One of the reasons we started the Solitary Watch project was what we observed as a disconnect between the public’s awareness of (and reaction to) the abuses brought about by the so-called War on Terror of the last ten years, and those already in place as a result of the longstanding War on Crime.

As we say in our mission statement, many Americans have recoiled from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and polls show that a clear majority oppose the use of torture under any circumstances, even on foreign terrorism suspects. Yet conditions in U.S. prisons and jails that transgress the boundaries of humane treatment–including the widespread use of  solitary confinement–have produced little outcry. They have received relatively scant media attention, and have yet to find a place in the public discourse or on political platforms.

Sara Mayeux addresses this issue in a post today on her Prison Law Blog. She quotes from a recent law journal article called “Exporting Harshness: How the War on Crime Helped Make the War on Terror Possible”:

A common criticism of the Bush Administration was that, in prosecuting the War on Terror, the administration turned its back on fundamental American ideals such as due process, the right to counsel, and habeas corpus. (See, for instance, Jane Mayer’s indispensable expose The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Doubleday, 2008.) Yet, in a recent article in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, Georgetown law professor and former public defender James Forman Jr. suggests that the War on Terror was not so much a reversal, as the logical extension of the War on Crime in the era of mass incarceration….

While I share much of the criticism of how we have waged the war on terror, I suspect it is both too simple and ultimately too comforting to assert that the Bush administration alone remade our justice system and betrayed our values. …

By pursuing certain policies and using particular rhetoric domestically, I suggest, we have rendered thinkable what would otherwise have been unthinkable. Moreover, as the world’s largest jailer, we are increasingly desensitized to the harsh treatment of criminals. We have come to accept such excesses as casualties of war—whether on crime, drugs, or terror. Indeed, more than that, we no longer see what we do as special, different, or harsh. Certain practices have become what [NYU sociology professor] David Garland calls “the taken-for-granted features of contemporary crime policy.” In part for this reason, despite the mounting evidence regarding secret memos, inhumane prison conditions, coercive interrogations, and interference with defense lawyers, the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror went largely unchecked and unchanged.

Forman argues that by placing all the blame on isolated Bush Administration officials, we avoid confronting our own responsibility….[The post is well worth reading in full.]

One of the uncomfortable truths some Americans may need to “confront” is that both political parties bear responsibility for these challenges to Constitutional and human rights. While the War on Crime gathered steam under the Reagan and first Bush Administrations, it was Bill Clinton who signed into law two pieces of legislation that undermined the rights of Americans accused or convicted of a crime. We look at these laws in our next post.


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