The man who closed down Abu Ghraib Prison talks about conditions in Iraq

After a hitch in the Navy at the end of the Korean War, Don Bordenkircher, who lives in Maple Leaf Estates in Port Charlotte, Fla., went to work as a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. In the vernacular of the penal system, he was a “screw.”

A decade later he was still there, but, by then he had worked his way up in the hierarchy to assistant warden.

In 1967, Bordenkircher decided his country needed him in Vietnam, because the war in Southeast Asia was heating up. He didn’t reup in the military — he went to work as principal advisor to the Director of Corrections and the Director General of the National Police while working for the United States Department of State.

His job was to oversee 41 prisons in South Vietnam and turn them into model prisons with care and treatment of inmates that would rival prisons in the U.S. Bordenkircher spent five years doing his job and improving prison conditions for 80,000 civilian prisoners.

Almost four decades later in Iraq, he would be called on by the U.S. Department of Justice to play a similar role as senior advisor to the Iraqi director general of corrections. Bordenkircher was sent to the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad in March 2006 to shut it down.

In the intervening decades between Vietnam and Iraq, he became the warden at the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, W.Va.; warden at the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, Ky.; sheriff of Marshall County, W.Va.; and for 15 years, professor and chair of the criminal justice department at West Liberty State College in West Liberty, W.Va., until he went to Iraq.

Bordenkircher said in Vietnam, the U.S. got into nation-building. He was sent there to help the South Vietnamese government develop and maintain a humane prison system.

“We were doing a magnificent job with the prisoners and the rest of the war,” he explained. “It was slow-going, but we were making a hell of a lot of progress.”

The problem was the politicians and other people in Washington handcuffed our military’s activities. Soldiers on the ground and airmen fighting the air war were being directed by Washington politicians and the people in D.C., who had little or no knowledge of what was happening on a day-to-day basis on the ground in Vietnam.

“Politically our country was going to hell in a handbasket. We had totally lost the people of the U.S. We had no support for the war in this country, which hurt us. Then you had a draft army that contained a lot of people who didn’t want to be over there. We had stockades full of American troops who didn’t want to fight.

“We had an untidy military. By that I mean we had a lot of heavy drinking and heavy drugs in the military in Vietnam, which added to a bad situation. Then we had the politicians calling the shots from Washington,” Bordenkircher said.

“When the South Vietnamese saw what was happening with the war, they cut and ran,” he said. “Then the Communists took over the entire country. In Vietnam, our major enemies were the Russians and the Chinese.

Bordenkircher was reassigned to Washington in 1972, shortly after his 9-year-old son suffered a serious eye injury. A while later, he got out of the State Department job and went to work as the warden at the West Virginia State Penitentiary.

Years later, he retired from his college professorship when the second war in Iraq began, at the behest of President George W. Bush, on March 19, 2003.

“I found out that we had a corrections element in Iraq. I was 69 years old, but my country needed me. It was as simple as that,” Bordenkircher said.

He offered his services and was hired by the Department of Justice as an independent contractor. He became an advisor to the Director General of Iraqi Corrections Service, charged with maintaining prisons throughout Iraq. By the end of his first year, he was elevated to National Director of Operations for all prisons.

His job in Iraq was very similar to the job he held in Vietnam decades earlier.

After the news broke internationally about the fiasco at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad, Bordenkircher became involved in trying to straighten things out at the prison.

“I know Abu Ghraib very well. I was in charge of a team that went into the prison often,” he said. “After reading and looking at everything and talking to a hell of a lot of people, I came to the conclusion there wasn’t a lot of brutality caused by American troops at Abu Ghraib.

Don Bordenkircher, right foreground, talks to some of his staff in Iraq where he served in 2006 as National Director of All Prisons in Iraq. Photo provided

Don Bordenkircher, right foreground, talks to some of his staff in Iraq where he served in 2006 as National Director of All Prisons in Iraq. Photo provided

“What American troops were doing at Abu Ghraib amounted to serious college hazing. It was degrading, but it wasn’t brutal,” Bordenkircher said. “The American troops took pictures of everything they did and sent them home.”

When the story broke in the media, American troops were pulled out of the prison.

“On March 1, 2006, I was sent with my staff to Abu Ghraib to close the prison,” he said. “The prisoners being detained there were scattered to the wind in other prisons around the country. I feel good I closed Abu Ghraib.”

The broader picture in Iraq, Bordenkircher says, goes like this: “There is not a civil war occurring in Iraq. There has always been sectarian distrust and acts of violence between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Iran currently arms, trains, advises and momentarily supports both the Sunnis and Shiites, as well as foreign terrorists in Iraq. The Kurds are functioning very well and have a serious dislike of Iran. The mission of Iran in Iraq is to destabilize the country and, when America leaves, assume control without firing a shot.

“When will our troops come home from Iraq? My opinion, based on experience, is that they will come home when we withdraw our troops from Japan, Germany, France, Korea, Kosovo and Bosnia.”

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 9, 2007 and is republished with permission.

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