Obama’s Carceral Reform Neglects Unemployment

TRNN host and producer Eddie Conway responds to Obama’s recent speech calling for changes in mass incarceration policies.

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up, world. Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

So just last night at another gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Barack Obama announced his sweeping changes for criminal justice and mass incarceration. And we’re here to talk about that with our own resident host and producer and former political prisoner and member of the Black Panther party, Eddie Conway.

But before we do that, let’s take a look at what Obama said is the state of mass incarceration as it stands today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Since my first campaign I’ve talked about how in too many cases our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails.

BALL: So Eddie Conway, we hear the statistics that Obama lays out, the percentages of those incarcerated, this being the biggest incarceration state. What is your response to hearing him make reference to this, these statistics, and his overall response to them?

CONWAY: I think he delivered a great speech. The statistics was good, the information needed to be out there. But the information has been out there for, like, decades. Everybody pretty much knows this stuff.

The thing of it is is that with his speech there’s a lot of rhetoric but there’s no substance. And him pardoning, like, 90 prisoners or something like that which everybody is celebrating, there’s 100,000 prisoners that fit that category in the non-violent offenses, and most of them will end up spending their whole entire life in the prison system.

So on the one hand it sounds good, but if history is a teacher of anything what we find out is that what he says and what actually happens is two different things.

BALL: Right. I mean, we were talking a little bit off-air about his tremendous skill as an orator. Particularly when he gets in front of black audiences, for instance at these NAACP gatherings that he’s, he’s spoken at a number of times. He, from my perspective, puts on the performance of blackness. He gets into the preacher mode. He gets into that–he gets his style going, his swagger going. And says a lot of things that you mentioned sound really good.

But for instance when he’s talking about his concerns over the school to prison pipeline, the first thing I thought of, well, you and Arnie Duncan, your secretary of education, have presided over one of the most horrific eras of privatization and militarization of public schools, and supported this charter school movement which those like me think is a shell game, blaming to–a way to break up teachers’ unions and blame teachers and blame people for their poor education.

So when I hear him say that, again, it sounds good in the speech but it doesn’t, it doesn’t seem like he has any real policy behind it to address the school part of that school to prison pipeline. And then as we’ll hear in this next clip he’s talking about a right-left coalition involving even the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich, of all types, as sort of a positive coalition to address this.

So let’s check out that clip, and then I’ll ask you a response when we come back.

OBAMA: It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Dan Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.

BALL: So Eddie Conway, what do you think of this? We’ve heard his, Obama’s claim here. What do you think about this coalition that he’s building, or anything else that I said [before] this?

CONWAY: Well, before we even look at the coalition let’s look at what he has done with Chicago with the school system, say, for instance. He had gutted the private school system, the public school system. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel went up there and has wrecked the educational system. And he has time and time again in New Orleans and in other places supported a privatization of education which is really missing the mark in terms of reaching the broad population that needs better education. So his policies are just the opposite. His policies are really creating the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s beyond the rhetoric, that’s the actual fact when you look at Chicago and you talk to the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and so on.

But in terms of his coalition for the Koch brothers, or the right wing or the left wing, et cetera, he’s been presenting this all the time. He did that with the healthcare, universal healthcare, and sold out the single-payer thing. He’s done that with every single thing that’s been on the table that affects people down on the ground. From closing down Guantanamo to getting us out of the wars, et cetera. He continues to blame this stuff on the Congress instead of using this executive mandate to do the things that he can do.

So I don’t see any movement forward. In fact, that’s an excuse that he uses, and it sounds good and it’s good soundbites. But in the end there’s no substance to those proclamations that he’s making.

BALL: So I mean, as you think about what needs to happen to really address these concerns around mass incarceration, is it this coalition of Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers and so-called left-leaning members of Congress, or the activist community? Is that the coalition we’re looking for? Or is there another coalition you think we should be better spending our time building?

CONWAY: We need to be putting into place a job program. The problem that we have in terms of mass incarceration is the fact that a large segment of the population has no employment, has no income, has no resource to take care of themselves, and they’re forced to operate on the margins and the edge of laws and the edge of community systems to survive. We need job programs, they need infrastructure programs, they need a massive haul of what’s going on in America.

Instead of putting that money into drones and instead of bombing people in Asia and Africa and other places in the world, they need to spend that money here building the infrastructure. And until–and he can do that. And until that happens, nothing’s going to change about incarceration.

BALL: And I think it’d be nice, also, if he picked up the language on the Employee Free Choice Act that would allow people to actually unionize and support unionization of the workforce. Something he’s abandoned since he became a serious candidate for presidential office.

Eddie Conway, thank you for joining us and helping us have some sort of response to this most recent claim from the president, the sweeping changes in mass incarceration and criminal justice. Thank you for joining us.

CONWAY: Okay, thanks for having me.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. And for all involved as we often say, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, and catch you in the whirlwind, everybody.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.