Drug war creating a nation of prisoners

By Ken Goze

Congratulations, America, we’re number one again!

No, we’re not number one in education, manufacturing or life expectancy, we’re number one in prison population. More than 1 million Americans are in prison—an average of 426 for every 100,000 people. This earns us the distinction of having more people behind bars than the Soviet Union and South Africa.

It would seem we are either overrun with hard-core thugs or are less discriminating about who we send away to rot.

The entire answer lies in a cloud of social, economic and cultural issues, but a main cause is the War on Some Drugs. Arrests for drug offenses in Chicago alone have doubled in the last five years and are expected to double again by the end of the decade.

Driven by the need to draw attention away from an absolute lack of domestic policy, the Bush administration has seized upon the fundamentally American theme of war, with all of its undeniably inspiring slogans, body counts and sense of purpose.

While constant Miami Vice-type footage of cops taking down a house full of machine-gun wielding crack dealers is entertaining, it often is misleading.

Nearly 90 percent of all arrests are for simple possession, some 40 percent for possession of marijuana, a drug arguably less dangerous than alcohol and nicotine.

Not only are the number of drug cases filed soaring, but stiffer sentences are handed out, swamping both the courts and the prison system. Judges, faced with impossible caseloads and mandatory sentencing laws, have resorted to assembly line justice.

Illinois prisons are filled nearly 40 percent beyond capacity and getting worse. Cook County Jail, like many others, is overflowing, requiring the routine release of inmates, including dangerous types, on what amounts to a handshake.

And locking people up is not a cheap business. New prisons often cost more than $50 million, and it cost taxpayers nearly $16,000 per inmate, per year. Would you pay the cost of Ivy League tuition to feed and house some deadhead or small-time dealer busted for a handful of joints?

Contrary to what many would like to see, the Constitution prohibits us from simply dumping these people in bamboo-covered pits, hanging them or sending them to Cuba.

Overcrowding cannot continue. Running a prison under the best of conditions is hair-raising. Running an overcrowded one is begging for trouble. We owe it to the people who guard these snakepits to defuse this bomb.

All of this adds up to an unspoken shift in policy from rehabilitation to simple punishment. Parole officers are never really able to check on any of their charges because they’re pushing paper trying to keep their enormous caseloads straight.

The worst part is, we’re losing in Vietnam-like proportions. Higher quantities and more dangerous drugs are available, street corner punks have become heavily-armed millionaire gangsters, and ever-increasing pieces of the Constitution are being sold out in the name of a “noble experiment.”

Hold on to your pocketbook and Bill of Rights, the Roaring 90s are upon us.