Category: Substance Use and Abuse

Aug 27 2013

Guest Post: The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

The Future of Mass Incarceration: Punishment in the Proposed Era of Decarceration

by Chez Rumpf, PhD Candidate in Sociology, Loyola University Chicago

Two weeks ago in a speech to the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder openly critiqued the United States’ “War on Drugs,” admitting it has been a failure and that its unintended consequences have severely harmed individuals, families, and entire communities. Specifically, Holder took issue with mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have contributed greatly to the build-up of the United States’ prison nation. He went so far as to instruct federal prosecutors throughout the United States to no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent federal drug charges.

An End to the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration?

Holder’s comments carry a great deal of symbolic importance. It is undeniably noteworthy for the country’s Attorney General to openly challenge and call for a reversal of U.S. crime policies and to acknowledge publicly that mass incarceration is a grave social injustice, in part because of the severe racial disparities that permeate the criminal legal system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the symbolic importance of Holder’s speech will translate to changes in policy and practice. As Kara Dansky recently noted on the ACLU’s blog, federal prosecutors may resist Holder’s instructions based on their own racist beliefs and adherence to “tough on crime” ideology.

Read more »

Jun 25 2013

The Drug War: Still Failed and Racist #20

I’ve already mentioned the excellent new ACLU report on the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. However it’s worth highlighting again…


White youth use pot at a slightly higher rate than black youth do.


The Economist sees an opportunity to leverage the racism of the enforcement of marijuana laws to change policy.

Feb 27 2013

Poem of the Day: white lady

white lady

a street name for cocaine

wants my son
wants my niece
wants josie’s daughter
holds them hard
and close as slavery
what will it cost
to keep our children
what will it cost
to buy them back.

white lady
says i want you
let me be your lover
run me through your
feel me smell me taste me
love me
nobody understands you like
white lady

white lady
you have chained our sons
in the basement
of the big house
white lady

you have walked our daughters
out into our streets
white lady
what do we have to pay
to repossess our children
white lady
what do we have to owe
to own our own at last

by Lucille Clifton

Feb 05 2013

The Drug War: Still Racist & Failed #7

It’s becoming common knowledge that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any other nation. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that there were 1.6 million state and federal prisoners.

While state prisons have seen a small decrease in their populations over the past couple of years, prisoners in the federal system continue to increase. Last week, the Congressional Research Service (PDF) published a new report that provided data about the federal prison population. It found that there were about 219,000 inmates under federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) jurisdiction in 2012 — a nearly 790 percent increase in 32 years.

The key part of the report is summarized in an article by Ashley Portero:

Since 1998, individuals arrested for drug crimes have constituted the largest portion of federal prison admissions, followed closely by those arrested for immigration and weapons-related offenses. Meanwhile, the CRS reports there has been a significant drop off in the number of inmates entering prison for violent or property-related crimes, which only made up about 4 percent and 11 percent of prison admissions in 2010.

A huge portion of those drug offenders are arrested for marijuana offenses, even though the substance – now legal in 18 states for medicinal use– has become increasingly mainstream. However, statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal more people were arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined in 2011.

If it continues to grow at the same rate, the Urban Institute predicts the federal prison system will eat up as much as 30 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget by 2020. The group reports the rapid population increase has mainly come from imposing longer sentences, and not a higher arrest rate. Drug offenders are often the targets of those sentences.

Jan 01 2013

The Drug War: Still Racist & A Failure #2

As part of my ongoing series on the failure and racism of the drug war, I wanted to share this comic which also illustrates the class oppression inherent in the so-called war…


Mar 29 2012

Lil’ Wayne’s Budding Critique of the War on Drugs…

This past week Fareed Zakaria published an article about the U.S.’s failed “War on Drugs.” In it, he writes:

Over the past four decades, the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs. The results? In 2011 a global commission on drug policy issued a report signed by George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan; the ­archconservative Peruvian writer-politician Mario Vargas Llosa; former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker; and former Presidents of Brazil and Mexico Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo. It begins, “The global war on drugs has failed … Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.” Its main recommendation is to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

It’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with Lil’ Wayne and not in a good way. Anyway, a young man who I am working with has picked up on this and it has become his mission in life (it seems) to convince me that Wayne has some socially redeeming qualities. He sent me some lyrics of Wayne’s song titled Misunderstood. Because I have such love and respect for the young man who sent these to me, I thought that I would take the time to highlight some lines from the song that discusses the toll that the war on drugs takes on young men of color. Honestly, these lyrics are undone for me by several others that seem to devolve into a rant about sex offenders. But I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

I Was Watching T.V. The Other Day Right
Got This White Guy Up There Talking About Black Guys
Talking About How Young Black Guys Are Targeted
Targeted By Who? America
You See One In Every 100 Americans Are Locked Up
One In Every 9 Black Americans Are Locked Up
And See What The White Guy Was Trying To Stress Was That
The Money We Spend On Sending A Mothaf**ka To Jail
A Young Mothaf**ka To Jail
Would Be Less To Send His Or Her Young Ass To College
See, And Another Thing The White Guy Was Stressing Was That
Our Jails Are Populated With Drug Dealers, You Know Crack/cocaine Stuff Like That
Meaning Due To The Laws We Have On Crack/cocaine And Regular Cocaine
Police Are Only, I Don’t Want To Say Only Right, But Shit
Only Logic By Riding Around In The Hood All Day
And Not In The Suburbs
Because Crack Cocaine Is Mostly Found In The Hood
And You Know The Other Thing Is Mostly Found In You Know Where I’m Going
But Why Bring A Mothaf**ka To Jail If It’s Not Gon Stand Up In Court
Cuz This Drug Aint That Drug, You Know Level 3, Level 4 Drug, Shit Like That
I Guess It’s All A Misunderstanding
I Sit Back And Think, You Know Us Young Mothaf**kas You Know That 1 In 9
We Probably Only Selling The Crack Cocaine Because We In The Hood
And It’s Not Like In The Suburbs, We Don’t Have What You Have
Why? I Really Don’t Wanna Know The Answer
I Guess We Just Misunderstood Hunh
You Know We Don’t Have Room In The Jail Now For The Real Mothaf**kas, The Real Criminals
Sex Offenders, Rapists Serial Killers, S**t Like That
Don’t Get Scared, Don’t Get Scared

If Lil Wayne sees these issues clearly, then one knows for sure that policymakers also do. Time to end the so-called “War on Drugs” which is really a war on communities of color and other marginalized groups.

Feb 29 2012

Shame and Prison…

“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture. — Salman Rushdie

I received a letter from a reader of this blog about three weeks ago. I am still processing it and so I am moved to write today about shame. Specifically, I want to write about shame and silence as it relates to prison. I have a good friend whose father has been incarcerated for most of her life. She hardly speaks of him. She says that she doesn’t miss him. I believe her.

When I look in the mirror, I see his face and I feel debilitating disgust,” she once told me.

She was 10 when he went to prison. She is now 37. He will likely never be released.

It is rare when she will bring her father up with me. Though one day, about five years ago, she mused:

What does it say about me that this man is my father?”

Lewis Smedes has written that:

“the difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”

My friend is and will always be the daughter of a man sentenced to spend his natural life in prison. This is a fact. This is not the end all and be all of her identity though. Yet I fear that she is ‘doing time’ with her father even though she has no contact with him. She is trapped in her identity as the daughter of a ‘lifer’. Worse she is trapped in her “secret” identity as the daughter of a prisoner. This is something to be whispered and to be shared only with those who are blessed to become part of the inner circle of her life.

My friend has struggled with substance abuse. About five years ago, I asked her mother if I could write a letter to my friend’s father. She was taken aback at first but gave me her blessing. I sent him a letter introducing myself as a friend of his daughter and asked if he would answer the following question in writing: “What was the best day that you ever had?” I asked him to be as descriptive as possible in the letter. About two weeks later, I received a response from him and it was 10 pages long. That letter almost ended my friendship with his daughter. But that is a story for another day.

I had hoped that my friend would read that letter and that perhaps she might begin to see her father beyond his fixed identity as a “prisoner.” If she could move away from seeing him as a one dimensional figure, then perhaps (I thought) she could also begin to embrace other parts of her own self beyond the “daughter of a prisoner” identity. While I thought I was being helpful and loving, my actions were not received as such and I almost lost a very good friend.

But five years later, if you wonder if I would still reach out to her father in the way that I did, the answer is yes. For while there is no happily ever after to this story yet, I have seen small changes in my friend. It took her over 18 months but she eventually did read her father’s letter. Last year, she was in Chicago and over dinner she said: “You know he isn’t a monster. It makes a difference to know that somehow.” What difference does it make? I can’t tell yet. But I know that as she begins to humanize her father, my friend will begin to embrace her own humanity as well.

As I said, there is no happily ever after to this story. And that’s OK.

Dec 07 2011

David Simon (creator of the Wire) Pissed Some People Off…

Without a doubt, the highlight of my trip to DC this week was hearing David Simon (creator of the Wire and Treme) speak at the 6th annual Models for Change conference. I don’t think that the conference organizers were prepared for what he had to say, judging from the looks on some of their faces.

by DT Kindler (12/5/11)

Simon opened his speech by warning us that it would be “depressing.” He began by excoriating those who have elevated profit at the expense of morality. He slammed his “liberal friends” who suggest that being environmentally conscious or “green” will “save us money.” No it won’t, he said. It will cost us money but that is OK in the service of a greater good.

He proclaimed himself “not a marxist” and said that we need to acknowledge that there will be costs rather than profit in re-integrating the poor and the marginalized into society. We should be willing to bear these costs because it is the right thing to do, he contended.

In his opinion, the system needs to “choke on itself” if we are to have any hope for justice and real transformation in the future. The game, he said, is “rigged.” He declared that he had decided to “refuse to play” by the current rules of the destructive drug war. He called the drug war “a triumph of brutality” and a “war on the underclass.”

He advocated jury nullification. He told the audience that once the state could no longer empanel 12 jurors to hear a non-violent drug case, those prosecutions would end.

He suggested that young men of color are making a rational choice to go to the “corner” because that’s the last “factory” operating in communities like Baltimore.

The assembled group watched transfixed, some with wide eyes, others with slack jaws, others with unabashed glee. I fell into the latter category. There is nothing more hilarious than watching a rich white man castigate a mostly white crowd of liberals. It was genius and many of the folks in the audience were incensed. How dare this man who has enriched himself by telling the stories of young black and brown people suggest that the only hope for any of them is for the system to “choke on itself?” Simon was at times rude, at times patronizing, but always filled with righteous indignation bordering on rage. And you know what? I LOVED IT! I live with this righteous rage on a daily basis. If I had delivered Simon’s speech, it would have been dismissed as a rant by an angry black woman. I think that the audience was forced to listen to Simon and to hear him differently.

For my part, I am tired of polite conversation at polite conferences about juvenile justice. As Simon said, “these kids are dying.” I was waiting for him to end his speech with a primal scream saying: “WAKE UP! SHIT IS F-ED UP!” He didn’t do this of course but a girl can still dream…

P.S. If the conference organizers post video of the speech, I will share the link here. However, I feel pretty certain that the video might be mysteriously “misplaced.” [Just kidding!] In the meantime, you can get a taste of Simon in this interview on Bill Moyers' show.

Jun 11 2011

Crazy PIC Fact of the Day 6/11/11: Failed War on Drugs Edition

Source: New York Times

Jun 09 2011

I Have To Go Back To Jail Again Tomorrow…

Eric Ruin (Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative - Critical Resistance)

And I absolutely hate, hate, hate it. I am visiting a young person who is still being detained at Cook County Jail after 30 days. Like the vast majority of detainees at Cook, the young person is there on a drug violation.

Everything about the experience of being at Cook County makes me sick. It begins a couple of days before I know I will need to go there and it extends to a few days after I leave. If this sounds like I am complaining, this would be correct. I have a difficult time controlling my rage when I hear some people refer to jails as “country clubs.” Frankly, this type of statement gives the person away. You can be assured that the person who utters such nonsense has never actually set foot inside an actual jail.

Some months ago, I wrote about a young friend Jamal’s experience of being locked up at Cook County Jail:

All of a sudden, in 2007, I didn’t see or hear from Jamal for a month. That was unusual. I asked some of his friends in the neighborhood where he was and what had happened to him. There was a wall of silence. Finally one evening in October, I got a phone call from Jamal. He was at Cook County Jail and he needed my help. “What can I do,” I asked. “Do you need a private lawyer, I have friends who could help? Money for items from the commissary…” I was going on and on and he finally stopped me when he could get a word in. “Ms. K he said, please tell them to send me to prison now…just get me out of here.”

Jamal’s plea that I ask that the judge send him to prison to get out of Cook County Jail is the norm. The jail is a true hell hole. In 2008, a federal investigation castigated the jail for its conditions. The investigation “uncovered serious sanitation and medical care problems as well as violence directed against prisoners who clashed with guards or failed to follow commands.” Other key parts of the investigation included reports of physical abuse and dilapidated infrastructure:

Many inmates report that those who are old, mentally ill or do not understand English are struck by officers for undressing or dressing too slowly,” the report said. One prisoner who had trouble complying with orders from guards complained that they used his head as “a bongo drum.”

Inadequate staffing and supervision sometimes forced the jail to keep prisoners in their cells for long periods, the report said.

“Moreover, deficient maintenance in many cells (no lighting, plumbing failures, etc.) resulted in inhumane conditions for an extended lockdown,” the report said. It said that overcrowding at the jail has resulted in “hot bunking,” in which prisoners use beds in eight-hour shifts.

The report said that while each inmate uses his or her own bedding, the practice could still cause “sanitation and infection control problems.” It said skin infections have not been adequately controlled.

Fitzgerald told reporters that the jail has only one dentist for 9,800 prisoners and that 25 percent of tooth extractions result in infection.

Three years later, I believe that conditions have really not improved at the jail. In some instances, things may in fact be worse. So now tomorrrow, I have to go there again and I am dreading it. Spending one hour there feels unbearable to me, I just cannot fathom spending the 35 days that the young person who I am visiting has spent there. This is inhumane and it must change.