On the eve of the presidential election, I’ve been thinking about a book called “The Eerie Silence.” The theory of the book is simple: if there is intelligent life in the universe other than on planet Earth, how come we haven’t heard from it yet? The 2012 election has reminded me of this deathly hush. Our two presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are perfect examples of intelligent life on Earth — both are extremely well educated and resourceful problem solvers. But for all their intelligence, there has been an eerie silence on one glaring issue during this election season: mass incarceration.
Obama & Romney on mass incarceration: Radio silence
Neither Obama nor Romney has taken a stance on the issue of mass incarceration in this election cycle. This silence has not gone unnoticed. Huffington Post blogger Jesse Lava addressed this flagrant oversight a couple days ago. And back in July, Ralph Nader implored the candidates to start talking about prisons. To no avail.
This eerie silence has even bled into issues that are merely tangentially related to mass incarceration. In Obama’s tenure as president, he has failed to shut down the country’s most controversial prison: Guantanamo Bay (and Romney has said in the past that the U.S. “ought to double” Guantanamo rather than shut it down). There have been reports on the extensive use of solitary confinement on the detainees at Guantanamo. However, neither candidate even mentioned the notorious prison during their third foreign policy debate in October.
I generally try to avoid politics and mass incarceration. Mass incarceration has become a political black hole — politicos avoid talking about meaningful prison reform lest they appear “soft” on crime. This “tough on crime” bromide has poisoned any chance for politicians to initiate intelligent debates on criminal justice issues. There is only one other issue that might shut down a political debate faster than crime: the issue of race. Since it is almost impossible to talk about mass incarceration without addressing the disproportionate number of inmates behind bars that are racial minorities, you end up with a political issue that is essentially a complete nonstarter.
Mass incarceration is weighed down by this political baggage. This is the most likely explanation for the candidates’ silence. However, in refusing to address the widespread (not to mention extremely expensive) problem of mass incarceration, both candidates have left gaping holes in their campaigns.
But still, go vote!
Obama and Romney may be unwilling to take part in this debate, but that doesn’t mean you should sit out too. Go vote tomorrow! Although it is unclear where the candidates stand on mass incarceration and solitary confinement, there may be ballot initiatives in your state related to these issues. I know in California, at least, Proposition 36 is recommending a lot of great reforms on the otherwise draconian “three strikes law” (Yes on 36).
Voting is a privilege that many people do not have, including the formerly incarcerated. With that in mind, get out to exercise your vote, and have a happy election day.