Trendspotting – Correctional News Watch


While indulging my JFK-inspired addiction to reading at least two newspapers every day, I have noted several topics chronicled in the headlines of news outlets recently that may have an influence on the ways in which we manage offenders and places of correction.

Crime and consequences aside, the running media commentary on several national and regional issues highlights potentially far-reaching implications.

Self-Evident Truths?

First, the debate over the release of more torture images from Abu Ghraib and other detention sites:

One can argue that the release of the now infamous photographs of U.S. service personnel detainees has done more than any other action during the last decade or longer to damage the image of the United States as a nation that promotes and defends human rights.

Having initially indicated that unpublished images of American-administered torture would be released, the Obama administration now appears to be looking beyond First Amendment considerations to the potential negative impact and geopolitical implications of releasing additional damning images of Americans engaged in misconduct and abuse.

Our response to the Abu Ghraib affair — be it executive, legislative or collective — has fundamental ramifications for our national identity that warrant vigorous examination on the part of all Americans. Correctional professionals, in particular, have an obligation to confront such issues from a starting point that is free of political ideology and in a manner that balances the right to know with the imperative to preserve human dignity.

Third-Branch Shake Up

A second newsworthy story surrounds the nomination of appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Having read none of her past legal opinions and relying completely upon print and electronic media for information, I will, like the majority of Americans, trust the due diligence of our elected representatives in determining her qualifications and suitability for the most elevated dais.

Her reported humble origins and life experiences raise my expectation that on issues dealing with corrections, personnel, inmate rights and conditions of confinement, she will be diligent, compassionate and thorough in forming opinions.

From managing mentally ill offenders to incorporating natural light, every correctional professional knows the opinions rendered from this powerful bench ultimately will impact our work.

Rendering Habeas Corpus

The third story of national importance that will likely continue to simmer through the summer involves the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and their relocation to recalcitrant locales on these shores for trial and imprisonment or resettlement.

Beyond the generously expressed partisan political views on the legal rights of non-combatants, news outlets have been diligent in fanning this long-smoldering legal fire with well-honed NIMBY-driven headlines all too familiar to those of us involved in the field of corrections.

The familiar objections to the proposed incorporation of an incarceration facility into local land-use plans have surfaced with the predictable cast of protesters. By the way, the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., has long held one recently indicted jihadist without any noticeable decline in local tourist trade.

Similarly, the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., houses the likes of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the attacks of September 11th, respectively; and shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

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It’s the evangelism of fear at work again, and the affair bears watching through the summer as a barometer of our resolve to resettle securely in our communities those who threaten the American way of life.

No doubt, much ink will be spilt on these three topics over the coming weeks and months, and depending upon the decisions reached far up the food chain, the view of America as a nation of accountable and responsible people may come to be regarded much differently when all is said and done.

Hasta La Vista

The last regional story, which is clogging the presses of California, certainly has major implications for the criminal justice system on a national scale.

In the Golden state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is grappling with crippling budget deficits and economic insolvency not witnessed since 2003, when a record $35 billion deficit became the central plank in the total recall of his predecessor, Gray Davis.

The Governator, famous for terminating problems on the silver screen, proposed releasing tens of thousands of real life inmates as part of a statewide cost-cutting plan to dodge fiscal meltdown.

As Donald Trump might say, “This is huge!”

Imagine the results of releasing inmates into our neighborhoods in astounding numbers. With many states and local governments all but eliminating programs designed to improve the chance for both a safe and productive return home that 85 percent of our incarcerated population eventually experience, the piper is about to be compensated. Should such plans be implemented without a rapid infusion of treatment programs, the radioactive half-life of our poor choices will be measured in decades.

The Donald is right. This may be the hugest story of the summer.

The Fourth Estate

Finally, a bit of disappointing news, and marker for a deepening trend, dominating the business section of print dailies.

Many major newspapers across the country, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times, are struggling to survive the seismic shift to the Internet and the generational challenge presented by Web-based news reporting.

Among a host of serious consequences — not the least of which is the threat posed to the exercise of First Amendment rights — riders of public transportation face the prospect of further burdening their already token-filled pockets with emergency supplies of batteries for their electronic media devices.

Alternatively, perhaps riders may actually engage their seatmates in the little-known art of conversation to ward off the boredom and withdrawal symptoms. Could a newspaper-free nation actually become the basis for a better exchange of ideas?

Support our Constitution. Buy and read one or more newspapers every day for the rest of this summer and beyond. The result will inform your life.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.