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. He acknowledged the fiscal burdens prison budgets place on states and the federal government are immune to party polarization.

    Au contraire the fiscal burdens of over incarceration are placed upon the backs of all hard working US citizens in the form of excessive taxes levied upon on their earnings and properties by both state/federal government.

  2. Yup IngaAnnie, presumably Squeeky’s list of “only dope fiends and knuckleheads are for legalizing the stuff” includes the large contingent of experienced LEO (and prosecutors, judges, etc.) who know the War on Drugs to be a huge money-sucking boondoggle and a major waste of their (expensive and limited) time and talents.

  3. Maybe a little. But I did honestly want to know what you thought about marijauna use. LOL, “dope fiends and knuckle heads”, eh?

  4. Squeeky said,
    “The Libertarians are, frankly, a bunch of little spoiled kids, and a lot of this “wah wah let everybody do what they want” stuff has already been tried, and our laws were passed to address these problems.”

    Aren’t some of your biggest fans here on RIL libertarians? Does your prohibition against drug use include marijauna?

  5. Hmmm. Wake up and smell the bullsh*t!

    Imagine for a moment that we the drug fiends’ dreams come true, and that drugs were all of a sudden legal! According to them, all the drug gangs would then go bye-bye! Huh??? All those guys who sit around stoned on this or that and survive by selling drugs are going to pull up their britches, put on their work boots and go look for honest work??? My goodness, what have been smoking? They will simply find other criminal means to replace the money, maybe strong arm robberies, home invasions, sex trafficking, etc. No, criminals aren’t going to go away if we end drug criminalization.

    Now, what about the Americans who are going to start getting f*cked up on this, that, or the other drug. Think it would be just a few??? Read back a few hundred years, when opium was legal. From Confessions of an English Opium Eater 1821:

    But who are they? Reader, I am sorry to say a very numerous class indeed. Of this I became convinced some years ago by computing at that time the number of those in one small class of English society (the class of men distinguished for talents, or of eminent station) who were known to me, directly or indirectly, as opium-eaters; such, for instance, as the eloquent and benevolent —, the late Dean of —, Lord —, Mr. — the philosopher, a late Under-Secretary of State (who described to me the sensation which first drove him to the use of opium in the very same words as the Dean of —, viz., “that he felt as though rats were gnawing and abrading the coats of his stomach”), Mr. —, and many others hardly less known, whom it would be tedious to mention.

    Now, if one class, comparatively so limited, could furnish so many scores of cases (and that within the knowledge of one single inquirer), it was a natural inference that the entire population of England would furnish a proportionable number. The soundness of this inference, however, I doubted, until some facts became known to me which satisfied me that it was not incorrect. I will mention two.

    (1) Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me that the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was at this time immense; and that the difficulty of distinguishing those persons to whom habit had rendered opium necessary from such as were purchasing it with a view to suicide, occasioned them daily trouble and disputes. This evidence respected London only.

    But (2)—which will possibly surprise the reader more—some years ago, on passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton manufacturers that their workpeople were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating; so much so, that on a Saturday afternoon the counters of the druggists were strewed with pills of one, two, or three grains, in preparation for the known demand of the evening. The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which at that time would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits, and wages rising, it may be thought that this practice would cease; but as I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol, I take it for granted

    That those eat now who never ate before;
    And those who always ate, now eat the more.

    The damn stuff was outlawed for a reason. It was screwing up large numbers of people, and thus screwing up a stable society. It was screwing up people in China, who become unable to work and support their families because of their addictions. People were starving because daddy was too f*cked up to work the fields. Does anybody really think it will be different this century, when people are generally even less responsible??? And, have government safety nets to keep them from starving.

    Now, consider exactly who is going to overuse drugs. Do you want surgeons to be “free” to indulge? How about truck drivers out there on the highways with 80,000 pounds of metal and freight? Do you want them on meth and speed (legally)? Yeah somebody in a meth rage in a big rig is great for civilization! How about airline pilots? Air traffic controllers? The guys running your local nuclear power plant? Will drugs be free for some people, and then taboo for others??? That hardly seems fair. And hardly likely to be enforceable.

    We live in an advanced technological society, and things can get dangerous really fast when workers screw up. Even the fast food preparer who mishandles the preparation of a batch of fried chicken can cause massive problems.

    The Libertarians are, frankly, a bunch of little spoiled kids, and a lot of this “wah wah let everybody do what they want” stuff has already been tried, and our laws were passed to address these problems.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  6. What did $22Trillion spent on the “War on Poverty” and “Great Society” get you? Massive entitlement, disincentive and dependency by large segments of society, including foreigners who “immigrate” and ultimately become wards of the American taxpayer. America also obtained some unspoken credit for subliminally imposing “reparations” debt on American taxpayers even though most never participated in slavery which was initiated by the African tribal chiefs who sold their tribe members to Arab slave traders (seems like the African chiefs, Arab slave traders and British “Law” should have been sued to fund the reparations-providing “War on Poverty”).



    The implication is that Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs failed. According to police authorities there, it was a huge success. Aren’t the drug cartel activities based on illegality, meaning there would be no illegal cartel activity if drugs were legal? If dealers were legal, they would be peaceful, licensed and taxed, no?

    Fewer dollars are spent on treatment and rehabilitation than on the “War on Drugs,” prosecution and incarceration. You’re a lot like religious people who falsely believe in nothing and believe their moral positions are superior and they are better simply because they persist in their false beliefs. Kinda like those great Catholics who rape little boys in the sanctuary. And their loving god who allowed 150 innocent people to be flown straight into a mountain in Germany last week.

    Wake the up! Smell the coffee.

    The compelling question is of the constitutionality of depriving Americans of the freedom to use drugs. Drugs were legal until about 100 years ago. Drug use seems to be a moral question. It is unconstitutional to dictate lifestyle, including the use of alcohol. It is one of Americans’ “blessings of liberty” to consume alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Murder, manslaughter, assault, battery, rape, robbery, theft, property damage, vandalism, etc. are illegal. Those are behaviors. Statistically, only a small percentage of people who consume drugs commits one of these crimes. If law is going to make legal the underlying activity rather than the misbehavior, the operation of the automobile must be immediately made illegal. Cars kill. Car use kills. Car abuse kills.

    Prosecute the behavior,

    not the vehicle (substance).

    1. Richard – that would be 150 people down into a mountain ravine, not straight into a mountain. Somehow you never got the concept of ‘free will.’

  7. “Make rehabilitation the objective of incarceration.” – we tried this before and it failed. Interesting that the “put the crooks in jail” approach has worked – crime is down in the last 20 years, but people want to change it. Of course, many of these same people were arguing against putting the crooks in jail when crime was exploding in the 60s, 70s, 80s. Gosh, it almost like they have an agenda.

    1. Oh, here we go with the Portugal link again. Give me a break. Nope. They get to serve time and think about it

  8. PS, America fought the “War on Poverty” and Poverty won. Let’s just surrender. If redistribution (i.e. reparations) was a prime component of the Communist Manifesto, why was it implemented in America where the founding documents have dominion. From direct welfare payments to affirmative action, from Obamacare to “fair housing” which is un-“fair” to the private property owner, the principles of communism prevail in America.

    Even the communists buried communism but not the American collectivists.

    Poverty won.


    Check Portugal regarding the “War on Drugs.” Portugal decriminalized drugs and emphasizes rehab. Incarceration is non-existent as are drug cartels and COSTS are negligible according to the media.

    Drugs should all be made legal as they were 100 years ago. Americans were intended to be free. Bad behavior should be enforced against, not drug use.

    Drug dealers and murderous cartels will disappear when drugs are legal.

    Courts will be relieved of a timewasting burden.

    Costs of the drug war will disappear with legalization. No war, no costs.

    Enforcement must be against bad behavior not alcohol, tobacco or other drug use.

    Pity not hate for drug users.

    Providing constitutional freedom of drug use to citizens, legalizing drugs and replacing the “War On Drugs” with rehabilitation will be more effective and less costly.

  9. Tyger Gilbert,
    “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.”

    I find your suggestions interesting, though a bit extreme. I like the idea of emphasizing rehabilitation; however, what does this constitute to you?

    What do you think of this research linking nutrition and anti-social behavior?

    An excerpt:
    “The experimental, placebo-controlled, double-blind methodology has demonstrated that supplementing prisoners’ diets with physiological dosages of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids caused a reduction in antisocial behaviour to a remarkable degree.

    It is not advocated that nutrition is the only cause of antisocial behaviour but the difference in outcome between the active and placebo groups could not be explained by ethnic or social factors, as they were controlled for by the randomised design.

    If these findings are replicated, and they need to be, this nutritional approach to antisocial behaviour has the advantage that deficits in nutrition can be readily identified and remedied.”

    “The findings do suggest, however, a need to improve dietary education as well as providing more nourishing diets. Indeed, one early study (Schauss, 1978) conducted in the community claimed that such dietary education proved more effective at reducing recidivism than conventional probation programmes employed at that time.

    Current dietary standards

    This research strongly suggests that the effect of diet on antisocial behaviour has been underestimated and more attention should be paid to offenders’ diets. It should be noted, however, that the current dietary standards by which dietary adequacy are judged barely take behaviour into account. Thus, having demonstrated empirically an effect on antisocial behaviour, we are only at the start of understanding the potential of this intervention.”


  10. The Wire, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Deadwood, all GREAT series. Can’t we all just get along and agree that they were all quality shows and “the best” is subjective.

    Good post. Our War on Drugs has been an abject failure. You need to focus on demand, not supply. Anyone w/ any economics knowledge knows that.

    1. Nick – to the War on Drugs being a failure, you have to add the War on Poverty.

  11. @Ken Rogers

    Your response was sooo predictable! Of course you would find the simple answer of executing murderers and rapists simplistic. You can’t really think of a better answer except to dither and obfuscate some more. Maybe the reason other countries don’t have our particular crime problem is that they knock off their crooks. Gee, imagine that! Doing something that works!

    For somebody who fell for the ridiculous Marcus Bachmann story, you really should be more humble and ought to try listening to me once in a while. Maybe you will learn something!

    Tee Hee! Tee Hee!

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

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