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The Nation

Unveiling the Face of the Prison Scandal

Chuck Graner, accused of leading the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, was a polite boy. Only in adulthood did troubling signs appear.

June 19, 2004|Paul Lieberman and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

"I don't buy this whole war stress bull, because we were under a lot of stress and we didn't do any stuff like that," Guidotti says of the recent events in Iraq. "The claim even by his fellow soldiers of lack of training -- that dog don't hunt. [And] we had a lot of [civilian] prison guards the first time. I didn't see them doing that to prisoners."

He knows that many people are changed by combat, and sometimes you can't see changes in the other guy "when you're changing at the same time." But Graner?

In Desert Storm, the first President Bush ordered a cease-fire by the end of February 1991, and "Chuck, me and a whole bunch of guys," Guidotti recalls, "we came home May 15."

He'll never forget that moment.

"Before Chuck Graner ever became known as this sadistic criminal, I'm going to tell you what I saw -- the last image of Chuck Graner burned into my mind: I guess he's 22, his eyes red with tears, crying, holding his little girl with his wife beside him.

"That's the last memory I got of Chuck Graner ... the happiest moment, I would imagine, of his life."

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Witness to a Scandal

By July 1991, Graner was back at the Fayette County Prison, where the warden today, Larry Medlock, recalls him as "an average corrections officer" whose only problems had to do with lateness and the like. But John Stossel, a now retired senior officer, sensed an "attitude" in the MP out of the Marines who drew the afternoon shift, after the bosses went home and where the guards stuck together. Perhaps that's why the warden says he was not told when Graner messed with a new colleague by spiking his coffee with Mace.

The Graners had a second child, a son, in 1993, and two years later bought a larger home in Uniontown for $39,000. The next year, 1996, Chuck got a new job, at the state's new maximum-security prison in neighboring Greene County. The pay was $9.79 an hour to start at the State Correctional Institution Greene.

It was built for 1,500 of Pennsylvania's hardest-core prisoners, including about 110 on death row, and had the perks of modern corrections, such as central air conditioning and cable TV. But it was not immune from the age-old tensions of such institutions. While almost 70% of the inmates were black, many from big cities, SCI-Greene was in a rural part of the state near the West Virginia border, and more than 90% of the guards were white.

Diane DeMarco, a local representative of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Assn. who went through the training academy with Graner, said he had what it took to work in a maximum-security institution.

"I'm always leery about people who never talk about their families. He talked about his children a lot," she said. "He didn't stand out as being the wrong person for the job.... Inmates test. They can chew you up verbally. It takes a unique person to not take it personally."

Graner arrived in time to witness a scandal at SCI-Greene, when a series of inmates complained that guards were using unnecessary force, making racial slurs and goading them by, for example, spitting tobacco juice into their food. Getting a jury to believe such allegations from inmates might have been difficult, but there was some independent evidence -- thanks to a wall video camera that monitored all transfers of inmates into "the hole," as the restrictive housing unit was known.

The county's district attorney at the time, David Pollack, examined videotapes that he said showed prisoners being ordered to stand on a mat, strip naked and change into the minimal garb worn in the hole. Some would hesitate, or lose their balance, and "be shoved up against the wall," he recalled. He concluded that "it was a rough process ... not a criminal process," but the state fired two lieutenants and two guards and suspended or reprimanded 21 others.

The newcomer Graner was not implicated in that affair. But he was sued twice during his tenure at SCI-Greene, first by an inmate who alleged that he and three other guards got him to eat potatoes with a razor blade inside, then by a prisoner who alleged that a group of guards made him stand on one foot while handcuffed and tripped him. However, that prisoner was found to have sued too late, and the other inmate completed his sentence and vanished. There never was a hearing on whether Chuck Graner was a guard who stepped over the line.

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A Traumatic Divorce

Staci Graner filed for divorce May 29, 1997, and obtained the first of three protective orders against the man she described as domineering and violent. Graner blamed her for the split and tried to block the divorce, which seemed to send him into a tailspin during the three years it took to become final.

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