Iraq's Prisons Strained as Security Improves

The prison system in Iraq is overstretched. The U.S. troop surge and more aggressive roles for Iraqi security forces have put pressure on the country's prisons and detention facilities. There are reports of even more serious problems within the system — including allegations of abuse.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's one side effect of improved security in Baghdad: Iraq's prisons are overcrowded. The U.S. is helping to pay for at least three new facilities, but overcrowding is only one of the problems. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of sirens)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every time the gate to the Rasafa Prison in Baghdad opens and a bus comes out, Salima Mohammed Solman(ph) cranes her neck excitedly. She's been told her son will be released today.

Ms. SALIMA MOHAMMED SOLMAN: (Through Translator) I feel crazy. I keep wondering what he felt, what he said when they told him he was going to be released. Was he crying, laughing? It's been eight months since they took him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The hours pass in the dust and heat. Salima sits in a cluster of four other relatives, swathed in torn in black veils. Time drags and her sister begins to wail.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is innocent, she cries over and over. Salima says police beat her son during those first days of detention at the police station near her home. They wanted to extract a confession from him, she says. She tried everything to get him released, even bribing a corrupt cop.

Ms. SOLMAN: (Through translator) Every side wanted something from us. We paid one policeman. He promised to release him, so we paid $2,600. Then we started to call him, and he switched off his phone, and we called and called. Then he disappeared.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her story is far from uncommon. There are two separate prison systems in Iraq today. The American military holds around 20,000 people. The Iraqis, as of December, have around 26,000 people in their Iraqi-run facilities. In 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal rocked the U.S. The year later, though, Iraq's own prison system came under scrutiny when secret detention facilities run by the Ministry of Interior were discovered. Now a United Nations human rights report says that the Iraqi system is still riven with abuse.

Ms. MARIA SOLIAPASO(ph) (Human rights officers for the United Nations): There is progress. I can't say it's dramatic. I mean, there - we're still a long way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Soliapaso is a human rights officer for the United Nation's mission in Iraq. She says she's visited prisons and detention facilities and spoken to those being held.

Ms. SOLIAPASO: Almost all of them with whom I talked have been subjected to abuse, ill treatment, torture, depending on the degree - mostly due to the interrogation of detaining authorities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That means the police and the Iraqi Army. These abuses, she says, happens in large part because to get a conviction in Iraq, you need a confession.

Ms. SOLIAPASO: They still rely almost 100 percent on having a confession. And how do we achieve a confession? By applying pressure or force of some kind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are even more serious allegations, sources say - that at the Rasafa Prison, for example, Sunni prisoners have regularly disappeared.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

General Juma Hussein sits at his desk while the call to prayer echoes through the Rasafa compound. He runs the prison system in Iraq and is based here. He denies the charges of prisoner abuse.

General JUMA HUSSEIN (Director, Iraqi Prison System): (Through translator) After the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi prison system changed. It's different now than it was under Saddam Hussein. The food, the shelter we give them is different than before. We now apply human rights inside the prisons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is no doubt that there's more oversight than there was before. William Gallo is the American director of the Law and Order task force, which has its headquarters just next door to the Rasafa Prison. He says that the Iraqi prison system is still facing a number of challenges.

Mr. WILLIAM GALLO (American Director, Law and Order Task Force): It's a combination of many, many factors: work ethic, lack of automation to track prisoners through the system, influences that are outside pressures that are brought to bare as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says many people stay in detention for longer than they should.

Mr. GALLO: We have had prisoners over there at the Rasafa Prison for four years, without having seen a judge and without having any charges lodged against them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR was allowed to speak with two detainees. Both said that they had yet to see a lawyer or a judge after months behind bars. The law and order task force is in the process of putting in a kind of on-site legal aid office at Rasafa. It will help process the detainees at this facility, but there are dozens of prisons all over Iraq with the same problems, and the backlog is about to get worse. Iraq's parliament passed an amnesty law that will potentially release thousands of prisoners, but each case will have to be reviewed by a panel of judges.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back outside the prison, a policeman reads off the names of those about to be released. He finishes without naming Salima Mohammed Solman's son.

Ms. SOLMAN: He's not on the list, she cries. There's no one to ask what has happened to him - when, or even if he'll be let go.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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Anbar's Turnaround Surprises U.S. General

Five years into the war in Iraq, there are names that conjure up some of the darkest images of the fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, Fallujah.

These places in the western province of al-Anbar have seen some of the fiercest fighting and atrocities: In Fallujah, four civilian contractors were burned and mutilated. In Haditha, 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. Marines.

Al-Anbar province — a cradle of the Sunni insurgency — looked all but lost just a year ago. Since then, it's made a turnaround that has surprised even those who fought there. Among them is Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly.

He was at the battle of Fallujah back in 2004 — the first one, that is — and both his sons fought in the second battle just a few months later.

Kelly returned last month to command all forces in western Iraq and stepped into a world much changed.

"If you were to move into Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditha, al-Qaim — the whole river valley — you would see thriving commerce," Kelly tells Renee Montagne from Camp Fallujah.

Kelly says he witnessed the after-school rush while driving toward Ramadi recently and it was "just exactly like any kind of large city school with students ... going home with their bags and all that kind of thing."

But Kelly, who is on his third tour in Iraq, cautions that the province is still a dangerous place.

"There are still remnants of al-Qaida looking for the opportunity to either hurt us or the police or the sheiks or the mayors," he says. "Those are really the people, frankly, they're targeting now because the real threat to their existence is the police. And we've got about 24,000 police in the Anbar province who are taking the majority of the casualties here."

Help from Residents

To counteract the violence, residents of the province have joined groups referred to as Awakening Councils, Concerned Local Citizens groups and the Sons of Iraq.

"The Awakening movement is not a bunch of armed guys. They are the leadership within the province, particularly in the Ramadi-Fallujah area, and they're developing — and this is a good thing — into a political party," Kelly explains. "The other organizations you talk about — Sons of Iraq, Concerned Local Citizens, those kinds of things — in some cases, in fact, they are being paid. And the idea is they're augmenting the police effort."

Many of those residents will likely shift into other jobs as work becomes more plentiful, Kelly says.

"As an example, I talk to police officers through interpreters a lot. Did they grow up as little boys wanting to be police officers in Fallujah? A lot of them will tell you they'd rather be a graphic artist, or, you know, an electrician or go to college to become an engineer. Right now, that's not possible for them, but what is possible for them is a job as a police officer," he says.

Women, too, are becoming part of the security effort.

"In the Fallujah area, they did come to us about the issue of female suicide bombers because the police felt as though our female Marines, even though they were females patting down females, that they weren't doing it aggressively enough," he says. "What we did was we started a small six-day training program. They don't carry firearms, but we give them some basic pistol training. We're hoping, once the men get used to that — the male police — that we can move on and perhaps get into a ladies' auxiliary or something within the police department and then full membership sometime down the road."

The military is reaching out to women in other ways as well, Kelly says. "We have women's initiatives and work with women leadership. We have a really nice women's center in downtown Ramadi where women go in for vocational training. ...

"There's a lot of things you can do over here that you can hire local folks, and I'll give you one example. As we looked at the problems of overcrowding and just funding in some of the jails, we found a way to put some people to work and to make the conditions in the jails better by hiring local women in Fallujah to cook a couple of meals a day. Laundry services — again, find some women that need to make money and hire them to do that. And there's not a lot of resistance by the male population about it," he says.

Hope for the Future

Kelly says the Marines are looking forward to a time when they can withdraw.

"That means the job is done, you know, the Iraqi government can stand up on its own two feet, training wheels off. That means the people out here in al-Anbar province that most of us have gotten fairly fond of have some hope for the future," he says. "As far as withdrawal goes, I mean, you know, to me it's event-based. My recommendation would be that we take a look-see at what happens for a few months after the surge is off and if it holds, then we can start withdrawing."

Kelly points to a recent trip to Haditha as a moment that defines for him how the war is going:

"I was walking around with a delegation the other day; we were up in Haditha. Haditha was an ugly, ugly, ugly city less than a year ago. We landed in a landing zone in the Osprey airplane. That landing zone is a soccer field," he says. "Less than a year ago, the al-Qaida marched out 12 police officers, had all of their families and the local leadership, sheiks and whatnot, in the stands, and then they cut each one of their heads off one by one. Today, we walked through Haditha without any helmet, without any flak jacket on. That kind of thing is startling — the lack of violence and the normalcy that I've seen."

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