From the Archives: November-December 1999

THIS STORY IS about the loss of a war and the sin and insanity of continuing to wage that war with the same weapon: prisons. From the well-meaning but naive “solution” of “just say no” to the equally well-meaning but equally naive mandatory minimum sentences, we have been defeated in our War on Drugs.

When we finally realized that we had lost the undeclared war in Vietnam, those remaining in Saigon climbed to the highest building and clung to the last helicopter leaving the country. Now it is time for the metaphor to be exercised in the drug war. We have lost.

But there are those who will not admit defeat. Who are they? First and foremost they are the ones who make enormous profits from what is now recognized as the prison-industrial complex.

Locking people up is big business. Not just for construction companies but for such private enterprises as the Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based company that is leading the way in the effort to turn all prisons over to private enterprise. Last year its net profit was $53.9 million. Since corporate prisons make their profits based on the daily number of prisoners, longer sentences are the strategy. Not rehabilitation. Not justice. 

Will Campbell was a preacher, activist, and author of Race and the Renewal of the Church (1962) and Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) when this article appeared.

Image: Cannabis plant, Hamik /

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