On Prisons: the SCOTUS, Obama, and The Wire


By Cara L. Gallagher, weekend contributor

Debate on prison reform presented a rich but dreary landscape this week. Bookending the spectrum were themes of law and its role in total incarcerations, and the practical realities faced by incarcerated men. Justices Breyer and Kennedy appeared before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to discuss the legal disarray of the American prison system. President Obama and David Simon, the writer and creator of (THE BEST SHOW EVER MADE) The Wire, discussed the same topic in a video for the White House YouTube page.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who displayed a more passionate side than we usually see in Court, said the subject of corrections “was never discussed in law school.” Lawyers, he went on, were and have been more focused on the adjudication of a criminal trial, not the conviction side or sentencing. Frankly, “we didn’t care about the process [after].”

Kennedy now believes such government processes are gravely misunderstood and overlooked and need immediate prioritization.

Further troubling to Kennedy, and where the Justice’s irritability was most apparent, were the continued efforts to fortify “Supermax” prisons and hold inmates in isolation for, in some cases, decades, driving men literally crazy. As if to offer a recommendation, Kennedy referenced European prisons who deal with “recalcitrant inmates in groups of three or four so that at least they have human contact.” Ultimately, not nearly enough effective research has been devoted to minimizing our rate of incarcerations, according to Kennedy, leaving the system “in many respects, broken.”

Justice Breyer chimed in only to concur with Kennedy’s opinions by reminding the Subcommittee members that Congress could pass a law changing the system. States have corrections boards to essentially eradicate disparate sentencing by judges, yet incarceration rates rise thanks to mandatory minimums which “are a terrible idea,” according to Breyer. It’s time for a comprehensive overhaul of the entire system.

On Wednesday, President Obama sat down for a rare interview with David Simon. Simon, creator of The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, visited the White House to be interviewed by Obama. Stories told on the show were often laced with overarching criticisms of local and national politics, and a dismissal of insipid bureaucratic “silver bullets” making this interview between Simon and the President somewhat surprising and mildly awkward. But Obama’s long touted himself a fan of The Wire and Simon’s quiet brilliance always draws an audience, especially when the topic is his wildly popular HBO show that is just as relevant today as it was when it debuted thirteen years ago.

The two men also discussed the flawed state of the American penal system. Simon recalled the population of violent offenders in the federal prison system was “34%” when he began working as a police reporter in the early 1980s. “Thirteen years later it was about 7%.”

“When you try to win the drug war, you only have a limited number of resources,” he said. Decreases in the numbers of men incarcerated for violent crime and increases in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses were attributed to hard line policies cities enacted to thwart high crime rates. “Police stopped doing police work and started arresting people for drugs. Incarcerations went up for drug use, but arrests for robbery and murder went down. Comprehensive police work involving investigations, performing searches and seizures, which take longer, works,” said Simon.

President Obama found the realities faced by men who reenter American society after confinement anathema to the purpose of prison. “They’re effectively trained to be hardened criminals inside captivity and come out functionally unemployable. They become permanently a part of America that you can’t pull back from. As unemployment goes down and jobs are created, there is still immobility among people with felony histories, which is counterproductive.”

Simon told the story of Donnie Anders, the character Oman Little (Obama’s favorite) was based on, who “robbed drug dealers and caught a 17-year bit – one he deserved – but all he wanted to do was come back and get back to his community.” Simon went on to further Obama’s point with a reminder that this was a recurring theme of the show – with so few job opportunities, rehabilitated ex-inmates often resort to illicit jobs like drug trafficking. “The unemployment rate among urban males bares no resemblance to actual unemployment rate nationally. The drug trade itself is like a company town. It’s hard to grow up without making dealers role models who know how to get around it [the systems].”

Said Simon, “If these Draconian measures worked, it would be one thing. But it doesn’t and it’s not.”

Whereas an interview with Simon, much like watching an episode of The Wire, could often leave the audience feeling bleak, Obama pulled what faint silver lining he could muster out of the discussion. He acknowledged the fiscal burdens prison budgets place on states and the federal government are immune to party polarization. Both sides are troubled by how much money is spent fortifying and building prisons. The Department of Justice is working with U.S. Attorneys to design measures of effective prosecution. “It was ‘charge the max,’ but it should be proportional and just.”

“If we can get people to keep talking about this in a smarter way, [it] leaves me encouraged.” Simon closed the interview quietly if reluctantly saying to the President “from your mouth to God’s ear.”

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

46 thoughts on “On Prisons: the SCOTUS, Obama, and The Wire”

  1. I believe one of the problems stemmed from the perception of the public that the criminal justice system was becoming too unpredictable in sentencing, especially with regard to the belief that hard criminals either “got off easy” or that some were over-punished.

    Match this with the belief that parole was a failing strategy and criminals were largely unrepentant and it is one of the large reasons our state abolished the Indeterminate (Parole) system around 1984.

    The state then established a determinate system matrix having two dimensions. One consisted of the seriousness of the crime, the other the Offender Score a defendant earned from past convictions. Within this score was a range a judge may sentence the defendant with little flexibility. Later it came into being that an exceptional sentence could be made, either lower or greater than the range with the latter being more common especially in light of the number of situations for which a sentence could be raised. There are now many.

    Later, the legislature enacted two more matrixes. One for Kidnapping & Sexual Assault cases, the other for drug crimes. The former punishes stricter than the original matrix.

    As our author writes, very little is devoted to the sentencing phase as it is largely now a by-product of the Determinate Sentencing Grid. It certainly gives an easy way to put a person off to the side and move on to the next case.

  2. @ Squeeky Fromm, Girl Executioner

    “Well, I think our society has been overcome with a hoarding syndrome or something. Every society before us took out the human garbage.”

    “Well, if we executed more of the violent criminals, then we might get better control of the prisons. I think the low execution rate is what underlies the whole problem. Because we don’t kill those people, they get stuck in prison for life, and basically have nothing to lose while they are there. Prison ought to be for those who have some chance of rehabilitation, and these idiotic 25, 30, and 40 year+ sentences are ridiculous. If somebody is that dangerous, they ought to be put down.”

    For God’s sake, Squeeky, go ahead and marry your girlfriend and come out, before you physically hurt somebody.

  3. I believe that re establishing large penal colonies is the way to go. For the worst offenders, kill them. For all violent types send them to a colony in say up state New York. Or California in the desert. Make them work like dogs have to work. Well, like chain gangs in China work. When they get too old to work then put them out to pasture in a safe place. Maybe Kansas if Dorothy is not around. An off shore penal colony would be good for lifers. We could buy some islands from China. Or buy a portion of Nigeria.

    1. BarkinDog – Maybe we could just use eminent domain and seize Long Island. Then turn it into a penal colony.

  4. So long as we have for profit prison companies, the right philosophy will take a back seat to bean counting. And, the bean counters count the lobbying money above all. It is really quite simple to identify a negative incentive, and the appeals to those whose brain runs along, or at least greatly favors lineal thought.
    But wait, does Squeeky have all the answers? I was never good with sarcasm, and that was in a face to face circumstance. In this environment I really give up.

  5. Well, I think our society has been overcome with a hoarding syndrome or something. Every society before us took out the human garbage. It was necessary for the society to develop and function. Thievery was restricted to the 1%-ers, such as Kings, judges, nobility, and business leaders. But our garbage has become precious to us! Gee, maybe one day we can use that murderer! Or, well maybe the serial rapist will make a good gardener one day once male menopause sets in!

    Plus, Western society began to prefer “process” over solutions. Sooo, we stopped executing a lot of murderers, and other miscreants like rapists and opted instead for “process”, that is the penitentiary system. Then, instead of flogging to keep the prisoners in line, or to punish petty criminals, we opted for “process” that is, the rehabilitation route. It all sounds good in theory, and even works sometimes, but without the big sticks of execution, or physical punishment, and without a major cleaning out of the really bad ones, you generally end up with a prison system where the prisoners suffer even more than they did previously.

    But, experts from Harvard and the like can’t stand simple answers to any problem. It cuts them out of jobs.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  6. Issac,

    The RULE of Freedom never changes. Freedom allows for innovation and creates wealth – always has, always will.

    Brilliant articulation. Other than the obscenity, I have no idea what your position is.

    In golf, we simply are not allowed to claim a “birdie” when we “bogie” a hole.

    There are rules.

    Marx came after the Founders to change the rules. Had Marx agreed with the rules set by the American Founders, he would have found no need to change the rules.

    What the Founders said was there is no better solution for mankind than freedom. They told you that they put in place a government limited to security and infrastructure to facilitate the freedom and free enterprise, without interference by the government, of individuals. The Founders ended, for history, the tyrannical and oppressive dictatorship of monarchies and replaced it with the freedom of the individual.

    Marx came later and re-imposed the dictatorship of the monarchy under the guise of collectivism.

    Dictatorship of a monarch or of the “proletariat”

    Freedom of the individual.

    The American Founders picked freedom over dictatorship.


    “All men are created equal.” After that, they are on their own – their own merit.

    You want to tyrannically and oppressively DICTATE that the LOSERS WIN.

    Americans who enjoy freedom must deal with the results.

    Freedom and Self-Reliance.

  7. When more than 70% of criminals who commit serious crimes do it again after they are released, the prison system is definitely broken and does not work as intended. My suggested solutions for improvement:

    1. Reserve prison time for major crimes such as burglary, theft, robbery, hijacking, rape, assault, kidnapping, murder, and other similar activities, particularly when a weapon is involved. Also include any significant schemes of fraud and deception, and government corruption.

    2. Make restitution, fines, confiscation, community service, and other similar penalties be the punishment for lesser crimes.

    3. Decriminalize victimless behavior such as use of marijuana and prostitution. Require licensing and taxation (only) if necessary to satisfy those who insist on having government restrictions.

    4. Make rehabilitation the objective of incarceration. Don’t specify a set time for being imprisoned. Instead, release when the criminal has proven he or she will think and behave in socially acceptable ways. Indefinite time in prison will provide motivation to convicted criminals to accept rehabilitation treatments and work on changing beliefs and behavior.

    5. If a prisoner cannot or refuses to change his or her thinking, attitudes, and behavior after a set period of time, in 5 to 10 years for example, execute them as being unfit to live in a peaceful society. This will provide additional motivation to try to change, and rid the population of those who are violently anti-social and demonstrably dangerous to others over time.

    6. For the second offense of major crimes listed above, execute within 10 days to 1 month of conviction.

    Implementation of these procedures should certainly deter crimes, cost less for taxpayers, reduce repeat offenses, and by definition, get rid of criminals in your society. As the population increases to unsustainable levels, these types of controls for major crime will eventually become not only quite acceptable, but necessary for the preservation of humanity.

  8. Best shows:

    Battlestar Galactica (Best writing, hands down, and the Peabody Award was richly deserved. One of the first shows to unapologetically examine the excesses and moral problems embodied in the War on Terror, and a long overdue return to science fiction’s roots as commentary on contemporary social ills)

    The Walking Dead (Sometimes uneven, but you will never find another apocalyptic drama that examines Hobbesian philosophy so brutally)

    The Americans (The Cold War and the 80’s seen from the Soviet side. A Russian husband and wife team in America, both appealing in their own way, slowly and terrifyingly sell themselves to the metaphorical devil with every innocent person they kill in the name of the ‘greater good’ of spying for Russia. Must watch TV)

    The Sopranos (One of the first of the current crop of long form dramas that revitalized adult tv viewing…and made it soooo much better…)

    Breaking Bad (A Shakespearean parable of good turned to evil and the darkness that exists in every man’s soul. Every one of us is a potential Walter given the right circumstances)

    Game of Thrones (I almost gave up on the show after the Red Wedding, and the unremitting bleakness makes The Walking Dead seem almost lighthearted. However, the intricate story arc, amazing cast and fantastic set design and location shooting in Europe and North Africa draws me back again and again. Whatever criticisms I have of GRR Martin and his propensity to kill off (and kill and kill and kill) his charcters…the HBO version of his story is Fantasy Done Right.

    1. AnneMarie Dickey – you have a nice list there. Games of Thrones is uneven and does not know where it is going. Breaking Bad was the same old, same old every week. BTW Shakespeare did not to parables. I could never get into either Battlestar Galactica or The Walking Dead, I think both are an acquired taste. I do not need my TV to teach me about anything. I actually get offended. The Sopranos was fine for awhile, but it ran out of steam.

  9. One thing has become clear to me after reading some of these posts. A Lot of Americans view America the same way devout Catholics view Christianity. There were things created: papers, stories, interpretations of human nature, a long time ago and that is that forever, don’t fu*k with it. It makes some people angry when what they think was written 240 years ago means is not taken literally by everyone.

  10. The SCOTUS cannot be taken seriously as a constitutional branch of government after 226 years of erroneous “interpretation” of the founding documents. The SCOTUS is the singular American failure. The words of the founding documents are clear. The Preamble was sited in front of the Constitution because it is the essential American context, without which American freedom vanishes and dictatorship ensues. The Preamble was published to be heeded, not to be ignored.

    $18 Trillion in national debt is a good indicator of corruption of the American thesis. The fact that America was established as a “restricted-vote republic” then turned on its head is another. Ben Franklin admonished, “a republic, if you can keep it.” He lived in and meant a restricted-vote republic. The Founders never intended and feared a vote of the working masses (i.e. one-man, one-vote democracy). The SCOTUS did not assure that America kept that restricted-vote republic; and many other laws and principles. “Democracy” is ideological suicide.

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the people discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy–to be followed by a dictatorship.”
    ― Alexander Fraser Tytler

    “Control of the means of production” and “redistribution of wealth,” the best example of which is affirmative action, are the inverse of the American thesis and have been adversarially imposed on this nation. Obamacare imposes an unconstitutional “individual mandate” and the corrupt SCOTUS decided on ideology and with a political position and party, rather than the American thesis of freedom and the constitutional absence of an “individual mandate.” The SCOTUS believes it has an ideological or religious imperative of a collectivist or theocratic state rather than the American compelling force of individual freedom.

    For the SCOTUS to behave corruptly without embarrassment or even plausible deniability is beyond the pale. The SCOTUS must be impeached and convicted for “bad behavior,” “mal-practice or neglect of duty,” “maladministration” and for high crimes and misdemeanors. Justice Ginsburg, for example, has made direct statements of insurrection and treason in foreign countries. Why is the highest court in the land allowed the lowest possible standards? Impeachment and conviction are the teeth of the Constitution.


    The rule against “cruel and unusual punishment” has been taken to a level of absurdity by bleeding-heart liberal collectivists. Spotlessly clean castles, television, air-conditioning and steak are preposterously beyond “humane and usual” treatment. Leniency based on “imperfection” is insidious and wrong. Perfection in jurisprudence is impossible. All criminals should be released if perfection is mandatory. If perfection is not mandatory, imperfection must be acceptable.

    Prisoner treatment is a function of taxation levels. How much do free American taxpayers owe criminals? The answer is the least expensive room and board. The amount necessary for subsistence that excludes “cruel and unusual punishment” but does not include luxuries that exceed the natural state of simple subsistence and survival. Not one taxpayer penny more.

    Listen to your words, “incarcerated men.” America didn’t promise them a rose garden. America promised incarceration and punishment for crime. American “prison” is punitive without being “cruel and unusual.” “Cruel and unusual,” by the way and contemporarily, was being “Drawn and Quartered.” We are far from that. Captain Kidd was tarred and hung at the mouth of the Thames to swing in the wind and rot as an example for departing seafarers.


    Finally, as the Preamble limited government to Justice, Tranquility, Common Defence and Promote the General Welfare, leaving the “blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” not to government, as freedom and free enterprise without interference by government, limits must be placed on arguments against the words of the founding documents. A simple and forthright example is Section 1 Article Two of the Constitution:

    “No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

    A limited and reasonable response to the question is the phrase “…born In the country of parents who are citizens” as found in the legal text and reference of the era, the “Law of Nations,” 1760, which was kept close and frequently referred to by the Founders who were leaving old ground and breaking new legal ground as they ended the history of monarchical governance and rejected the rule and rules of the British Empire.

    The obfuscation and expense of infinite prosecutions against law and the Founding documents must come to an end. Challenges to the Constitution should be no longer than the section being challenged. It must be a crime to mock, disparage and denigrate the words of the Founders through unreasonable, unrestrained and disingenuous verbosity.

  11. So – Do you think that Obama has an Agenda Here?

    Simon told the story of Donnie Anders, the character Oman Little (Obama’s favorite) was based on, who “robbed drug dealers and caught a 17-year bit – one he deserved – but all he wanted to do was come back and get back to his community.” Simon went on to further Obama’s point with a reminder that this was a recurring theme of the show – with so few job opportunities, rehabilitated ex-inmates often resort to illicit jobs like drug trafficking. “The unemployment rate among urban males bares no resemblance to actual unemployment rate nationally. The drug trade itself is like a company town. It’s hard to grow up without making dealers role models who know how to get around it [the systems].”

    😉 😉

  12. I am not a great believer in what is portrayed on the MSM and the reality shows that come from it. I know people that would die for a job now and truly have been rehabilitated. I also know people that have been getting away with drug abuse for years on the outside and feel a great sense of entitlement for getting away with their shoddy and abusive behavior everyone around them has to put up with.

    Why can’t we allow these people to vote that were felons after they show they were rehabilitated for 5 years on a Job. What a wonderful thing that would be.

    Talk about discrimination, Felons are the most discriminated people in the entire world. That is why they go back to their previous behavior. If they received Job training, which they do in most prisons in spite of the TV show the wire because Obama has an agenda and I am sick of it, many Prisons have rehabilitation for their prisoners.

    1. happypappies – you can apply to have your civil rights restored after you have been convicted of a felony.

  13. This reminds me of one of my favorite small films, “First Time Felon.” Great film.

    I haven’t seen The Wire, Rome, OR Deadwood. I’ll have to check them out!

    But, clearly, the best show ever made is Outlander. Is it April yet??? When will Herself come out with the next book?

    1. Karen – none of these shows are family hour shows. 😉 Deadwood is about the beginning of the Deadwood gold rush and it was all men and a few prostitutes so the language is rough and the the violence is rough. Rome is about the Julius Caesar and his nephew Caesar Augustus. The Romans had no body shame so there is a lot of nudity and violence. The Wire is about wiretapping a drug lord and it is all drugs, sex and violence. Justified, which is just ending, is more violence. All have great writing, acting, Rome and Deadwood have the best costumes and cinematography. Justified probably has the best writing on current TV.

  14. The US incarceration situation is a crystal clear illustration of the other side, the dark side, of the American simplistic us or them, left or right, right or wrong, etc approach to existence. Whereas most, if not all other advanced nations deal with the world in varying degrees and with a hands on ability, the US seems to swing back and forth from one extreme to another. The drug problem in the US is not unique. It happened all over the Western world at the same time. Yet the US will simply not stop, admit faults, and restructure. Instead it designs systems to handle more inmates.

    The facts are in. We can observe successes and failures from our peer nations. Yet since Nixon and Reagan simplistically with jingoes ‘a blazing’ set out to ‘stamp out’ this evil ranging from pot to heroin, without differentiating between the two, the US has become the shame of the world in this area.

    Obama is not part of the problem but he is not enough of the solution. The problem that remains is that of the polarization of American voters. It is almost impossible for the right to view any deviation from their extremes.

    The saving grace, as is being seen, is the states’ changing the criminalization of pot from mindless inclusion with dangerous drugs like heroin and meth to nothing more if not less worrisome than alcohol. One legacy Obama should leave behind is the federal decriminalization of pot. It should be done with a massive education program on drugs but it must be done.

    Go back fifty years and put together in your mind the millions of lives that have been needlessly ruined. The proof of this is that the past three Presidents have all experimented with pot and in some cases cocaine and yet have become Presidents. The only reason is they did not get caught and put in jail. Now compare that with the millions of lives that have been hamstrung with criminal records for the same experimentation. Kind of stupid eh?

  15. Well, if we executed more of the violent criminals, then we might get better control of the prisons. I think the low execution rate is what underlies the whole problem. Because we don’t kill those people, they get stuck in prison for life, and basically have nothing to lose while they are there. Prison ought to be for those who have some chance of rehabilitation, and these idiotic 25, 30, and 40 year+ sentences are ridiculous. If somebody is that dangerous, they ought to be put down.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  16. I am calling BS on The Wire being The Best Show Ever Made. Cara, I probably watch a lot more TV than you do and have a degree in theatre, having taught film for many years. The two best shows made (could go either way) are Rome and Deadwood. The Wire is a great show, but not the quality of either of the two I mentioned. Actually, we will have to see how it ends, but Justified could be right up there.

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