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.
I stood there watching as the orange-vested prisoners moved out of sight. A certain sadness gripped me. They were all so young. None over 25. I remembered a neighbor’s son and daughter, about the ages of these young men. They have been involved in illegal drugs since their mid-teens. They have been arrested many times, but never convicted nor even tried. They are white and their parents can afford counsel.
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 nanve "solution" of "just say no" to the equally well-meaning but equally nanve mandatory maximum 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.
Cocaine addiction, like all addictions, is a treatable illness. Why are the sick imprisoned, not treated? Crack cocaine—the drug that started the panic of building prisons—is used by more whites than blacks, but blacks are locked up five times more often.
We have heard the statistics and horror stories. Every 20 seconds someone is arrested on a drug charge. Every week, a new jail or prison is built, even though we already have the world’s largest penal system. Every day we read of such things as a young mother getting life in prison for $40 worth of cocaine. Six hundred thousand people were arrested in this country last year for possessing or selling marijuana, a drug most authorities report as less harmful than alcohol. In 1970 less than 200,000 people were in prisons. Soon there will be two million.
The majority of religious people remain silent on the rapid increase in incarceration and even more quiet on the unfair, racially imbalanced threat of America’s drug laws. That despite the fact that our founder, a prisoner who suffered the legal death penalty, said that he had come to open prison doors and let the captives go free. He talked of forgiveness and restoration. We who claim to be his disciples are obliged to offer leadership in release to captives. Our actions are incompatible with our words at prayer. Our talk is of the little ones. The poor. Most often our actions benefit the moneyed.
There are glimmers of hope. We are seeing more and more people in each religious declension who feel compelled to give at least passing attention to correcting the cancerous condition in America that is roaring out of control, threatening to destroy us by forever bigger appropriations to feed the gods of unfreedom and the coffers of the already rich.
Many years ago a white sharecropper on a Mississippi farm reported to his landlord that he had witnessed the lynching of a black man over the weekend. Before leaving the man said, "Now I don’t want you to think I’m a tattletale. But some things just ain’t right." We’re still lynching a lot of people. And some things still just ain’t right.
WILL CAMPBELL is a longtime preacher and activist and the author of several books, including Race and the Renewal of the Church (1962) and Brother to a Dragonfly (1977).