Linda Greenhouse, an always insightful observer of law and courts, has written an excellent column for the New York Times about the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama’s policy phasing out private prisons.
For Trump loyalist who keep pointing out that the stock market is doing well, she provides a “think about this” example of just what is fueling that optimism:
So the Trump administration is putting the welcome mat back out for private prisons, just as candidate Donald Trump said he would do, reversing the Obama administration’s policy of phasing them out for federal prisoners. It’s no wonder that shares in some of the nation’s biggest for-profit prison companies soared by double digits the day after the presidential election, making them among the biggest winners in the immediate postelection rally.
Greenhouse also provides us with a stark reminder of the “cost controls” that allow private prisons to make money. Her example comes from Indiana.
A decision on Feb. 21 by the federal appeals court in Chicago came just in time to remind us that privatization is a really bad idea. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a federal district judge’s dismissal and sent back for trial a case with the most appalling facts, brought by a dead prisoner’s mother against the company to which the Indiana Department of Corrections had outsourced its inmates’ medical care.
The opening paragraph of the opinion by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood tells the story: “Nicholas Glisson entered the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections on September 3, 2010, upon being sentenced for dealing in a controlled substance (selling one prescription pill to a friend who turned out to be a confidential informant). Thirty-seven days later, he was dead from starvation, acute renal failure, and associated conditions.”
After reciting the facts of this particular, egregious example, Greenhouse notes that she has two reasons for her focus on the Indiana case.
The first is to show the recklessness of President Trump’s wave-of-the-hand decision to retain the private prisons that a Justice Department study last year concluded “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as those operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Sally Q. Yates, the holdover deputy attorney general whom President Trump fired last month for refusing to defend his travel ban, relied on that conclusion in announcing that private prison contracts would not be renewed and that the 22,000 federal inmates housed in those prisons would be cut to 14,700 by May 2017 and eventually to zero.
Greenhouse’s second reason was to highlight the stark differences between the judge’s opinion upholding the right of the mother to sue and the original decision, by a different judge, dismissing the suit. As she pointed out, the choice of the people who render judgment in our system–the judges nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate–is important. Those choices matter.
When I read about this case, and the absolutely unnecessary death of a “felon” whose crime consisted of the sale of one prescription pill, it reminded me of something else that matters: the harm done by policies rooted in nothing other than social disapproval –what the Founders called “the passions of the majority.” Greenhouse has provided us with one example–drug laws that sweep far too widely and impose penalties wildly disproportionate to the offenses. The Trump Administration is in the process of providing us with another–the indiscriminate deportation of people whose only “crime” is coming to our communities without documentation.
Everyone disapproves of drug abuse, but not everyone agrees on the difference between “use” and “abuse”–or even the difference between harmful and harmless substances.
Similarly, everyone disapproves of illegal entry into the country in the abstract, but when we fail to distinguish between people who were brought here as young children by their parents, people who have been longtime assets to their communities or who have served in America’s armed forces, and the “bad hombres” of Trump’s rash rhetoric, we aren’t just being inhumane, we are supporting measures that are both costly and stupid.
It matters who our judges are. It really matters who the President is.