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‘War’ on drugs hysteria, addiction to prisons bring untold harm


One of the great injustices being done by the U.S. government, ignored in the presidential campaign, is the all-time high of 2.1 million persons in jail. This is six times the number of prisoners held in 1970.

The United States’ rate of incarceration just became the highest on the planet, surpassing Russia’s rate. The current U.S. rate of 690 per 100,000 is six times that of Canada, seven times that of Italy and France and 17 times that of Japan.

The incarceration rate is savagely severe on African-American men. The nation is locking them up at eight times the rate of white men.

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates did not address the $40 billion it costs every year to carry out the soaring incarceration rate, although a growing chorus of experts in crime decries this expense as wasteful and even counterproductive. Tough-on-crime sociologist James Q. Wilson has denounced “absurd penalties” such as five years for possession of one-fourth of an ounce of crack cocaine.

Nor do statistics bear out the assumption that building more prisons reduces crime. The 30 states with the smallest increases in incarceration rates have larger crime reductions.

Nor do increased imprisonments reduce illegal drug sales. Such transactions held steady even while incarceration for drug offenders soared to 75 percent of all those entering federal penitentiaries and 35 percent of those in state institutions.

About half of the nation’s 2 million prisoners are serving time for small-time drug deals. These people pose no threat to society. They could be penalized by probation and, even more important, helped by medical treatment for drug addiction. Imagine if just one-quarter of the astronomical bill for prisons were spent on treatment and counseling for substance abuse!

No one can know the harm being done by America’s unjust over-reliance on imprisonment. There are now some 4 million former inmates who by state law were not able to vote Nov. 7. The United States is almost isolated in the Western industrialized world in disenfranchising ex-inmates. In 1980, the American Bar Association urged the repeal of laws subjecting convicts to collateral civil disabilities. That recommendation has been overwhelmed by the hysteria for the “war” on drugs.

The addiction to incarceration has led to other injustices, including those derived from states privatizing prisons so that profit-oriented organizations operate the jails for their own commercial success and not for the benefit or betterment of inmates.

The government conceals these injustices by denying access to prisons to TV and the press. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has sustained such restrictions.

America’s high rate of imprisonment is the result of several converging forces. Racial profiling may be one of the most serious. But the country’s anxieties over crime, exploited by politicians, are at the root of the compulsion to incarcerate. Rather than reflect calmly on the interaction of guns, drugs and violence, the nation demands an instant solution, which translates into a demand for the immediate disappearance of the offender.

The syndrome has resulted in endless tragedies for the families of 2 million Americans. The long-term consequences will become more evident in the next several years. There will be pressure to keep the nation’s prisons filled. The mistakes of scared ex-prisoners will prompt cries for additional incarceration.

During the 10 years I served in Congress, I was a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which had oversight of federal prisons. We toured many of those facilities and had several hearings in Washington on their problems. Institutions were troubled even then. It is almost unimaginable that the population of those prisons, now 145,000, has increased six times since 1970.

Christ expressed great compassion for prisoners. He stated that visits to them are acts of kindness to Christ himself. The Catholic church in America has always identified with the poor, the immigrants and the refugees. A new and tragic group of victimized prisoners has appeared. Caring for them is caring for Christ himself.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000