On Prisons: The SCOTUS, Obama, and The Wire


“Omar coming…”

Debate on prison reform presented a rich but dreary landscape this week. Bookending the spectrum were themes of law and its role in total incarcerations, and the practical realities faced by incarcerated men. Justices Breyer and Kennedy appeared before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to discuss the legal disarray of the American prison system. President Obama and David Simon, the writer and creator of (THE BEST SHOW EVER MADE) The Wire, discussed the same topic in a video for the White House YouTube page.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who displayed a more passionate side than we usually see in Court, said the subject of corrections “was never discussed in law school.” Lawyers, he went on, were and have been more focused on the adjudication of a criminal trial, not the conviction side or sentencing. Frankly, “we didn’t care about the process [after].”

Kennedy now believes such government processes are gravely misunderstood and overlooked and need immediate prioritization.

Further troubling to Kennedy, and where the Justice’s irritability was most apparent, were the continued efforts to fortify “Supermax” prisons and hold inmates in isolation for, in some cases, decades, driving men literally crazy. As if to offer a recommendation, Kennedy referenced European prisons who deal with “recalcitrant inmates in groups of three or four so that at least they have human contact.” Ultimately, not nearly enough effective research has been devoted to minimizing our rate of incarcerations, according to Kennedy, leaving the system “in many respects, broken.”

Justice Breyer chimed in only to concur with Kennedy’s opinions by reminding the Subcommittee members that Congress could pass a law changing the system. States have corrections boards to essentially eradicate disparate sentencing by judges, yet incarceration rates rise thanks to mandatory minimums which “are a terrible idea,” according to Breyer. It’s time for a comprehensive overhaul of the entire system.

On Wednesday, President Obama sat down for a rare interview with David Simon. Simon, creator of The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, visited the White House to be interviewed by Obama. Stories told on the show were often laced with overarching criticisms of local and national politics, and a dismissal of insipid bureaucratic “silver bullets” making this interview between Simon and the President somewhat surprising and mildly awkward. But Obama’s long touted himself a fan of The Wire and Simon’s quiet brilliance always draws an audience, especially when the topic is his wildly popular HBO show that is just as relevant today as it was when it debuted thirteen years ago.

The two men also discussed the flawed state of the American penal system. Simon recalled the population of violent offenders in the federal prison system was “34%” when he began working as a police reporter in the early 1980s. “Thirteen years later it was about 7%.”

“When you try to win the drug war, you only have a limited number of resources,” he said. Decreases in the numbers of men incarcerated for violent crime and increases in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses were attributed to hard line policies cities enacted to thwart high crime rates. “Police stopped doing police work and started arresting people for drugs. Incarcerations went up for drug use, but arrests for robbery and murder went down. Comprehensive police work involving investigations, performing searches and seizures, which take longer, works,” said Simon.

President Obama found the realities faced by men who reenter American society after confinement anathema to the purpose of prison. “They’re effectively trained to be hardened criminals inside captivity and come out functionally unemployable. They become permanently a part of America that you can’t pull back from. As unemployment goes down and jobs are created, there is still immobility among people with felony histories, which is counterproductive.”

Simon told the story of Donnie Anders, the character Oman Little (Obama’s favorite) was based on, who “robbed drug dealers and caught a 17-year bit – one he deserved – but all he wanted to do was come back and get back to his community.” Simon went on to further Obama’s point with a reminder that this was a recurring theme of the show – with so few job opportunities, rehabilitated ex-inmates often resort to illicit jobs like drug trafficking. “The unemployment rate among urban males bares no resemblance to actual unemployment rate nationally. The drug trade itself is like a company town. It’s hard to grow up without making dealers role models who know how to get around it [the systems].”

Said Simon, “If these Draconian measures worked, it would be one thing. But it doesn’t and it’s not.”

Whereas an interview with Simon, much like watching an episode of The Wire, could often leave the audience feeling bleak, Obama pulled what faint silver lining he could muster out of the discussion. He acknowledged the fiscal burdens prison budgets place on states and the federal government are immune to party polarization. Both sides are troubled by how much money is spent fortifying and building prisons. The Department of Justice is working with U.S. Attorneys to design measures of effective prosecution. “It was ‘charge the max,’ but it should be proportional and just.”

“If we can get people to keep talking about this in a smarter way, [it] leaves me encouraged.” Simon closed the interview quietly if reluctantly saying to the President “from your mouth to God’s ear.”