by Charles Shaw
Malcolm X once said, “Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars—caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms.”
On Friday September 9th I became one of the roughly 25,000 people released from an Illinois prison this year—600,000 nationally—after completing only 10 weeks of a one year sentence due to extreme overcrowding. My crime was victimless, simple possession of a controlled substance, specifically a small amount of marijuana and MDMA.
But as the rare upper-middle class educated White American in prison, I found myself in a truly alien, self-perpetuating world of crushing poverty and ignorance, violent dehumanization, institutionalized racism, and an entire sub-culture of recidivists, some of whom had done nine and ten stints, many dating back to the Seventies. Most used prison as a form of criminal networking knowing full well they would be left to fend for themselves when released. We were told on many occasions that an inmate was worth more inside prison than back in society. Considering it costs an average of $37,000 a year to incarcerate offenders, and the average income for Black Americans is $24,000, and only $8,000-12,000 for poor Blacks, one can easily see their point.
But unlike the vast majority of ex-offenders, I was fortunate enough to return to an established life and work, and a support system of friends, family, and colleagues.
The Chicago Tribune reported this year that about two-thirds of the more than 600,000 ex-convicts released in 2005 will be re-arrested within three years, and about half will return to prison for a new crime or violation of parole. Despite having “paid their debt to society”, once released their punishment is not nearly over. These days there is little to no hope of any real reform, as within the various Departments of Corrections, “correction” is a painfully misleading euphemism for the warehousing of offenders. There are few, if any, re-entry programs for ex-offenders and virtually no jobs or social services to help keep them afloat in an increasingly difficult and unforgiving society. Thus, most ex-offenders have no choice but to return to their old crime infested neighborhoods, destitute and desperate to survive any way they can. A significant majority of the new crimes or parole violations are drug related, often nothing more than testing positive on a monthly drug screen.
This lack of any employment, training, or rehabilitative opportunities has created a permanent underclass of ex-offenders who remain trapped in poverty, unable to provide for themselves or their families without resorting to the few, generally illegal means available to them. Faced with their very survival, most have no compunction about engaging (or re-engaging, as the case may be) in drug dealing rather than starving.
What may be even worse is that for some, their ongoing “crimes” are only those of association, or in some cases, the consequences of being black and poor. Laws prohibiting ex-felons from associating with other ex-felons and gang members, such as the Illinois Street Gang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act, or those preventing ex-offenders from being in areas designated as “high crime” or where “controlled substances are illegally sold, used, distributed, or administered” means that many ex-offenders are in violation of their parole simply by going home, where the majority in their neighborhood, including family members, have criminal records, and drugs are sold on almost every corner.
I cannot begin to recount all the men I met, particularly those with prior records or those on parole, who were re-incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Gasps! Not possible! Lies! Propaganda! Our system is just! True it is, for those who can afford justice in the form of a bond and a private lawyer, or for those whom the system is not already unduly prejudiced. But in a system with corrupt cops eager for arrests, zealous State’s Attorneys eager for convictions, jaded and overwhelmed Public Defenders eager for quick pleas, and rigid bond judges eager to set bail far beyond what anyone in their socio-economic class could reasonably afford, there is little opportunity for a fair trial. For so many, including myself, the conditions in the penitentiary were preferable to those in Cook County Jail—where some 30,000 detainees languish awaiting the resolution of their cases—so a quick plea is the lesser of all evils and the shortest route to freedom. Had I chose to fight my case, there is little doubt I would still be there today. In the end, what does that say about our criminal justice system?
Instead of correction and rehabilitation, what we have is what University of Nevada-Las Vegas Criminal Justice professor Richard Shelden calls a "criminal justice industrial complex" where “the police, the courts and the prison system have become huge, self-serving and self-perpetuating bureaucracies, which along with corporations, have a vested interest in keeping crime at a certain level. They need victims and they need criminals, even if they have to invent them, as they have throughout the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on gangs,’”
Thirty years ago Gore Vidal noted that “roughly 80% of police work in the United States has to do with the regulation of our private morals…controlling what we drink, eat, smoke, put into our veins…with whom and how we have sex or gamble.” Then there were roughly 250,000 prisoners in the nation. Today there is more than 2 million, with another million in county jails awaiting trial or sentencing, and another roughly 3 million under “correctional supervision” on probation or parole. The total national cost of incarceration then was $4 billion annually; today it’s $64 billion, with another $20 billion in federal money and $22-24 billion in money from state governments earmarked for waging the so-called “War on Drugs.” Nationally, around 60% or more of these prisoners are drug criminals. Yet, throughout all this time and expense there has not been the slightest decrease in either drug use or supply.
And amidst all the talk of race as a factor in the Katrina disaster let us not forget a bigger disaster: One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison compared to 1 in 180 White men. Despite African Americans comprising only 12% of the total population, in five states, including Illinois, the ratio of Black to White prisoners is 13 to 1. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that Blacks comprise 56.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons while Whites comprise only 23.3% (in my Illinois prison—one of 28 in the State—of the 1,076 inmates, 689 were Black, 251 were White, and 123 were Latino). Based upon these numbers, a full 30% of African-Americans will see time in prison during their life, compared with only 5% of White Americans, even though White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin.
Anyone familiar with these facts was not surprised by the response to the largely poor and black victims of Katrina. It was simply a further affirmation of their invisible status within our society, further proof of the Third World existing within the First in America. What may be the biggest shame in all of it is how New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin himself reinforced all the most miserable Black stereotypes by characterizing the looters as “drug starved crazy addicts wreaking havoc” in an attempt to expedite Federal assistance and justify a declaration of martial law. It spoke volumes to what resonates within the public consciousness, stirring up some of our deepest fears.
It’s time to realize, once and for all, that this war is lost. It’s akin to trying to empty the flooded New Orleans streets one teaspoon at a time. But sadly, Americans have forgotten this war amongst the multitude of more fashionable, media-friendly others that have arisen in the last five years. As peace groups mobilize for a national march on Washington later this month to end the Iraq War, a few miles away from the Mall the Drug War is still raging. The Sentencing Project and the Schaffer Library for Drug Policy reported that at one point in the 1990s half of all of Black men 18-35 in Washington D.C. were either in jail or on probation or parole, and more than ninety percent had arrest records.
No matter how much money the government pours into the War on Drugs, it doesn’t appear to make a dent in drug use or drug-related crime. The body count in this “war” still rises. Dead and corrupted cops, dead gang youth, dead traffickers and couriers, dead innocent bystanders—the urban “collateral damage”—devastated families, addiction, disease, overdoses from unregulated, poor quality drugs, exploding prisons, crushing costs, corrupt officials, craven politicians, sensationalist media, and a limitless harvest of offenders. Where does the madness end?
We cannot address poverty and race in America nor can we talk about needless death and expense without addressing the Drug War. If we don’t stop the direction in which we are heading, by 2020 there will be over 6 million people in prison, and thousands more lives extinguished in the crossfire of a domestic war that we had no chance of winning in the first place.
Charles Shaw, a writer and activist, is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Newtopia. A Contributing Writer to many publications including Alternet, Guerrilla News Network, and The Next American City, he is currently writing a series on his recent prison experience.