One of the most troubling aspects of the ongoing controversy of Abu Ghraib is the idea that it was somehow the work of a few bad apples at the prison. The idea is to give cover to our military and political leadership — if it’s just a few bad apples, then certainly they couldn’t have been expected to foresee that we’d be having these sorts of problems. Leaving aside the fact that it is almost certain at this point that the guards were ordered to abuse the prisoners, and that the form of abuse seems to have been designed to maximally humiliate the prisoners, we have the problem of running prisons in general.

I’ve mentioned the Stanford Prison Experiment before, but it bears pointing out again in the context of Abu Ghraib. Even in an experimental context where prisoners and guards were chosen at random, the subjects of the experiment developed a relationship where the guards abused the prisoners, and that experiment lasted only a few days.

For further reference, check out Ted Conover’s book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, which describes a year spent as a guard at New York’s Sing Sing prison. The author is a journalist who wanted to report on what goes on inside Sing Sing, who got a job as a prison guard after finding himself unable to gain access to the prison in any other way. In it, Conover describes the relationship between guards and prisoners and the dehumanizing effect of prisons on guards as well as inmates.

When you mix in the fact that in the case of Abu Ghraib, the staff of the prison is made up by people who don’t even share a common language with the prisoners, it becomes that much easier for the guards to see the inmates as subhuman. You can also add in the fact that the prison guards certainly see their jobs as temporary. Survive the rotation, and you get to go home. These factors all but guarantee the brutal suppression of prisoners.

The other problem here is that the purpose of Abu Ghraib went beyond the standard role of prisons in our criminal justice system. Many of the detainees are not there to pay for crimes, but rather to be interrogated for intelligence purposes. When you consider that the people in charge of interrogation see prohibitions on torture as problems to be routed around rather than basic guarantees of human rights, you have a recipe for disaster.

This goes back to the ongoing complaints about extraordinary rendition, the policy of turning suspected terrorists (innocent or not) over to foreign governments that aren’t as squeamish about torture as we are. In many cases, these suspects are interrogated with US intelligence agents present, despite the fact that the interrogation techniques used would not pass muster in the United States. Is it any surprise that these same people, when working abroad, preside over an environment where torture and abuse are systemic? It seems like a small step to me.

If we want to deal with the problems at Abu Ghraib, we need to confront the fact that these abuses weren’t an anomoly, they were all but inevitable. Giving the government the benefit of the doubt on this when there’s a profession of surprise and outrage is a big mistake.

Update: It looks like no charges will be pressed against the contractors partially responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib.