The phrase of the day is ‘mass incarceration’. The United States holds only 5% of the global population. It also holds a quarter of the entire world’s population of prisoners. You don’t have to be a genius or a math whiz to know that 5% and 25% seems a little fucking disproportionate. In the past 40 years our number of incarcerated individuals has septupled ! That means it has increased by 700%. Again, no genius, but that looks extremely what-the-fuckish.
It Gets Worse
And oh..it gets worse. Out of every 3 beautiful black boys, statistics say we can expect one of them to go to prison at least once in their lifetime. That’s contrasted to only one out of 6 Latinos and one out of 17 white boys. Another overwhelming statistic about mass incarceration: Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population and they’re also disproportionately stuck. 60% of the women in jails haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet and are awaiting trial ! As a matter of fact there are twice as many people sitting in local jails waiting for trial AND PRESUMED INNOCENT than in our entire federal prison system.
How Did We Get Here ?
What went wrong ?? That’s what we all want to know. What happened ? What exactly led us, as a country to this point ? One prominent theory blames the War on Drugs (WOD). The WOD is a phrase referring to a federal initiative aimed at stopping illegal drug use, distribution and trade by drastically lengthening prison sentences for both the user and the dealer. Let’s stroll down History lane together to get a better picture of WOD. Let’s see how it’s led to our current state of mass incarceration.
A History Lesson
Back in the 1890s the old Sears catalogue deadass offered a syringe/cocaine combo for $1.50 (that’s equal to $42.55 today, about half a gram). In 1890 also the first sexy taxes were places on morphine and opium. In 1909 the government, through the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, banned the possession and the importation of opium if it would be used for smoking. Using it as ‘medicine’ was totally cool though. This was the countries first federal law banning any type of non-medical use of a substance.
Fast forward to five years after that. Congress passed the Harrison Act which taxed every step of the opiate and cocaine trade. Then in 1919, as we well know, alcohol prohibition came. That lasted until 1933 but to be honest niggas wasn’t really havin’ it in the meantime. Okay so now it’s 1937 and the “Marijuana Tax Act” gets passed. This upped the tag on cannabis, hemp and marijuana alike. If you didn’t pay said tax you were subjected to up to a $2,000 fine and five years in prison.
And Then There Was Nixon
So then everything was relatively chill for a little minute. That’s when Nixon’s headass came along signed the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1970. This put all drugs on a 5 tiered schedule based off its potential for abuse and medical application. Schedule 1 drugs are considered the most dangerous for example because they have a super high risk for addiction but little medicinal benefit. This would include heroin, MDMA and lsd.
June of 1971, when my mom was just negative four months old, Richard Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs. He referred to drug abuse as public enemy number one. Word on the street is that the rise in recreational drug use in the 60s is what led Nixon to focus on certain drugs over others. He created the DEA in ’73 which had 1470 special agents and over $75 million. Today it’s up to almost 5000 agents and $2 billion.
His True Motivation
In one 1994 interview Nixon’s domestic policy chief mentioned that Nixon’s true motivation. He said it’s that he hated black people and “the antiwar left”. The chief said “we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Between ’73 and ’77 for whatever reason the war relaxed and 11 states even decriminalized marijuana possession. Then again with the headassery, Reagan comes into office and reignites everything, going ten times harder. In ’84 is when his ol’ lady introduced the Just Say No campaign. The face that Reagan made penalties even more severe led to a massive increase in nonviolence drug crime incarcerations. 2 years later Congress passed yet another Act; this time defining minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. And once again it had hella racist undertones.
For example, “it allocated longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). Five grams of crack triggered an automatic five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same sentence.”
Why Stereotypes Hurt
Also to no surprise to us at least, people of color were stereotyped as probably being guilty more often than whites which led to a huge increase: in 1980 there were 50K nonviolent drug offenses and in 1997 there were 400K. Since then there has been a horrible trickle down affect. People are being charged crazy time. Someone sentences in 1980 is still in jail TODAY. There have been so many crimes since then with no revolving door so to speak. They end up piled on top of each other instead.
Then there is the other half that is the revolving door. Once incarcerated, whether truly guilty or not, or once you’ve been held in jail pretrial, whether it was a misunderstanding or not, your life deteriorates. Your reputation is tainted, your employment is often halted which prevents you from paying bills which causes loss of basic needs.
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
If convicted your rights are gone, making it harder for you to assimilate back into society. Not only that but the experience leaves behind so many psychological scars, including PTSD often times. So what happens is these people fall back into or newly into a life of crime and/or vices and eventually get entered back into the system ? So it goes and goes and goes.
What’s The Next Step
So we’ve identified the huge problem right ? Naturally the next step is to work towards fixing it. I live here in Ohio and like my state, your state probably or hopefully has different initiatives going on to rectify the issue. Here the PreTrial Justice Institute and Montgomery Count Jail Coalition are working together and gathering people from the community to work on policy change. The first thing they’re trying to do is stop Montgomery County from building a newer, bigger county jail.
Our county jail just like others in the country are overfilled and contain innocent people and those who have only committed nonviolent crimes. We don’t want them to build a bigger jail to house even more people, that will soon just be overcrowded. We want them to stop locking people up for dumb shit ! Stop letting innocent people sit in a holding cell. We want to educate people. So many people are stuck in jail simply because they don’t know bail is only $100. Building a bigger jail just seems like a slippery slope, it’s going backwards.
What’s your opinion on the topic ? Do you have any experience navigating the system ? We wanna hear from you ! Write in and tell us about it.