In this week’s Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick asks “Why are we so worried about Gitmo?”  “The current legal meltdown over what to do with the 240 prisoners shows that Americans actually care a lot about prisons, prisoners and prison reform, but only when the inmates threaten to tumble out into their backyards.”

She points out how overwhelming a problem our prison system presents. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we house nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  We incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents—nearly five times the world average. Approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail or on supervised release. Local, state and federal spending on corrections amounts to about $70 billion per year and has increased 40 percent over the past 20 years. What is going on here?

Senator James Webb (D. Va) concluded: “Either we’re the most evil people on earth or we’re doing something wrong.”  Webb is backing a major effort at prison reform, an extremely complex and difficult set of issues as it involves all levels of government, thousands of laws, and many different types of offense.  Because of that complexity, changing our investment in the penal system is not going to be easy.

But there is underlying issue here, a common element in our approach to a major social problem.  This is reflected in the fact that  the pressure to close Gitmo and relocate its inmates evokes a collective fear.  This forces our attention on a problem we really don’t want to face. It’s not just about Gitmo;  it’s about our relationship to prisoners and the prison system.

Why is it that on so many levels and in so many different ways we have embraced jail as an answer?  What is the underlying meaning of that?

Jail represents the underside of opportunity.  The ideology of our systems tells us that for those who work hard, the doors of success will open, but for those who do not, those who cheat or steal or rebel —  or those who hang out on street corners — the doors of jail will clang shut.  Tending to believe, as we do, that the chance of success is each person’s responsibility, jails represent not only a punishment for crime but also an exile from the American dream and a punishment for failure.

As Senator Webb knows, prison reform represents a difficult and complex set of issues.  But we also have to look what underlies an obvious social consensus.