In January Army Specialist Charles Graner Jr. was sentenced by a
military court in Fort Hood, Texas, to ten years behind bars. His
crimes: assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and committing indecent
Nearly a year after the infamous photographs of US military personnel
abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad
had come to light, the graphic allegations of sexual abuse, of guards
forcing inmates to masturbate, of naked prisoners stacked into pyramids,
of prisoners being hooded and draped with electric wires and of routine
beatings, the 36-year-old Graner was taking the rap, labeled by
prosecutors as the mastermind of the cell-block sadism.
Throughout his trial, the reservist had claimed he was only following
orders, that his superiors had demanded the prisoners be violently
"softened up" before being interrogated by military intelligence
personnel. In the end the jury, four officers and six high-ranking
enlisted men, all of whom had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, didn't buy
his argument. "I was only obeying orders" apparently didn't cut it as a
moral defense in 2005 any more than it did at the Nuremberg trials.
Whether Graner was actually following the orders of superiors--as
Seymour Hersh and others have convincingly argued, and as the
copiously documented book The Torture Papers suggests--is clearly
critical to understanding the larger context of Abu Ghraib. Wherever one
comes down on that question, though, there can be no doubt that Graner
is guilty of torture. And so there remains the troubling matter of
Graner himself: not just who he is--his biographical details are by now
well-known--but how he formed his values and beliefs, what sorts of
experiences shaped him. Where, in other words, did Charles Graner come
from? And, moreover, what does the small world from which he emerged
make of his newfound notoriety? In the answers to those
questions may be a few additional clues to the Abu Ghraib atrocities:
not only who is responsible, but what they show about American
society--where its moral compass on torture lies today.
In 2004, as the macabre images flowed out of Abu Ghraib, the little
coal-mining town of Waynesburg, in Appalachian southwestern
Pennsylvania's Greene County, was put in an unwelcome spotlight. For it
soon came out that Graner, in his civilian incarnation, was a
correctional officer at SCI Greene, a supermax prison that had opened in
the town a decade earlier.
Like Graner, who served for several years in the Marines in the 1980s
and early '90s, most guards at SCI Greene have served in the military,
hired by the department of corrections as part of a preferential hiring
process for veterans that has turned many prisons into virtual preserves
for retired military personnel. Over the past four years, dozens of SCI
Greene's staffers have been reactivated into National Guard and Army
Reserve units and sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. As of this past summer,
the prison administration estimated that of about 700 prison employees,
twenty-nine staff, twenty-six of whom were guards, were currently on
active duty. Another thirty-seven had been activated at some point since
2001 but had since returned to the prison.
It is, say some, a recipe for trouble both in Iraq and stateside.
According to some of Graner's colleagues, many correctional officers,
from small communities a long way from large, multicultural urban
centers, bring with them to America's Middle Eastern wars a dislike of
Muslims cultivated inside prisons like SCI Greene, where interactions
with confrontational black Muslim inmates are often the only contact
with Islam these officers have ever had. "We look at these inmates. Some
are drug dealers, murderers, pedophiles, rapists. Some became Muslim and
have special religious needs and beliefs," says one SCI Greene guard.
"We have a perspective that half are involved for something to do and
half are really believers. With the Muslims and the things we have to go
through to abide by their needs and wants, you have a sense of
annoyance--'I can't believe these guys here broke the law and are in
prison and we have to do all these things for them.'"
Prison guards also bring with them high stress levels and hair-trigger
tempers cultivated during years of working with maximum security inmates
in some of the nastiest environments imaginable. It's no surprise that
rates of divorce, alcoholism and depression are high among correctional
The town's tourism officer, Tara Kinsell, recalls that after her husband
(now ex-) went to work at SCI Greene he became "more angry. He would be
very quiet, really did not like being around people. He has some anger
issues--the guy that has the road rage kind of thing. It [working in the
prison] had a tendency to prejudice them [the guards]. They deal with
high populations of certain cultures--Muslims, blacks, Hispanics--and
when your environment is just those kind of people daily, it clouds your
judgment. So, when you meet people outside prison in your daily life, it
clouds your perceptions."
From the outside, SCI Greene appears to be a quiet place. Pilots who
take off from the small airstrip next door to the prison--the only
airport in the country to be located so close to a maximum security
correctional institute--could be forgiven for thinking they were flying
over a prefab industrial warehouse, albeit one with a lot of razor wire
atop its fences. Visitors staying at the Comfort Inn, Waynesburg's
premium hotel, generally wouldn't know that behind the screen of trees
viewed from the lobby is one of the largest supermax prisons in the
country. Wal-Mart, planning to open a superstore on land adjacent to the
prison in fall 2007, is clearly assuming its shoppers won't be put off
by the store's proximity to a prison housing thousands of convicts,
including Mumia Abu-Jamal and more than 120 others on death row.
After initial concern from locals in the early 1990s, when the prison
plan was floated, that the facility would endanger Waynesburg, interest
quickly subsided once it became clear that prisoners weren't going to be
routinely escaping into the nearby streets. (So far, none have.) Many
locals apparently aren't even aware of its existence--a somewhat
surprising fact given that the prison, located in Orwellian fashion on
Progress Drive, is by far the largest institution in this town of fewer
than 5,000 nonincarcerated people. The prison, says Kinsell, is largely
invisible. "After you've driven by it so many times, you don't even give
it another thought. It's just another business."
In 1998 a messy prisoner abuse scandal erupted at SCI Greene, with
dozens of lawsuits filed by inmates alleging routine beatings by guards
within the Restrictive Housing Unit in the years following the prison's
opening--a form of hazing for men newly admitted. The town, like so many
similar communities faced with prisoner abuse scandals during the 1980s
and '90s, greeted the allegations with stony silence. Waynesburg
College, a (recently turned) fundamentalist Christian campus, hosted no
teach-ins, and the community held no public forums, even after several
guards were dismissed and the prison administration was overhauled. "I
do not remember people talking about it, no," says County Commissioner
Pamela Snyder. "The concerns here are the concerns that truly affect
people's daily lives: It's jobs, it's healthcare, it's quality of life."
So invisible are prisoners that there seemed to be nothing extraordinary
about the tales of violence for violence's sake emanating from SCI
Waynesburg isn't a right-wing bastion; it is a Democratic town, albeit
small-c conservative, part of the hardscrabble coal belt of southwestern
Pennsylvania that, in times past, played host to radical unions and
rabble-rousing class warriors. Today, however, it is resolutely
apolitical--its people more concerned with the annual fair, the annual
bet between the mayor and one or another town celebrity as to whether it
would rain on Rain Day, and the myriad local beauty pageants, than with
prison employees making international names for themselves as vicious
bit-players in an increasingly dirty war.
There was nothing particularly unusual about Graner. He was from the
nearby community of Uniontown--a small, Main Street town founded in a
flourish of independence on July 4, 1776, and today well past
its glory days, its sole claim to fame being that George Marshall,
military hero and architect of the post-World War II reconstruction
of Western Europe, grew up there. After his stint with the Marines,
Graner had gotten a job as a guard at SCI Greene shortly after it
opened, a job to which he would commute forty minutes from Uniontown
Although after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke several inmates and fellow
officers declared that Graner was a casually brutal, hotheaded man who
enjoyed hurting his charges, during his time at the prison he wasn't
flagged by his superiors as being abnormally violent. When the
prison-violence scandal erupted in 1998, Graner was not one of those
disciplined. When, subsequently, he was almost fired, it was for
disobeying an order to work overtime during a period when he was
separating from his wife and needed to see his children during the hours
he was being ordered to work. "He wasn't really a violent person, not in
the prison, not what I saw," recalled his ex-colleague and union rep
James Sergeant, a retired correctional officer and current post
commander of the local VFW.
Outside his professional life, however, there were warning signs that
Graner was capable of vicious acts. His ex-wife accused him of beating
her, stalking her and threatening her with a gun, and she obtained at
least three legal orders of protection against him.
But this didn't stand in the way of his being called back to duty and
sent off to war. Soon Graner was guarding prisoners again, but this time
the prisoners were supposed insurgents and fanatical Muslim terrorists.
And the prison, a million miles from home, was a onetime torture center
now taken over by the American military and subject to none of the
routine oversight processes of US prisons (which, as the SCI Greene
scandal showed, aren't always stringent enough to prevent abuses of
After the Abu Ghraib story broke, as the court-martialing, trials
and convictions of Graner progressed, Waynesburg's notoriety,
its association-in-shame with the torture scandal by national media
outlets, grew. Yet, within Waynesburg itself the scandal remained
largely undiscussed, barely on the periphery of consciousness.
Retired correctional officer Sergeant, a Democrat, says his friends,
most of them veterans, never brought up Abu Ghraib. "They've been
through a hell of a lot worse than what these inmates did. I haven't
heard any of them talk about it. I think they--Graner and his
compadres--went a little crazy. But I wouldn't doubt they were put up to
it either, by whoever those interrogating forces were that wanted them
broke down. Personally, I'm not in favor of the war, but I'll do
anything I can to support the troops over there. I don't want to see a
repetition of Vietnam, where the politicians ran the war and the
soldiers took all the heat." As he talked more about Abu Ghraib,
however, Sergeant did gradually begin to get angry, though largely for
utilitarian reasons, lamenting torture as a strategic blunder rather
than a violation of human rights. "People think Graner and his crew did
something stupid. But they're thinking, 'What did it hurt?' They're not
looking at the long-term implications. There isn't an awareness here of
the damage the photos are doing. If someone came through Main Street
here and took our politicians and leaders and did things to them, it'd
anger people and people'd stand up and fight."
Similar concerns were expressed by Todd Moore, a National Guardsman from
the area who headed another prison camp in Iraq, and who visited Abu
Ghraib many times. It was, he recalled, a horrible place, "not
just for detainees but for the people who work there. You had US
soldiers living in cells, they were being mortared every day, had
trouble getting food and water in. The morale was terrible." Moore, a
compact man with a buzz cut, grasped the impact of Abu Ghraib on world
opinion, and he couldn't understand why his neighbors back home didn't
care more about it.
"Here, nobody really talks about it, about Graner being from SCI Greene.
I don't know why. Maybe nobody reads the paper. Over there [in Iraq], it
definitely hurt the operations because you're trying to overcome what
those idiots did. But here in Greene County, people aren't tied to the
war like they should be," Moore stated. "If you asked ten people what
Abu Ghraib was, half wouldn't know. Their attitude maybe is, 'Hey, we're
in war and anything goes. We don't care what happens.' [But] the Muslim
population of the world can always see those pictures. That's
long-term damage. It might take one hundred years, three to four
generations, to get that out of their head. I don't know if you ever
rectify something like that."
The local sheriff, Richard Ketchem, a kindly man with little patience
for abuse of power, was also troubled. "Why would you do something like
that?" Ketchem asks bemusedly of the Abu Ghraib rituals. "And then
photograph it? It's like those kids who went and killed people and then
took pictures of it. It's almost like they're asking to be caught or
they're bragging about what they did. It makes me angry. There was a
cover-up. It's happened at our jail. It happens in all jails. Officers
will cover up for one another."
Most residents, though, didn't seem to feel even pragmatic regret. "It's
Greene County," said one of Kinsell's colleagues in the tourism office.
"What do we care what they do to I-raqi people?"
"The war in Iraq is not an issue," explained 31-year-old Brian Dunaway,
working the cash register at the pro golf shop at the local country
club. "Obviously there's mistreatment, but maybe the photos are also
taken out of context too. You can read into it whatever you want. Maybe
it's them celebrating a victory that they captured some of the Al Qaeda.
But I don't get into it much. I can't really say that I've seen 'em [the
Abu Ghraib photos] in detail. Just something I've seen on TV. They just
kind of flash by--that's about it."
"I'd say the major phrase was 'it was blown out of proportion,'" says a
31-year-old SCI Greene guard who asked that his name not be used,
speaking late one night at a local bar. "Basically, all that was done
was a couple degrading photos and a little bit of mistreating. They're
cutting people's heads off on TV, we're taking pictures of people nude
with our thumbs up.... I work in the Restrictive Housing Unit, the hole.
These guys throw piss, shit on trays, put sperm in cups. That's a health
hazard. But it's not OK to take a photo of a prisoner nude and strapped
up? There are worse things going on in the system. The whole war and
Graner issue isn't even in our minds anymore."
There was, says Lucy Northrop, co-owner and general manager of one
of two local papers, the Observer, "more of a protest about the
fact we published some of the pictures on the front page than about the
In Waynesburg, more than a year after the revelations of torture at
Abu Ghraib, there seemed to be a sense of resignation--an acceptance
that, in the post-9/11 world, torture (at least of the "lite" variety)
would indeed be commonplace and the best approach would be to turn a
blind eye, to banish it from the public domain and get on with the
business of daily living.
The story of Waynesburg's relationship to Abu Ghraib isn't just about
the chance overlap represented in the person of Charles Graner.
It's about how ordinary guards--whether at a domestic prison like SCI
Greene or a detention center in an overseas war zone--can, as
was demonstrated by psychology experiments in the 1960s and '70s, all
too easily slide into coarse, violent, even deadly behavior when others
are under their absolute control. And it is about the prevalence of
a mindset characterized by fear, in which morality takes a back seat to
the perceived demands of national security.
"How shocked do you expect us to be, when every day we're subjected to
atrocities of every sort: beheadings, hangings in public?" asks Rudy
Marisa. Rudy and his wife, Jackie, had hit the local headlines in
September 2001, when reporters found out that one of the couple's sons
was in the World Trade Center and another in the Pentagon on
September 11, and that both survived the terror attacks. Four
years on, the couple are still grappling with the enormity of the
changes wrought since then. "We're getting used to reading about it
[atrocities]. I'm almost getting cynical. But if you're put in a
volatile atmosphere, a dangerous atmosphere, I bet we don't even begin
to understand the changes that are taking place in our military. You
don't remember there's good in the world. Living in this
atmosphere day in and day out, anything can happen to your mind."
In war, people do--and accept--things that would be
unthinkable in peacetime. In the post-9/11 world, where
the terrain of war and the location of the enemy are everywhere and
nowhere, the mental transformation Rudy Marisa describes seems to be
occurring not just among the military but throughout the population
at large. Waynesburg wasn't angry about Abu Ghraib, or, for that matter,
about the SCI Greene abuse from the 1990s, because Waynesburg was at
war: at war against domestic criminals in the 1990s, at war against dark
and shadowy foreign enemies today.