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Gary Younge
Brutality: the home truths

Rarely has a truer word been spoken. And rarely has there been a more appropriate person than McCotter to utter them. He was head of Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 when Michael Valent, a prisoner diagnosed with schizophrenia died after he was strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said the first word that came to mind when she saw the chair was "torture". McCotter resigned as the scandal gathered pace, went into the lucrative world of private prison management and last year directed the reopening of Abu Ghraib.

McCotter did not respond to a call from the Guardian but in a statement to the New York Times on Friday said: "I was not involved in any aspect of the facility's operation after [a ribbon-cutting ceremony in September]."

The Bush administration's response to the daily shots of vicious inhumanity emerging from Abu Ghraib is to lambast them as an aberration. But McCotter's professional journey alone tells us that the trouble with Abu Ghraib was that it was all too consistent with America's models of incarceration.

The story of overcrowded prisons, administered by private, unaccountable contractors is the story of the American penal system. Over the past 25 years the number of inmates has quadrupled and more than 40 states have been put under some form of court order for the mistreatment of prisoners.

The parallels do not stop there. At the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix, men are forced to wear pink knickers as a form of punishment. In Pennsylvania and other states, prisoners are stripped naked in front of other inmates before being moved to a new prison or a new unit.

With each Orwellian statement about the need to defend western civilisation and each denunciation of "un-American" activities, it is vital to point out that they are anything but aberrant.

Americans are as disgusted by the evidence as everybody else. But they are pretty much alone in their shock that such things could happen under their flag. To the rest of the world, everything from detentions in Guantánamo Bay to the disregard for the UN points to a leadership at the White House which regards international law and human rights as at best an encumbrance and at worst an irrelevance.

The most stark contradiction to have emerged from this episode is that many Americans see their country as a harbinger of democracy and freedom which made a mistake, and the rest of the world sees it as a bully reverting to type.

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