May 6, 2007

"There but for the grace of G________ go I"

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:59 pm by nevavegan

Fill in the blanks as you please, that’s not really my point.

This has been bouncing around in my brain for some time, so I might as well commit it to (virtual) paper.

I live in a low-income area that is plagued by high crime rates. I was out walking my dogs last spring when I stumbled into a crime scene. The police were swarming and shouted at me to just turn around and leave (trouble was they were blocking my home from all sides, so I had no choice but to take the dogs on yet another hour long walk). I could see an abandoned ice cream truck in the middle of the street and crime scene tape and little evidence markers everywhere. I asked everyone I passed what had happened. It turned out that the ice cream man had been shot for the paltry amount of cash in coins and crumpled ones that he carried. Later a thirteen year old and a fifteen year old were arrested for the crime. Quite happily the ice cream man survived.

Later I had my own difficulties getting the police to take the assault committed against me seriously. Then only about two weeks ago I was walking my dogs, like I always do, by the playground at the elementary school, when the teenaged drug dealers who have set up shop there decided to start yelling all kinds of threats and obscenities at me. I let Kyra, the dog, show them some teeth, which seemed to shut them up for the time being (she’s a cute dog, but when she opens her mouth she has enormous pointy teeth).

Now, when I’m at work if I tell people about where I live and what goes on here, I get a lot of encouragement to leave my county. The people who live further out are pretty insistent that this is a terrible and frightening place to live. They don’t know however, the kindness and generosity of my neighbors or other benefits. What they do know is that they’re in favor of the war on drugs, and they insist, the police and the government could clean up my county and my neighborhood if we’d just step up the war on drugs.

Here I am living in it and I couldn’t disagree more. Maybe it’s worth mentioning that I think there are some contributing factors to our problems here: 1) the police here are corrupt–there’s no two ways about it. The community doesn’t trust the police and the police don’t trust the community, 2) we’re right outside of the city, when the new mayor launched an initiative to “clean up” crime in the city, he mostly pushed it across the border into my backyard, 3) the lack of jobs and the lower wages here compared to the rest of the area contribute, 4) certainly drug use and drug dependency adds to the problems here.

But I also think the war on drugs contributes to crime, worse crime, more violent crime. We’re not cleaning up the streets; we’re sending a pretty hefty percentage of the men here to finishing school for thugs. The guy who assaulted me has been in and out of prisons and jails pretty much his whole life, and now he’s nearly 50 and can’t stop attacking people (I’m referring here to the guy who hit me with his van to stop me from writing down his plate number–not a sexual assault or some kind of serial thing). He solves all his problems with violence, and looking at the long print out of his criminal record it spelled out for me: zero impulse control, hair-trigger temper. Did locking him up at any point ever change this? Did it teach him better coping methods? Did it give him job skills to lift himself out of his former life? Did it mellow his temperament or cool him off? Apparently not, on all counts.

I’m not a psychologist, so there’s so much in this equation I can’t speak to or answer. But I did teach writing and reading skills to women in prison, so let me just make a few general observations.

The majority of the women I taught were locked up for drug related crimes. People lie and misrepresent themselves all the time, but some of these women were extremely candid with me about their lives and their cases. One woman did say to me that she had indeed been selling large quantities of drugs and that she considered being locked up a blessing, because in her opinion she never could have broken her addictions or gotten through the dt’s without being physically restrained in this way from using. She was anxious to improve her education and skills and hopefully find good employment once she was released. That was one of the good stories.

For the others most claimed that they were either just users caught with a quantity the police thought showed intent to distribute, or were busted along with a boyfriend who had a large quantity on him, or were in fact selling but were very low on the totem pole. One woman, a grandmother, said that she was really ashamed of what she’d done, but she had been out of work and trying to care for her grandchildren, and she looked around her at all these people making quick money and made, in her words, an incredibly stupid decision out of desperation. She felt she got caught because she really wasn’t a drug dealer and didn’t know what she was doing, and described how her supplier got no prison time, because he turned others in, but when it was her turn, she had nobody else to turn on, because she wasn’t deeply involved enough to give anyone up.

One woman there came in early in her pregnancy and then was forced to give birth in shackles and her baby was immediately taken from her. She gave birth prematurely, which she felt was due to the stress and constant threat of violence in prison. Her baby died only a few days later.

It is my opinion that none of these women belonged in prison, particularly not for the long sentences that have been mandated by our war on drugs. I’m really not a fan of drugs. I think people and particularly parents shouldn’t use drugs. But I believe in treatment programs. I believe in detoxing people and then teaching them job skills and giving them hope. I also believe that a large number of people in this country are self-medicating for depression or other mental illness with illegal drugs. I think we need better health care and mental health care for low income people to address these issues.

When I get up on my soap box like this I tend to hear the same comments over and over, so I’ll address them.

The most often stated objection to my call for giving services, not punishment to people found guilty of drug crimes is this: We shouldn’t reward people for bad behavior.

I totally agree. But forcing someone to learn how to read isn’t a reward, it’s terribly hard work and if it’s court-mandated there’s teeth behind it. Forcing someone to go through fever, and shakes and skin-crawling hallucinations to get off the drugs–that’s not a reward. It’s torture actually, but torture with a very positive and hopeful outcome. Plus, we’ve been punishing for some time now and I don’t see much improvement. What’s that they say about doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome?

Here’s another one I hear a lot: Many people come from poverty, come from abusive homes, struggle with depression, or have other things working against them, but they don’t resort to selling or using drugs. This shows that drug use is an avoidable crime.

Of course it’s avoidable. Of course everyone who chooses to use or sell drugs bears complete personal responsibility in those decisions. On the other hand, the US now has the highest incarceration rate in the world from what I understand. So at some point you have to make a decision to keep locking up a significant portion of our population, or you get down off your high horse and start trying to think of other solutions.

Next argument: Drugs are really, really bad, they destroy lives, parents who use drugs destroy their children’s lives. We need to fight this plague.

No objection from me. People who use drugs shouldn’t have children. But they still keep having them. So what’s the best way to handle that? Is our current solution producing results? Also, alcoholics destroy their kids lives, but don’t get locked up in prison for long sentences just for using alcohol. We also need to ask what the best solution for the child is. Clearly in some cases you’ll have someone who is completely incompetent to care for a child and the only solution is to remove that child from their care. But kids also face problems in foster care, and there aren’t enough adoptive homes for older kids or kids facing other issues. In some cases it really does seem best to keep the child with their parent/parents and offer treatment for the addiction and ongoing family counseling.

BUT, people always cry, how do we pay for these programs? The truth is that the money is already there. It costs us a fortune to send people to prison. I read that a year in the state pen in most states costs more than a year of Ivy league tuition. The costs come from building new prisons and renovating old ones to house this unprecedented number of people we want to lock up. We also pay for guards, and guns and uniforms, and other supplies for guards. Although many prisons make inmates work in areas like the kitchen and laundry facilities, it still costs money for food and soap and new prison uniforms. There are prison doctors and nurses to pay and all the administrative staff. There are all those computers and security camera and high tech devices to help detect and stop break out attempts. There’s money to pay to all the foster parents or other facilities that have to take in the children of inmates. But it’s popular to say we’re going to spend your tax dollars locking up “dangerous criminals,” yet somehow people don’t want to pay for treatment, continuing education, mental health care, or the many other services that could help keep families together.

But even with all of that, here’s my final objection. Like I said, I’m not a fan of drugs. It’s not that I care so much what other people do, but I’ve seen enough people hurt and enough lives destroyed by addiction. I really, really think this: people shouldn’t use illegal drugs, people shouldn’t misuse legal prescription drugs, people shouldn’t abuse alcohol, and people who find themselves dependent on any substance probably need help. That disclaimer aside, who populates our prisons? Disproportionately, minorities fill up our prisons. When I was teaching in the prison, I didn’t have a single white student.

Now does this happen because more minorities use and sell drugs than white people? In my experience absolutely not. Do uneducated people use more drugs than educated ones? Not really. It’s just that police are more likely to target minorities for searches, stings, even set ups. When caught, minorities may find that they’re up against stereotypes and they face stiffer sentences and more aggressive prosecution. If they’re also low-income they have less access to good representation. They may have fewer people, or “less respectable” people to vouch for them and testify on their behalf.

Through the course of my life I’ve sadly known a lot of people who used illegal drugs on a fairly regular, ongoing basis. I’ve also known people in the past who made the decision to sell drugs in order support their habits. The difference was that these people were mostly white, middle class suburban high school and college kids. Most were never caught. Most were never stopped by the police for random roadside searches. Most never encountered an undercover officer trying to buy drugs from them. But some were caught, and that’s where the story gets interesting.

This is more or less what happens when someone from that world got caught: most who got caught were caught by campus police, not the real police, and it was handled as a campus matter. So even if it resulted in being expelled from college, there was no criminal conviction. The person who that happened to went to community college a little while and then applied to and was accepted at a different four year college. So the only consequences: had to live with mommy and daddy a little longer and when he finally graduated it was a little later than he had hoped. But most people caught with drugs on campus weren’t expelled, they were given a warning and made to attend drug education and 12-step meetings. So, a pain, but no conviction, no time.

Although getting caught by the real police, not campus police, would bring greater consequences, there is still a shot for those with money and allies to avoid convictions and prison time. With those resources families can high high-powered attorneys and also have their (young adult) kids sent off to expensive in-patient treatment programs.

Avoiding the prison time can make a huge difference in someone’s life, as from what I observed prisons tended to break many people’s spirits. Because violence was common in prison as well, many of the women I met with seemed to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and/or severe depression. Those conditions might limit what a person can achieve once they get out, for example it’s hard to apply for a job if you’re afraid you might have a debilitating flashback during the job interview or on your first day, and that’s just one example.

Avoiding that felony conviction is huge, though. Because once you’ve got it, every single job application you fill out for the rest of your life, you have to say you’re a convicted felon. And a lot of jobs, especially the better paying ones or the ones which offer advancement opportunities aren’t really available to convicted felons. People will say they consider all candidates, but given a choice between two similar applicants, but one is a felon, most people will take the guy with no convictions who was never in prison. There was also a recent study that found it was hard for former felons to even find housing, as once they revealed their legal status on rental applications they were typically turned down.

So, if it’s so hard to find a job or a place to live once someone gets out of prison, what do many of the people who did time for drugs find themselves doing? They go back to selling and using drugs as it can be one of the few avenues available to them, especially if they didn’t pick up a lot of job skills while they were locked up.

So, to people that say we need to punish drug users, I have to say: I’m not a drug user, but I really can see how one slip along the way pushes someone into a really bad place. Once they’re in a bad place we need to make a decision as to whether we offer a helping hand or a kick when they’re down. True, sometimes you’ll offer that helping hand to a master manipulator who will try to take advantage. Sometimes every opportunity in the world is not enough to keep a mother off of drugs. But if we could just help a fraction of all those people who filter through our prisons, if just a few could really take full advantage of a second chance and live a good life, raise their own kids, get a job that contributes in some way… Isn’t that worth the disappointment and the risk of knowing we can’t help everyone.

More information: Amnesty International on US prisons



  1. Deb said,

    This is a great topic, a great post. I keep in touch with a few prisoners, and it has made me think long and hard about victimless crimes as well as the justice system in general.

    I agree with everything you said, and I could bring up additional issues the prisoners face, but I’m finding myself mentally exhausted today, so I’ll just post a link to an article that I think gives a great alternative, what exists in the Navajo culture as “peacemaking”.

    Food for thought, hopefully.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Deb!

    This is an interesting idea.

    I remember when I took an African history class they talked about one African culture where their meeting halls, where rules were made and disputes settled, were purposefully built with such low ceilings that people had to creep in bent over and then were forced to remain seated while inside. That way nobody could leap up and start a physical fight when disputes got heated.

  3. bazu said,

    I absolutely believe that the war on drugs has had a devastating impact on poor and disenfranchised people and communities in this country. At the risk of sounding conspirational, it seems like a policy that was designed to fail. Angela Davis has written some awesome things about the “prison industrial complex”: the various business, political, and ideological interests served by our ever-increasing prison system. So much to think about.

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    I’ll have to check out Angela Davis. I have read some of her writings but it’s been a while. You do have a point that it seems designed to fail, not to mention that so many people are disenfranchised from voting due to felony convictions, which often encourages their friends and family not to vote either, for examples kids who grow up seeing their father never vote are less likely to vote, and so on.

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