Nowhere is institutionalized American racism more obvious than in our judicial system. One in three black males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight is on probation or parole, or is incarcerated. Nearly fifty percent of the more than one million men locked up in this country are black or Hispanic. A black man busted with a quarter ounce of crack cocaine routinely draws a five-year sentence while his white counterpart, busted with a quarter ounce of powder, draws probation.
It costs between twenty-five and forty thousand dollars per year to incarcerate a man. While Congress is cutting funds for medical care, food and shelter for the homeless, shelters for battered women and children, rehabilitation programs for addicts, and funds for education and the arts, and arguing over tax breaks for the richest five percent of the population—almost exclusively white—we are building hundreds of new prisons all across the nation to incarcerate another million men. The majority of the new inmates will be black or Hispanic, and over 80 percent will be imprisoned for drug or drug-related offenses.
It is time for all of us to consider the obvious: the “war on drugs” that we have financed to the tune of twenty billion dollars per year at the federal level, and probably another thirty billion at the cumulative local level, has been a complete failure. Under this policy we have churned out an entire generation of otherwise decent men with criminal records, choosing to send them to prison rather than to rehabilitation programs or to school. This policy guarantees these men a future of marginal employment at best. They will remain economically and psychologically depressed. Half will seek obliteration through a return to drug and alcohol abuse, returning for a second or third spell in prison.
Besides being a recipe for bankruptcy, the “war on drugs” has been blatantly racist in application. It has contributed directly to the problem it was intended to address by making drug dealing so profitable that gang wars erupt over who will control drug sales on any particular street corner. Drug profits and an absence of reasonable gun laws put Uzis in the ’hood. Even William F. Buckley, Jr., from his bastion of conservatism, has declared the “war on drugs” an abysmal failure and called for decriminalization of drugs in order to take the profits out of drug dealing.
Strange, is it not, that so many conservative politicians call for less government while demanding more prisons? At twenty-five thousand dollars per year, we would be better served to send a few of these young men through Harvard Business School, offering them a future ripe with taxable income. For what it costs to put one drug addict in prison for one year, we could put four through a year of closely supervised rehabilitation.
In his first year in office, President Clinton signed a bill adding eighty-one new offenses qualifying a candidate for the death sentence. I was moved to learn that the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin would not receive a death sentence in Israel, where only “high crimes against humanity” can qualify a murderer for capital punishment. The United States incarcerates and executes more men per capita than any other nation in the world.
Strange, is it not, that those who speak most forcefully for the “right to life” never mention capital punishment as demonstrative of our current moral morass? And isn’t it odd that those who would combine religious and political zeal - the Pat Robertsons and Billy Grahams - feel no moral outrage over the presence of thousands of men on Death Row? Neither those who would be our political leaders nor those who would be our religious leaders appear to be the least bit disturbed by the blatantly racist application of capital punishment - as if the Ten Commandments of Christianity were, in application, merely ten suggestions, ten general principles that did not exclude killing in the name of politics.
In Japan, one sees in the gardens of Kannon temples little figures of Jizo, the bodhisattva of children and travelers. They are placed there by mothers mourning an abortion or a child who died. I have often thought it would be nice to bring Jizo to America. We could bring millions of mothers to our prison gates to build gardens, and we could each bring a little figure of Jizo to place in the garden to mourn the lost souls of the millions of young men we have wasted in a costly, racist, self-righteous war on drugs - a war that, like all wars, eventually comes home to roost.
Sam Hamill is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His most recent book is Destination Zero (White Pine Press).