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June 8, 2009

Appreciating the real American challenge in balancing liberty and security

A helpful reader flagged this new commentary from Dahlia Lithwick at Slate, titled "Cage Match: Guantanamo is the least of America's prison problems."  Here are snippets from its start and end:

The public-opinion two-step on the wisdom of closing the prison camp at Guantanamo is fascinating, and not just because Americans are now inclined to keep the detention facility there open forever. The current legal meltdown about what to do with prisoners still at Guantanamo shows that contrary to popular belief, Americans care a good deal about prisons, prisoners, and prison reform, but only when the inmates threaten to tumble out into their backyards.

But there's the rub: We already have a prison problem, and it's already in our backyards.  That's what Sen. James Webb, D-Va., wants us to understand as he launches an ambitious new effort to reform U.S. prisons nationwide.  It's not quite as dramatic as the prospect of Abu Zubaydah escaping from the Supermax prison in Colorado and rampaging through the Rockies, but the U.S. prison crisis gets worse every year, and nobody seems to mind....

The Guantanamo problem we've finally started to grapple with in a pragmatic, rather than symbolic, way — it's a dangerous place with some dangerous people — is a mere speck in the eye of America's larger prison program.  An AP story last week described a small Montana town that was more than willing to take all of the Guantanamo prisoners and incarcerate them because, ultimately, a jail is a jail and prisoners are prisoners.  If we are so worried about locking up a few terrorists for life in maximum-security U.S. jails, shouldn't we be giving at least some thought to the folks already there?  As Dennis Jett observed recently in the Miami Herald, "even if everyone at Guantánamo were transferred to a U.S. prison it would amount to an increase of less than one hundredth of one percent in the total number incarcerated in this country."

Compared with the powder keg of our domestic prison system, Guantanamo actually starts to look pretty benign. And if we are going to have a huge national panic attack about detaining dangerous individuals after 9/11, let's be honest that the dangers of a handful of Guantanamo prisoners "rejoining the battlefield" or escaping from maximum-security prisons is far more remote than the crisis now festering in our own jails and prisons.  Americans who claim to be worried about allowing alleged terrorists into their own backyards would be well advised to recognize what's already happening in their own backyards.  The U.S. prison system as it now exists makes even less sense than the prison camp at Guantanamo.  And unlike Guantanamo, no matter what we may wish, it won't be contained, ignored, or walled off forever.

June 8, 2009 at 08:05 AM | Permalink


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Since this Administration is now on the biggest borrowing binge in the history of the world (anyone doubt that?), the idea that cost is an object to the achievement of public policy goals has gone by the boards.

We are borrowing and spending trillions, going out as far as the eye can see, to bail out crooked banks and irresponsible (and failing) corporations. So the idea that we cannot afford the relative pitance it would take to maintain the prison system is preposterous. Basically, it's like we all of a sudden want to don the green eyeshade - for the single, comparatively tiny area of prison costs -- in the midst of the most enormous and scattershot spending spree the government has ever undertaken.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 8, 2009 10:47:34 AM

I'm sympathetic to arguments that we spend too much on prisons and get little in return for them. But this kind of rhetoric, the "powder keg of our domestic prison system" is tiresome. It's been a crisis for so long now. Exactly what is different now? Yes, there are economic problems, but as Bill notes, fiscal limits don't seem to be a problem these days.

So when I read "The U.S. prison system as it now exists makes even less sense than the prison camp at Guantanamo. And unlike Guantanamo, no matter what we may wish, it won't be contained, ignored, or walled off forever" i just wonder whether any of this true. Why won't it be ignored?

Posted by: | Jun 8, 2009 11:39:31 AM

Bill, I doubt you have the slightest idea of the conditions inside these prisons, or the slightest concern. The authorities are so concerned at public and international reaction, that they refuse to release true figures for either successful or unsuccessful suicide. Suicide in mainland prisons is also too high, and the long prison sentences are know to have a devastating effort on the mental health of inmates. The worst conditions of isolation and deprivation rival the worst conditions ever described in Siberia and other USSR locations during the cold war. Overcrowding is rife elsewhere so that even "beds" have to be shared. If you want to discuss and try to justify those conditions openly then fine. But as the article suggests, out-of-sight, out-of-mind is the usual political stance. Just so long as you haven't got to admit that rather like the Iraq war, you never had a game plan for after you started locking up over 3% of the adult population. Seems to me that a time of financial crisis is just about the best time to dig yourself out of the hole, without drawing too much attention to the errors of the past.

Posted by: peter | Jun 8, 2009 11:51:47 AM

Too bad George W. Bush started us down this path of "bail out[s][of] crooked banks and irresponsible (and failing)corporations." Don't you agree, Bill?

Posted by: anony | Jun 8, 2009 1:12:47 PM

Why parole does not work in California

From sentencing to post-release practices, our criminal-justice system is 'broken,' says legal scholar Jonathan Simon

(Jonathan Simon publishes the blog Governing Through Crime.)

Posted by: George | Jun 8, 2009 2:30:03 PM

peter -- As you prove, perhaps unintentionally, the cost argument against imprisonment is merely a make-weight for a preconceived position.

As for your "doubt [that I] have the slightest idea of the conditions inside these prisons," you are of course free to put actual evidence in the place where your solipsistic "doubt" now resides.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 8, 2009 3:53:18 PM

anony -- "Too bad George W. Bush started us down this path of 'bail out[s][of] crooked banks and irresponsible (and failing)corporations. Don't you agree, Bill?"

Indeed I do.

And now that I've given a straightforward answer to your question, perhaps you'll give a straightforward answer to this analogous question: Too bad Barack Obama has continued, with even more abandon and a great deal more (borrowed) money, the reckless spending he criticized in his predecessor. Don't you agree, anony?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 8, 2009 4:02:00 PM

Bill: Yes, I do agree. And I commend you for being principled on the issue. Most conservatives don't seem to want to acknowledge that W. started this whole bailout mess. You, at least, do.

Posted by: anony | Jun 8, 2009 4:21:13 PM

anony -- Thank you for your prompt and honest response. I appreciate it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 8, 2009 4:25:50 PM

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