Don’t We Have Prison Space for a Few More?

By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair


Shortly after assuming the presidency, Barak Obama announced his intention to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which currently houses 240 individuals classified as “enemy combatants” suspected of having engaged in some form of terrorism against the United States. The president stated that he was studying the various options for dealing with these detainees.


The proposed closure of “Gitmo,” as the military facility is now known, drew expected criticism from Republicans and right-wing spokesman like former Vice President Dick Cheney who accused the president of compromising the nation’s security interests. Failing to get a specific plan about what would be done with the “detainees” currently housed there, conservative and moderate Democrats gradually cuddled up to drumbeat of right-wing hysteria being promoted by Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and refused to stand by the president.


On May 20, 2009, the U.S. Senate, with overwhelming bipartisan support, voted 90-6 to block President’s Obama request for funds necessary to shutdown the Gitmo facility.


“One thing [President Obama] has to do is begin to articulate the specifics of a plan for closing Guantanamo,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster with close ties to the congressional leaders. “The Hill needs to hear that.”


Echoing sentiments held by former Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was asleep at the wheel leading up to the 9/11 attacks, recently warned congressional leaders that placing Gitmo detainees in the nation’s prison system could influence the “radicalization” of other inmates should they be placed in this system.


The FBI director should stick to law enforcement because he knows nothing about the nation’s prison subculture. In the first place, only a couple dozen of the 240 detainees currently housed at Gitmo would be transferred to federal prisons where they would be immediately, and permanently, placed in maximum security lockdown. The majority of the rest would be farmed out to Saudi Arabia where they would be put through that country’s “terrorist rehabilitation” program which has enjoyed some success. The remaining few, and the least dangerous, could be released to their country of origin.


During the Bush administration, some 500 suspected “enemy combatants” were released from Gitmo—either because they were innocent to begin with or because the nation’s military intelligence personnel felt combatants no longer posed a security threat to this country. Pentagon figures show that somewhere between 11 to 14 percent of those released returned to “militant activities.” An 85 percent success rate is not bad for any prisoner release program not based on “individual rehabilitation.” The nation’s regular prison system, which is based on the “rehabilitation” model, enjoys a success rate of around 55 percent.


With respect as to how to handle dangerous terrorists, the nation’s prison system has a historical and legal precedent for keeping “militant” inmates is long term maximum security lockdown. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, both suspected of being former Black Panther Party members, were kept in maximum security lockdown for 35 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for the 1972 murder of a prison guard before a federal judge ordered their release from lockdown in 2007. Prison officials quickly returned them to lockdown on trumped up disciplinary charges within weeks of their release from solitary.


As for Mueller’s “radicalization” charge, the nation’s federal prison system is controlled by Mexican or other Latin American gangs—most of whom have direct affiliations with some of the most violent and well-organized drug cartels in the world. They could care less about the Koran, Allah, or “radical Islam.” They are about greed, profit and violence—not religion or justice. Realistically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons could simply put the worst, and the most dangerous, “terrorists” in the general inmate population of the average medium or maximum security facility and they would have to kowtow to the gangs just to survive with their lives, and some with their manhood.


Whether laced in long term maximum security lockdown in a “super max” prison or in general inmate population, given the increased scrutiny these Gitmo detainees would enjoy, they would have about as much success “radicalizing” other inmates as the CIA has enjoyed tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. After all, you can’t do too much “radicalizing” from solitary confinement.


Remove the political posturing from the debate and the “Gitmo” dilemma could easily be resolved. Clear out one wing in one of the nation’s most secure “super max” federal prisons either in Marion, Illinois or Florence, Colorado; staff this wing with trained security personnel; install sophisticated security monitoring systems; and keep the two-dozen most dangerous terrorists in lockdown for the next fifty years or until they die, whichever comes first. Politics aside, treating these men as normal convicts within the prison system, with the typical threat assessments, classifications and housing placements, would likely adequately solve most of the issues.


The simple reality is that terrorists are not going to be released into American communities as Karl Rove-inspired Republicans have tried to frighten the public into believing. It’s pure nonsense, and dangerous politics. This nation, and the president, faces too many other very real and potentially catastrophic crises to be side-tracked by the so-called “Gitmo dilemma.” This problem is too important to be influenced by the likes of FBI Director Mueller who cannot point to a single instance where a convicted “terrorist” housed in an American prison has “radicalized” either a Muslim or non-Muslim inmate enough to carry out a terrorist attack against America; or conservative Republicans who spread the unfounded fears that terrorists are about to be released into American communities where they can turn our children into “suicide bombers.”


President Obama should give Congress a plan. Release most of the Gitmo detainees into Saudi Arabia’s “terrorist rehabilitation” program. Transfer the remaining and most dangerous others to American federal prisons; try them before military tribunals; and if found guilty and their convictions upheld on appeal, imprison them for the rest of their lives in a maximum security lockdown status where they will grow old and die in anonymity.


That will eliminate whatever national security threat these particular terrorists pose to this country and restore America’s legal and moral standing in the international community. What is so hard about that?


By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair