The American Gulag, thinking about our enormous drug incarceration situation

How much better would our communities be if even a portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on prisons each year was diverted to education, drug rehabilitation, and general community building?

I’m no friend to drugs or drug dealers, and I would advocate anything that would help reduce the burden that drugs and alcohol abuse transfer to the families and communities of those that suffer with drug addiction, but I can’t help but wonder at the absurdity of our current penal situation. I have to question the philosophy behind a system that incarcerates more than a million of its citizens for drug offenses, and that currently jails a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world… by far.

We may hear about the North Korean work camps or Chinese political detention, but when you look at the numbers, you have the greatest probability of spending time in prison here at home. Additionally, how can it be that drug offenders currently serve far greater jail sentences than violent offenders? And even more disturbingly, why are so many of these non violent drug offenders re incarcerated years later for violent offenses….could it be that they are learning violence in American prisons, and that we are responsible for creating the people that make America one of the most violent societies on earth?

Some quick facts on drugs and incarcerations:

  • At the end of 2005, more than 2 300 000 people were held in State or Federal prisons, and more than 7 million were either incarcerated or on parole; and one out of every 136 Americans is in a state or federal jail. By comparison, England which is located in the middle of the world prison rankings incarcerates just 148 per 100 000, compared to America’s 737 per 100 000.
  • The average violent offender in federal prison will serve 63 months in jail, while the average non violent drug offender will serve 75.6 months.
  • From 1985-1996 California built one new university, and 21 new prisons.
  • Every dollar spent to incarcerate a drug offender is one dollar taken away from spending in the communities from which these offenders came; which can help to explain some of our deplorable urban environments.
  • 22% of all incarcerated inmates will be forced to have sexual contact against their will while in prison.
  • States spend almost twice as much on corrections as they do on all forms of public assistance combined.
  • A Justice Dept. study has revealed that the length of time served in prison has no outcome good or bad on the likelihood of recidivism.

Our communities and our families have been suffering the effects of drugs for too long, and it must by now be very clear that we cannot beat out national drug problem simply by locking up all that break our country’s drug laws.

How many people will we need to incarcerate before drugs cease to be a problem? Solutions like mandatory minimums and other long sentences for drug offences, largely politically motivated, are causing more harm than they ease and need to be abolished as soon as possible. When you look at the recidivism rates that indicate that many of these non violent drug offenders are becoming violent while in prison, unless we are willing to lock up people indefinitely, we are likely just making our own problems worse.

If even a quarter of the national incarceration budget was instead diverted to drug education, access to drug rehabilitation, and on policies designed to improve the communities at greatest risk for drug abuse, how much better would our nation be? I’m a parent, and I know how scary it can be, and I can understand the knee jerk reaction that leads us to vote for people that promise to get tough on drugs through ever greater jail sentences. But we must awake to the reality that our policy of incarceration has not improved our drug situation, and has created an absurdly and tragically large population of jailed Americans. Imagine your son or daughter caught up in drug abuse, and possibly drug dealing as a way to support an expensive habit.

When it’s someone you love a 10 year jail sentence for small time dealing sounds crazy, and obviously what is truly needed is the rehab, therapy and the counseling that will allow them to get off of drugs and to make a contribution to society. A 10 year sentence is a lifetime for a young person, and in effect destroys what could still be a promising young life.

We need to change our ways, and start using our dollars on more constructive and humane solutions to our national drug problem. It’s not working, we can’t and we shouldn’t simply keep locking people up for ever, and if only those dollars were spent for community building and education, how much of our drug problem might just disappear?

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How much better would our communities be if even a portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on prisons each year was diverted to education, drug rehabilitation, and general community building?

I’m no friend to drugs or drug dealers, and I would advocate anything that would help reduce the burden that drugs and alcohol abuse transfer to the families and communities of those that suffer with drug addiction, but I can’t help but wonder at the absurdity of our current penal situation. I have to question the philosophy behind a system that incarcerates more than a million of its citizens for drug offenses, and that currently jails a greater percentage of its population than any other nation in the world… by far.

We may hear about the North Korean work camps or Chinese political detention, but when you look at the numbers, you have the greatest probability of spending time in prison here at home. Additionally, how can it be that drug offenders currently serve far greater jail sentences than violent offenders? And even more disturbingly, why are so many of these non violent drug offenders re incarcerated years later for violent offenses….could it be that they are learning violence in American prisons, and that we are responsible for creating the people that make America one of the most violent societies on earth?

Some quick facts on drugs and incarcerations:

  • At the end of 2005, more than 2 300 000 people were held in State or Federal prisons, and more than 7 million were either incarcerated or on parole; and one out of every 136 Americans is in a state or federal jail. By comparison, England which is located in the middle of the world prison rankings incarcerates just 148 per 100 000, compared to America’s 737 per 100 000.
  • The average violent offender in federal prison will serve 63 months in jail, while the average non violent drug offender will serve 75.6 months.
  • From 1985-1996 California built one new university, and 21 new prisons.
  • Every dollar spent to incarcerate a drug offender is one dollar taken away from spending in the communities from which these offenders came; which can help to explain some of our deplorable urban environments.
  • 22% of all incarcerated inmates will be forced to have sexual contact against their will while in prison.
  • States spend almost twice as much on corrections as they do on all forms of public assistance combined.
  • A Justice Dept. study has revealed that the length of time served in prison has no outcome good or bad on the likelihood of recidivism.

Our communities and our families have been suffering the effects of drugs for too long, and it must by now be very clear that we cannot beat out national drug problem simply by locking up all that break our country’s drug laws.

How many people will we need to incarcerate before drugs cease to be a problem? Solutions like mandatory minimums and other long sentences for drug offences, largely politically motivated, are causing more harm than they ease and need to be abolished as soon as possible. When you look at the recidivism rates that indicate that many of these non violent drug offenders are becoming violent while in prison, unless we are willing to lock up people indefinitely, we are likely just making our own problems worse.

If even a quarter of the national incarceration budget was instead diverted to drug education, access to drug rehabilitation, and on policies designed to improve the communities at greatest risk for drug abuse, how much better would our nation be? I’m a parent, and I know how scary it can be, and I can understand the knee jerk reaction that leads us to vote for people that promise to get tough on drugs through ever greater jail sentences. But we must awake to the reality that our policy of incarceration has not improved our drug situation, and has created an absurdly and tragically large population of jailed Americans. Imagine your son or daughter caught up in drug abuse, and possibly drug dealing as a way to support an expensive habit.

When it’s someone you love a 10 year jail sentence for small time dealing sounds crazy, and obviously what is truly needed is the rehab, therapy and the counseling that will allow them to get off of drugs and to make a contribution to society. A 10 year sentence is a lifetime for a young person, and in effect destroys what could still be a promising young life.

We need to change our ways, and start using our dollars on more constructive and humane solutions to our national drug problem. It’s not working, we can’t and we shouldn’t simply keep locking people up for ever, and if only those dollars were spent for community building and education, how much of our drug problem might just disappear?

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