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Rhetoric vs Reality in Obama’s Prison Reform

Since July, Obama has made a series of declarations about the need to reform the U.S. prison system. But given his record on incarceration over the past six-and-a-half years, what change can we expect the president to offer now to the 2.2 million people locked up across the country?

Robert Belano

August 25, 2015
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Photo: miss_millions/Flickr

Obama may one day be known as the P.R. president. On the issues that most affect workers, people of color, women, and the poor he has given countless speeches, made bold declarations about the need for change, and made a few mild policy changes which generate a lot of publicity but not much change to the status quo. This was the certainly the case with immigration reform, the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage. In recent months the president has declared that prison reform will be a central focus during the last two years of his presidency; however we can expect the president to offer more spin and little substance.

In mid-July Obama publicly commuted the sentences of 46 inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Later that week he made news by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. During the visit he noted the extreme racial disparity in the U.S. prison population, stating “in too many places, black boys and black men, and Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated different under the law.” He went on to say that “[m]ass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it.” Finally, his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, announced a plan to restore ex-convicts’ eligibility for financial aid to attend college after release. However beyond the rhetoric and a handful of tepid measures, how much has the president done for the millions of men and women locked up across the country?

There are currently 2.2 million people jailed and imprisoned in the U.S. That’s the largest prison population in the world, both in terms of the per capita rate and the total number. It also represents an increase of over 700 percent since just 1980. An additional 7 million people are living under state supervision. Added up, that’s 9 million people in jail, on parole or on probation — a population under surveillance which is larger than the entire nation of Switzerland. While the prison population has decreased slightly in the past two to three years, that is owed mainly to court-ordered reductions in the prison population in California, rather than any initiative carried out by Obama or the federal government.

The ACLU estimates that over 3,000 people in the U.S. are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent offenses like drug dealing, theft, or fraud. Tens of thousands more are serving decades-long sentences for similar, non-violent crimes. Describing the inmates he visited in July, many of whom were imprisoned for years on end for drug crimes, Obama noted the arbitrariness of these sentences and admitted “these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made” – a reference to his admitted use of marijuana and cocaine as a teenager.

The barbaric practices of the world’s “most advanced” nation

Added to the injustices of draconian and arbitrary sentences are barbaric practices like prolonged solitary confinement, forced labor and the death penalty. The U.S. remains the only developed country in the West to use capital punishment today. Over 70 people were sentenced to death in 2014 — that’s more than in Sudan, Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Prisoners on death row are overwhelmingly poor and a disproportionate number are black. Many studies have shown that it is not the severity of the crime that determines whether a person is given the death penalty, but rather his or her ability to afford an attorney. According to the ACLU , 90% of prisoners on death row today were unable to pay for a lawyer at the time of their trials and had to rely on a public defender.

Solitary confinement, despite different names throughout the country — Special Housing Units, supermax, or administrative segregation — means essentially the same for the 80,000 or more people in the U.S. held in isolation. Prisoners receive no human contact and are locked up for 23 hours a day in a cell no larger than an average bathroom, a practice the U.N. has called torture and demanded that all nations ban immediately. Though prison officials and politicians claim that only the “worst offenders” are kept in solitary, it is routinely used to punish political prisoners. Among the most well know prisoners who were held in solitary are the Angola 3, three former Black Panther members convicted of murdering a prison guard in 1973 without any physical evidence linking them to the case. Together, the three spent a total of over 110 years in solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox, now 68 years old and the last member of the Angola 3 still imprisoned, remains in solitary confinement to this day. Mumia Abu Jamal and Chelsea Manning have also spent several months in solitary confinement. Manning was recently threatened with solitary again after she was accused of possessing “prohibited property”, namely a Vanity Fair magazine and an expired tube of toothpaste.

Within the U.S. mass incarceration system the legal rights of black and Latino people arrested are routinely violated. Recently, The Guardian reported that Obama’s hometown of Chicago was home to a secret city detention center, known as Homan Square, which has held thousands of people in recent years. According to city records, only a handful or so of those detained ever saw a lawyer. At least 3,500 people have been detained at the secret facility in the past decade, 82% of whom were black. To place this number in context, only one-third of the total population of Chicago is black. One of the Homan Square detainees, Charles Jones, an African-American civil rights activist, is suing the Chicago Police Department for illegally detaining him six to eight hours at Homan Square, during which time he says he was interrogated, shackled to the wall without food or water, and repeatedly denied access to a lawyer. Two-thirds of those detained at Homan Square center were taken under the regime of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s old friend and former White House Chief of Staff.

Obama’s prison reform campaign: Why now?

The Black Lives Matter movement brought national attention to the struggles of black and Latino people in the U.S. and especially the brutality and harassment suffered by these communities at the hands of the police. This movement also forced the ruling class to, at least nominally address the other areas of structural racism in the U.S. It was inevitable that Obama would be forced to speak to the scandalous racial disparities in the so-called correctional system. Indeed, even Republican members of Congress like Rand Paul and John Boehner have now declared the need for reform. The far-right billionaire Koch brothers have also pledged financial support for efforts to reduce the prison population. Charles Koch even went so far as to criticize Obama for not doing enough to commute the sentences of nonviolent offenders, stating “If you have 1,000 people who got unjust sentences, to give clemency to [a few] — what about the others? Why should they suffer?” Some have pointed to the Koch’s long history of legal battles against environmental pollution charges as one reason they want to implement criminal justice reform now, but the fact remains that the incarceration of over 2 million people and the highly disproportionate incarceration of people of color has been brought into the public consciousness and cannot be ignored any longer by either party of the ruling class.

However, neither Obama nor the Koch brothers plan to end mass incarceration in the US, opting instead for a few well-timed measures which affect only a tiny fraction of men and women in prison today. Neither, of course, has advocated for decriminalizing drugs, or for the widespread release of nonviolent offenders. Margaret Kimberly points out in Black Agenda Report that Obama had the power in 2013 “to free at least 5,000 black men from federal prisons” who were locked up on crack cocaine charges, yet instead chose to appeal to federal court to keep those prisoners in jail. NPR has noted that while Obama calls for a reduction in the prison population and the curtailing of solitary confinement, his administration is completing the construction of a supermax facility in Illinois which will keep hundreds locked up in isolation. We must also note, of course, that his administration has jailed tens of thousands of people for immigration violations. Close to one-in-ten people now in federal prison are locked up for immigration-related offense. And while thousands of the poor rot in prison for minor offenses, actual murders like George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson walk free.

The functions of the U.S. prison state

What can explain the system of mass incarceration in the United States, which today holds one-quarter of the whole world’s total prison population?

We can notice a dramatic spike in the U.S. prison population starting in the early 1970s, after a relatively stable trend for many decades prior. Since the ’70s the number of men and women locked up has skyrocketed. It is no coincidence that this spike occurred at the same time that thousands of blacks and Latinos began to mobilize to demand their rights. Prisons served as a key method of combatting the influence of organizations like Black Panther Party, which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States”, or Young Lords for their attempts to organize black and Latino people against racism and police brutality. The more young men and women of oppressed minority groups that were locked away for years on end, the more difficult it became for radical black and Latino organizations to recruit new members, organize their communities, and fight back against capitalist oppression.

Of course, prison labor also serves as an immensely profitable system of near-slavery where hundreds of thousands of prisoners work for pennies an hour producing goods and services for the state or for major corporations. Prisoners in California battle forest fires, in Colorado, they produce fish and cheese—which until recently, were sold at Whole Foods stores around the country —and throughout the U.S, prisoners maintain the prisons themselves through janitorial and food service work. The average wage earned by prisoners in state prisons is around 20 cents an hour. Federal prisons pay better — where prisoners earn an extraordinary sum of 31 cents an hour. A few states, including Texas, which today imprisons more people than any other state, have no minimum wage at all for inmates, meaning prisoners can be forced to work as literal slaves for the state or the businesses which contract from their labor from the state.

Yet mass incarceration can be profitable in other ways too. Since the 1980s, there has been a boom in the number of private prisons, which currently hold over 100,000 inmates nationwide. The profits of this industry have increased by more than 500% in the past two decades, as a result of the increasing privatization of the prison system. Many prisons have contracts with state governments in place which stipulate that states will keep the facility 80% full or more at all times, which means that even if the crime rate is drops, states will still have to find ways to keep people behind bars. It is unsurprising then that the corporations which operate these facilities are among the fiercest proponents of three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and harsh penalties for immigration offenses. State and federal prisons can also been incredibly lucrative for telecommunications companies, health care companies, and other corporations which hold contracts to provide services at the facilities. Global Tel Link, one of the largest providers of phone call technology for prisons, brings in upwards of $500 million annually from its prison contracts.

Finally, the prison system serves as a “dumping ground” for unemployed workers, or the industrial reserve army in the words of Marx. Unemployment, he argued was a key feature of capitalism since the capitalists are forever seeking to extract a greater amount of labor out of fewer workers in order to maximize productivity. At the same time, maintaining a reserve army of workers drives down the wages of employed workers. If a worker knows she can be fired and replaced at any moment by a willing member of the unemployed, she is less likely to organize to demand higher wages for her labor-power or better conditions. In this way, the unemployed serve as a way to guarantee maximum profits for the world’s most powerful bourgeoisie. However, rather than having to find jobs, housing, or education for the unemployed, the capitalist class found an effective way of putting them out of sight and mind — the prison system — until they are needed to fill jobs again.

Is reform possible?

Obama and the Koch brothers, may call for moderate reforms to the prison system but they have little intention of touching the billions in profits reaped by the countless corporations which benefit from the system of mass incarceration, directly or indirectly. So-called progressives, like Bernie Sanders, have advocated more extensive reforms, such as the legalization of marijuana or the ending of private prisons, but even these reforms would still keep hundreds of thousands behind bars. No candidate or political figure from either of the two capitalist parties are unwilling to call for the release of the more than 1 million prisoners who are locked up across the U.S. for nonviolent crimes.

We should have no illusions that the U.S. prison system can be redeemed. Until capitalism as a whole is overturned, prisons will continue to function as a tool for the ongoing oppression and exploitation of the poor and minority communities. However, we can and should support the struggles of prisoners who have bravely fought back against extreme repression and brutality. Earlier this month, a group of 42 inmates in a Utah maximum security prison went on hunger strike —one of the few methods of resistance at their disposal—against solitary confinement, undernourishment, and insufficient medical care. They are not alone. This year, prisoners have gone on hunger strikes in Texas, Washington State, and California to improve conditions in lockup. Widespread solidarity with these prisoners will help them to win small battles and relieve the worst of their suffering, and at the same time begin to build a movement for the definitive end to the system of mass incarceration.

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Robert Belano

Robert Belano is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He lives in the Washington, DC area.

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