Will Campbell, a Christianity and Crisis columnist, has described himself as a Bapist preacher of the South which is different from being a Southern Baptist preacher. Known as the sage of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, he is author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Forty Acres and a Goat other books.
Used by permission of the author.
The author examines drugs, race and the American penal system. He asserts that America is continuing to wage war, but with a different weapon — prisons — and that incarceration is a new form of lynching.
Some things just aren’t right. Something incompatible with common sense and basic values is happening in America. It has to do with crime and punishment: the way greed and inhumanity have made a gross industry out of locking people up in cages. We’ve heard it all before; more money spent on prisons then education, health care, general welfare. The Bureau of Justice Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics in 1998 reported that the United States spends approximately $34.18 billion dollars per year on incarceration. That’s a lot. of money, almost ninety-four million dollars each day of the year. we have been reminded enough of how many people could be enrolled in drug treatment programs for that amount of money. Over 6.8 million people. Or in job training, children in childcare programs, public housing subsidies, college scholarships, medical insurance for the eleven million children in America who have no coverage; the list is long. It doesn’t. seem to impress us. We rationalize that we are willing to spend the money to make our streets safe, It. hasn’t arid it won’t. Often the opposite. We locked up more than a million nonviolent offenders last year. Most will be released. Most will return to society worse than before; more apt. to be embittered and violent. Do we not care at. all for them? Do we not care for ourselves?
Some while back I tarried by the mail box on our country road, pretending to sift through the mail. Monthly bills and several envelopes with return addresses from Christian missionary sounding organizations, all saying they were sending the information I had requested and all asking for money at the end. I recall there being an unusual batch from the missionary sounding folk that day. I also recall supposing that the fabrication “information you requested” had to do with the imminence of my seventy-fifth birthday and the senders’ assumption that old people often don’t remember whether they requested information or not. (Shame on Christian sounding organizations preying on old people.)
I tarried that. day because a work crew of county prisoners was approaching. I was acquainted with a few of them from previous visits to the county prison and I wanted to spend a little time with them as they picked up trash. The guard called a ten minute rest break right at our mail box. There were eleven of them and one guard who was himself a prisoner. A “trusty”. Nine of the men were black. Our county is sixteen to one white. Nothing surprising there, I thought. White people are not locked up as often as black people. Not even for the same offense.
It is almost never difficult to get prisoners to talk. I quickly learned that. all except one were serving sentences for drug related of fences. That troubled rue deeply. It troubled me in part. because I was a drug addict for more than forty 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 nor detained. Unfortunately my drug, said by many to be the hardest drug of all, was legal. I say unfortunately because my drug of choice, nicotine, will kill you. Directly, undeniably it kills a hundred and fifty thousand a year in our country alone. In related, contributory cases it is more like four hundred and fifty thousand. In addition to our own fellow citizens, if we have any degree of moral accountability left, we cannot ignore the numberless millions in what. we patronizingly call Third World countries who have died and will die from our callous exports. (What are Second World countries? I assume we are First World.)
Eight of the prisoners I talked with were there for marijuana charges, two for crack cocaine. Certainly smoke going into the lungs from any source is not healthy. But there is no evidence that marijuana has ever killed anyone. Unlike cocaine, which kills about twenty thousand people a year. But why don't we expend our energy and funds on treatment instead, of prisons? Prisons simply aren’t working.
The full import and irony of my ten minutes with the prisoners did not hit me until later. Here they were, sitting under the shade of a cottonwood tree at the end of a long country driveway smoking tobacco cigarettes. Sonic smoked three cigarettes as we sat there talking. The folly and irony of it all. Prisoners of the state, under the gun for using or dealing in a drug which is relatively harmless. Yes, sitting under a shade tree in eight of the law using a lethal drug. Twelve men, partaking of a substance that will kill them, but which is legal.
There is more to their story, The trash they were collecting consisted mainly of beer cans and liquor bottles. The contents of those two can kill you also, but you can buy them over the counter. Nothing like dying legally I reckon.
Further irony, further lunacy. A local woman was arrested last week for smuggling two marijuana cigarettes into the prison where her son was doing time. They were concealed in a toothpaste tube. She also brought two cartons of tobacco cigarettes. No questions there.
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 twenty-five. And they were mostly black. Not right. Not just. What is in store for them?
Where will they be when they are forty? Or fifty, if they live that long? 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 or even tried. They are white and their parents can afford counsel. Not fair.
Now I am wondering why I am putting things to paper which are common knowledge. Just what is this story supposed to be about? Thus far it must sound as if I am arguing for the unfettered use of all hard drugs. I’m not. Someone I knew and loved - as close to me as one person can get to another - died at forty-five. Years of heavy use of amphetamines - legally obtained for he was a pharmacist - was the presumed cause. In addition, I was born and raised a God fearing Baptist in Mississippi. Anything stronger than aspirin was considered Sinful in our circle. Except, of course, nicotine. At least we didn’t know at the time what a killer it was.
What this story is about. is 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 First Lady Reagan and her solution of “Just say no,’ to an equally well-meaning but equally naive Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his 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 exorbitant campaign to turn all prisons over to private enterprise. Last year their 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.
We have all read the erroneous claims. “One crack cocaine cigarette and you’re addicted for life.” Generally not true, although it is certainly a powerful addiction when one is hooked. There seems to be no accurate measurement of precisely how many die each year from cocaine. Thousands, but nothing approaching those who die from nicotine. And, cocaine addiction, like all addictions, is a treatable illness. No one denies that. Why are they imprisoned when in the most maximum security prison drugs are as easily come by as on the streets? Why are the sick not treated? Crack cocaine, the drug that started the panic of building prisons, is used by more whites than by blacks - but blacks are locked up five times more often. Not fair. We know that.
We have heard the statistics and horror stories. Every twenty 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 regard as less harmful -than alcohol. If it is harmful at. all. We know a lot of things. We know that in 1970 less than 200,000 were in prisons. Soon there will be two million. We know that the construction of more prisons is not. solving the problem of drug use and is threatening to bankrupt the nation.
There is something else we know. The majority of religious people are remaining silent on the rapid increase in incarceration and even more quiet on the unfair, racially imbalanced and bankrupting threat of America’s drug laws. Despite the fact that our founder, a prisoner who suffered the legal death penalty, made no provisions for even the existence of prisons. He, following the prophet Isaiah, said of them that he had come to open their 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 who are victims of the gross injustices in America’s drug laws. The drug addiction which claimed me for more than forty years can be, and is, treatable. One would think that my support of such a killer drug would have required my imprisonment, but it didn’t. Nor do we incarcerate our victims of alcohol. We do our best to treat them and restore them to productive lives, Why can’t we do it with the other addicts?
If we should decriminalize drugs and turn to treatment instead of incarceration, as we have with other drugs, there is something we must be honest enough to face from the outset.. It will not stop the use of those drugs. The use of them, particularly in the early phases, will increase. It happened after prohibition. There was an increase in the number of alcoholics after prohibition was repealed. But we didn’t put them in prison. We provided treatment, encouraged such programs as Alcoholics Anonymous, and few would argue that the country was better of f under the crime-ridden weight of the Eighteenth Amendment. Now we have a choice of spending ourselves into bankruptcy with the spiraling construction of more prisons, and immediately telling them up because of our nonsensical drug laws, or taking a long, hard look at what is just, right and necessary.
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. A recent TV tabloid spent a quarter of an hour showing from hidden cameras maids stealing twenty dollars, and facing swift justice in court. On the same program there was a sound bite on officials of the nation’s largest. HMO convicted of stealing millions. We can predict the outcome of the trial after years of appeal.
The picture is bleak from a radical Christian viewpoint, but there are glimmers of hope. Perhaps we give up too quickly on our own households. Our churches, synagogues and mosques. we are seeing sizable numbers 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 all by forever bigger appropriations to feed the gods of unfreedom, and the coffers of the already rich. To do otherwise makes liars of us all.
Many years ago a Caucasian share cropper on a Mississippi farm reported to his landlord that he had witnessed the lynching of a Black man over the week-end. 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 still, some things just ain’t right.