Monday, January 7, 2008

The Bush Legacy of Mass Imprisonment in the War on Terror

Prisons are usually a domestic policy issue, and one that candidates from both parties have been enthusiastically "for" over the last several decades. George W. Bush changed that when he took the war on crime strategy of mass incarceration and deployed it in his war on terrorism. His administration's grotesque interrogation and torture policies then exposed these prisons to catastrophically bad publicity undermining US prestige and security.

As Tim Golden's reporting in the NYTimes today about the US prison at Bagram air force base in Afghanistan suggests, the real problems with the strategy are more fundamental than those much denounced examples of inquisitorial excess. Mass imprisonment (or incarceration) involves sweeping up and incapacitating large numbers of subjects who are considered dangerous without much effort to discriminate among them. It almost always relies on racial, age, and gender profiling.

In the domestic war on crime, the hundreds of thousands of people in prison are all presumably guilty of a criminal offense (however, see the Innocence Project), but many of those "crimes" involve the criminalization of suspicious or dangerous behavior (that is true of most possession crimes, for example). Here in California, many prisoners are incarcerated for parole violations that do not amount to criminal offenses but are, again, manifestations of dangerousness.

In the war on terror version of mass imprisonment, there is no phase of judicial process to provide even the pretense of individual due process. Prisoners are literally swept up in battlefield or, more commonly now, urban street sweeps by soldiers or armed militias and then locked up. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the immediate result is a degeneration of living conditions to the point where, even without torture, human rights are being violated. This again tracks the war on crime where California's prisons have become unconstitutionally overcrowded and dysfunctional to the point where inmates regularly die of neglected but treatable medical problems.

My question for the candidates is this: Will you denounce not just Bush's disastrous policies of torture (which all the Democrats, and the once and future Republican front-runner John McCain would do), but his mass imprisonment policies, at home and abroad?

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