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Profiting From Human Misery February 18, 2013

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Posted on Feb 17, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
AP/Mel Evans
A row of beds inside the Elizabeth Detention Center.

 

By Chris Hedges

 

Marela, an undocumented immigrant in her 40s, stood outside the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J., on a chilly afternoon last week. She was there with a group of protesters who appear at the facility’s gates every year on Ash Wednesday to decry the nation’s immigration policy and conditions inside the center. She was there, she said, because of her friend Evelyn Obey.

Obey, 40, a Guatemalan and the single mother of a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old, was picked up in an immigration raid as she and nine other undocumented workers walked out of an office building they cleaned in Newark, N.J. Her two children instantly lost their only parent. She languished in detention. Another family took in the children, who never saw their mother again. Obey died in jail in 2010 from, according to the sign Villar had hung on her neck, “pulmonary thromboembolism, chronic bronchiolitis and emphysema and remote cardiac Ischemic Damage.’ ”

“She called me two days after she was seized,” Marela told me in Spanish. “She was hysterical. She was crying. She was worried about her children. We could not visit her because we do not have legal documents. We helped her get a lawyer. Then we heard she was sick. Then we heard she died. She was buried in an unmarked grave. We did not go to her burial. We were too scared of being seized and detained.”

The rally—about four dozen people, most from immigrant rights groups and local churches—was a flicker of consciousness in a nation that has yet to fully confront the totalitarian corporate forces arrayed against it. Several protesters in orange jumpsuits like those worn by inmates held signs reading: “I Want My Family Together,” “No Human Being is Illegal,” and “Education not Deportation.”

“The people who run that prison make money off of human misery,” said Diana Mejia, 47, an immigrant from Colombia who now has legal status, gesturing toward the old warehouse that now serves as the detention facility. As she spoke, a Catholic Worker band called the Filthy Rotten System belted out a protest song. A low-flying passenger jet, its red, green and white underbelly lights blinking in the night sky, rumbled overhead. Clergy walking amid the crowd marked the foreheads of participants with ashes to commemorate Ash Wednesday.

“Repentance is more than merely being sorry,” the Rev. Joyce Antila Phipps, the executive director of Casa de Esperanza, a community organization working with immigrants, told the gathering. “It is an act of turning around and then moving forward to make change.”

The majority of those we incarcerate in this country—and we incarcerate a quarter of the world’s prison population—have never committed a violent crime. Eleven million undocumented immigrants face the possibility of imprisonment and deportation. President Barack Obama, outpacing George W. Bush, has deported more than 400,000 people since he took office. Families, once someone is seized, detained and deported, are thrown into crisis. Children come home from school and find they have lost their mothers or fathers. The small incomes that once sustained them are snuffed out. Those who remain behind often become destitute.

But human beings matter little in the corporate state. We myopically serve the rapacious appetites of those dedicated to exploitation and maximizing profit. And our corporate masters view prisons—as they do education, health care and war—as a business. The 320-bed Elizabeth Detention Center, which houses only men, is run by one of the largest operators and owners of for-profit prisons in the country, Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, has annual revenues in excess of $1.7 billion. An average of 81,384 inmates are in its facilities on any one day. This is a greater number, the American Civil Liberties Union points out in a 2011 report, “Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,” than that held by the states of New York and New Jersey combined.

The for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in Washington and state capitals have successfully blocked immigration reform, have prevented a challenge to our draconian drug laws and are pushing through tougher detention policies. Locking up more and more human beings is the bedrock of the industry’s profits. These corporations are the engines behind the explosion of our prison system. They are the reason we have spent $300 billion on new prisons since 1980. They are also the reason serious reform is impossible.

The United States, from 1970 to 2005, increased its prison population by about 700 percent, according to statistics gathered by the ACLU. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the ACLU report notes, says that for-profit companies presently control about 18 percent of federal prisoners and 6.7 percent of all state prisoners. Private prisons account for nearly all of the new prisons built between 2000 and 2005. And nearly half of all immigrants detained by the federal government are shipped to for-profit prisons, according to Detention Watch Network.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which imprisons about 400,000 undocumented people a year, has an annual budget of more than $5 billion. ICE is planning to expand its operations by establishing several mega-detention centers, most run by private corporations, in states such as New Jersey, Texas, Florida, California and Illinois. Many of these private contractors are, not surprisingly, large campaign donors to “law and order” politicians including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

In CCA’s annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission for 2011, cited by the ACLU, the prison company bluntly states its opposition to prison reform. “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws,” it declares. CCA goes on to warn that “any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration” could “potentially [reduce] demand for correctional facilities,” as would “mak[ing] more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior,” the adoption of “sentencing alternatives [that] … could put some offenders on probation” and “reductions in crime rates.”

CCA in 2011 gave $710,300 in political contributions to candidates for federal or state office, political parties and 527 groups (PACs and super PACs), the ACLU reported. The corporation also spent $1.07 million lobbying federal officials along with undisclosed funds to lobby state officials, according to the ACLU. CCA, through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), lobbies legislators to impose harsher detention laws at the state and federal levels. The ALEC helped draft Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law SB 1070.

A March 2012 CCA investor presentation prospectus, quoted by the ACLU, tells potential investors that incarceration “creates predictable revenue streams.” The document cites demographic trends that the company says will continue to expand profits. These positive investment trends include, the prospectus reads, “high recidivism”—“about 45 percent of individuals released from prison in 1999 and more than 43 percent released from prison in 2004 were returned to prison within three years.” The prospectus invites investments by noting that one in every 100 U.S. adults is currently in prison or jail. And because the U.S. population is projected to grow by approximately 18.6 million from 2012 to 2017, “prison populations would grow by about 80,400 between 2012 and 2017, or by more than 13,000 additional per year, on average,” the CCA document says.

The two largest private prison companies in 2010 received nearly $3 billion in revenue. The senior executives, according to the ACLU report, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million. The for-profit prisons can charge the government up to $200 a day to house an inmate; they pay detention officers as little as $10 an hour.

“Within 30 miles of this place, there are at least four other facilities where immigrants are detained: Essex, Monmouth, Delaney Hall and Hudson, which has the distinction of being named one of the 10 worst detention facilities in the country,” Phipps, who is an immigration attorney as well as a minister, told the gathering in front of the Elizabeth Detention Center. “The terrible secret is that immigration detention has become a very profitable business for companies and county governments.”

“More than two-thirds of immigrants are detained in so-called contract facilities owned by private companies, such as this one and Delaney Hall,” she went on. “The rise of the prison industrial complex has gone hand in hand with the aggrandizing forces of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which, by the way, has filed suit against the very government it is supposed to be working for because they were told to exercise prosecutorial discretion in their detention practices.” [Click here to see more about the lawsuit, in which 10 ICE agents attack the administration’s easing of government policy on those who illegally entered the United States as children.]

There is an immigration court inside the Elizabeth facility, although the roar of the planes lifting off from the nearby Newark Airport forces those in the court to remain silent every three or four minutes until the sound subsides. Most of those brought before the court have no legal representation and are railroaded through the system and deported. Detainees, although most have no criminal record beyond illegal entry into the United States, wear orange jumpsuits and frequently are handcuffed. They do not have adequate health care. There are now some 5,000 children in foster care because their parents have been detained or deported, according to the Applied Research Center’s report “Shattered Families.” The report estimates that this number will rise to 15,000 within five years.

“I am in family court once every six to eight weeks representing some mother who is surrendering custody of her child to somebody else because she does not want to take that child back to the poverty of Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador,” Phipps said when we spoke after the rally. “She has no option. She does not want her child to live in the same poverty she grew up in. It is heartbreaking.”

We have abandoned the common good. We have been stripped of our rights and voice. Corporations write our laws and determine how we structure our society. We have all become victims. There are no politicians or institutions, no political parties or courts, that are independent enough or strong enough to resist the corporate onslaught. Greater and greater numbers of human beings will be consumed. The poor, the vulnerable, the undocumented, the weak, the elderly, the sick, the children will go first. And those of us watching helplessly outside the gates will go next.

 

Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of reporters at The New York Times awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. He also received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2002. The Los Angeles Press Club honored Hedges’ original columns in Truthdig by naming the author the Online Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011. The LAPC also granted him the Best Online Column award in 2010 for his Truthdig essay “One Day We’ll All Be Terrorists.”

Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City and has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University. He currently teaches inmates at a correctional facility in New Jersey.

Hedges began his career reporting the war in El Salvador. Following six years in Latin America, he took time off to study Arabic and then went to Jerusalem and later Cairo. He spent seven years in the Middle East, most of them as the bureau chief there for The New York Times. He left the Middle East in 1995 for Sarajevo to cover the war in Bosnia and later reported the war in Kosovo. Afterward, he joined the Times’ investigative team and was based in Paris to cover al-Qaida. He left the Times after being issued a formal reprimand for denouncing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

He has written twelve books, including “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012),  “Death of the Liberal Class” (2010), “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. In 2011, Nation Books published a collection of Hedges’ Truthdig columns called “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

Hedges holds a B.A. in English literature from Colgate University and a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif. Hedges speaks Arabic, French and Spanish and knows ancient Greek and Latin. In addition to writing a weekly original column for Truthdig, he has written for Harper’s Magazine, The New Statesman, The New York Review of Books, Adbusters, Granta, Foreign Affairs and other publications.

Latin American military men against drug war April 14, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Criminal Justice, Drugs, Guatemala, Latin America.
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Roger’s note: There was a time when Canada lead the way.  In 1972, the Le Dain Commission headed by Supreme Court Judge Gerald Le Dain, recommended the decriminalization of soft drugs such as marijuana.  That was exactly 40 years ago.  Although ignored by a succession of Canadian governments to this day, the report was a landmark for a policy of a sane harm reduction approach to the drug problem. 

By Jefferson Morley, www.salon.com, April 13, 2012

In Colombia Obama will hear from presidents looking for alternatives to prohibition

Drug warriors no more: Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos  

Ending drug prohibition is creeping into the U.S. political debate, thanks to a couple of Latin American military men. Oh sure, George Will’s not-quite endorsement of legalization is noteworthy, but more than one erudite conservative columnist has gone further before. The views of three Latin American statesman are important but former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz made the same case 23 years ago. The record high in public support for marijuana legalization found in a Gallup poll last year may be a factor, but the Obama administration has declared a “war on pot” since then.

It is the anti-prohibition campaign of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one a former general, the other a former defense minister, that has forced the Obama administration to engage critics respectfully for the first time. Perez will be pushing a formal proposal to open discussion of alternative policies at the summit of American heads of state that President Obama is attending, in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend.

While Obama doesn’t support decriminalization, said his advisor Dan Restrepo this week, “we welcome” the debate. “It’s worth discussing,” Vice President Biden told reporters in Central America last month, “but there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

So while there’s no change of heart in Washington, there has been a change of tone. The Obama administration cannot afford to blow off the views of two staunch U.S. allies who have both waged drug wars in their countries, not at a time when public opinion in Latin America is increasingly disenchanted with the militarized approach.

Their approach is tactful. Santos says he doesn’t want to change U.S. policy, but merely hear U.S. officials defend it.

“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion,” Santos told the Washington Post this week. “The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization, because the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization.’ But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, the cost is lower or not.”

In a piece for the Guardian, Perez called for an “intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions … Legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls.”

Perez and Santos may not make headlines in Cartagena this weekend. In an effort to lower expectations and avoid confrontation with Obama, Santos told reporters in Cartagena yesterday that drugs should not be the “center of discussion” at the summit. At the same time, he added, a review of drug policy was necessary and reflected the will of the “vast majority” of countries in attendance.

“We will not see any shift in policy,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the Cato Foundation, “but this is forcing Washington to engage and defend its position at high levels.”

“In the public forum, ending prohibition will probably only get a brief discussion,” predicted Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Privately it will be much more vigorously discussed. The challenge for the United States will be how to blur the differences. This is the first time ever that the decriminalization and alternatives to prohibition have ever been on the agenda of a major gathering of heads of states.”

Perez and Santos are still in the minority among Latin American presidents, most of whom say, at least publicly, that they oppose legalization. But the desire for alternatives to legalization and prohibition is widespread. In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon has followed the U.S. approach in declaring war on the cartels in 2006. Some 41,000 people have been killed in the last six years without reducing the supply of drugs or increasing the public’s sense of safety.  Calderon has said legalization might be the only solution but with the Mexican presidential election approaching in July is not going to change his policy. After the election is a different story. The Mexican business community is increasingly supportive of legalization and regulation as the only solution to the country’s appalling levels of violence.

As the calls for reconsideration of drug war have proliferated, the Obama administration sent Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield to Central America to argue for a prohibitionist policy.

“To send three top officials in a month shows that the administration is taking this seriously,” said Hidalgo. “They don’t want this debate to gain ground.”

But the more the administration responds in Latin America, the more legitimate drug policy reform becomes at home.

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Salon in Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday).More Jefferson Morley

‘War on Drugs’ Has Failed, say Latin American Leaders April 8, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Drugs, Latin America.
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Published on Sunday, April 8, 2012 by Common Dreams

  – Common Dreams staff

On April 14 and 15, heads of state and government from across the Americas, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts, will gather for a two-day ‘Summit of the Americas’ in Cartagena, Colombia, and the ‘War on Drugs’ will top the agenda.

On July 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared what has come to be called the “War on Drugs” Latin America’s leaders are unified in calling the ‘War on Drugs’ a failure and in seeking alternatives to prohibition.

However, nobody expects the Barack Obama administration to do the right thing and provide leadership on the issue in an election year.

In 2004 Obama said: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws… we need to rethink how we operate the drug wars.” Since then, he has shown little appetite to engage in the debate.

The Guardian reports:

Watershed Summit will Admit that Prohibition has Failed, and Call for More Nuanced and Liberalized Tactics

A historic meeting of Latin America’s leaders, to be attended by Barack Obama, will hear serving heads of state admit that the war on drugs has been a failure and that alternatives to prohibition must now be found.

One diplomat closely involved with the summit described the event as historic, saying it would be the first time for 40 years that leaders had met to have an open discussion on drugs. “This is the chance to look at this matter with new eyes,” he said.The Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia is being seen by foreign policy experts as a watershed moment in the redrafting of global drugs policy in favor of a more nuanced and liberalized approach.

Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, who as former head of his country’s military intelligence service experienced the power of drug cartels at close hand, is pushing his fellow Latin American leaders to use the summit to endorse a new regional security plan that would see an end to prohibition. In the Observer, Pérez Molina writes: “The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that global drug markets can be eradicated.” [...]

One diplomat closely involved with the summit described the event as historic, saying it would be the first time for 40 years that leaders had met to have an open discussion on drugs. “This is the chance to look at this matter with new eyes,” he said.

Latin America’s increasing hostility towards prohibition makes Obama’s attendance at the summit potentially difficult. The Obama administration, keen not to hand ammunition to its opponents during an election year, will not want to be seen as softening its support for prohibition. However, it is seen as significant that the US vice-president, Joe Biden, has acknowledged that the debate about legalizing drugs is now legitimate.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil and chairman of the global commission on drug policy, has said it is time for “an open debate on more humane and efficient drug policies”, a view shared by George Shultz, the former US secretary of state, and former president Jimmy Carter.

1 Comment so far

Posted by NC-Tom
Apr 8 2012 – 12:35pm
      ‘War on Drugs’ Has Failed, say Latin American Leaders The private, for profit prison industrial complex begs to differ.  It’s like the”health care” (health insurance industrial complex),  in the united states, it’s all about profit, nothing else matters.

Steve Jobs and Drug Policy October 9, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Drugs.
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Saturday, Oct 8, 2011 8:43 AM 17:12:54 CDT
www.salon.com

By Glenn Greenwald

.

(updated below)

It’s fascinating to juxtapose America’s reverence for Steve Jobs’ accomplishments and its draconian drug policy with this, from the New York Times‘ obituary of Jobs:

[Jobs] told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics — even people who knew him well, including his wife — could never understand.

Unlike many people who have enjoyed success, Jobs is not saying that he was able to succeed despite his illegal drug use; he’s saying his success is in part — in substantial part — because of those illegal drugs (he added that Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once”). These quotes (first published by a New York Times reporter) have been around for some time but have been only rarely discussed in the recent hagiographies of Jobs: a notable omission given that he himself praised those experiences as an integral part of his identity and one of the most important things he ever did. A surprisingly good Time Magazine article elaborates on this Jobs-LSD connection further:

The paradoxes of love have perhaps never been clearer than in our relationships with Apple products — the warm, fleshy desire we feel for such cold, hard, glassy objects. But Jobs knew how to inspire material lust. He knew that consumers want something that not only sparkles and awes, but also feels accessible, easy to use, an object with which we want to merge and to feel one and the same. . . .

Not coincidentally, that’s how people describe the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. It feels profoundly artificial yet deeply real, both high-tech and earthy-crunchy, human and mystically divine — in a word, transcendent. Jobs had this experience. . . . As attested by the nearly spiritual devotion so many consumers have to Jobs’ creations, the former Apple chief (and indeed many other top technology pioneers) appeared to have found enduring inspiration in LSD. Research shows that the psychedelic experience is, in fact, long lasting: a new study published last week found that people who took magic mushrooms (psilocybin) had long-term personality changes, becoming more open, more curious, more intellectually engaged and more creative. These personality shifts persisted more than a year after taking the drugs.

America’s harsh prohibitionist drug policies are grounded in the premise that the prohibited substances have little or no redeeming value and cannot be used without life-destroying consequences. Yet the evidence of its falsity is undeniable. Here is one of the most admired men in America, its greatest contemporary industrialist, hailing one of the most scorned of these substances as integral to his success and intellectual and personal growth. The current President commendably acknowledged cocaine and marijuana use while there is evidence suggesting the prior President also used those substances. One of America’s most accomplished athletes was caught using marijuana at the peak of his athletic achievements. And millions upon millions of American adults have consumed some or many of those criminally prohibited substances, and themselves will say (like Jobs) that they had important and constructive experiences with those drugs or know someone who did.

In short, the deceit at the heart of America’s barbaric drug policy — that these substances are such unadulterated evils that adults should be put in cages for voluntarily using them — is more glaring than ever. In light of his comments about LSD, it’s rather difficult to reconcile America’s adoration for Steve Jobs with its ongoing obsession with prosecuting and imprisoning millions of citizens (mostly poor and minorities) for doing what Jobs, Obama, George W. Bush, Michael Phelps and millions of others have done. Obviously, most of these banned substances — like alcohol, gambling, sex, junk food consumption, prescription drug use and a litany of other legal activities — can create harm to the individual and to others when abused (though America’s solution for drug users — prison — also creates rather substantial harm to the drug user and to others, including their spouses, parents and children: at least as much harm as, and usually substantially more than, the banned drugs themselves). But no rational person can doubt that these substances can also be used responsibly and constructively; just study Steve Jobs’ life if you doubt that.

Jobs’ praise for his LSD use is what I kept returning to as I read about the Obama DOJ’s heinous new policy to use the full force of criminal prosecutions against medical marijuana dispensaries in California. In October, 2009, I enthusiastically praised Eric Holder and the DOJ for appearing to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise by refraining from prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries in compliance with state law (a “rare instance of unadulterated good news from Washington,” I gushed). As I wrote:

Criminalizing cancer and AIDS patients for using a substance that is (a) prescribed by their doctors and (b) legal under the laws of their state has always been abominable. The Obama administration deserves major credit not only for ceasing this practice, but for memorializing it formally in writing.

Yet now, U.S. Attorneys in California will expend substantial law enforcement resources to persecute medical marijuana dispensaries that sell to consenting adults even though those transactions have been legalized by the voters of California and 16 other states (to see what a complete reversal this is of everything Obama and Holder previously said on this subject, see here).

Progressives love to point out the hypocrisy of social conservatives who righteously rail against (and demand legal sanction for) the very same sexually sinful behavior in which they enthusiastically engage — and rightly so. But what about a society that continues to imprison millions of human beings for using substances that vast numbers of people in the nation have secretly used and enjoyed, or which empowers people with the Oval Office, or reveres people like Steve Jobs, who have done the same? The DOJ claims dispensaries are now masking non-medical marijuana sales, leading to this question: even leaving aside the rather significant (and shameful) fact that drug laws are enforced with overwhelming dispropritionality against racial minorities, what possible justification is there for putting someone in a cage for using a substance they choose to use without any evidence that they’ve harmed anyone else or even risked harm to anyone else?

All of this becomes even more incomprehensible when one considers the never-ending preaching about the need for “austerity,” which means: depriving poor and middle class citizens of services and financial security. In this environment, how can it possibly be justified to expend substantial sums of money investigating, arresting, prosecuting and then imprisoning large numbers of people for doing nothing more than consuming marijuana or selling it in states where it is legal to sell it to other consenting adults? That makes about as much sense as deploying a State Department army of 16,000 for a permanent presence in Iraq at the same time political and financial elites plot cuts to Social Security and Medicare. I genuinely don’t understand why a policy that single-handedly sustains America’s status as World’s Largest Jailer — and that consigns huge numbers of minorities and America’s poor to prison and permanent criminal status for no good reason, in the process breaking up families at astonishing rates (to say nothing of the inexorable erosion of civil liberties) — isn’t a higher priority for progressives.

But just like the senseless and monumentally wasteful Endless military War, America’s Drug War feeds the pockets of a powerful private industry: the growing privatized prison industry, which needs more and more prisoners for profits, gets many from drug convictions, and thus vehemently opposes and lobbies against any reform to the nation’s drug laws as well as reform of harsh criminal sentencing. That, combined with self-righteous, deeply hypocritical anti-drug moralizing and complete obliviousness to evidence, has ensured not only that the Drug War and its prison obsession endures, but that it remains outside the scope of what can even be discussed in mainstream political circles. And as the Obama DOJ’s newly intensified attacks on marijuana demonstrate, the problem is, in many respects, getting worse, even as most of the world moves toward a much more restrained and health-based (rather than crime-based) approach to dealing with drug usage.

* * * * *

In 2009, I produced a study on the overwhelming success of drug decriminalization in Portugal, published by the CATO Institute. That study has been widely cited and discussed in numerous places, including receiving a critical response from the White House Drug Control Policy Office. I’m now working on an update to that report which I will present at this excellent Conference on Ending the Drug War, to take place on November 15, in Washington D.C., featuring former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Castañeda, the Speaker of the Uruguayan House of Deputies Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou and several others. The Conference is open to the public and tickets can be obtained at the above link.

UPDATE: In The Los Angeles Times today, a former Deputy Chief of the L.A.P.D. details how drug prohibition “has cost our country more than $1 trillion in cash and much more in immeasurable social harm”; “the damage that came from the prohibition of alcohol pales in comparison to the harm wrought by drug prohibition“; and “that ending today’s prohibition on drugs — starting with marijuana — would do more to hurt the [drug] cartels than any level of law enforcement skill or dedication ever can.” In sum:

There’s no doubt that the violence, the growth of cartels and gangs, the overpopulation of our prisons and the squandering of our police resources would not occur if we eliminated illegal drug profits and implemented a non-criminal approach to regulating drugs. We did this once with alcohol, and there’s no reason we can’t do it with other drugs today.

There may be no reason we can’t do it, but there are plenty of reasons we don’t do it, beginning with the large number of government and private factions that benefit in countless ways from this ongoing war.

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald. More Glenn Greenwald

 

The Vienna Declaration: A Global Call to Action for Science-Based Drug Policy July 2, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Health.
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The following announcement is sent to you by the Canadian Harm Reduction Network
http://www.canadianharmreduction.com
Please visit our website, check it out and support us by becoming a member.
The web address for the Vienna Declaration is http://www.viennadeclaration.com/.Please sign on, and urge your colleagues and friends to do so as well.

In lead up to XVIII International AIDS Conference, scientists and other leaders call for reform of international drug policy and urge others to sign-on

28 June 2010 [Vienna, Austria] – The International AIDS Society, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS today launched a global drive for signatories to the Vienna Declaration, a statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. The Vienna Declaration is the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010), the biennial meeting of more than 20,000 HIV professionals, taking place in Vienna, Austria from 18 to 23 July 2010.

The Vienna Declaration describes the known harms of conventional “war on drugs” approaches and states: “The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed. … Reorienting drug policies towards evidence-based approaches that respect, protect and fulfill human rights has the potential to reduce harms deriving from current policies and would allow for the redirection of the vast financial resources towards where they are needed most: implementing and evaluating evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions.”

The Vienna Declaration calls on governments and international organizations, including the United Nations, to take a number of steps, including:

  • Undertake a transparent review the effectiveness of current drug policies;
  • Implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the harms stemming from illicit drug use;
  • Scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options;
  • Abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centres that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and
  • Unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the drug treatment and harm reduction measures endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations.

The Declaration also calls for the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.

To sign the Vienna Declaration, please visit the official website at http://www.viennadeclaration.com/.  There you will find the full text of the declaration in Chinese, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish, along with a list of authors. The two-page declaration references 28 reports, describing the scientific evidence documenting the effectiveness of public health approaches to drug policy and the negative consequences of approaches that criminalize drug users.

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Please circulate widely . . .

Jim Webb’s courage v. the “pragmatism” excuse for politicians March 28, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Drugs, Uncategorized.
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 There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.  Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession.  After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”

What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is.  He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America’s oppressive prison state.  His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental.  And, most important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal causes of our insane imprisonment fixation:  our aberrational insistence on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders (when we’re not doing worse to them).  That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced just this week by Barack Obama’s adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed “pathetic.”  Here are just a few excerpts from Webb’s Senate floor speech this week (.pdf) on his new bill to create a Commission to study all aspects of prison reform:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .

The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .

In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .

Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our prisons. . . . We also have a situation in this country with respect to prison violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the sorts of treatment they deserve.

Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy – the whole area of drug policy in this country?

And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives that we might look at?

Webb added that “America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace” and “we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail.”

It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb.  Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform.  To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis).  Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.

Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he’s not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite:  he’s a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the “toughest” “anti-crime” states in the country (it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen’s macaca-driven implosion.  As Ezra Klein wrote, with understatement:  “Lots of politicians make their name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few make their name being pro-prison reform.”  

For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political consultant would recommend that he do.  There’s just no plausible explanation for what Webb’s actions other than the fact that he’s engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct:  advocating a position and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow citizens to see the validity of his cause.  And he is doing this despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political reward.  Webb is far from perfect — he’s cast some truly bad votes since being elected — but, in this instance, not only his conduct but also his motives are highly commendable.

* * * * *

Webb’s actions here underscore a broader point.  Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders.  When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications:  well, they have to take that position because it’s too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it’s the smart thing to do.  That’s the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it’s the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won’t advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it’s the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama “disappointment.”

Webb’s commitment to this unpopular project demonstrates how false that excuse-making is —  just as it was proven false by Russ Feingold’s singular, lonely, October, 2001 vote against the Patriot Act and Feingold’s subsequent, early opposition to the then-popular Bush’s assault on civil liberties, despite his representing the purple state of Wisconsin.  Political leaders have the ability to change public opinion by engaging in leadership and persuasive advocacy.  Any cowardly politician can take only those positions that reside safely within the majoritiarian consensus.  Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have. 

The political class wants people to see them as helpless captives to immutable political realities so that they have a permanent, all-purpose excuse for whatever they do, so that they are always able to justify their position by appealing to so-called “political realities.”  But that excuse is grounded in a fundamentally false view of what political leaders are actually capable of doing in terms of shifting public opinion, as NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen explained when I interviewed him about his theories of how political consensus is maintained and manipulated:

GG:  One of the points you make is that it’s not just journalists who define what these spheres [of consensus, legitimate debate and deviance] encompass. You argue that politicians, political actors can change what’s included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that’s kind of what leadership is — not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalized or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy. How does that process work?  How do political actors change those spheres?

JR: Well, that’s exactly what leadership is. And I think it’s crippling sometimes to our own sense of efficacy in politics and media, if we assume that the media has all of the power to frame the debate and decide what consensus is, and consign things to deviant status. That’s not really true. That’s true under conditions of political immobilization, leadership default, a rage for normalcy, but in ordinary political life, leaders, by talking about things, make them legitimate. Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of a sudden expand it.  These spheres are malleable; if the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.

And I really do think there’s a self-victimization that sometimes goes on, but to go back to the beginning of your question, there’s something else going on, which is the ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics of the MSM.

And one of the things I see on the left that really bothers me is the ease with which people skeptical of the media will talk about what the masses believe and how the masses will be led and moved in this way that shows me that the mass media tutors them on how to see their fellow citizens. And here the Internet again has at least some potential, because we don’t have to guess what those other Americans think. We can encounter them ourselves, and thereby reshape our sense of what they think. I think every time people make that judgment about what’s realistic, what they’re really doing is they’re imagining what the rest of the country would accept, and how other people think, and they get those ideas from the media.

We’ve been trained how we talk about our political leaders primarily by a media that worships political cynicism and can only understand the world through political game-playing.  Thus, so many Americans have been taught to believe not only that politicians shouldn’t have the obligation of leadership imposed on them — i.e., to persuade the public of what is right — but that it’s actually smart and wise of them to avoid positions they believe in when doing so is politically risky. 

People love now to assume the role of super-sophisticated political consultant rather than a citizen demanding actions from their representatives.  Due to the prism of gamesmanship through which political pundits understand and discuss politics, many citizens have learned to talk about their political leaders as though they’re political strategists advising their clients as to the politically shrewd steps that should be taken (“this law is awful and unjust and he was being craven by voting for it, but he was absolutely right to vote for it because the public wouldn’t understand if he opposed it”), rather than as citizens demanding that their public servants do the right thing (“this law is awful and unjust and, for that reason alone, he should oppose it and show leadership by making the case to the public as to why it’s awful and unjust”).

It may be unrealistic to expect most politicians in most circumstances to do what Jim Webb is doing here (or what Russ Feingold did during Bush’s first term).  My guess is that Webb, having succeeded in numerous other endeavors outside of politics, is not desperate to cling to his political office, and he has thus calculated that he’d rather have six years in the Senate doing things he thinks are meaningful than stay there forever on the condition that he cowardly renounce any actual beliefs.  It’s probably true that most career politicians, possessed of few other talents or interests, are highly unlikely to think that way.

But the fact that cowardly actions from political leaders are inevitable is no reason to excuse or, worse, justify and even advocate that cowardice.  In fact, the more citizens are willing to excuse and even urge political cowardice in the name of “realism” or “pragmatism” (“he was smart to take this bad, unjust position because Americans are too stupid or primitive for him to do otherwise and he needs to be re-elected”), the more common that behavior will be.  Politicians and their various advisers, consultants and enablers will make all the excuses they can for why politicians do what they do and insist that public opinion constrains them to do otherwise.  That excuse-making is their role, not the role of citizens.  What ought to be demanded of political officials by citizens is precisely the type of leadership Webb is exhibiting here.

The Price of America’s Prison Gulags February 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in California, Criminal Justice.
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Anthony Gregory, www.consortiumnews.com, February 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: For the last three decades, the United States has been dominated by a philosophy that might be called “tough-guy-ism,” confronting every problem whether foreign or domestic with a swaggering commitment to force and punishment.

Not only has “tough-guy-ism” led the United States into military quagmires like the Iraq War but it has saddled the nation with a vast prison gulag system where millions of Americans are warehoused for excessively long sentences, as the Independent Institute’s Anthony Gregory notes in this guest essay:

A three-judge panel has tentatively ruled that “[t]he California prison system must reduce overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years to provide a constitutional level of medical and mental health care,” according to the New York Times.

Taxpayers rightly resent the price tag of the prison system, and many might understandably think that prisoners should have no right to expensive care at their further expense. But if the prisons cannot afford to care for its prisoners, we obviously have far too many.

Now is a good time to seriously reassess the whole system altogether.

There were virtually no prisons in this country when it was founded. The modern criminal justice system grew out of the institution of slavery (1, 2, 3).

Prisons exploded in their growth in the 20th century. The Progressive Era, whose leaders dreamed of recreating society and redeeming mankind through an active and expansionist state, accelerated the development of today’s system. It grew steadily.

Before Reagan’s presidency, there were half a million Americans in prison or jail and fewer than one and a half million on parole or probation. Now there are more than two million behind bars and seven million total in the correctional system. In California, prisons grew by 500 percent from 1982 to 2000.

This is madness. And it’s expensive.

Some worry about the strain on social infrastructure if prisoners were mass-released, but they could not possibly cost the state more than they do now. They would also at least have the chance to create wealth as workers and consumers in the market, rather than just being a drain in the public sector.

Each prisoner costs taxpayers $35,000 a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators.

The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs — but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive.

Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Most offenders never get the opportunity to pay restitution, but are simply jammed in obscenely overcrowded cages. California’s system is designed to hold about 100,000 but instead holds 171,000.

Judges used to have wide discretion in sentencing, which minimized overcrowding. In 1977, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown stripped judges of this authority. “Over the next decade, California’s legislature, dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences,” according to the Washington Post.

Brutal violence is all too common. Human Rights Watch estimates that nationwide one out of fifteen male inmates is raped. Many prisoners are effectively the slaves of their cellmates.

Gang violence is endemic. The institution has become a totalitarian hell for those inside.

What’s worse, most people incarcerated should not be. A quarter of the inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. They committed no act of violence against anyone’s person or property, and their imprisonment is part of a destructive drug policy that has boosted crime, trashed civil liberties, uprooted the social order and corrupted the whole legal system.

Many others are in prison for other non-violent offenses against the state — unapproved gun ownership, tax evasion, and so forth. Many petty criminals do not deserve anything like today’s prisons, and their incarceration helps no one.

Most prisoners can and should be released. The number of those who actually must be isolated from society would not lead to overcrowding or be an ungainly financial burden.

California’s recidivism rate is the highest in America. The system does not work.

Indeed, people go in as small-time thieves and come out far worse. They go in as drug users and come out desensitized to savage violence. They go in as burglars and come out as rapists. Prisons increase crime.

Conservatives talk about the good old days when there was more civility, more freedom, lower taxes and less crime. There were also far fewer prisons. Until the modern system is rethought, we can never restore the liberty and social peace we once had.

Anthony Gregory is a research analyst for the Independent Institute

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