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New Mexico’s Iraq Prison Connection
by Tilda Sosaya

The recent Iraqi debacle of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib sadly mirrors what has been happening in too many American prisons, here in New Mexico and across the country. The abuse of prisoners is nothing new in a country that is increasingly turning its prison system over to private, for–profit corporations and now records the highest rates of incarceration in the world.

New Mexico itself has a somewhat eerie (some would call it prescient) link to Abu Ghraib. Lane McCotter, the man who was put in charge of reopening that prison and helped establish the harsh and punishing conditions there, spent four scandal–marked years running New Mexico’s prisons from 1987 to 1991. Management & Training Corporation (MTC), the company McCotter works for, has been criticized by U.S. Justice Department investigators and in civil court actions for the violent, poorly staffed prisons that it still runs, including the Santa Fe County Jail where an inmate was beaten to death by other inmates earlier this month. Only two guards were on duty in that cell block at the time.

As director of business development for MTC, McCotter “sells” his company to various state and municipal authorities that contract for the private management and operation of correctional institutions. MTC operated 11 prisons in the U.S. and Canada including two in New Mexico — the Santa Fe and McKinley County corrections facilities — until last year when it lost the contract for McKinley County. The company now jails about 7,000 inmates, of which about 1,000 are in this state.

Lane McCotter has been ever–present during New Mexico legislative sessions and at interim hearings of the Corrections Oversight Committee. He also worked as a private consultant, monitoring New Mexico prisons, and advising the legislature and corrections department during the Gary Johnson administration.

McCotter is your basic “good old boy.” He’s a big man, over six feet tall, with a shock of thick white hair, watery blue eyes and a portly carriage. McCotter had a successful career in the military, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam where he reached the level of lieutenant colonel in the MP. By 1981 McCotter became commandant of the disciplinary barracks of the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas. In laymen’s terms, McCotter was the warden. After his retirement, he moved to Texas where he was director of prisons from 1985 to 1987.

Questionable past
In ’87, New Mexico’s then–Governor Garrey Carruthers named him Secretary of Corrections, a position he maintained until 1991, one year into Bruce King’s final term. When McCotter began running New Mexico’s prisons, they were operating under the federally–mandated Duran Consent Decree which was designed to improve conditions following the horrific prison riot at the state penitentiary in 1980. The consent decree was the result of class action lawsuits filed by cousins Dwight and Lonnie Duran, among other prisoners, to force the state to address the terrible conditions at the pen. After some 20 years of federal oversight, the decree was finally lifted in 2000, under then–Governor Gary Johnson’s watch.

By 1988, already chafing under the Duran decree’s federal supervision, McCotter was accused of covering up the abuse of a prisoner. Cuffed and shackled, the prisoner was allegedly beaten by guards and repeatedly slammed against a wall. Federal Court Special Master Vince Nathan requested the video tape of the incident as part of his ongoing supervision of the state’s prison under the Duran decree, but the section that contained the alleged beating had been erased. McCotter maintained that the erasure was an “accident” and that the federal prison monitor was “fabricating atrocities.” All of the action leading up to and following the event, however, was still on the tape.

Mark Donatelli, one of the attorneys in the landmark Duran case, has said that McCotter disdained oversight and felt that the prison conditions were “nobody’s business” — not even the federal court’s. This became clear when McCotter tried, unsuccessfully, to have the court vacate the Duran decisions. Donatelli characterized McCotter’s tenure as “oppressive and abusive.”

McCotter left New Mexico to become corrections director in Utah in 1992, where he stayed until his resignation in 1997. McCotter resigned amid a storm of controversy following the death of a prisoner there. Security tapes showed that Michael Valent, a 29–year–old schizophrenic, refused a direct order to remove a pillowcase he’d placed over his head to keep his “demons” at bay. A SWAT team forcibly extracted him from his cell and stripped him naked — his clothing cut off by guards — and strapped to a restraint chair for 16 hours. Graphic video tapes show guards tightening the leg restraints to the most restrictive degree. Three hours after he was removed from the chair, Valent collapsed and died in the shower from a pulmonary embolism.

At the time, McCotter’s spokesperson at the Utah Corrections Department stated that the prisoner had been seen banging his head on the wall of his cell. An autopsy by the medical investigator, however, did not find evidence to support that claim, stating instead that the death had been caused by prolonged restraint, resulting in a lethal blood clot that blocked an artery and caused the embolism. McCotter defended the use of the chair saying “we have to have some way to control unruly inmates.”

Private practice
McCotter left government work and hired on with MTC, a Salt Lake City–based private prison company, as director of business development. On McCotter’s watch, MTC has been at the center of several prison and jail problems in New Mexico for the past several years. In September of last year, MTC lost its contract with McKinley County Jail after a series of problems, including the escape of four prisoners. Inadequate staffing — cutting corners on the Fourth of July holiday weekend — was determined by state law enforcement officials to have been a primary factor in the escape.

MTC still runs the Santa Fe Correctional Facility where allegations of abuse and neglect have proliferated. On Jan. 13, 2002, a pre–trial arrestee was found hanging dead in his cell. Tyson Johnson was 27 years old, and had been in the jail for only a couple of weeks. His mother, Suzan Garcia, had been in close contact with her son. She was worried about him; he had suffered several recent losses, the holiday season was difficult, and he was deeply depressed.

According to papers filed in civil court and a lengthy Justice Department report, she phoned the jail repeatedly asking that he receive medication and see a doctor. Her pleas were ignored; Johnson never saw a doctor or a psychiatrist. MTC had no psychiatrist or psychologists on staff — or even on call, according to the lawsuit. One counselor was responsible for more than 600 prisoners and was unable to adequately meet prisoners’ needs. Attorneys for Johnson’s family, Jeff Haas and Mariel Nanasi, characterize counseling practices at the jail as inadequate, inhumane, and even abusive. Ten days after his arrest, Johnson slashed his wrists and his neck, and was subsequently put in the “rubber room.” The padding on one of the walls, however, had been torn off leaving nails, screws, and boards exposed.

Johnson was made to strip and was left naked in the cell with nothing but a blanket. According to the lawsuit, the day before Johnson’s suicide, a nurse requested that a visiting social worker see him.

They urged guards to closely monitor Johnson, but their requests were ignored. Johnson wrote a will — a virtual suicide note — the day before he died. The next day he asked a guard for water and threatened suicide, saying “This is it! I’m gonna do it!” Ten minutes later he was found hanging in his cell.

Court papers say the lieutenant on duty was called. His first response was immobility. “I just froze,” he stated in a recent deposition. Then he asked one of the guards to get a camera and he took pictures of Johnson hanging in his cell. Next, he notified his superior in the chain of command. Finally, someone suggested they cut Johnson down and apply CPR. By that time Johnson was dead, leaving behind two children and a family that loved him.

The defendants in the lawsuit were Santa Fe Co., MTC and PNA (Physician Network Associates), which is contracted by the county to provide medical care at the facility. “MTC, PNA and the county of Santa Fe have been deliberately indifferent to medical and mental health needs of prisoners at the Santa Fe jail because they are more interested in making money and filling beds than providing the most basic medical services,” said Nanasi.

On June 8, after almost ten hours of negotiations, Nanasi and Haas reached a settlement on behalf of Tyson Johnson’s family. Although the amount of the settlement is confidential, Hass said “this is the highest settlement for suicide that I’ve ever seen.” Hass says he believes that the decision of MTC and PNA to settle makes a significant statement — if not a direct admission — about the insufficient and poor staffing, as well as the abhorrent medical and mental health care at the Santa Fe County facility.

At this time, 40 percent of approximately 6,000 New Mexico prisoners are housed in private prisons, the highest rate in the nation. “The use of private, for–profit prisons is a step backward for the open and accountable government movement,” said Stephen Raher, co–director and senior policy analyst for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “Corporate prisons significantly reduce the tax payers’ ability to scrutinize the operations and fiscal management of the corrections system — a worrisome and frankly dangerous trend.”

More than that, critics charge that private prison companies have little interest in rehabilitation or programs that allow inmates to reduce their jail time. The companies make no money on empty cells. They also keep a very close watch on costs, commonly paying lower salaries and offering lesser benefits than government–run facilities, along with offering fewer services to inmates.

In July of 2003, following a Santa Fe County sheriff’s investigation, six defendants — one of them a guard at the facility — were charged with smuggling drugs into the MTC facility in Santa Fe. One month earlier, a guard had been put on leave after a female prisoner told police she’d been sexually assaulted on more than one occasion. A subsequent Justice Department investigation showed medical neglect, lack of mental health care, easy access to illicit drugs, filthy conditions, allegations of abuse, and lack of educational services at the Santa Fe institution.

In March of 2003, the Department of Justice released its findings on conditions at the MTC Santa Fe Correctional Facility, concluding that prisoners’ constitutional rights had been violated. As a result, the feds pulled out approximately 100 federal prisoners who were housed there.

On May 20, 2003 — less than three months after the Santa Fe findings were made public — Lane McCotter was appointed by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to go to Iraq as a member of ICITAP (International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program). He and three other corrections professionals (all with similarly questionable records, including a connection to the notorious Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia where dozens of New Mexico prisoners allege they were abused and tortured in 1999) were to assist in opening prisons and act as advisors in reconstructing Iraq’s criminal justice system. The Justice Department’s press release states that “the advisors will assist the DOD [Department of Defense], and ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] … providing logistical and other support to the DOJ–led international team in the effort to restore law and order in Iraq.” The press release further states that the “primary goals of the teams will be making initial assessments … providing recommendations regarding the reestablishment of criminal justice institutions, as well as participating in the development of a strategic, long–range, sustainable plan for policing, prosecutions, corrections and court systems.”

The press release provides a brief biography for McCotter, mentions that he is “a former cabinet secretary for the NM Corrections Department” but says nothing about his Texas and Utah experiences. “McCotter and [the other three corrections officials sent to Iraq] epitomize the revolving door politics of private prisons,” said Ken Kopczynski, executive director for the Private Corrections Institute based in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of the recently released Private Capitol Punishment. “Each is a former high–ranking corrections official who turns to private industry upon retiring and does consulting for the public systems. Hopefully, the Abu Ghraib scandal will expose this revolving door.”

The Justice Department has not explained how or why a man with McCotter’s past was chosen for duty in Iraq. Senator Charles Schumer (D–New York) is calling for an investigation into why the Justice Department would pick McCotter when its own investigators had been so critical of his prison management. McCotter has issued a statement denying that he had anything to do with training guards or with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

McCotter, was interviewed in January by, an online newsletter for the corrections industry, and spoke about his time in Iraq as a great adventure. The team he was on did assessments and wrote a plan for operating facilities, training personnel, and activating the prisons. The assessment was to be done in 30 days under direct instructions from Presidential Ambassador Envoy Paul Bremer who had just been placed in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Two of the team, McCotter and Terry Stewart, a former chief of police and director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, were assigned to restore Abu Ghraib. It was the largest and most intimidating of all Iraqi prisons, a “monstrous prison built in 1960 by the Germans,” according to Stewart. McCotter stated, however, that it was “truly closest to an American prison,” with long rows of cells in secure units, instead of dormitories that allow free movement, which characterized most Iraqi prisons. Abu Ghraib had long rows of isolation cells inside large housing units. It had been, after all, the worst prison in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

McCotter said of the experience, “It was an amazing thing — everything you have ever learned in your life came into play — you didn’t have a staff — you were it — you had to plan the reconstruction, get the funding for it, hire the crews, draw the money and oversee the crews … you literally had to tell them everything you wanted them to do.”

Stewart and a few other team members left by early July, leaving McCotter and Utah crony Gary DeLand, now also his partner in a prison consulting firm, in charge. In Utah, DeLand told writer Dan Frosch of The Nation magazine that they were paid $8,500 a month for the assignment initially with an increase to $12,000 toward the end of their four month tour.

DeLand and McCotter said they focused their final efforts on recruiting personnel. Training lasted three weeks. At the same time, McCotter and DeLand were fiscal managers of the prison system, handling purchasing in a rather unconventional way. There were no banks, and at one point, DeLand stated that they “had $3 million sitting in a locked metal box in the bathroom. I would fill the cargo pockets of my pants full of $100 bills and buy vehicles or whatever we needed.”

McCotter spoke of the progress they’d made in Iraq: “Gary [DeLand] and I opened Al Hillah in August.” In Mosul, one prison and several detention facilities were opened as well. “The last thing Gary and I did was to open two cell blocks [in] Abu Ghraib,” McCotter said. Although DeLand was leaving, McCotter remained and was joined by former Connecticut prison chief, John Armstrong, under whose supervision two prisoners had died at Wallens Ridge. Just before he left, DeLand proudly elaborated, “The day before I left, we went out and held ribbon cutting ceremony at Abu Ghraib, with the first 500 beds ready to open and another 500 getting ready that week. We were creating history.” CW

Tilda Sosaya, a prison reform advocate, established Committee on Prison Accountability (COPA NM) and was appointed in 2002 by the Richardson/Denish transition team to work on corrections issues. She can be reached at

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