The Koch Brothers and President Obama both Propose Merely Superficial Reforms of Carceral Apparatuses

If the five corporate media entities that attended last months Koch brothers conference are deserving of criticism for merely restating the Koch Brothers’ dubious claims of being criminal justice reformers and freedom fighters for the poor, they are just as deserving of criticism for “reporting” that President Obama intends to close Guantanamo Bay. Both the Kochs and Obama have made moves towards their stated goals, but these goals are only the most shallow and superficial interpretations of the concerns being pressed by critics of the global carceral apparatus.

The Koch Brothers and “Freedom”
At the July conference Charles Koch argued that their fund-raising empire has to invest in spreading their corporate propaganda that a “free society” (read: unregulated by governmental consumer protection agencies) provides “the best opportunity of achieving” “what matters most to people”. While a superficial reading of “free society” sounds agreeable, the sort of freedom Koch has in mind is not consistent with “what matters most to people” – people value their health, something that would be put at risk by the unregulated pollution that would destroy our planet if Koch had his way; people want good educations for their children, something often at ends with the profit-turning privatization of schooling the Koch’s support; people like good, paying jobs, harder to find since the decline of unions, who the Kochs crusade against, etc., etc.

As part of their ploy to win over supporters through unsubstantial political optics, the Kochs have also taken up the cause of criminal justice reform, a policy area where an increasing number of people are deeply concerned injustices are perpetuated against poor folks, and thus, an area where the Kochs hope to capitalize on popular movements to justify their libertarian deregulation fantasies. Their commitment to effective reform is questionable, however. As a background, the Kochs only seem to have become interested in the cause after four of their employees were criminally charged for concealing from regulators the amount of carcinogenic material one of their production plants was emitting into nearby Corpis Christi. Their moves for criminal justice reform might then be a long-game of protecting their business from environmental protection laws, a point noted by the federal prosecutor from the Department of Justice who headed the case against the four managers, David Uhlmann.

The main place the Koch brothers are showing their interest in sentencing reform is in throwing their support behind Sensenbrenner and Scott’s SAFE act. But the reforms of that bill are actually quite minimal. The SAFE act keeps in place harsh mandatory minimums for organizers, leaders, managers and supervisors of a criminal activity involving at least five people, which sounds fine until one learns that prosecutors build misleading cases that accuse non-organizes of being organizers, and non-dealers of being dealers under this schema. The Washington Post featured an article on Sharanda Jones, a mother who has experienced this injustice in serving a life sentence. The bill would give more funding to police departments but no more to the communities being policed, effectively paying for more arrests by not attending to underlying social investment issues and hiring more people who would be incentivized to earn overtime pay and further their careers by booking people. Even the biggest strength of the bill is modest – it encourages judges to sentence first time offenders with probation, but without further investments in the community, a shorter stay in prison for a first-time nonviolent offender will do as much good as a longer stay after the arrest warrants for failure to pay court fines and board from prison due to being unable to find work make them end up back in prison, with new fines and fees that can’t be paid. Such a cycle of debt and prison is just as possible from probation as a prison stay (See Alexander’s The New Jim Crow).

Barack Obama and “Closing” Guantanamo Bay
President Obama’s pledges to close Guantanamo Bay are towards a gesture as empty as the Kochs’ support for criminal justice reform. Critics of the prison complex in Guantanamo are opposed to the indefinite warehousing of persons without trial, not that those persons happen to be in a bay off the Caribbean Sea, but Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo have only been towards this latter interpretation. Yet the Washington Post and the New York Times, which have with increasing regularity expressed neoconservative positions (see Saturday’s unflinching support for the apartheid in the West Bank), are doing their damnedest to shape public opinion towards the belief that the location of detainees is what is most objectionable. This is the very first sentence of a Washington Post article published on August 10th: “A renewed push by the White House to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been bogged down by an internal disagreement over its most controversial provision — where to house detainees who will be brought to the United States for trial or indefinite detention, according to U.S. officials.” The most controversial provision of Guantanamo Bay in regards to our moral consciences is not where persons are indefinitely detained without being charged, but that human beings are being indefinitely detained, many for over a decade, without trial. President Obama’s actions are hardly surprising anymore – though closing Guantanamo was among his proposals in his 2008 run for the presidency, in March 2011 he signed an executive order that created a “formal system of indefinite detention” at Guantanamo – but the corporate media that so thoroughly structures reality to support the global police state cannot be allowed to determine our morals.

All of this is, of course, old news, but for a contemporary example of how the Obama administration wields an apparatus of global social control, consider that on Friday the Obama administration filed a sealed, and thus secret, opposition to Tariq Ba Odah’s habeas corpus petition. Odah, a 36-year-old man who, in being abducted at age 23 has spent a third of his life at Guantanamo, has never been charged with a crime, and was cleared for release in 2009 due to not being a threat. Odah has been on a hunger strike for eight years to protest his unlawful imprisonment and the brutal treatment he has endured. He weighs less than 75 pounds. The Obama administration is opposed to releasing an innocent man dying in captivity but will not reveal for what reason. Sealed oppositions to habeas corpus petitions are rare, if not altogether unheard of. A U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity noted that the opposition is being kept secret not due to classified information in the filing but to spare the administration the embarrassment and repercussions of admitting that the force-feeding practices waged against Guantanamo detainees protesting their inhumane treatment are ineffective. The Obama administration would rather see an innocent man die than admit that despite the wielding of the global U.S. prison system against all, mass incarceration systems cannot fully enforce its will on our bodies.

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