War Games: Is It Time to Close the Prisons?
The war on drugs has turned the United States into the world's top jailer.
The war on drugs has turned the United States into the world's top
jailer, a police state with a higher percentage of its population in
jail than any other country.
do you know if you’re winning a war?
easy. The enemy is on the run, taking heavy casualties, consistently
The harder questions are about losing.
How do you know when to quit fighting? Or should you simply fight harder,
throwing more guns, more money, more personnel onto the battlefield ?
At what point do you face the terrible possibility that your war was
wrong all along?
we asked ourselves these hard questions about Vietnam. Now people across
the political spectrum are asking them about the 30-year war
waging against our own population: the war on drugs.
Who’s winning and who’s
losing in this strange, sad war where the enemy is us?
Among the winners, as in all wars, are those who profit financially:
the traffickers involved in the $450 billion per year drug trade; the
corporations and financial institutions laundering the estimated $250
billion in drug money that flows through the US economy each year; the
prison industry, which now employs more people than any Fortune 500 company
except General Motors and generates an estimated $40 billion per year;
the corporations that rely on cheap prison labor for both manufacturing
and billing operations. And so on.
Among the losers, certainly, are our inner-city African-American and
Hispanic communities, along with the police, drug dealers, and innocent
bystanders killed in action. Certainly the 400,000 prisoners of the drug
war sitting in jail or in prison or awaiting trial, more than 100,000
of them for mere possession. Certainly the individuals and their families
whose lives were ruined by drugs. The tax payers, too, of course.
And when the smoke clears, how fares our declared enemy, drugs? The
enemy is thriving.
Deaths from drugs have never been higher. In 1996, they numbered 14,843,
more than double the drug-related deaths reported in 1979, the year considered
the height of the current drug epidemic. In a survey conducted annually
for 25 years, teenagers reported that heroin, marijuana, and crack cocaine
were easier to get in 1998 than at any time in the past decade.
Ruppert, a narcotics-investigator-turned-anti-drug-war activist, agrees:“There are more, better, cheaper drugs on the street today
than in 1972.” Ruppert, who received 13 citations and four commendations
during his years of active service with the Los Angeles Police Department,
says it doesn’t surprise him that our war hasn’t made a dent
in the drug trade. “There is no war on drugs and there never will
be,” he says, because the so-called war on drugs is not about drugs.
It’s about money.
It’s also about power. And it’s
Maximum toughness, minimum justice
In the scramble for
political power, being “tough on drugs” is
a free ticket to the winner’s circle. Small wonder, then, that
in almost every election cycle since 1984, crime and drug legislation
has been enacted in the month before the election, each bill tougher
than the last.
The showpiece of
the toughness legislation is mandatory minimum sentencing and its variants:
harsh penalties for selling drugs near a school or
public housing, and three-strikes-you’re-out laws. These sentencing
innovations remove discretionary power from the judge and hand it over
to the prosecutor. These are designed to increase the likelihood of offenders
going to prison and staying there for a long, long time. And they all
hit hardest in low-income and minority communities.
are set by statute. The length of the sentence is determined solely
by the amount and type of drug involved in the offense
and the number of prior convictions, and it must be served in its entirety.
The only way a defendant can get a sentence reduced is to help the prosecutor
convict someone else. It is the prosecutor who decides if the assistance
rendered is “substantial” enough to warrant a shorter sentence
and what charge to file.
In theory, mandatory
minimums are simply tough and equitable. In reality, as one federal
judge pointed out, they “make a judge a computer,
automatically imposing sentences without regard to what is right and
They also fail to
distinguish between major and minor players. The worst offenders — those deeply involved in the drug business — have
information to trade and, as a result, are in the best position to bargain
down their sentences. The users and small-time dealers, their girlfriends
and family have little information to offer and commonly end up going
to jail for longer terms than the “kingpin.”
Critics of mandatory
minimums point to serious injustices. Federal District Judge Stanley
Marshall remarked, “I’ve always been considered
a fairly harsh sentencer, but it’s killing me that I’m sending
so many low-level offenders away for all this time.”
Marshall is not alone. More than 100 senior federal judges now refuse
to hear drug cases; the American Bar Association also opposes mandatory
sentences. Religious groups, too, have begun to see the drug war as an
immoral crusade, and more than 500 Jewish and Christian clergy have joined
a group called Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug
Policy. Cops, front-line soldiers of the drug war, are also voicing their
opposition. Of the police chiefs from major and middle-sized cities attending
a 1999 conference on drug policy reform, 90 percent repudiated the federal
war on drugs.
Even the US Sentencing Commission, adviser to Congress, opposes mandatory
minimums. But Congress has ignored its recommendations and repeatedly
voted, instead, for harsher minimums.
The result? More people are sent to prison in the US for nonviolent
drug offenses than for crimes of violence, and penalties for drugs now
sometimes exceed those for violent crimes like rape and murder.
The prison-industrial complex
What drives the incarceration
boom? The US has developed “a set
of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased
spending on imprisonment regardless of the actual need,” writes
Eric Schlosser in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s not a secret conspiracy,
but a “confluence of special interests that has given prison construction
in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum.”
Everybody’s got a finger in the pie. Some companies exploit prison
labor. Others build prisons. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, Corrections
Corporation of America, and a few smaller companies build and run private
prisons for profit, an enterprise one booster called “a hotel with
a guaranteed occupancy.” Some phone companies charge up to six
times the normal long distance rate to the captive inmate market. Even
the CIA is involved, according to investigative journalist Gary Webb.
In 1996 Webb blew
the lid off the CIA drug connection with his investigative series “Dark Alliance,” in
the San Jose Mercury. It described a connection between the CIA, the
Contras, and the crack epidemic, especially
in black Los Angeles, alleging CIA knowledge and protection of the traffickers.
were understandably outraged, but internal government investigations
denied the allegations, and the New York Times called
Gary Webb a “randy conspiracy theorist.”
a couple of L.A. attorneys and Congresswoman Maxine Waters found Webb’s argument convincing. Waters conducted her own
investigation and reached an “undeniable” conclusion: “The
CIA, DEA, DIA, and FBI knew about drug trafficking in South Central Los
Angeles. They were either part of the trafficking or turned a blind eye
to it, in an effort to fund the Contra war.”
Last year Los Angeles attorneys Katya Komisaruk and Bill Simpich filed
a class action lawsuit against the CIA, the Department of Justice, and
others on behalf of two African-American communities, South Central Los
Angeles and Oakland. Since the original filing, a Florida community has
also joined the suit.
It charges that in
violation of Executive Orders and US law, the CIA “turned
its back while shipment after shipment of this new, intensely addictive
form of cocaine [crack] was delivered ... and put up for sale throughout
South Central Los Angeles and Compton.” The amount of cocaine involved
was enough to put 3 million doses of crack on L.A.’s streets every
seven days, the suit alleges, resulting in “the death of men, women
and children, the collapse of businesses, and the destruction of whole
Burning the inner cities to save them
In all major Western European nations, incarceration rates are at or
below 100 per 100,000. In the US in 1995, the incarceration rate for
African American men was 6,926 per 100,000. The primary cause is an 8-fold
rise in drug arrests.
According to a report recently released by Human Rights Watch, black
men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of
white men. In some states the ratio is even more skewed, with black men
admitted to prison on drug charges at rates that range from 20 to 57
times greater than those of white men.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that drug laws are the ‘Jim
Crow’ laws of the last third of the twentieth century,” says
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “Because
of drug prohibition and drug enforcement, people of color are hounded
by the police, their neighborhoods are destroyed by drug violence, their
families are broken up, they are put at greater risk of disease, they
are displaced from their homes, and their opportunities for education
and employment are ruined.”
What causes the disparity?
Certainly not higher rates of drug use among African Americans. Only
11 percent of the nation’s drug users are
black, but blacks constitute 37 percent of those arrested for drug violations,
42 percent of those in federal prisons for drug violations, and 60 percent
of those in state prisons for drug felonies.
Overt racism is the
easiest explanation but only part of the answer. According to the Sentencing
Project, the inequity is a result of three
overlapping policy decisions: the concentration of drug law enforcement
in inner-city areas; the drug war’s emphasis on law enforcement
at the expense of prevention and treatment; and harsher sentencing policies,
particularly for crack cocaine.” (Penalties for possession or sale
of crack cocaine are much harsher than for powder, but because crack
is marketed in less expensive quantities, it is more often used in low-income
and minority communities.)
Whether the racism
is overt or inadvertent, the result is devastating. With so many black
men in prison, there is now a substantial imbalance
of females to males in African-American communities; intervention of
federal and outside law enforcement has undermined informal community
mechanisms of crime control; and a generation of children is growing
up with incarcerated parents. Furthermore, at a time when serious attacks
have been mounted against affirmative action, welfare, and other gains
of the Civil Rights era, 1.4 million black males — 13 percent — can
no longer vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws.
After 30 years of war, the reconnaissance report is bleak: casualties
are enormous, costs are astronomical, yet the drug trade prospers.
Where did we go wrong?
War is a ham-fisted,
wrong-headed solution for a medical and social problem. “When you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers
in a Drug War, you’re destroying the whole concept of the citizen
peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life
and be a community servant,” says Joseph McNamara, former chief
of police in San Jose and Kansas City. A soldier’s job is to kill
the enemy, so when cops start thinking of themselves as soldiers, “anything
So what now?
For starters, we could quit ignoring what we know: treatment works ten
times better than interdiction. Repeatedly, treatment has been shown
to decrease drug-selling, shoplifting, assaults, arrests for any crime,
and welfare use, and at the same time, to increase employment. Better
yet, it costs only one fifteenth as much as the law-enforcement approach
to achieve the same reduction in societal costs, according to a recent
Rand Corporation study.
Then we could look closely at a few of the many successful programs
that view drug use not as a crime but as a medical and social problem.
The results are hard to ignore. A few examples:
During the first year Arizona law mandated drug treatment instead of
prison for nonviolent offenders, Arizona taxpayers saved $2.6 million,
and 77 percent of drug possession probationers tested negative for drug
use after the program.
In Switzerland, a heroin maintenance program, which provided controlled
amounts of heroin to addicts, reported that the health of participants
improved, their housing situations stabilized (there were no longer any
homeless participants), and the number of unemployed fell by half.
In New Haven Connecticut,
police chief Nick Pastore achieved a 22 percent drop in crime rates
by training his officers in sensitivity and understanding
of special populations, from addicts to homeless people. “Every
drug user should have some place to go and be embraced when there,” Pastore
says. “We should police to be engineers of social change and improvement.”
So the choice is
not between a drug war and sitting on our hands. We have many options.
But strong communities are fundamental to the best
of them. We must restore our communities’ ability to heal themselves,
to police themselves, and to care for their members. This is the strategy
of wholeness, the strategy that deserves our time, our personnel, our
money, and our creativity. After all, most of these people in trouble
with drugs are not the enemy. They’re our sons and daughters, our
neighbors, the kids down the block. They are us.