Obama’s Prison Reform Con Game
President Obama last week took his criminal justice con game into the U.S. prison system, home to one out of eight incarcerated persons in the world. On any given day, about 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement, some of them for decades. Obama proclaimed that’s not a “smart” thing to do, and ordered his Justice Department to conduct a study of how to cut down on solitary confinement. If that means Obama’s going to pursue a “smart” criminal justice policy, in the same way that he wages “smart” wars, then not much will change in U.S. prisons.
The president waited until the second half of his second term in office—and the rise of an incipient mass protest movement—before experiencing his epiphany on mass incarceration. So-called prison reform is now a thoroughly bipartisan affair. Republicans have harbored a strain of prison reformism ever since many of Richard Nixon’s men found themselves behind bars in the aftermath of Watergate, and even the rabidly reactionary Koch brothers are funding prison reform. The legislatures of at least 15 states have either passed, or are debating, ways to limit solitary confinement. And Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the high court, has all but invited prison reform groups to challenge solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds. So, although Obama is the first serving president to actually set foot in a prison, he is moving in politically safe territory.
However, don’t expect anything other than cynical theatricality and double-dealing from this president. When it comes to the criminal justice system, Obama is a consummate trickster. This month, with great fanfare, he commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Eight of them had been convicted for crack cocaine. But, two years ago, Obama’s Justice Department successfully argued against retroactive release of prisoners convicted under the infamous 100-to-1 crack cocaine penalties. Because of Obama, 5,000 people, most of them Black, were left to languish in prison—yet he is praised for letting just eight of them out, under presidential commutation, two years later. Now, that is a champion con man.
The curtain’s about to close
If Obama had launched his reviews of solitary confinement and other U.S. criminal justice atrocities during his first term in office, then, theoretically, tens-of-thousands of inmates might have been spared millions of collective days and nights of isolation and psychological torture. But, Obama will have less than a year left in office when his new study is completed.
Five percent of all federal prison inmates are currently in solitary confinement. Federal prisons are 35 to 40 percent overcrowded. High security federal prisons, where solitary confinement is most widely practiced, are 55 percent overcrowded. Obama last week told the NAACP that solitary confinement has “no place in any civilized country.” But he has overseen such practices for six-and-a-half years. The NAACP roared its approval, anyway—willing participants in Obama’s criminal justice con game.
—Black Agenda Report, July 22, 2015