NEW YORK – Why add to something that is not supposed to exist?
The something in question is the Unites States’ prison in Guantánamo Bay, for which the Pentagon recently requested $49 million in extra funding. Despite Barack Obama’s promise in 2009 – one of his first as President – to shut down “Gitmo,” the US evidently has no intention of doing so anytime soon. In fact, the only thing concerning Gitmo that the Obama administration has shut down is the office of the special envoy, Daniel Fried, who had been tasked with its closure. The US State Department reassigned Fried in late January, and he will not be replaced.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphHow better to memorialize that decision than with a building boom at the prison? The new facility for which the money is to be earmarked will house 106 prisoners (the precise number is uncertain) who have been neither tried nor charged.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphEight of the prisoners are now entering the second month of a hunger strike. According to the spokesman for the US Southern Command, which oversees Gitmo, the hunger strikers are disillusioned, because they believed Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo. Indeed, they are cleared to leave, and it is only Obama’s failure to keep his promise – and the US Congress’s failure to legislate their transfer – that is keeping them there. So now they feel that the only way they can get the world’s attention is to “do something drastic.”
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphOne reason why the Pentagon needs to build a costly new facility has to do with the role of private contractors in driving detention policy. At Gitmo, corporate contractors run the show. They share signage with military units; enjoy better housing than military personnel; run the food services; and import Southeast Asian workers to build the gigantic infrastructure, which was new when I visited in 2009 (calling into question the “deterioration” cited to justify the latest cash infusion).
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphContractors also ran the military tribunal facility, and even set policy – deciding, for example, what could be told to the press. Based on some disputes that I witnessed, contractors appeared to outrank soldiers.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThe vast, often undocumentable profits that flow to these companies go a long way toward explaining why facilities like Gitmo – and privately owned and operated prisons in the US itself – never close. The transfer of public money to private corporations is far more attractive than old-fashioned market capitalism.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphBut then there is the brutality of the prison. I recently toured Alcatraz, the former US federal prison in San Francisco Bay. Like Gitmo, Alcatraz was created, in the 1930’s, to house what was then “the worst of the worst” – the Muslim terrorists (or accused terrorists) of their day. Mass murderers and gangsters – including, for example, Al Capone – were incarcerated there.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAlcatraz was closed 50 years ago, in 1963, owing to its perceived inhumanity, and the prisoners were transferred elsewhere. Yet I was struck by how much more humane the facility and regime at Alcatraz were compared to Gitmo.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphFor starters, prisoners at Alcatraz who broke rules or were violent were punished by being put in “D Block,” where the cells had no windows; at Gitmo, all the cells that journalists are shown lack windows or natural light. Solitary confinement in D Block was seen as the harshest punishment, and it was never used for more than 48 hours at a time. At Guantánamo – and in other US facilities – prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for days or weeks at a time, which can lead to psychosis.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphLikewise, in Alcatraz, prisoners had access to a fully stocked library, monthly visits from loved ones, and mail delivery. At Gitmo, contrary to Red Cross rules, prisoners may not receive visits or mail from family, their reading is dramatically curtailed, and news is censored. They are not even notified of the deaths of parents and children.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphPrisoners at Alcatraz also had basic privacy. They were stripped naked on entry, but then wore clothing and showered in single-sex groups with male guards. By contrast, prisoners in Guantánamo must shower in individual shower stalls that are placed in main hallways and fronted by glass, leaving them naked in full view of female guards.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAnd, of course, the prisoners in Alcatraz had been tried in a court of law, defended by lawyers whose communications with them were privileged, and duly convicted of their crimes. The men in Guantánamo have never been tried; their lawyers’ communications are monitored; and their lawyers may not even report to journalists or tribunals what was done to their clients to extract confessions, because – in a twist worthy of Franz Kafka – investigators’ methods, which detainees claim include torture, are classified.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThe eight hunger strikers are being fed through tubes inserted into their stomachs. This is a brutal process – the men are strapped onto restraint chairs twice a day and force-fed, in a facility that I witnessed. During my visit in 2009, a Yemeni hunger striker, Mohammad Saleh, died. As with all hunger strikers who have died at Gitmo, the US military ruled his death a suicide.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphPerhaps, someday, tourists will travel to Guantánamo and look in horror and amazement at what America built. Until then, Americans need to ask themselves what has coarsened in the national conscience between 1963 and today. How is it that a prison too brutal for gangsters, too un-American to house the worst of the worst, was more humane than a place that Americans are spending millions to enlarge?
VOTERS IN THE states of Washington and Colorado recently voted to legalise cannabis for recreational use for people who are over 21-years-old. Along with these two states, another fifteen as well as the District of Columbia approve and regulate its medical use.
In the aftermath of the Washington and Colorado ballot,The Journal.ie ran a poll. Eighty-two percent said they were in favour of cannabis legalisation in Ireland for either recreational or medicinal use. This of course is in no way scientific – but is it now time for our government to take a closer look at our cannabis prohibition laws, and ask whether they are benefiting our society or causing more harm than good?
We need to ask: does cannabis prohibition work? The simple answer is no. We only have to look back in history to the era of Prohibition in the 1920s to understand why. Al Capone and his violent mob made millions of dollars from the illegal sale of alcohol. Today we are witnessing a similar trend in Ireland, with ruthless criminal gangs making a fortune (tax-free of course) from the sale of cannabis. Sadly, the monies raised often go on to fuel much more serious crimes such as gun crime, hard drugs and prostitution.
Legalising cannabis would automatically cut off this valuable revenue stream. Instead we could generate an unthinkable amount of tax revenue, which could be spent on much needed public services such as health, education and drug rehabilitation.
Cannabis prohibition also leaves market regulation in the hands of criminals – and unfortunately the health and wellbeing of the end user is the least of their concerns. It’s a serious issue that in Ireland today a 14-year-old can obtain cannabis more easily than they can alcohol. If cannabis was legalised the market could be regulated properly with an age restriction of 18 or 21 applied to it, making it safer than it currently is today.
Prohibition causes a major drain on our criminal justice system: how much valuable time and money is spent on chasing down and convicting cannabis growers and distributors in this country? If cannabis was legalised it would free up time and money which could then be used to target more serious crimes.
We also need to factor in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The first recorded medicinal use of cannabis by Chinese emperor Shen Nung dates back as far as 2737 BC. In more modern times, it’s been put forward as a treatment or symptom reliever for a huge range of medical conditions including multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma, epilepsy, digestive diseases, depression and many more. It’s hard to believe that we have a plant which has so many apparent benefits, yet we deny those who are suffering from these illnesses the opportunity of relief.
In my mind, prohibiting this substance whilst allowing people to suffer is the biggest crime of all. Now, let’s take a look at the reasons people give for why they oppose cannabis legalisation and the misconceptions people have about the prohibition laws they favour.
People say it’s harmful to your health. This seems to be the number one reason given for opposing legalisation. Yet if cannabis is already freely available and commonly used within our society, shouldn’t we be striving to limit its harmful effects?
As already mentioned above, a regulated market place is much safer than one controlled by the criminal underworld. Curbing underage use should be seen as a top priority, as studies have shown a link between persistent adolescent cannabis use and mental health problems in later life – yet they’ve found that people who didn’t take up cannabis until they were adults did not show similar negative effects as those who began at an earlier age.
Secondly, people say that legalising it will cause a huge uptake in the number of people who choose to smoke it. This isn’t necessarily true. A friend of mine recently said to me “cannabis just wouldn’t be as much fun if it was legalised” and there’s some truth in that. Experts will tell you that more teenagers try cannabis because of the glamour of the ‘forbidden fruit’ than are deterred by any other factor. Cannabis use is actually more prevalent in Ireland than it is in either Portugal or the Netherlands, two European countries who have decriminalised its use. In fact, contrary to common belief the Dutch are among the lowest users of cannabis in Europe; despite the Netherlands’ well known tolerance of the drug.
Others state that it is a gateway drug that will lead users onto harder drugs. But there’s nothing in cannabis that makes the user want to try harder drugs. The fact that it’s illegal and often sourced from dealers who also sell other drugs could be seen as a problem, but again if it was legalised we wouldn’t have this problem.
With so many benefits to be gained by legalising cannabis and so many obvious disadvantages to prohibition, why are our government choosing to ignore this issue? It’s time to ask questions and demand answers.