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November 24, 2008 -- Globe & Mail (CAN)

From Florida Cell, Conrad Black Rails Against U.S. Prison Rates

By Lee-Anne Goodman, Canadian Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


WASHINGTON -- Disgraced media baron Conrad Black is railing against the war on drugs in the United States and lamenting the country's incarceration rates from his Florida jail cell.

"The U.S. is now a carceral state that imprisons eight to 12 times more people (2.5 million) per capita than the UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany or Japan," Lord Black, serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for defrauding millions from his former media empire, wrote in a letter to the Sunday Times of London.

"U.S. justice has become a command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies, a gigantic prison service industry and politically influential correctional officers' unions that agitate for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences."

Fruitless attempts to wipe out the illegal drug trade are to blame for the situation, says Lord Black, taking up a battle cry long espoused by people he's never traditionally associated with -- those on the left of the political spectrum, including groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The entire 'war on drugs,' by contrast, is a classic illustration of supply-side economics: a trillion taxpayers' dollars squandered and (one million) small fry imprisoned at a cost of $50 billion a year; as supply of and demand for illegal drugs have increased, prices have fallen and product quality has improved."

His decidedly libertarian rant seems to represent one of the first times that the 64-year-old Lord Black, in jail since March, has ever publicly complained about incarceration rates.

It also comes just days after he asked President George W. Bush for clemency. The U.S. Justice Department says it's considering the request, although it's just one of thousands of similar pleas on its plate.

In Lord Black's letter to the Times, excerpted from an article he wrote for the current issue of Spears Wealth Management Survey magazine, the onetime Hollinger International chairman says penal reform is a cause he hopes to champion when he's released from prison.

"I wish to advise Lord Hurd that when I return to the UK, I would like to take up more energetically than I did initially his request for assistance in his custodial system reform activities," Lord Black wrote, referring to Douglas Hurd, a patron of Britain's Tory Reform Group.

The U.S. has a higher proportion of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world for which reliable statistics are available. Of the estimated one million drug arrests a year, approximately 25 per cent of them involve simple marijuana possession charges.

The U.S. Justice Department found that from 1990 to 2000, the increasing number of drug offences accounted for 27 per cent of the total growth among African-American inmates.

"Obviously, the bloom is off my long-notorious affection for America," Lord Black wrote to the Times. "I would be distinctly consolable if the United States really was in decline ... but it is still a country of incomparable vitality even as its moral, judicial soul atrophies and reeks."

The onetime jetsetter put on a brave face earlier this year when he first considered his upcoming prison term.

"If saintly men like Gandhi could choose to clean latrines, and Thomas More could voluntarily wear a hair shirt, this experience won't kill me," he wrote.

His letter to the Times opens almost cheerfully, although he speaks of missing his "magnificent wife," Barbara Amiel: "I write to you from a U.S. federal prison. It is far from a country club or even a regimental health spa. I work quite hard but fulfillingly, teaching English and the history of the United States to some of my co-residents. There is practically unlimited access to e-mails and the media and plenty of time for visitors," he wrote.

"Many of the other co-residents are quite interesting and affable, often in a Damon Runyon way, and the regime is not uncivilized. In eight months here there has not been the slightest unpleasantness with anyone. It is a little like going back to boarding school, which I somewhat enjoyed nearly 50 years ago (before being expelled for insubordination)."

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