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Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration’

“Even a Senator Can Learn Something”

I wrote this for the American Friends Service Committee’s “Governing Under the Influence” website.  See more at http://gui.afsc.org/

The Concord Snowshoe Club, a rustic and out-of-the-way venue in New Hampshire’s capital city, was the site of a kick-off event for Senator Lindsey Graham’s possible presidential campaign on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Hosted by the City Republicans, the “Politics and Pies” event was free, open to GOP members and unaffiliated voters, and open as well to the press.  Senator Graham arrived on time, took a position by the fireplace, gave a short speech about his priorities, and responded to questions for more than an hour.

Graham is an aggressively hawkish critic of President Obama’s foreign and military policy, but at the same time takes a perspective on domestic issues that tends P3080063toward the pragmatic rather than the ideological.   Immigration is an example.

Graham was among the 14 Republicans who voted with the Senate majority for a complex immigration reform bill in 2013.  Had it passed the House, the bill would have increased funds for “border security” (i.e. more police, soldiers, weapons, and fences for the US-Mexican border) and created a tortuous path that would have enabled many of the country’s 11 million undocumented residents to gain legal status and qualify eventually for citizenship.  Graham described it as a “rational and practical” approach to immigration.

In the Q&A session, I asked Senator Graham about the budget provision which mandates that federal authorities have 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.   “The big beneficiaries of this seem to be the private prison companies, the for-profit companies, which is where about half of the immigrants are housed.  And of course they turn around the profits and lobby for more prisons and immigration policies that benefit them,” I said, asking how we can get to a rational policy in the face of such realities.

“I thought I knew everything about immigration until now,” Senator Graham responded.  “Even a Senator can learn something.”

Without discussing the detention bed mandate, Senator Graham launched into an explanation of the need for immigration reform, starting with the fact that the reason so many immigrants are coming here is to work and that the country has a long-term labor shortage.   The Senator also believes GOP support for immigration reform will help the party woo Hispanic voters.

In response to a question from Rev. Dwight Haynes about a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Graham said he “would like to control money in politics to the extent that it will destroy the political process.”

“Here’s what we’re going to lose in democracy if we don’t have control over the money.  The most influential people in the country will be the ones with the most money, and the ads you see on TV ad nauseum, you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know who’s responsible for them.”  Graham said he wouldP3080048 support a constitutional amendment as long as it applies to union funds as well as funds from corporations.   Then he joked he wouldn’t walk as far as Granny D did. 

Senator Graham spent much of the time outlining his support for higher levels of military spending, aggressive action in the Middle East, and a “generational struggle to defeat radical Islam.”

“You could close Gitmo tomorrow and give the Palestinians everything they’ve ever hoped for and this would still be trying to kill us, Israel and everybody that disagrees with them because God commands them to do so,” he said.  “They’re crazy.”

Senator Graham has launched a political committee, Security Through Strength, to help him “’test the waters’ for a potential 2016 run for president.”  We can look forward to picking up where this discussion left off next time he’s in town. 

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The recent NHPR story on the opening of a new federal prison in Berlin, New Hampshire is typical.   The story is all about jobs for a depressed area that desperately needs them.  The near disappearance of manufacturing, due to globalization and trade liberalization, destroyed thousands of North Country jobs in footwear, apparel, papermaking, and other sectors.  The prospect of jobs at the prison comes as welcome news.

But the story has barely a mention of the people who will inhabit the facility.  NHPR’s Dan Gorenstein reports,

But even skeptics say this facility- which will eventually hold 1300 medium and minimum security prisoners- is going to help the area turn the corner.

At least he mentioned the prisoners.  But there’s been virtually no analysis in the New Hampshire news media of how it came to pass that prisons have become such an important source of jobs across rural America.

According to The Sentencing Project,

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.3 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective means of achieving public safety.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, says that the USA has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners.  

Who are they?  According to the NAACP’s report, Misplaced Priorities,

The majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails are people of color, people with mental health issues and drug addiction, people with low levels of educational attainment, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment.

The 1300 prisoners who end up in Berlin will most likely be far from their families, a factor that makes it less likely that they will emerge from prison with capacity to contribute to their communities when they leave prison.

The NAACP says the price tag for incarceration, parole, and probation is $70 Billion a year.   Imagine how many jobs could be created if those funds went to education, services for people with mental illness,  and drug treatment.   

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