This is a three part essay detailing the contexts, consequences and casualties of the US government’s War on Drugs. Part three will be published at a later date.
Though comprising 5% of the world’s population, the USA imprisons nearly 25% of its inmates, bearing the unenviable title of world’s largest national jailer. The incarceration rate is notably skewed towards the impoverished and those of colour; ethnic minorities account for three quarters of the US prison population.The rate of incarceration among black males is seven times that of their their white counterparts. Civil rights expert Michelle Alexander’s book ‘The New Jim Crow’ finds that there are currently more black inmates imprisoned than there were slaves in 1850, who, as inmates, are
denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits
A 2012 paper published by the Center on Sentencing and Corrections remarks that the “country’s state prison population [has] grown by more than 700 percent since the 1970s”. The total population of imprisoned persons in the US is 2,200,000, in 1970 it was less than 200,000. Such a state of affairs has not been the result of any spike or trend in criminal behaviour, which has fluctuated, but is the intended consequence of a racist, abusive expansion of state power and corporate welfare initiated by the administration of Nixon, and fully realised by that of Reagan, and which has been presumed and expanded upon by each successive American government.
Not nine months following his ascension to the presidency of the USA, Ronald Reagan appealed to long standing public grievance over the “losing war against the menace of crime”, announcing “a new legislative offensive…an intensive and coordinated campaign against international and domestic drug trafficking”. Use of illegal drugs, hitherto tolerated, was aggressively criminalised; mandatory prison sentences for possession of illicit substances were imposed, and huge new federal policing bodies created, dedicated solely to what was termed the ‘War on Drugs’. The comprehensive application of these laws was twinned with a concomitant increase in incarceration rates.
The incarceration of nonviolent drug users was not, however, followed by any discernible effect on the availability of drugs, use thereof, the functioning of the international drug trade or public safety; non-profit watchdog group The Sentencing Project reports that only a tiny minority of prisoners convicted on drug charges are “high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense”. Drug offenders “comprise half of the prison population” at a federal level, while only 8% of all federal inmates are “violent offenders”. The ‘War on Drugs’ is a war on liberty.
The disproportionately high black prison population is a deliberate phenomena. Human Rights Watch reports that “people of colour are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs” than white people, yet they are the drug war’s biggest casualty by a wide margin. The assault on the black community came as a happy and caustic convergence of domestic and foreign policy; the 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug abuse acts adopted what The Sentencing Project calls “excessive mandatory penalties for crack cocaine that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses”. Criminologist William Chambliss, writing the 1990’s, illustrates this disparity;
possession of five grams of crack cocaine (the drug of choice of people in the Black community) carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole, while possession of 100 times that amount of cocaine powder (the drug of choice of the white middle class) has no mandatory sentence.
The two drugs are pharmacologically identical, the main difference between them being the class and colour of their respective users. Chambliss reports of institutional brutality from the police in their application of these racist laws;
the typical arrest is accompanied by violence, racist slurs and disrespect for citizens and suspects alike…[occurring in] crowded areas where both children and adults bear witness to the racism and violence of the police as often as they witness the violence of drug dealers
This has a predictably devastating effect on the black community; Barreras, Drucker and Rosenthal, in a study published in the Journal of Urban Health report that
incarceration impacts the life of a family in several important ways: it strains them financially, disrupts parental bonds, separates spouses, places severe stress on the remaining caregivers, leads to a loss of discipline in the household, and to feelings of shame, stigma, and anger
The high conviction rate among black males allows potential employers to be actively discriminatory. This causes massive unemployment rates among black people who have criminal records, and quickly eliminates the possibility, for many, to legitimately sustain themselves. Becoming a street dealer is an ugly means by which to alleviate impoverished conditions, but is of relative unimportance to the functioning of the drug trade. Concentrating police efforts against petty dealers is an ineffective strategy if one wishes to address the issue of drug use or trafficking, but an incredibly effective strategy if one wishes to address the ‘problem’ of poor people. The American drug trade, an overwhelmingly corporate and middle-class business, has an inexhaustible supply of desperate, young black people willing to hustle on street corners, in spite of the likely prospect of death, injury or incarceration. These petty dealers are the face of the drug trade when reported in the media, and provide a smokescreen behind which the transnational banks and corporations who control drug flows and banks who launder the vast spoils can continue their business without fear of molestation. We may conclude, therefore, that the domestic efforts of the US Government function as a self fulfilling prophecy, ensuring the impoverished circumstances which inform the desperate decision to sell drugs.
As an aside we might briefly note the circumstances which begat the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980’s and devastated innumerable lives and communities. In the early 80’s Reagan’s administration supported a variety of right wing counterrevolutionary groups (contras) in Nicaragua in a covert attempt to overthrow the democratically elected socialist government of the country. The US government spent millions of dollars training and arming these contras. The contras were massively unpopular among both Nicaraguan and American citizenries, owing to their murderous and cruel acts; a huge US government propaganda campaign in favour of the contras failed to convince the American public to support acts of murder, rape and infanticide. Consequentially, in 1985, congress voted to block all public funding to the Contra groups.
As revealed by Gary Webb, in his infamous ‘Dark Alliance’ essays, in absence of more direct means of funding these groups, it is likely that the CIA turned a permissive blind eye to the wide scale trafficking of crack cocaine from the Nicaraguan contras to US mainland, and its consequent sale in ghettos and inner-city areas. This was largely responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. 1989, the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, headed by senator John Kerry, concluded after a lengthy investigation, that “Senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems”. Those same policy makers were given an irresistible pretext to viciously isolate crack possession and sale as worthy of the harshest legal punishment among all drugs, despite the Government’s own direct role in the availability and prominence of the drug. The insurmountable damage that the crack epidemic and drug war has inflicted upon the black community and the government’s responsibility for both of the collective assaults has not been satisfactorily addressed by any subsequent president, and is barely known publicly, being incompatible with the media narrative of blacks as culturally, if not genetically inferior and infantile.
The motivations that gave rise to such zealous and totalitarian legislation are not difficult to discern, and we will now turn to an analysis of the fundamental ideological precepts which informed them. Depending on where upon the political spectrum one places one’s ear, Ronald Reagan is most famously known for either his remarkable stupidity, his murderous and criminal foreign policy in Latin America, or his principled dedication to liberty, democracy and free-markets. Of the three claims pertaining to Reagan, two are supported by a vast body of evidence and largely absent from serious commentary on his presidential legacy and one is totally, demonstrably false and also the only claim widely permitted in mass media and mainstream political discourse.
Reagan, and those politicians in his mold, are identified fatuously as ‘libertarian’, a word, which much like ‘socialist’ before it, has been debased so thoroughly and with such propagandistic calculation that it refers quite precisely to the antithesis of its originally intended definition. This is useful as a power play, condemning the swamps of political discussion to further obscurity, but it is also as a means by which we may gauge the actual beliefs held by Reagan and his ilk; if an established politician is referred to as ‘Libertarian’ it quite simply means that they believe in the unrestrained right of business to profit, with all other rights subordinated to that one elementary rule. Accordingly, these ‘libertarians’ advocate the cutting of publicly funded programs aimed at assisting poor, disadvantaged people, wishing them to be offset by a huge increase in public funding and aid to the corporate sector, which is granted massive subsidy, reductions and breaks in tax, and further enriches the entitled wealthy class.
Reaganite ‘libertarians’ loudly espouse the virtues of the fallacious doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’, and are contemptuous of ‘something for nothing culture’, all the while isolating themselves from the former and exemplifying the latter. Of course this is not so much the intellectual distinction of the ‘libertarian’ as the ruling paradigm of state-capitalism, but the neoliberal trend (fundamentalist worship of state power and corporate welfare) gives the necessary framework within which Reagan’s policy can be fully understood.
This ideological impetus is implicitly acknowledged in the public address made by Reagan to announce the new drug policy; though largely a postscript to empty fear mongering rhetoric, the eighth initiative of Reagan’s proposed legislation would consist of “millions of dollars …[to be] allocated for prison and jail facilities”. Obviously any apparent statement of truth made by a pathological liar must be subjected to intense scrutiny, and as such the ‘millions [of] allocated’ dollars for ‘prison facilities’, might have more accurately been rephrased as “a permanent dedication to billions of dollars annually spent in the service of dramatically expanding state power”.
The predicted increase in incarceration required the construction of new prisons, thereby gifting billions of dollars in public subsidy to the construction industry and the huge legal and administrative costs associated therewith. The magnitude of expansion is not easy to comprehend; there has been a 1712% rise in the federal prisons budget since the 1980’s, which as of 2012 was well above $6 billion – the 2013 budget request by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stands at just below $7 billion, two thirds of which is direct subsidy to
prison construction, modernization and repair, institution security and administration, contract confinement, management and administration
The minority of the budget (35%) is dedicated to ‘Inmate care and programs’, though, according to findings from The Sentencing Project, the term is largely a smokescreen referring to the outsourcing of “medical services, food preparation, vocational training and inmate transportation”. Any serious initiative regarding inmate care would not give rise to a situation whereby
federal prisons are operating at 35% above capacity…double and triple bunking is commonplace, as is the utilization of non-housing areas for sleeping quarters
Not all areas of prison spending show signs of growth; the Marshals service boasts of having reduced inmate medical care costs (only 5% of the budget) by $171.6 million, through “innovative cost saving projects” in the provision of basic health needs for incarcerated individuals. Such ‘innovation’ is patently lacking in the rest of the BOP, which has requested a 4.2% increase over the 2012 budgetary total, so as to reflect
the activation of two completed prisons, beginning the activation of two newly constructed prisons, expanding contract confinement, and increasing onboard staff at existing institutions.
Financial pipelines are then directed towards interests which happily convene with powerful industries and pockets of wealth, and away from the provision of Human dignity and health, which has poor returns on investment.
Reagan’s corporate fetish birthed the phenomena of the American private prison, when in 1984 the Corrections Corporation of America (founded 1983) won a contract to take over a correctional facility in Tennessee. There are currently over 250 privately owned prisons in America; private companies are contracted by the Government, who pay a monthly rate per-prisoner. These private companies take their massive public endowment and turn it to private profit in truly entrepreneurial spirit. The consequences for liberty and human rights are hardly surprising; Mark Evans, writing for the Tucson Citizen notes that to be profitable, these institutions “pinch pennies everywhere – scrimp on security, save on food [and are] parsimonious with guard salaries”, citing reports by local Arizona news outlets that detail “escapes, riots, deaths and beatings…corruption, high guard turnover…[and] prisoner mistreatment”. The Sentencing Project cites numerous examples of private prisons endangering inmates by “providing inadequate healthcare services”. Included among other examples is a claim leveled at CCA’s medical department that an inmate died “after officials allegedly refused to fill a $35 prescription for his hereditary angioedema”. Cost ineffective factors such as the provision of humane conditions or human rights are, rightly by capitalist logic, given negligible attention. Inmates are comprised of mostly what Chomsky terms the “surplus population” – poor, black folk whose market value is nonexistent, and who therefore must be put to effective use somehow. The ability to confine and control these people gives private companies an environment in which they can openly unharness this desire; Fraser and Freeman’s 2012 report ‘Locking down an American Workforce’ finds that
The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S…two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM…nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day…rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance
Labour is not organised and regulation is barely tangible. The surplus population of poor people with no market value can be put to use in many ways. They are put to use by the drug trade, who use them for undignified and violent street dealing, and then they are put to use, when arrested,as a pretext for prisons to be built and corporate pockets to be lined. If they are lucky enough to land in a private prison, they can be put to use by providing additional profit to their owners, who are not obliged to pay them anything close to a minimum wage.
The obvious comparison to be made here is to the antiquated slave trade, but it is an inadequate analogy. The truth bears more resemblance to an inverse slave trade, whereby auctioneers do not sell slaves, but pay plantations to own them, and do so with money gifted from the public purse. The new slave trade is not so much a ‘trade’ than it is a nationalised industry. The institution of the new slavery is but another pipeline funneling public money to the petulant and expectant hand of the corporate sector, with the divide-and-conquer approach to humanity and civil society a terrible yet predictable consequence.
– Harry Burgess