Thursday, July 16, 2015

Barack in the Big House

The use of a real prison in on-location filming of blockbuster Netflix series Orange is the New Black must have inspired Barack Obama's own savvy media shop. The president himself now has a starring role in his very own prison-based special. He traveled all the way to the federal pen in El Reno, Oklahoma to play the part of celebrity chaplain-for-a-day.

It helps that Alyssa Mastromonaco, the new COO of VICE ( the media company filming the documentary) is former deputy chief of staff for strategy in the Obama administration. Barry didn't even have to audition for the part of earnest concern-trolling mentor to the incarcerated.

It's all part of his latest public relations gimmick --  feigning concern for mainly black, mainly male, inmates locked up in the War on Drugs. Out of more than 5,000 federal inmates currently serving long terms for non-violent, crack-cocaine drug convictions, Obama recently commuted the sentences of a mere 46 of them to show what a caring guy he is. (And what a coincidence that one of them just happens to be the mother of a millionaire star athlete.) The other 4,950 or so, sentenced before a 2010 change in the law forbade such draconian prison terms, will continue to rot in prison. As a matter of fact, the administration successfully appealed a federal court ruling that would have allowed those 4,950 to challenge their sentences.  Obama continues to wage his "war on drugs" while he cynically bestows the very occasional symbolic favor for his own legacy-burnishing purposes.

 It was only this past week, for instance, that the FBI raided a medical marijuana operation on Indian tribal land in California. Obama still means business.

That he chose Oklahoma as the venue of his star turn is all the more cynical, given that it was the recent botched executions in that same state which led to the failed Supreme Court challenge to the death penalty this year. Obama refused to get involved in that case, refused to budge from his longstanding support of capital punishment. When the Court ruled against the plaintiffs, who claimed that the use of untested tranquillizers for executions amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, the complicit mass media were mainly silent on Obama's own passive-aggressive role in the case.

It was last fall, also cynically enough, that the Obama Labor Department summarily shut down the Treasure Lake Job Corps training site in nearby Indiahoma. Job Corps, a direct offshoot of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, exists for the express purpose of keeping young people out of places like El Reno. Obama has cut funding for Job Corps in each succeeding year of his tenure, thus greasing the skids for closures based on "inefficiencies" and "poor performance" that are the precise, planned results of his draconian cuts. As I wrote last year, 
Obama has proposed a permanent reduction in the Job Corps' "slot capacity" in his 2015 budget. Translated from Orwellian Newspeak, this means that about 10,000 at-risk youths will be left with no place to go. Since Job Corps centers feed and house participants as well as train them for careers, this will mean 10,000 more at-risk youths on the streets in such dystopian locales as Chicago and Ferguson.
The Labor Department report actually pointed to the need for at-risk youths to share the sacrifice in order to boost America's "global competitiveness." Apparently, one way that they can help American innovation is to move from Job Corps sites into privatized prisons, which by Congressional fiat must maintain a steady population of inmates in order to remain "competitive."

Thankfully, the medium security El Reno facility is not yet privatized and also doesn't (directly) kill people, as does the nearby state penitentiary in McAlester, site of the horrific makeshift executions.

 After an off-label drug cocktail led to the prolonged agonizing deaths of three convicted murderers, Obama could have issued a moratorium on the federal death penalty as a signal of his disgust. He could have used his bully pulpit to inspire the 36 states currently grappling with their own capital punishment laws to repeal them and thus gain humanistic parity with the rest of the advanced world. He could have dispatched his solicitor general to the Supreme Court to argue on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case, perhaps influencing the decision.

But he preferred not to. The Drone President ("I'm really good at killing people") really likes the death penalty, even though a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners shows that two-thirds of Americans favor life in prison, with no possibility of parole, for convicted murderers.

Although Obama did order former Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an "investigation" of death penalty policies last fall, the administration later wimped out for the usual craven political reasons:
Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it.
One of Obama's Harvard law professors opined that the president needs to be "pushed" into changing his tune on the death penalty, much as he was forced to evolve on marriage equality. So I guess only two thirds of the public not wanting to kill prisoners is still not enough for him.

Although whites on death row outnumber blacks, 55.5% to 34.7%, more than 75% of actual executions are performed on murderers of white people. Only 15% of executions carried out are for the murders of black people. This is despite the fact that 50% of murder victims are black. The racial identity of the victim is the determining factor in who gets put to death in America.

But these realities took a back seat in the media coverage, which concentrated heavily on the made-for-TV optics of a handful of Confederate flag-waving yahoos heckling Obama's armored motorcade as he arrived in Oklahoma for his combination Democratic fundraiser/prison gig. As his supporters go into outrage mode over the first African-American president being exposed to such ugly racist symbolism, Obama himself becomes magically exempt from his own complicity in the ever-burgeoning punishing/exterminating state. He is cosmetically and hypocritically able to establish solidarity with his own victims. He couldn't have asked for a better propaganda coup. The right-wing hate machine paradoxically advantages him, much as it has advantaged Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years. It tends to silence the legitimate criticism.

The VICE documentary in which he stars will no doubt be playing in an endless loop at his Chicago library shrine, virtually revising history as it paints Obama as a hero to the oppressed rather than the oppressor of such heroic prisoners as Chelsea Manning and other victims of his war on whistleblowers, and his war on poor people in general. Forty-six sentence commutations do not a criminal justice overhaul make. Not by a long shot.

This entry for the Obama library design contest unfortunately only got an honorable mention (it was judged distinguished, yet disturbing) probably because it adheres a little too closely to the president's real legacy:


Jay–Ottawa said...

Aw, geez, Karen. Just when my Obama meter registered a high of 6%––1% for being the lesser evil and a recently-added 5% for the Five +1 nuke agreement with Iran––you have to go spoil it with another chapter of Profiles in Hypocrisy. Is there no end to that book? Now I have to crank the meter back to 1%.

mike said...

The Justice Department can on its own initiative drop marijuana from a Schedule I drug seen as dangerous as meth and preventing research on its health benefits from being done to a Schedule III and take much of the War on Drugs away today, by lunch, if it so chose. Since most states have consciously set their policies on pot based on what the feds do, it might also have a multiplying effect. Until that happens, anything this administration says is, well, you just said it.

Will said...

Wanna know what women's prison is REALLY like? Here's a 2014 article from DC's City Paper where a former inmate reviews Orange Is The New Black. If you guessed that it's completely unrealistic Hollywood bullshit, you're our winner for today!

Meredith NYC said...

Yes Karen....humanistic parity with the rest of the advanced world. The Enlightenment has passed America by. Until these differences are publicized on our news media to show other ways, USA stays backward, with a passive, cynical, manipulated public. That’s just what the Gop rw likes us to be.

Btw, the death penalty was outlawed in many European nations decades, even generations ago. Now the EU outlaws it for all its members. US states rights ideology preserves it here, as it also denies health care to millions.

At least Bill Clinton said re his 1990s prison policy---“I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.” Ok, Hillary, you’ve got a job to do—follow up.

‘Democracy Now’ TV the other day interviewed an ex prisoner, exonerated as innocent after 18 years, who now as an advocate for change, visited European prisons. He was so surprised at their humane and rational treatment, so different from his experience here.

Says they try to get prisoners back into society as law abiders who can get jobs and stay out of trouble. They have more rational sentencing, use solitary very sparingly vs the US. Their mentally ill are not ignored. Also many countries have experimented with more rational drug treatment. We could learn much from their successes and failures, which should be discussed and tried here.

The NYT has written editorials on prisons abroad. Also the election of judges in the US is a factor in our mass incarceration. In other countries judges are appointed, so they don’t have to run on records of how many people they’ve put away, and for how long. This contributed to our mass incarceration. See past articles on this by Adam LIptak.

As in many things, our states rights ideology interferes with fair justice, letting states decide life and death matters. And undermining any concept of Equal Protection of the laws.

Meredith NYC said...

Obama sure knows how to pick ‘em.

From NYT:
—“Marilyn B. Tavenner, the former Obama administration official in charge of the rollout of, was chosen to be the top lobbyist for the nation’s health insurance industry.

(topic suggestion for NYT----in the dozens of nations with lower cost, truly universal health care, do they even have lobbyists for the health care industry? Do their lawmakers take campaign donations from insurers and their govt regulators go on to jobs in corporations?)

“ Obama urged consumers to put pressure on state insurance regulators to scrutinize proposed rate increases. “

(oh, so it’s our fault, the consumers, if we don’t prevent the rate increases the insurers are asking for? In other countries their govts negotiate prices with insurance companies for their citizens.)

“Ms. Tavenner was the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that insures one in three Americans ..with annual budget of $800 billion. As administrator, she was in charge of

Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, described the selection in more negative terms. “While millions of Americans are still being hurt by Obamacare’s soaring costs and fewer choices,” he said, “Ms. Tavenner’s appointment shows how the law has created a cozy and profitable relationship for some.”

(what does Obama’s party say?)

Meredith NYC said...

Interesting Chomsky quote in comment to Krugman blog, Eternal Greece, today.
CindyG Moorestown, NJ 2 hours ago

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”
― Noam Chomsky

I replied:

And limiting the spectrum on the media is so easy with media monopolies.

Cindy....that's a wonderful Chomsky point. Allow even dramatic, contentious debate within the narrow spectrum of political solution ideas that US voters are allowed. Then they think they live in a free democracy, and are distracted by the fight for their own interests. Like a reality tv show, far removed from reality.

Many say the US has the narrowest range of ideas presented to voters during campaigns of any advanced democracy. Maybe Clinton’s economics speech was an example---little in specific solutions, big on themes and generalities. Krugman approved in his column. Since Krugman is a liberal, therefore Hillary must be a liberal. We can all relax.

Chomsky’s point shows why we are the only advanced country still without true universal health care. Why the only one who still puts criminals to death, sometimes by cruel means. And why the president has to visit a federal prison.

A Koch Bros lawyer was just on Democracy Now, advocating for prison and sentencing reform, sitting with a recently exonerated man who served 18 years.

Erik Roth said...

Not to mention the prison at Guantanamo Bay, eh Mr. President?
In 2008 Obama promised to close that straightaway, and doing so he claimed was a top priority.

Pearl said...

How Does Bernie Sanders' Turnout in Maine Compare to Other Democratic Rallies? It Was Epic. -

Pearl said...

Hecklers Demand Hillary Clinton Buck Fossil Fuel Cash and 'Act on Climate' -