the Bush administration in a massive love fest over the death of Ronald Reagan. While it is generally considered bad form to speak poorly of the dead, like much of American domestic and foreign policy, there are winners and losers in all policy decisions. Those reaping the spoils certainly find nothing to criticize in those who made their profits and political gain possible. For the losers though, it is a different story.
Few media sources have analyzed the lasting impact of Reagan's legacy on prisoners and the criminal justice system. After some fifty years of relative stability, the nation's prison population began a rocketing climb that continues to this day, going from some 300,000 state and federal prisoners to over 2.1 million state, federal and jail prisoners today. A figure that grows exponentially each day.
Just as Reagan signified a war on organized labor, national liberation movements, women's rights and children, prisoners didn't fare much better. The federal Sentencing Guidelines were enacted under Reagan which eliminated parole and most good time reductions for federal prisoners and sharply increased all federal penalties, including reinstatement of the federal death penalty. Most significantly, the 1986 crime control act signed by Reagan instituted federal mandatory minimums which ensured draconian sentences for relatively minor drug offenses. Almost all of these regressive, negative measures were copied by the states.
But "tough on crime" was only for poor, unorganized criminals. The criminal legacy of the Reagan white house has not been commented upon. Attorney General Edwin Meese (who has since devoted himself to extolling the virtues of prison slave labor) defended his integrity upon leaving office by noting he had not been indicted, he neglected to mention the dozens of Reagan administration officials who were indicted and convicted on assorted corruption charges. Charges ranging from the Iran Contra cover up to the mundane embezzlement and theft of public funds. The larger crimes of the administration, waging an illegal war in Nicaragua that left 50,000 people dead, supporting death squad regimes throughout Latin America, flaunting a ruling from the World Court finding the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the U.S. to be in violation of International Law (who would have guessed?), supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa and much more, goes unremarked upon because these are the everyday incidents of imperial power. That Reagan started his political career as a snitch for the FBI when he was president of the Screen Actor's Guild in the 1950's and helped ensure Americans accused of leftist beliefs would remain unemployed in the film industry also gets little comment nowadays.
Though long out of office and a cold corpse, Reagan's legacy of war and repression is still felt. But, it is a mistake to ascribe too much for a man who, after all, played a straight man to a chimpanzee at the height of his film career. At every step of the way, Reagan's war on prisoners went unchallenged and indeed aided and abetted by most politicians. As Dan Baum notes in Smoke and Mirrors, an excellent history of the "War on Drugs," it was Tip O'Neill, a Democrat, and speaker of the House from Massachusetts who originally proposed the federal mandatory minimums that Reagan signed into law. Perhaps with Reagan's death there would be some call to reexamine the federal sentencing policies that were enacted into law in his administration. To date, the silence has been deafening.
Lest this sound overly negative, it is worth pointing out that as governor of California, in 1969 Reagan instituted that state's Family Visiting Program which allowed prisoners to have overnight visits with their spouses, children, parents and siblings. Probably the best prison program ever implemented in modern American history. Which goes to prove that when a strong political movement exists to exert pressure, even otherwise reactionary politicians will bend to the prevailing wind and do the right thing.
This month's cover story notes what is not news to PLN readers, namely that the abuse occurring in Iraqi prisons under the American occupation is nothing new to American prisoners. All the specific incidents mentioned in Ms. Cusac's article were reported here in PLN at the time they occurred. Unfortunately, the bulk of every issue of PLN is filled with similar stories of abuse, rape, murder and mistreatment in the American gulag. We recently expanded to 48 pages and we don't lack for news to fill our pages.
Which brings us to the fact that while PLN is the only publication in the US dedicated to reporting on the human rights of those detained in American detention facilities. With 4,000 subscribers, and eight times as many readers, we need to expand our circulation to increase our impact. With additional funds we could undertake more significant subscriber outreach efforts to bolster our subscriber base. Likewise, even with 48 pages, there is a lot of prison and jail related news going on out there that we are still lack the space to report. If you think the abuse of American prisoners, on American soil, by American government employees and their private contractors is something that deserves to be documented, reported and disseminated to the public (in and out of prison), I hope you take a moment to send a donation to PLN so we can both continue our work and expand it.
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