1st Cavalry detention facility takes pride in its reputation
CAMP BLACK JACK, Iraq — Just after Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Bawden took over as warden of 29 Palms — a 1st Cavalry Division detention facility — he found himself processing four Iraqis arrested in connection with a rocket-propelled grenade attack.
The April 6 attack in Ashula, outside Baghdad, killed Sgt. Gerardo Moreno, 23, of Terrell, Texas.
Moreno wasn’t just any soldier. He was Bawden’s fellow noncommissioned officer from 1st Cav’s Company C, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
Moreno was Bawden’s friend.
“It was tough,” Bawden said. “I had to walk away for a minute and regain my composure, then I walked back over and we got the job done.”
The choice came down to, as Bawden puts it, “the hard right, or the easy wrong.”
Bawden’s Brigade Internment Facility, nicknamed “29 Palms” for the palm-lined canal outside, is one of five 1st Cav detention facilities — one for each brigade. A division internment facility is under construction.
To distance the 1st Cav from allegations at nearby Abu Ghraib, division officials opened 29 Palms’ doors to the media Friday.
But they didn’t choreograph the visit, said Maj. Derik von Recum, 2nd Brigade fire support officer. On any given day, there are a lot of people looking over Bawden’s shoulder. The division inspector general visits regularly, as does the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“We’ve been told numerous times we’re the best prison here, and we don’t want to taint that in any way,” said Spc. Craig Kois, a 23-year-old Chicagoan assigned to Company C, 91st Engineer Battalion.
Abu Ghraib and 29 Palms have little in common.
Abu Ghraib is virtually a city, with nearly 4,000 prisoners, while 29 Palms is the county jail of military lock-ups — a small facility with 15 staff for no more than 18 detainees.
Unlike Abu Ghraib, which was controlled by National Guardsmen from the 320th Military Police Battalion and civilian interrogators at the time of the alleged abuses, active-duty Army units control 29 Palms. Detainees typically stay no more than 96 hours, Bawden said, then are released for lack of evidence, or are sent on to Abu Ghraib.
Philosophically, there is no comparison, said Bawden.
“Now that story is out, whatever we’ve done good here takes two steps back because of those military police,” he said.
His job at 29 Palms is more difficult because of what he termed a “lack of professionalism” at Abu Ghraib.
But asked how much training he got before taking over 29 Palms, Bawden made a circle with his thumb and forefinger and said, “zero.” Whether an Army jail is run properly basically comes down to who’s running it, he said.
Taking over six weeks ago, he said, “I grabbed up every Army regulation [on prison procedures] and read up. I depend on my experience as an NCO. And I know what’s right.”
“If I treat [detainees] bad, I send them back out there with a legitimate reason to hate Americans.”
Bawden doesn’t say it couldn’t happen here. He just says it won’t happen here as long as he’s running 29 Palms.
“I’m not easy to work for,” Bawden said, smiling.
The first thing detainees see are 29 Palms’ rules in Arabic and English including warnings not to touch guards or doctors, and requirements to walk with heads down when out of cells.
Beyond the rules, detainees have some privileges. They can go to the bathroom at any time. They can keep a Quran in their cells. They can ask to come out of their cells into a central open area and stretch. They can eat their Meals, Ready to Eat on picnic tables in a common area.
Then, there are some odd rules.
They don’t get the M&Ms out of MREs “because they’ll eat one M&M at a time, and it takes all day for them to finish,” Bawden said.
Bawden is nearly as tough on his soldiers as the detainees. He doesn’t let soldiers read detainees’ records so they don’t know what that person is accused of.
“I really don’t want to know,” said Kois. “It’s easier to deal with this.”
Bawden’s staff selection process takes only soldiers “who will be professional no matter what,” he said. For him, treating detainees humanely is part altruism, part expediency. The detainees, he said, “are not worth the risk of not going home.”
And his religious beliefs state that whatever happens, “my Lord says their judgment will come.”
In his six-week tenure, Bawden has made a number of changes, including limiting the number of detainees to 15 from as many as 60 and tightening evidence room procedures.
So far, he’s had no records losses, no accidental releases and no violence, he said.
“I’ve raised my voice once.”