I've taught creative writing in Philadelphia's maximum-security prison for ten years. I joke with the inmates that most of them are POWs in the Drug War. Of course, most of the men in the class are African American.
Last week only two men showed up for the class, which gave me and my co-teacher the opportunity to talk with them about their lives.
Both men are in their thirties, one white, one black. Not surprising, the white guy was in for drug use and the black guy was in for dealing. Both are intelligent, thoughtful men. They are not saints -- but who is anymore in a society where the stone cold killer is a pop culture hero and the so-called "free market" rules?
The white guy, who I will call Bill, was raised in a hard-working blue-collar family. His father busted his tail and sent his son to St Joseph's Prep School outside Philadelphia. Bill played football at the school but could not relate to many of his peers, who were upper class rich kids with fine cars often headed for Harvard or Yale.
Bill fell into a disastrous cycle of drug use and got hooked on heroin, the tragic horrors of which he didn't grasp until it was too late. Shame at being a failure further fueled the cycle, and he was a junkie before he was 30. There was the inevitable collision with police, courts and prison. He is now on an in-prison methadone program.
The black inmate, who I will call Ahmed, has much different concerns as he looks toward getting out and back on the streets. Like Bill, his concern is also how to "make it" in the world he finds himself in. But he has no monkey on his back to throw off; his challenge is a matter of earning self-respect.
Ahmed has five kids with three women. When he gets out he will live with the woman who bore his last two kids. He has a strong parental need to be a protector and provider for his kids. Having his woman's respect is especially important to him.
While his woman did not particularly like him working in the drug business, she did like what it provided. This is Ahmed's dilemma. In the inner city world he was raised in opportunities are scarce and often quite limited. He insists he will not go back to dealing. But how to provide for his woman and kids when he gets out weighs heavily on Ahmed's mind.
The fact is -- our laws, police, courts and prisons aside -- selling drugs follows all the precepts of the free market and free-private enterprise. The fact certain powerful elements of society, for one reason or another, have declared certain substances with a robust market illegal doesn't change the fact it's about providing a product to obtain a profit. Like any business there are risks -- in this case, violence and/or prison. Unlike Wall Street finance, the illegal drug business is highly regulated.
Instead of working to be useful members of society, these men sit in prison taking up tax resources. As "cons" they are now marked men. They are POWs in a war that was declared over 30 years ago against the supply side in a supply-and-demand consumer equation. Politically it's a second Prohibition. And it is a full-blown national disaster.
My personal experience with drugs is limited to moderate drinking and a sociable hit of loco weed now and then at a party. Unlike George W. Bush, I will admit I snorted cocaine once in my 63 years of life. It was at a reporters' party in the late 1970s and the coke was provided by a guy I was told worked on the recently elected Philadelphia district attorney's campaign. Everyone snorting lines in the host's bedroom was white.
The Drug War is saturated with corruption and overwhelmed by hypocrisy.
Cesare Beccaria, an Italian, wrote a famous treatise in 1764 called Of Crimes and Punishments that has been highly touted by great legal minds from Thomas Jefferson to William Blackstone to Mario Cuomo. Of course Beccaria's ideas are part of the Enlightenment, which is a major strike against them in these reason-bashing times. Still, Beccaria's treatise is so lucid and sensible it's considered a fundamental text on how a functional society should address crime.
Two of Beccaria's key tenets are important. One, prevention of crime is more important than punishment, and, two, when punishment is administered it should be fairly and swiftly applied. Secret accusations, torture and the death penalty, he argued, are counter-productive since crime is "an injury to society" and not a matter of revenge. A fair, workable society is the goal.