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A Merry Christmas? Are you kidding?

By G. Patrick Callahan, Prisoner of War in America


Illustration by Jimmer, POW

It is the sardonic habit of the business office in this prison to mimeograph a Merry Christmas/Happy New Year message at the year's end. It is printed on red construction paper, lists some of the useless Yuletide activities sponsored and has the usual, sarcastic religious banalities: peace on Earth, goodwill to men. Goodwill to men? Christ, literally, what a joke, eh, sportsfans? In a system as hypocritical as this one is, of all statements, this one wins the fruitcake. It cannot be an oversight of a thoroughly anti-Christian model of justice, so it must be someone's idea of dark humor, right along with Happy New Year in here.

I have been given one of these satiric greetings from various wardens for eight years now. Simultaneously, I have many times observed young fathers eagerly sign up for the Christmas gift program which sends an inexpensive present-one each-to the children of incarcerated men. These programs are privately initiated and funded, a charitable and worthy service. You will never see the U.S. government involved in such a program, so the taxpayer can breathe a sigh of relief.

The gift most valued and most valuable to this society, however, would be the return of those fathers to their families. First time, non-violent drug law violators currently are doing ten to thirty year sentences but would generally learn whatever lesson society demands in one or two years: and every study conducted says precisely that. It is politics that prevents moderation of this wasteful and destructive status quo, so in a real sense, drug law violators are political prisoners and should refer to themselves in those terms.

My own sons were aged 11, 13 and 16 when I was arrested. Fortunately for me, we had cemented strong bonds beforehand and maintain our ties through letters and the very occasional phone call. I was not there for most of their teenage years though, and it was rough on their mother, not the least of my everlasting regrets. I am imprisoned across the country from them and the Bureau of Prisons refuses to transfer me close to home, although nothing otherwise prevents it from doing so. I have not seen my sons in over four years, but my situation is not unusual. Make no mistake: this is a savage system that has no regard for families despite the printed platitudes on family visitation; despite goodwill to men.

Drug war consequences have been chronicled at length by the November Coalition and scarcely require repeating, what we have going on in this country is massive non-compliance in law with equally massive law enforcement response-a predictable nightmare and the ultimate example of the folly in criminalizing consensual activity. Compounding the complexity of the equation are increasingly strong calls for legalization and decriminalization of illicit substances while the government at the same time multiplies drug war expenditures. Only in America, and perhaps Somalia, could such lunacy emerge as policy. To make matters worse, drug law violators receive sentences that outweigh by far the gravity of the offense, thus confirming the adage that Law and Order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy. The established hierarchy in this country is a Ronald Reaganesque legacy endorsing limitless prison construction to warehouse its counterculture enemies. It cannot conceive that non-compliance in the law and its attendant and draconian arrest and incarceration mechanism is tearing this country wide open.

A great deal of inflammatory rhetoric has been pumped into the debate by drug warriors and one repeatedly hears, for example, how drugs wiped out the Sixties generation. Fact is, the Vietnam war did vastly more damage to the Sixties generation than illicit substances, a foreign policy faux paus foisted on us by a conservative mindset. One only needs to look around to see that Sixties generation is alive and well and supervising the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. Let's not be fooled, either: President Clinton probably did inhale, or at least he said he wished he had-on MTV no less-and lo and behold, I Got You Babe Sonny Bono is a Congressman of all things. Will miracles never cease?

Drug abuse-as opposed to responsible, casual use-is a viable concern in America. However, 95% of drug abuse in the US is alcohol abuse which is liberally tolerated despite its 150,000 yearly deaths from disease, its 30,000 yearly deaths from vehicle accidents, its propensity to trigger murder, mayhem and untold cases of domestic violence. Any drug, when misused, is a bad thing. The drug war, however, focuses on just 5% of drug abuse by attacking illicit substances and their users and dealers. If you see something queer in this program, you are not alone.

It was Hubert Humphrey who said that there are not enough jails, not enough policemen , not enough courts to enforce a law not supported by the people. We of the November Coalition believe it is time for this government to address this fundamental truth. We have, along with many other drug policy reform organizations, defined the problem and now we offer some solutions:

The United States ought to legalize marijuana, tax it and be done with the incredible nonsense of spending nearly a million dollars an hour on marijuana enforcement. It should make Border Patrol Agents out of all those suddenly unemployed DEA agents and insist that they learn Spanish. If they cannot learn Spanish, then they can get jobs as security guards. As it now stands, they do nothing by enforcing marijuana laws but inflict themselves upon us at enormous fiscal, personal and societal costs. The DEA wants to keep marijuana illegal for the main reason that marijuana tonnage makes hay with the same rat race politicians who endorse the funding for this endless, circular madness. The DEA is suppressing a hemp industry that could save forests, provide countless jobs and generate enormous taxable revenue. Is there less marijuana around? Fewer marijuana smokers?

The U.S. should follow the Swiss example on heroin distribution which would wipe out the black market in the blink of an eye. It should adopt Judge James Gray's recommendation for other controlled substances. To end the problem of mass imprisonment requires these measures in full or in part and a change in these overly harsh laws which have utterly and repeatedly failed in all their objectives. It is that simple. If no such changes are made, by 2015 this country will have 6 million people behind bars. As it now stands, the Western World looks upon our incarceration rate with derision and disbelief: we are a model of what not to do.

Should this country cling to the punishment mode, then the punishment should fit the crime. It is a terrible mistake to equate punishment for consensual crimes with violent crimes and murder. To that end, we find former Judge Sol Wachtler's suggestions on placing drug offenders in a separate system very compelling. In his model, first time, non-violent drug law violators could be sentenced to ex-military bases for terms of between 6 months and 2 years.

Three programs would be mandatory: drug treatment for those who require it; meaningful vocational training and, for those with full 2 year sentences, a community college degree. Trouble makers and the unmotivated would be removed to do a regular criminal justice sentence in a prison. Successful completion of the program would be rewarded with expungement of the violator's criminal record.

There are sound and humane reasons for this approach in light of the miserable failure of the current policies, the first being that it incorporates punishment without destroying the individual along with his family. Upon arrest and incarceration the average marriage lasts less than 2 years. Indeed, imprisonment is grounds for divorce in most, if not all states. A two year prison term provides the marriage with a light at the end of the tunnel and allows an individual to resume the relationship with his wife and children. Present policies have spelled the doom of millions of families and caused massive social damage via separation, alienation, dislocation and poverty.

There are sound fiscal reasons for a separate drug infraction system as well, the main one being that the taxpayer is not burdened with unnecessarily supporting inmates at the rate of about $30,000 per year. The military bases exist and under the camp model, do not require extensive renovation or retrofitting for high security inmates. Drug treatment, vocational training and college programs can be put into place for a fraction of what it costs to keep non-violent inmates in prison for years upon years. Rather than an embittered, homeless, family-less individual bereft of marketable skills-one likely to re-offend-society benefits from a person who still has family bonds, a home to return to and job skills to keep him or her out of difficulty. For those first time drug law violators who have already served over two years in prison, a general amnesty should immediately be granted. Upon successful period of supervised release, all civil rights should be restored and the felony record erased. It simply makes no sense to lock away first time drug violators for decades when prisons are so packed. It makes no sense to release violent, repeat offenders to make room for drug offenders, who, like it or not, are usually entrepreneurs engaging in a voluntary commercial enterprise. It makes no sense to spend billions on prisons while school systems go begging. Consensual activity between adults is light years apart from forcible rape, armed robbery, child molestation and murder, but drug offenders collectively serve far longer prison terms than all of these crimes. Until such time as this country comes to its senses on drug prohibition and mass imprisonment, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year be damned. Goodwill to men? You must be joking.

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