Global Independent Analytics
Danny Haiphong
Danny Haiphong

Location: USA

Specialization: War, Racism, Capitalist exploitation, Civil rights

Obama's Prison Reform Does not Absolve His Record, or his True Motives

Obama's reform to solitary confinement is a reform to make imperialism a more effective system of exploitation.

In 2011 and 2013, thousands of Pelican Bay prisoners went on hunger strike to demand redress for the physical and psychological torture inherent in the practice of solitary confinement. The second strike saw roughly 30,000 prisoners across California State take part in coordinated actions in solidarity with the prisoners of Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay’s hunger strikes fostered political momentum for reform. A federal court settlement last September ruled in favor of review and transfer of California state prisoners serving indeterminate periods of solitary confinement. The Obama Administration ended January by banning the solitary confinement of juveniles in Federal prison.

The Obama Administration’s reform of solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners is a direct response to the prisoner-led fight to end solitary confinement. Obama’s concession should not be seen as an act of compassion on the part of the Administration. The Obama era is coming to a close and the 2016 elections are fast approaching. The recent move to end solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners gives the Obama Administration a public relations boost. Such a boost is critical not only for the legacy of the Obama Administration but also the election prospects of the Democratic Party in November.

The Democratic Party needs a boost in public relations because it has done little to roll back the pressing problem of mass incarceration in the US. President Obama and the Democratic Party have been the overseers of the largest prison-state in the world.  At 2.3 million, the US currently imprisons more people than any other country. Of this number, 80,000 languish in solitary confinement. Over half of all prisoners in the US are Black or non-white. State prisoners make up the majority of people incarcerated yet will receive none of the benefits of Obama’s reform.

After release, the formerly incarcerated individuals in the US face discrimination in housing, employment, and healthcare. This places them at risk for reentry into prison. After seven plus years of aiding and abetting the growth of the prison state, the Obama Administration's sudden responsiveness to solitary confinement must be placed in this grim context. The Obama Administration ultimately has no interest in curbing the domination of the prison state over America’s poor, mostly Black subjects.

In 2013, Obama’s Department of Justice successfully argued against the retroactive release of prisoners serving drug-related sentences under the 100-1 crack-cocaine sentence ratio,[1]although this ratio was reduced to 18-1 by the Fair Sentencing Act, earlier in 2010. Five years later, Obama commuted the sentences of 6,000 federal inmates[2]. This number represented just a fraction of the federal prisoners deemed eligible for retroactive release under US law. The limitations of Obama’s reform should not surprise conscious observers of Obama’s record on mass incarceration.  
The Obama Administration interest in prison reform stems from the broader hope that policy manipulation will position the Democratic Party as the progressive alternative to the Republican Party. Historically, this is what has made the Obama Administration the "more effective evil" in Washington. The Obama Administration has been able to get away with protecting the Mass Incarceration State and has aided its growth in more ways than one. President Obama has led the charge to privatize public education and strip away what little civil liberties existed after the Bush Administration. The Department of Justice under Obama has also refused to use its powers to address the near daily killings of Black Americans by US law enforcement. Despite this, "progressive" and liberal sections of the US continue to protect the Obama Administration from criticism. 

Such protection of Obama has produced a political climate in the US where the left is afraid to confront the new realities of US imperialism. An honest analysis of the true motivations of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party, however, has become even more critical as the 2016 elections seek to replace the two-term president with a new imperialist-in-chief. The Democratic Party under Obama has moved so far to the right that its policies have become indiscernible from the Republican Party. Popular dissatisfaction and resentment of the Democratic Party have resulted in low voter turn-out and low approval ratings. The Democratic Party hopes that the potential of rebellion and unrest can be relieved by modest reforms to the practice of solitary confinement. 

Prisons continue to be a fact of life in the US and for very good reason. The rise of US prisons developed in the 1970’s out of the imperialist economy's need to dispose of surplus, mostly Black labor, and repress the potential of social upheaval. The prison in US society is one of the imperialism's primary weapons of imperialism against oppressed people. Obama has protected and strengthened this weapon throughout his administration. His Party, as well as Washington as a whole, will continue to do so until confronted with a genuine force of social transformation. And social transformation is what mass incarceration was designed to prevent.

 


[1] According to this ratio, even a tiny amount of crack-cocaine would result in lengthy imprisonment while a tiny amount of power-cocaine would not.  Poor blacks rather than wealthy bankers were imprisoned in large numbers.

[2] As Alec Karakatsanis explained:  “the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to ensure that thousands of human beings, mostly poor and mostly black, remain locked in prison – even though everyone agrees that there is no justification for them to be there.”

 

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