Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prisons and Public Safety: Learning from the "Gitmo North" debate

President Obama's announcement that the federal government will buy a mothballed supermax prison in northern Illinois (the fact that the such a facility was empty is itself an intriguing signal that the war on crime is drawing down) is bringing a new wave of criticism (mostly from Republicans) that this endangers public safety. As Helene Cooper and David Johnston, reporting in the NYTimes, summarize the thrust of concern:

“The administration has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping terrorists off of our shores in the secure facility in Cuba,” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said in a statement. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, told reporters he would not vote to “spend one dime to move those prisoners to the U.S.”


The upcoming debate is unlikely to be inspiring, but it will be revealing of two features of contemporary American political culture that have helped sustain mass incarceration.

1. Prisons are never enough to make us feel safe. We want them and gated communities. Even when we have a supermax prison it would be much better if those prisons that are separated by water and national borders. Now its true that the fear being expressed is not simply of the super terrorists themselves (who will apparently have a virtually 1:1 ratio with guards), but their colleagues who may decide to retaliate against ordinary Americans. But that "logic" does not hold up. What stops the terrorists now from retaliating against "ordinary Americans" by blowing up strip malls in northern Illinois or northern Kentucky for that matter? What is being expressed here instead is the profound influence of the "container" metaphor turned toward its carceral core.

2. Congress, whichever party is in or out of power, finds it very hard to be on the side of providing less protection to Americans against criminal violence of any kind. I argued in Governing through Crime, that Congress (and state legislatures) now find it natural to view themselves as representing American crime victims as the idealized citizens of the Republic. I predict plenty of Democrats will join with Republicans to block any actual transfer of prisoners.

If the Republicans get away with spinning this as Obama making ordinary Americans vulnerable in order to please liberal cosmopolitan elites (mostly in Europe), they will have effectively reprised the Nixon v. Ramsey Clark moves of 1968, despite a period of declining crime and rising environmental threat.