inside Bucca, Stone’s tenure as head of the camp came to an end and he admitted his successor may revert to more austere policies.
While firms such as the Kerik group promote the use of more supermax prisons that may reap profits for the merchants of war, their value as a decisive weapon in the battle against terrorism remains an open question.

This article was originally published online by on January 8, 2009. It is reprinted with permission of the author, John Rushing, who also credits Greg Norman.

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