Some while back I tarried by the mail box on our country road, pretending to sift through the mail, because a work crew of county prisoners was approaching. I wanted to spend a little time with them as they picked up trash. The guard called a 10-minute rest break right at our mail box. Nine of the 12 men were black. Our county is 16-to-1 white. Nothing surprising there, I thought. White people are not locked up as often as black people, not even for the same offense.
I learned that all except one were serving sentences for drug-related offenses. That troubled me deeply, in part because I was a drug addict for more than 40 years and never spent a night in prison. I was frisked numerous times, especially during the last several years of my addiction when airport security had become so exacting. On more than one occasion hard evidence of my addiction was discovered, sometimes in copious measure. The evidence was ignored. I was never arrested or detained.
Unfortunately my drug was legal. I say unfortunately because my drug of choice, nicotine, will kill you. Directly, undeniably, it kills 150,000 a year in our country alone. In related, contributory cases it is more like 450,000. If we have any degree of moral accountability left, we cannot ignore the uncountable millions in what we call Third World countries who have died and will die from our callous exports.
Eight of the prisoners I talked with were there for marijuana charges. Two, both black, were there on crack cocaine offenses. The full import and irony of my 10 minutes with the prisoners did not hit me until later. The prisoners were sitting under the shade of a cottonwood tree at the end of a long country driveway smoking tobacco cigarettes. Prisoners of the state, under the gun for using or dealing in a drug that is relatively harmless compared to the drug they were using, partaking of a drug that will kill them but which is legal. Nothing like dying legally, I reckon.