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Recidivism and Guantánamo


You’d have to say that the American prison system is a rank failure. With two million inmates, it is the largest and at over $60 billion a year, the costliest prison system in the world, not just in the percent of the population that is kept behind bars, but in actual numbers. But it is also a failure because it doesn’t prevent crime, and might even increase it.  According to a  recent study</a>, two-thirds of inmates who are released from jail after serving their time are re-arrested for new crimes within three years, and half of those so arrested end up being sent back to jail on new charges.

I thought about this dismal record of non-rehabilitation when I read an today reporting that a Pentagon study has found that just five percent of the prisoners held at Guantanamo, after release, returned to their old “terrorist” ways.  Okay, another nine percent of those released were said to have “joined or rejoined” the “fight against the US and its allies.” But that’s really a different thing entirely, and I was surprised to see the Pentagon’s number crunchers making the distinction.

For in fact, if you were an Iraqi, or an Afghani, you might well see fighting against US forces in your country not as a “terrorist” activity, but as an act of supreme patriotism and national honor, and in any case, it’s hard to see how you can call a fighter in either of those countries who is shooting at American troops a “terrorist.” He or she is a soldier fighting another soldier, and if anyone is the terrorist in that picture, it’s the one who has done the invading, which is the Americans.

Anyhow, given the nasty treatment meted out to Guantanamo detainees, and the fact that “rehabilitation” is not a word that even gets mentioned in conjunction with that hellhole of torture and abuse, you’ve got to admit that a recidivism rate of five percent, or even 14 percent, looks pretty damned good compared to our domestic prison recidivism rate of 67 percent!

Maybe the folks at the Federal Prison Administration and the various state penitentiaries and county jails should take a look at Guantanamo, to see if they could learn any tips to improve the US domestic prison system’s abominable recidivism rate.

Perhaps we could start by offering Islamic religious instruction at all prisons (it seems to do wonders to issue Korans to everyone brought in to Guantanamo).  Waterboarding, stress positions, regular slams into walls and sleep deprivation, which are all common practices at Gitmo, might be effective, too, although I have this nagging suspicion that if they weren’t doing that stuff to the detainees at Guantanamo, 85 percent of whom the Pentagon admits are probably there by mistake, maybe the recidivism rate would be much lower than it already is.

Odds are that these tactics at Gitmo are making enemies, not breaking them.

So what else is there about Guantanamo that could be leading to tbese recidivism rates which are no doubt the envy of prison reformers the world around?

Well, for one thing, the Gitmo detainees are outdoors a lot. Instead of being shut in concrete bunkers like prisoners stateside, they spend their time in wire-mesh “dog runs.”  Maybe the sunlight and warm air, and the relative quiet of their surroundings, make for sunnier dispositions.

They also reportedly have access (admittedly involuntary) to women, who lap dance on them and prance around in skimpy attire, while for the most part US prison inmates are strictly segregated by sex.

I guess another difference is that the prisoners at Guantanamo can tune out any verbal abuse from their guards, since few of them are proficient in English, while domestic prisoners have to take it all in.

And then there’s the Red Cross, which visits the inmates at Gitmo, but not in the regular US prison system—so lord only knows what horrors may be going on here at home.

Whatever the case, it sure seems like they’ve done a good job of rehabbing those nasty terrorists at Gitmo if they can keep the percentage of those who return to their bombs and their hijackings down to just five percent.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the reason only five percent of people released from Guantanamo are “returning to terrorism” and only another nine percent are returning to the fight against American forces in their homelands is that they were the only ones who were actually terrorists and enemy fighters in the first place, and the other 86 percent of released detainees were just innocent people captured, detained, tortured and finally released.

Hmmmm. Maybe Gitmo is not such a great model of prison reform after all.

DAVE LINDORFF  is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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