CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Army has five military police units that specialize in detention camp liaison, but very few know what that even means outside of those units.
Their purpose is to prevent one of the most horrific prison incidents in U.S. Army history from happening again: Abu Ghraib, in which Iraqi prisoners were tortured, abused and photographed in humiliating fashion. The ghastly images from inside that prison made their way around the world in 2004. Shortly after, these liaison detachments were created to assess military prisons worldwide, partnering host nations with U.S. forces. And yet, in more than a decade since their inception, not many people know that these liaison detachments exist or understand exactly what they do.
“We don’t validate (prisons). We don’t inspect. We assess,” said Master Sgt. Glenn Glasgow, a senior advisor for the 418th Military Police Detachment, headquartered in Orlando, Florida.
Their assessment includes reviewing everything from a facility’s security protocols to looking at the medical care provided to inmates, food quality and hygiene standards. In a deployed environment, they assess overseas prisons run and operated by the host nation. Then they brief their findings to the battle-space commander – usually a U.S. military commanding general at a division or corps level – with recommendations and actions on how to improve detention camps under their watch. In short, they ensure those centers comply with Geneva Convention standards.
“If (military detention camps) are not being run properly, then you open the door for abuse. Especially when you’re looking at non-U.S. facilities,” said Daniel Michael, who is a training officer for military prison staff at the U.S. Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
Throughout the months of February and March, five liaison detachments have been coming to the U.S. Naval Brig Charleston to see “what right looks like,” and use it to develop their own assessment process in case of an overseas deployment.
“Is there a clean cell? Clean environment? Is it free of violence? Are medical aid and adequate food being provided? Religious services. Religious accommodations. Those are kind of the big picture (items) of what they’re looking at,” said Michael.
It’s important to note that the U.S. Naval Brig Charleston is accredited by the American Corrections Association and it’s 100 percent compliant with every required standard. The liaison Soldiers are not expected to somehow uncover defaults or flaws here. Rather, this experience shows them a picture of how a military prison ought to run. In the past, they completed similar tours of state prisons in Wisconsin and other parts of the country. With each visit, their depth of knowledge on prison standards increases to perform their official mission.
All five detachments belong to the U.S. Army Reserve, under the 200th Military Police Command. They’re the only units in existence with this function across the Army. Their aim is to help improve prison conditions overseas, not merely report infractions.
“Just to give an example, if we go to a facility and they don’t have adequate water supply … we could go back to that battle space commander and advise him to send an engineer team to dig a well,” said Master Sgt. Carl Orvis, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 418th MP Det.
Because of their advisory role to high-ranking officials, these small detachments are filled with rank and experience. Each detachment is only 12-Soldiers strong, but it’s commanded by a lieutenant colonel and staffed with three master sergeants. Because they are Army Reserve units, many of its Soldiers bring law enforcement and corrections facility knowledge into their military mission from their civilian careers.
Training at the Naval brig gives them an even better sense of how a military prison is run properly. They will then use this knowledge to develop a standardized Army assessment program for overseas missions.
“In itself, it’s pretty cool knowing that we’re shaping what right is going to look like and making history (for our career field),” said Glasgow.
Currently, there is no Army doctrine published on the detention camp liaison mission. Those documents will be developed and written as a result of these teams’ collective work and training.
Each of the five training cycles at the Naval Brig lasts approximately one week. The process begins with an initial briefing and a tour of the facilities. Then, the detachment breaks up into teams to assess specific aspects of the brig’s security and the prisoners’ living conditions. During that process, the liaison Soldiers interview staff and make notes on everything they see. They finish with a back brief to the prison’s leadership with their assessment.
“We want to be that good test platform to give them that experience. (If they deploy), they’re doing this for real somewhere, so we want to make sure they have the training they need,” said Michael.
During future training events, these units hope to assess detention centers overseas. While visiting military and civilian prisons in the United States provides a helpful base, they want to elevate their training by assessing facilities in partnering nations.
“We have military bases in Honduras, Korea, throughout Afghanistan. (To improve our training) we need to go somewhere that is not run by U.S. forces, and not with the high tech, state-of-the-art facilities that the United States has,” said Orvis.
That will make their assessment process more realistic and help improve U.S. relations with partnering nations throughout the world, said Orvis. And perhaps, a few more people will learn what a detention camp liaison detachment is, along the way.