I was planning to write about something else entirely this morning, when I received this article in an e-mail from my dear friend in Hamburg, Dr. Gunnar Lindstrom. The article is entitled “Incarceration Nation” authored by Dr. Fareed Zakharia, and appeared in the April 2, 2012 issue of TIME magazine. I found its message so important, that I am going to include it here in its entirety. The bold print are points that I wish to emphasize.
“Televangelist Pat Robertson recently made a gaffe. A gaffe, as journalist Michael Kinsley defined it, occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Robertson’s truth is that America’s drug war has failed and that the country should legalize marijuana. This view goes against the deepest political, moral and religious positions Robertson has held for decades, so imagine the blinding evidence that he has had to confront-and that has been mounting for years- on this topic.
Robertson drew attention to one of the great scandals of American life. “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fact of our country today, ” writes The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. “overall there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America-more than 6 million-than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”
Is this hyperbole? Here are the facts.
The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That is not just many more than in most developed countries but seven to ten times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain-with a rate among the highest-has 153. Even developing countries that are well known for their crime problems, have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show the 700 Club, “we here in America make up 5% of the world’s population, but make up 25% of the world’s jailed prisoners”
There is a temptation to look at this staggering difference in numbers and chalk it up to one more aspect of American exceptionalism. America’s is different, so the view goes, and it has always had a Wild West culture and a tough legal system. But the facts don’t support the conventional wisdom. This wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.
That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,00 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost 10 fold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison for drug convictions. in 2009 alone, 1,66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault and on larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession.
In the past four decades, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. The results? In 2011 a global commission on drug policy issued a report signed by Geoerge Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan: the arch conservative Peruvian writer politician Mario Vargas Llosa, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker; and former presidents of Brazil and MexicoFernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo. It begins,” The global war on drugs has failed…Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measured directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail critical supply or consumption.” Its main recommendation is to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
Bipartisan Forces have created the trend that we see. Conservatives and Liberals love to sound tough on crime, and both sides agreed in the 1990’s to a wide range of new federal infractions, many of them carrying mandatory sentences for time in state or federal prison. And as always in American politics, there is a money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.
Partly as a result, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education in the past 20 years. In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisoners vs. $5.7 billion on the UC system and state colleges. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prisons. A college student costs the state $8,667 per year; a prisoner costs it $45,006 a year.
The results are gruesome at every level. We are creating a vast prisoner underclass in this country at huge expense, increasingly unable to function in normal society, all in the name of a war we have already lost. If Pat Robertson can admit he was wrong, surely it is not too much to ask the same of America’s political leaders.”
To Mr. Zakharia’s last point; mandatory imprisonment for possession of marijuana, results often in the exposure of average American citizens to the brutal dehumanizing conditions of imprisonment. There they are thrust together in intimate proximity with dangerous sociopaths, and are at high risk of violent victimization both of a sexual and non-sexual nature, which commonly results in the disabling psychiatric condition of post traumatic stress disorder, with significant subsequent dysfunction.
Adam Gopnik wrote in his January 30, 2012 New Yorker piece, “The Caging of America”,
“That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded.”
“The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)
Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.”
There is also a huge racial and socio-economic bias in terms of who is in danger of incarceration. Again, from Adam Gopnik,
“For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then.”
And as mentioned above, this is at a cost to the tax-payers of $45,006 a year. Were we to provide this same individual with a college education, it would cost a $8, 667 a year, and the result would be a contributing productive member of society, vs. a citizen who has been psychiatrically disabled through exposure to highly traumatic circumstances while incarcerated, often for the trivial crime of marijuana possession. In Texas alone there are 400 teenagers who have been sentenced to life imprisonment. There is no gain to anyone with this appalling sadistic legal system, except to those who are profiting from the building and maintaining of prisons. And in fact, the entire society is morally undermined and degraded by this completely ineffective, destructive and horrifying policy.
Rishabh Jindal says
Your article is an eye opener to the society that takes smug pride in feeling moral and reformist. The jail and law enforcement system is clearly a manifestation of the hate and ignorance people carry but choose to hide under the defense of splitting. And sadly the bigger the industry the more rigid it gets. It generates jobs and changing too much becomes hard or unprofitable to those in power. Hence its a power play and not just bad economics.
home page says
I really like and appreciate your blog article.Thanks Again. Keep writing.
Great article. My thinking on this right now, is that the government is not stupid nor unable to admit its mistakes. The issue at stake is not the moral issue. The criminalization of marijuana can be seen as costing the gov’t $45,000 or it can be seen as providing an income to a whole system of lawyers, corrections, police, and who knows who else.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write Pat. I do think this is an ethical issue, in that this is a shockingly cruel, racist and unjustifiable way to treat our citizens, and that the policy generated by the war on drugs degrades the moral character of our society. That being said, I agree with you that what this is about is, as usual, greed. There is a huge penal industry. As I said in the post, “And as always in American politics, there is a money trail. Many state prisons are now run by private companies that have powerful lobbyists in state capitals. These firms can create jobs in places where steady work is rare; in many states, they have also helped create a conveyor belt of cash for prisons from treasuries to outlying counties.” This type of corruption biased upon greed is rife in agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry and has nothing to do with promoting public health or creating a society that has the good of all as its aim.
I think the inability of our leaders to admit mistakes is a huge part of the reason failed policies persist for decades. I wonder how we can make it OK for people to admit they are fallible without destroying their careers and reputations?
I think you have it exactly right. The odd competition to be tough on crime, or to be perceived in that light, means that no one thoughtfully addresses the issue. In addition of course, there is no lobby or much of a constituency advocating for or representing these missing members of society.
Worse of course is that the War on Drugs is a complete fraud at almost every level. Why or how can we be at war with what amounts to an inanimate object? Instead, this is a war against our own citizens, an equally untenable prospect. For that matter, the US has bullied its allies in this war (other countries) to impose draconian punishments for drug use or possession, wasting their sometimes limited resources as well.
And all this to do what? Assure that workers show up on time for their work? So that workers do not enjoy themselves in ways not taxed? To have government act in as the parent of these wayward adults?
The answer is easy enough, regulate and tax such drugs. But, as noted, there is a powerful lobby to oppose such a plan and even worse, it would require a lot of people to admit error.
At some point the matter will probably be addressed due to the cost, not on any moral basis. How many incarcerated people and prisons can the country afford?
Thanks for writing, Richard. It’s really such an incredibly destructive situation on so many levels. It’s actually mind blowing that it continues. Maybe the economic crunch that is tightening its grip on government spending will finally mobilize some rational action to initiate the desperately needed policy change.
Thanks so much for writing about the critically important topic and including so many pertinent points. Let me add a few other factoids:
1. Ten years ago, Portugal legalized all drugs. The result? Drug abuse is down by half.
2. Among major Presidential candidates, only the outside-of-the-mainstream Dr. Ron Paul acknowledges the racist nature of the War on Drugs and advocates ending it.
3. The violent Mexican drug cartels receive an estimated 60% of their income from marijuana smuggling. Legalizing pot in the U.S. would instantly and devastatingly defund these criminal gangs, not to mention providing jobs for American farmers and tax revenue for states.
4. You can’t fight a war on inanimate objects, such as drugs. America’s War on Drugs has always been a war on drug users, i.e., the country’s own citizens.
Legalizing marijuana is the biggest no-brainer in all of political history, and we should seriously question the motives of any politician who opposes it. The link you mention to for-profit prisons is a leading culprit.
What a great comment, Andy.
The Forbes article about the results of decriminalization of drugs in Portugal is a very important real life example of what the likely result of such legislation would be in this country. I just tweeted it. Everyone should know about it.