23 Feb 2009

Guantanamo mirrors the US prison system

A seminar in central London for law students from 10 countries across the world, including Britain and the United States, will discuss the issue of torture within the context of domestic law.

The lecture will be jointly delivered by Professor James Forman, professor of law at Georgetown university, Washington DC, and Helena Kennedy QC (currently representing a defendant in another “terror” trial at the secure crown court in Woolwich, south east London).

Talking to Professor Forman last night, I asked him about Barack Obama’s attitude to torture. He said people were asking the wrong questions, and that it was easy to berate the Americans over Guantanamo and the use of torture. What is much harder, he argued, is to look at both issues in the context of the domestic management of crime in America.

He told me that America currently has around 2 million people in prison – more than any nation, including China. According to the numbers put together by his faculty, a staggering 23,000 of these are in solitary confinement – not (as would be the case in the UK) as a punishment for infringing prison rules, but because it is part of their sentence.

When a human rights NGO put up a lookalike Guantanamo prison cell on the Mall in Washington, it caused no stir because, within the context of prison in America, it is not unusual. Shutting Guantanamo, according to Professor Forman, is a relative breeze compared with doing anything about the US prison system.

Like Obama, Forman is a black lawyer. He says that precisely because of his ethnicity Obama is unlikely to do anything about the way America jails people (a high proportion of them black males). As a black president, he’s not going to risk being seen as “soft” on crime.

Like Lincoln before him, Obama is already proving himself a pragmatist. Shutting Guantanamo symbolises his feelings about the “system” and the use of torture, says Forman. He suggests that where we are much more likely to see radicalism out of Obama will be on issues like climate change. Much less controversial, he has assembled the brightest and the best to tackle it.

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