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A warning to Canada from inside the “Tough On Crime” US prison system

submitted by on December 4, 2011

In lieu of the imminent passage of Bill C-10, the crime bill with mandatory minimums for all drug offenses involving manufacture and distribution – which the Harper Conservatives are set to pass in the Canadian Parliament – it is reflective to consider how the US criminal justice system has gotten completely out of control with these mandatory minimum sentences.

Once mandatory minimums are put in any criminal justice regime, they almost never get repealed despite the disastrous effect on the public safety, the treasuries of the state and federal government, and the cruelty that punishes victims and their families.

"Disastrous effect on the public safety?" you might well ask. That’s because as risk goes up in the drug trade, so do prices. Since most people involved in the drug trade have no comparable market value for their limited or non-existent skills, the more the prices rise and demand increases, the more tempted millions of men and women – particularly blacks, Latinos, poor whites, natives – are to get into the drug trade.

Mandatory minimums of 10, 20, 25 years or even life imprisonment are no deterrent at all when the alternative in our material world is a life of minimal financial incentives from legal activity.

You might say, if my proposal is legalization to eliminate this paradox, why not legalize murder, or rape, or robbery. On the surface, uninvestigated, this seems an attractive rejoinder. But once a rapist, or murderer, or bank robber is captured and taken out of circulation, no one competes to replace the murderer or rapist or robber. The commitment of crime has been halted.

But in the drug markets, where forty million Americans are active consumers in the illegal drug market, when one dealer or manufacturer or grower is taken out of the market by imprisonment, dozens of their customers are now looking for a new supplier. The removal of one or several suppliers creates an opportunity for others to profit. Thus we see turf wars, gang disputes, or, if there is no overt violence, new persons entering the marketplace to feed the insatiable appetite of Americans (and Canadians) for these illegal but in-demand substances.

So for every person put in Yazoo Prison for drugs – and that's by far and away most of them – one or more persons immediately moved into the lucrative drug market to profit by feeding that existing demand.

In this way, prohibition manufactures crime by making criminals out of people who wouldn't be dealing in drugs unless these substances were prohibited from distribution in traditional retail methods. In my 'Drug Abuse Awareness' class here at Yazoo, I asked the question, "Would any of us, convicts or guards, be here if all drugs and substances were sold in licensed stores?" The answer is obvious. None of these inmates would be selling illegal drugs if those drugs were sold legally in stores, pharmacies, or any business similar to those that sell alcohol, tobacco, sugar, fatty foods, coffee, prescription drugs, etc.

Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers enter the illegal drug business, usually by buying a substance (typically marijuana) and reselling it to their close friends; their profit in these early stages simply pays for their share of the substance bought and used. But imagine the immediately corrupting effect when one person in a peer group becomes a "dealer", and is seen soon after with expensive clothing, the latest electronics, a fine car, sexy women, and plenty of money to flash around.

It is easy to imagine the invidious effect this has on all the other teenagers who can see this rapid financial enrichment, making it very challenging for the teenager with a minimum wage job at McDonalds to maintain a work ethic in the face of such contrast. In fact, that is reasonably impossible for most young people, particular those with no job or very limited prospects.

But if these drugs were regulated and manufactured under controlled circumstances in the usual economy of scale, they would go from being lucrative and profitable illegal drugs to being mundane and no more profitable than lettuce or tomatoes, or liquor, or Viagra, or any such mass-produced commodity. There would be no young people selling drugs on the street or to their friends. None.

Consider the impact on children and families of the convicted prisoner caused by the kinds of sentences that Americans routinely receive in the grotesquerie called the US criminal justice system. In my drug abuse awareness class we were told that 70% of all children of convicts will themselves be in prison eventually. Well, whose fault is that? Broken homes manufactured by the War on Drugs produces a prison population in perpetuity. Whom is that designed to help, and whom does it destroy?

It costs, in the US, about $50,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner; in Canada, it's $100,000 (male) and $190,000 (female). But the US has 2,500,000 prisoners at any one time, and 7 million more on supervised release, house arrest, bail, probation, parole – all very expensive, unwieldy extensions of the prison punishment complex.

The net effect of an infinitely expanding prison population is the draining of the treasuries of the municipalities, states and federal government, for absolutely no benefit to the taxpayer. The prisoners themselves have no money, and their families lose a breadwinner, and often go on welfare as a consequence. The families are usually decimated financially by legal fees and loss of the income earner(s). The children are permanently affected. The families can rarely afford to visit, or can’t at all – in many cases, they won’t even see their loved one again in their lifetime!

Bill C-10, introduced by the Canadian Conservative government, provides mandatory minimum jail sentences of six months for six marijuana plants (nine months if you’re renting the property), to 18 months for making extracts like hash or cookies, two to three years for cocaine offenses, 10 years for a second offense, up to 14 years for marijuana offenses, and longer for other substances. It is draconian in its punishments for Canada.

Here, however is a short resume of ten fellow inmates, all but one who live in my unit here at Yazoo Medium. This is how mandatory minimums become medieval and outrageous crimes against humanity, all under the guise of fighting crime. I have provided their proper name and inmate registration number so you can confirm these sentences as I have stated them at the Bureau of Prison website, www.bop.gov, so you know I am not exaggerating or misstating the facts.

1) Christopher Norman, 24635034: sentenced to 21 years, 10 months (262 months) for conspiracy to distribute five kilograms of cocaine. Sentenced July 2000, Release date: 2019. Black American.

2) Jacob Esquibel, 40652018: 21 years, 3 months (255 months) for 'Possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine'. Inside since 2001, release date: 2021. First time offender as an adult. Mexican/Native American.

3) Travis Rogers, 21111045: 252 months (21 years), inside since 2010, release date: 2029. Conspiracy to distribute 500+ grams of methamphetamine. One previous state conviction. White.

4) Antonio Andrews, 15054040: Convicted of being a felon in possession of firearms, sentenced to 48 years, sentenced in 2010, release date: 2053. Current age 34, release at age 77. Andrews makes a point of saying no one was harmed, nor were guns used in any way. Black.

5) Cedric Jones, 29464-077: "Conspiracy to possess and distribute crack cocaine." Received "mandatory life sentence" in 1995 at age 24. Now 40 years old. No drugs were ever found on his person nor was any amount specified in his indictment. Because of two previous convictions, he received LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. No release date. Black.

6) Nathan Carter, 14989076: "Possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine". Sentenced in 1998. Because of two previous drug convictions, was declared a career criminal, and given a life sentence. Received LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. No release date. Black.

7) Bryan Jones, 01156748: "Conspiracy to Distribute Crack Cocaine". Sentenced to LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, PLUS 5 years (!) in 1999 for having a gun in his possession at the time of arrest. First offense. Age 27 when incarcerated, 39 now. No release date.

8) Billy Wheelock, 60161080: Sentenced to "LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE" in Waco, Texas in 1993 for 99.64 grams of crack cocaine. In jail 19 years, 48 years of age.

9) Curtis Bell, 09304002: "Conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine", Life without parole. In jail since 1993. 10 of the 19 people indicted received sentences of Life Without Parole, including a mother of 22 children, Mary Morrow. A book was written that included information about Curtis Bell, called "Drug Conspiracy: We only Want the Blacks" by Richard 'Squirrel' Thomas. The title is taken from testimony by a government informant who testified against 30 black men, only 15 he had actually met. When the informant said he has information about a white man selling drugs at a club, a police agent said, "With all due respect, Derrick, we only want the niggers."

I have included only a few of the people I live with; all have over 20-year sentences, all for non-violent offenses. There are several convicts here who are serving 10 years for marijuana, including Fred, whose family visited here once with Jodie (she paid for their hotel for driving her here to Yazoo City from Jackson, to and from the prison, and back to Jackson). Fred has three wonderful children, a wife, and a mother who misses him greatly; all are under great duress not having Fred home. He and his brother received 10 years each (mandatory minimum) for interstate transportation of marijuana.

My cellmate Wally received 15 months for receiving 2.5 pounds (a little over a kilogram) of marijuana in the mail from Oregon. Once it’s interstate, it’s a federal offense and penalties are very harsh. One of my correspondents, Linda, lives in Bakersfield in California and has a son, Corey, in Taft camp serving the last few years of an 11.5-year sentence for distribution of marijuana. Taft camp is a private prison in the California desert that I was originally designated to go to. Linda describes the many challenges Corey has encountered trying to get through his time there. After he goes through the RDAP (Residential Drug Abuse Program), he will be released late next year.

The US prison system, both the state and federal, is stuffed with hundreds of thousands of inmates serving outrageous, cruel, expensive, and pointlessly long sentences. Their offenses are manufactured by government policy – the policy of prohibition.

In Canada, the cruel mandatory minimums for cannabis and drugs soon coming into law will be augmented by the on-going appointment of Conservative judges to the courts. This situation will produce much longer and harsher sentences, fill the jails, increase the debt, expand police powers, reduce the safety and freedom of the citizens, escalate the drug war, raise drug prices, increase the lucrative nature of the drug trade, and drain the taxpayers.

The only people who will benefit are politicians, police, and gangsters.

 

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