AL-HILLAH, Iraq -- The group entered the prison with authority. Many had been in a building like this before - not as prisoners but as corrections or police officers. Still this prison looked and felt much different from what they were used to.
The members of the 310th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from New York City, were there to assess the prison in Al-Hillah. They, along with military police companies from West Virginia and Puerto Rico, are working to re-establish a "criminal internment facility" in southern Iraq and to train prison officials. They are all assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's area of operation.
Considering the brutal nature of the prison system prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, they realize what a difficult task they face.
"Before the war you would always hear about how people were treated in the prisons here -- how they were tortured," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Woodcock. "What I see here is an extremely sub-standard facility."
Woodcock has experience in running a prison. For the last 10 years, as a lieutenant in the Connecticut's Department of Corrections, he was responsible for training correction officers. He says changing attitudes and changing the way things were done has to be a "lynchpin" of training the Iraqis.
"I've opened two new [prison] facilities in Connecticut," Woodcock said. "You have to begin with an understanding that fair and equitable treatment of inmates is
an essential part of any corrections training program."
Another essential consideration when operating a detention facility is "officer safety", according to Army Sgt. 1st Class Shane Liden, a 310th MP Battalion operations sergeant.
"We are here to show the Iraqi correction officers how to create a safe environment for them and for the prisoners they guard," Liden said. "With a safe environment you don't have to use the threat of brutality to keep people in line. They need to know that when dealing with inmates you can sometimes catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar."
The prison in Al-Hillah is located in the middle of the city. The whitewashed interior walls have murals and Arabic sayings painted on them. On one of the murals a splash of black paint exists where once the painted likeness of Saddam Hussein looked over the shoulder of guards and prisoners alike.
Bunk beds without mattresses are crowded into the prison's cells. Each room holds about twenty beds in a space as big as many American bedrooms. Newspaper clippings of automobile advertisements are pasted to the walls. That and left over fabric that covers some of the beds are the only indication that at one time someone occupied these filthy rooms.
The facility holds no inmates now. According to the Deputy Warden, Ali Ahim, all the prisoners were released right after combat operations began. He said the released inmates were incarcerated for various reasons, to include assault, theft, robbery and rape.
Ahim showed little emotion when speaking through an interpreter and only answered questions he was asked. A number of individuals described as "former guards" shadowed him and the MP assessment team throughout the tour. It was unclear why so many people were still in an empty prison. That question was never asked.
Army Cpl. Michael Capriola, an MP with the 310th and a Suffolk County, N.Y., police officer, said he hopes Iraqi prison guards could learn a more professional way of dealing with prisoners.
"Ideally we will be able to train guards and bring Iraqi prison standards up to the point where guards can be both humane and effective," Capriola said.
Army Capt. Robert Woodson, a platoon leader for the 157th Military Police Co. of the West Virginia Army National Guard, echoed that sentiment. "We have an opportunity to create a new environment. . .create a new attitude towards corrections and how Iraqi prisoners are treated across this country," Woodson said.
The MPs walked through the prison with solemnity. Woodcock and others were rapidly scribbling notes as they continued. They came to a room that was lit by a high,
iron-barred window. The sunlight illuminated a wall etching and various Arabic writings.
"This is where the prisoners were interrogated," Michel Al Mane spoke out loud in the room that was now starting to fill with people. A Kuwaiti volunteer translator, Al Mane was translating what the Iraqi prison officials had told him.
Those words were said again and again as other people entered. The word interrogated was soon replaced with "tortured."
Liden, a narcotics detective for the New York City Police Department, walked out of the room with his eyes looking down.
"We need to come in here and set up a system where everybody gets a fair shake," Liden said with determination. "It would be better for society here as a whole."
When asked how their presence in Iraq would effect the Iraqi people Woodcock became focused.
"The Iraqi people are not used to having a prison that is meant for convicted criminals," Woodcock said. "They are not use to a prison being a place where convicted criminals can serve their time for the crime they committed and then return to society, hopefully a better person."
The team finished the assessment and prepared to leave. They walked through the prison entrance doorway. Like everywhere else in Iraq where troops stop, Iraqis gathered around the military vehicles. Looking at the crowd Woodcock became resolute.
"I know what it takes to train correction officers from start to finish," Woodcock said. "This is going to take a little time. I know it will take longer than we are scheduled to be here. But I hope we can plant a seed that will grow into a strong tree eventually."