The spotlight on abuse of detainees at a U.S. military prison in Iraq has spurred hopes that some attention will spill over to prisons stateside, where reformers say get-tough policies and public indifference have let longstanding problems fester.
There have been numerous examples over the years of guards misusing their authority over inmates. In the 1990s, Alabama officers used to routinely handcuff state prisoners to a metal post in the sun. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. In Massachusetts, a jailor in 1993 poured boiling water on a child killer's genitals. There have been convictions for rape and assault, and allegations of worse.
Prison administrators say there have been sweeping improvements in recent decades, with widespread acceptance that abusive behavior is unacceptable and that proper procedures can minimize it.
Advocates for reform and former inmates, however, say a culture of violence persists and is made worse because of tacit acceptance by administrators, politicians and the public.
States' mandatory sentencing laws have helped drive the stunning rise in prison and jail populations in the past two decades -- now at 2.1 million, a number that's nearly quadrupled since 1980.
A 1996 federal law that aimed to cut back so-called frivolous inmate lawsuits has also restricted access to legitimate claims of misconduct and poor prison conditions, advocates say.
"The system is out of control," said Elizabeth Alexander, who oversees the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "In this sense, it's like Iraq. The more overcrowded you are, the more your budget doesn't match your needs, the more likely abuse is."
The pressures on prisons are also well-documented. Turnover among corrections officers averaged 15 percent in 2002, and in several states was over 30 percent, the American Correctional Assn. reports.
States and local governments have been slow to increase funding as the population behind bars rises -- staff rose 24 percent from 1995 to 2000, while inmates in prisons, jails, boot camps and other facilities rose 28 percent, the ACA reported.
But prison administrators maintain that, despite the obstacles, significant improvements have been made.
"Look, there's abuses in school systems, there's abuses in the Catholic church," said James Gondles, executive director of the American Correctional Assn. "In the past 20 years, there's been a sea change in American corrections."
Prison officials recognize the potential for problems, he said. "You have almost absolute power over other individuals, and that is a system that could easily breed abuse."
The key steps are proper training, strong communications, opening prisons to scrutiny, full funding of programs, and making sure those that break rules are punished.
His group, along with a dozen more that represent prison and jail guards, teachers and administrators, issued a statement Friday calling the abuses in Iraq abhorrent and in no way reflective of practices in U.S. prisons and jails.
The impetus for the statement came from news that two soldiers charged in the Iraq prison scandal were guards in civilian life.
"If anybody is a professional corrections officer, and they're guilty of that abuse, they're not much of a professional," Gondles said.
"I am not proud of the fact that two or three of them worked full-time in corrections in the United States."