March 21, 2004
The intersection of drug policy and prison policy
This Brent Staples' NY Times Review of Books article that reviews "Life on the Outside, The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett," Jennifer Gonnerman's new book about how the government's criminalization of its drug policy has led to a large and growing portion of society that is chronically disenfranchised, at enormous societal cost. Ms. Gonnerman, who has wrote extensively about drug policy as a staff writer for the Village Voice, tells the story through the family of Elaine Bartlett, a young mother of four who received a sentence of 20 to life for her selling cocaine to an undercover cop in a motel near Albany, her first offense. As Ms. Gonnerman notes:
The United States is transforming itself into a nation of ex-convicts. This country imprisons people at 14 times the rate of Japan, eight times the rate of France and six times the rate of Canada. The American prison system disgorges 600,000 angry, unskilled people each year -- more than the populations of Boston, Milwaukee or Washington . . .
Ex-cons are marooned in the poor inner-city neighborhoods where legitimate jobs do not exist and the enterprises that led them to prison in the first place are ever present. These men and women are further cut off from the mainstream by sanctions that are largely invisible to those of us who have never been to prison. They are commonly denied the right to vote, parental rights, drivers' licenses, student loans and residency in public housing -- the only housing that marginal, jobless people can afford. The most severe sanctions are reserved for former drug offenders, who have been treated worse than murderers since the start of the so-called war on drugs. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example, imposed a lifetime ban on food stamp and welfare eligibility for people convicted of even a single drug felony. The states can opt out of the prohibition, but where it remains intact it cannot be lifted even for ex-prisoners who live model, crime-free lives.
* * *
Mass imprisonment has not hindered the drug trade. Indeed, drugs are cheaper and more plentiful today than ever. In addition, many of the addicts who are held in jail for years at a cost of more than $20,000 per inmate per year could be more cheaply and effectively dealt with in treatment. What jumps out at you from ''Life on the Outside'' is the extent to which imprisonment has been normalized, not just for adults from poor communities but for children who visit their parents in prison. Spending holidays and birthdays behind bars for years on end, these children come to think of prison as a natural next step in the process of growing up.
Although both major political parties share blame for failing to address America's drug policy in a responsible manner, the Bush Administration's failure in this area -- coupled with its failure to address such major issues as health care finance reform, income tax reform, and environmental policy reform -- provides a solid basis for the Democrats to attack the Bush Administration in the upcoming election. Although the Bush Administration has performed admirably under difficult circumstances in prosecuting the war against Islamic fascists, its performance on domestic issues such as those mentioned above has been abysmal. If President Bush loses the election this November, that lack of leadership on those key issues will likely be the reason why.
Posted by Tom at March 21, 2004 11:38 AM |
This post made me remember the painful movie of a few years back, Traffic. This was a sharp critique on the so called "war on drugs." The Drug Czar himself was seeing failed policy manifesting on every level-- and how every one of those levels impacted all the rest-- from his own daughter to the inner city drug economy to the unstoppable supply coming into the country. Then there was that slight and subtle allusion at the close of the movie-- to the cross, as if to say, "its a war all right, only we are fighting all the wrong fronts."
Posted by: jd walt at March 21, 2004 12:57 PM
J.D., I remembered that scene from "Traffic" also when I read originally this piece today. There is very little grace in our country's drug policy.
Posted by: Tom Kirkendall at March 21, 2004 7:14 PM
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