After making an up close and personal study of prison for over 36 years, living and surviving among thousands of so-called “non-violent” and violent criminals convicted of every crime imaginable, I have arrived at conclusions at odds with the “experts’ ” opinions that society would be better served by releasing those convicted of drug charges, removing non-violent offenders from the violent prisons.
I read a newspaper commentary by David Grosso, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, after he spent a recent weekend in prison. He stated that some two-thirds of the more than two million Americans behind bars are nonviolent offenders, “most convicted of drug charges.” He also stated that in an overcrowded prison system, where many serve mandatory minimum sentences, “nonviolent prisoners are turning into violent ones.”
I must disagree with this statement. Rather than being harmless “nonviolent” drug offenders who can be placed in programs that will turn them into good citizens who will return to society and serve the homeless in soup kitchens, many of these drug dealers are unrepentant societal cancers that fuel violence in prison and on the streets of our cities.
Being confined in a Florida Panhandle prison, every afternoon the Pensacola natives gather around the prison TV at five o’clock to see which of their friends, relatives, and neighbors shot someone, got shot, got arrested, or were photographed robbing a store, stealing a car, or assaulting someone. Virtually all the drive-by shootings and murders are simply described as “drug-related.”
Drug-related. Not only are drugs the direct cause of escalating violence in “free society,” but also drug trafficking, sales and consumption fuel violence and corruption in prisons nationwide. With competition for smuggled drugs and customers increasing tensions and violence among prison gangs, even the nonviolent prisoners unaffiliated with drugs and gang violence suffer the consequences, being subjected to midnight ransackings, strip searches, drug dog sniffings, and drug tests. I can’t count how many times I’ve been awakened from a deep sleep, ordered to strip to my boxers and go out and sit on the dayroom floor while my meager belongings, correspondence and legal documents were dumped out and scattered in a mass shakedown with nothing confiscated.
Virtually every prisoner has returned from the yard to find his locker burglarized, every possession that could be sold, traded, or fenced for drugs missing. The first reaction of many of those drug victims is to find a shank, a handmade knife, and stab someone. Others who bought drugs on credit from nonviolent drug dealers, who can’t or won’t pay their drug debts, get assaulted or stabbed in recompense. Friction between prison gangs over drugs often results in opposing prisoner getting sliced up and flown to outside hospitals in expensive Life Flight heliocopters. Some live, some die. So much for nonviolence.
Where do all those drugs come from? Despite strip searches of prisoners entering and leaving weekend visits some drugs are smuggled in by prisoners’ family members and friends, but that cannot account for the quantities floating around every prison. A never-ending problem and dirty little secret is that of prison employees enriching themselves by selling drugs to prisoners. An underground black market in cell phones used to make unmonitored smuggling arrangements fuels more crimes. Escape plots are financed by drug sales. Now that tobacco products have been criminalized and banned in state prisons, prison staff who might have had qualms bringing in drugs have no moral quandaries in selling a pack of cigarettes for a hundred dollars. Where did the prisoner get the money to buy the tobacco? Selling drugs.
You say to-mah-to, and I say tomato. You say you’ll enroll these drug dealers and addicts in some group therapy program, let them talk about their problems, what societal failures turned them to selling drugs to pay for their habits, let them return to society and get a job at McDonald’s — “you want fries with that?” — and I will tell you an old joke that reveals a universal truth:
Question: What is the difference between a drunk and a junkie?
Answer: A drunk will steal your wallet. A junkie will steal your wallet, and help you look for it.
In the 1990’s, when I worked with teen boot camp prisoners, a sixteen-year old who was getting out a week later asked me, “Why would I work at McDonald’s for minimum wage when I can go back to the ‘hood, reclaim my corner, and make a thousand dollars a day selling crack?”
I say you shouldn’t fall for the mistaken belief that we, as a society, can solve many of our problems by not incarcerating drug offenders. Programs? Fine — I advocate programs for prisoners. I’ve worked with thousands of prisoners in programs for close to thirty-four years. Some work, and help people get out of prison and stay out. But others are “paper programs,” ineffective, with hefty state contracts funding “professionals” who are going through the motions, “faking a move,” as they say in prison.
You say you want to know what works and what doesn’t? Talk to the prisoners, the ones who live there. We know.