Some Obvious Thoughts about Race, Drugs and Incarceration

What I Thought I Knew About Prison

In my sophomore year of college I started attending meetings of one of my university’s many environmental student organizations. After a semester of yea-saying other people’s ideas and occasionally working shifts at bottled vs. tap water tasting table, I was looking for a way to get more  involved. One day a girl I didn’t know announced that she had put forth a proposal and obtained funding for an environmental lecture series at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) and needed someone to continue her program while she studied abroad in Brazil. 

As it turned out, she hadn’t really obtained funding or done much work on the idea at all, but by that point I had already committed, and I wasn’t a quitter. So, with the help of another student already running a similar, non-environmental program at RIDOC, I met with the Director of Rehabilitation and the Deputy Warden of men’s minimum to get approval for the lecture series, solicited eight Brown University professors to give one hour, pro-bono lectures to a classroom of 15-20 inmates, and borrowed a car twice a week to escort professors, distribute readings, and sit in on environmental lectures in prison.

Most of what I remember about this experience is incredible awkwardness. I cringed after every email I sent. I dreaded explaining the program to professors, and even to friends. When we met, the director of rehabilitation asked why I looked so nervous. It took the guards a long time to understand why I and another girl who had agreed to help facilitate some of the lectures were there at all, but once they understood, they told us that the inmates called us “jailbait.” Once I had to wait for an hour in the RIDOC employee cafeteria, feeling uncomfortably out of place.

The RIDOC campus 
I think, in retrospect, that much of my awkwardness was justified, if unhelpful. I quickly realized that few of the inmates cared about the material, although all were extremely polite and attentive (several professors commented). Most inmates participated because the program came with the promise of “Good Time,” a few days or possibly weeks off of their total sentence. While I think Good Time is in general a good thing, I’m not sure the lecture series was useful in any other way. We weren’t teaching applicable skills or giving out education credits; the only recognition they received were some certificates I formatted in Microsoft Word and asked the Deputy Warden to sign. Most importantly, of course, the whole concept was ridiculously paternalistic; white college students and white professors visiting minority-majority prisons to deliver lectures on… the environment? Much of the benefit, I think, went to the professors, most of whom had never seen the inside of a prison and left looking like children leaving a movie theater (even if they had, as I suspected, accepted my invitation to lecture primarily out of guilt.)

Actual completion certificate 
I too benefited, in a way. Even efforts that are agony in the moment often seem laudable with the passage of time, and I now look back on the short program I ran in prison with an ironic sort of smugness. And then there was the learning. I remember being shocked by the atmosphere of the RIDOC campus, which seemed to me to be quite similar to the Brown University campus, had it been hit by nuclear winter. Many of the inmates and correctional officers seemed only vaguely aware of current events post 1990, or that computers were a thing. The director of rehabilitation was happy enough to let anyone with a somewhat credible idea in, even a nervous sophomore, suggesting to me a serious shortfall in internal programming capacity. Once I got a ride from a parole officer who told me that he currently had more than 100 cases. (This is common). This was the picture of prison I carried away - outdated, underfunded, constrained from providing enough meaningful rehabilitation to make a dent in the vicious cycle of conviction, incarceration, and recidivism.  

What I Thought I Knew About Drugs

My education in drugs was about as awkward as my education in prisons, but borne over a longer period of time. First came the realization that the thing they had spent lots of time telling you not to do in middle school was now a mandatory prerequisite for coolness and that my status as an uninitiate had to be remedied as quickly as possible, followed shortly by the realization that none of my friends were cool enough to have remotely any idea about how to obtain it, and then by several months of hoping that my cool acquaintances would one day deem me cool enough to join them while they smoked it. (One day, finally, they did, and it was awkward.) Second came the several years of learning how to smoke it, what it did, and if I liked it, which eventually I decided I did, but not enough to bother with the social awkwardness of buying it. 

Third came the impassioned arguments, both high and sober, that marijuana should be legalized, which I had honestly never considered before. (I had honestly never considered the legality of it in general; the necessity of obtaining it via social network seemed to me not a necessary circumvention of the law but instead a kind of cruel “cool tax” applied selectively to high school and college nerds). I agreed, of course. Real conviction came when my straight-laced pre-med friend read a large book and told me it was less harmful than alcohol. And so I added my own cries to the legalization rally: Lower prices and improve quality through marketization! Increase tax revenues and lower policing costs! End the cool tax! 

There were other drugs, of course, and I had tried one of them, once, but I didn’t know much about them and maintained no opinion.  

What I Thought I Knew About Race

My education in race was the most awkward of all three, of course. I was raised in a upper-class white majority neighborhood; what diversity we had was primarily Jewish and Asian. I was taught to attribute poor economic outcomes to poor opportunities and the damning effects of stereotypes and behavioral confirmation. I recognized the need for affirmative action, but was still a bit jealous classmates who could check the minority box for college applications. I knew that as an upper-class white person I was not qualified to talk about race, and that belief that gave me much relief. I still have trouble saying “black” because I in elementary school they told us that the only politically correct appellation was “African American.” 

I was in London when Ferguson blew up, not far enough away to escape the aftershock entirely, but far enough for its effects to be muted, expressed mainly through Facebook posts and occasional polite inquires from international classmates ready to defer to the opinion of the American. I didn’t have a much to tell them; I didn’t share the anger I saw expressed on Facebook and in the media. The Michael Brown case seemed awful but not clear cut, and I understood the need for greater lenience in law enforcement cases. The Eric Garner case was clear cut, but I still didn't see how an even relatively biased grand jury could clear him, unless there was something I didn’t understand. I wished the articles and Facebook posts I read focused more on policy reform and less on the villianizaiton of the police, even if, in some cases, they deserved it. So yes, I was definitely that white person, but at least I wasn’t that white person, and I also was definitely not that white person whose views are determined mainly by a fear of seeming racist. 

What I Didn't Know

I just read a book and learned some obvious things. I’m gonna illustrate them with big, simplifying statistics, and then reduce the authors argument to an infographic, cause that’s how I learned to make a point when I was in marketing: 

I didn’t know that incarceration had increased six fold since 1970, making the US incarceration rate more than twice that of any other developed country except Russia. Apparently this is the sort of basic fact you miss when you go straight from the tap water tasting table to prison. I learned this fact just one day before fictional James Franco, whose interrogation about famine in North Korea during “the interview” scene of “The Interview” is eviscerated when fake Kim Jong Un retorts “did you know America has the highest incarceration rate in the world?” 

From the Economist

From the Sentencing Project
I didn’t know that most of this increase was due almost entirely to “The War on Drugs,” the set of policies promoting greater enforcement of and longer sentences for illegal drug infractions introduced in the 1980s. I had heard of The War on Drugs, of course, vaguely, somewhere, on TV, but it was not an event on my mental historical timeline. My first understanding of “mandatory minimums” came from Orange is the New Black, but it wasn’t until I read this book that I realized just how severe mandatory minimums could be. 

Table from FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums 

I didn’t know that blacks were, are, apprehended and convicted for drug crimes at a rate much higher than whites despite nearly identical rates of drug use and trafficking. I knew about and disapproved of racial profiling, of course, but I somehow always thought that its practice was too isolated to have statistical impact… or that underlying crime rates (determined, of course, by poor opportunities and the damning effects of stereotypes and behavioral confirmation) justified it, at least a little bit. So yes, I guess I was that white person.

Results from National Survey on Drug Use and Health, HSA

These three simple, statistical facts have added new dimension to my awkward and in general qualitative education in incarceration, drugs, and race. Before I knew there were problems, but my perspective was limited. Prisons are underfunded and dysfunctional, yes, but where should new funds for prison come from, and what reforms exactly are needed? I supported marijuana legalization but not with any particular urgency, and, as stated, maintained no opinion about the legality, enforcement, or appropriate punishment for other types of drugs. My policy towards race was one of avoidance, which is at least one reason why the book’s main argument came as such a surprise: 

The book, if you haven’t guessed, is “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. 

Alexander argues that both the War on Drugs and the discriminatory practices of law enforcement and criminal justice systems were deliberately put in place to control blacks. I’m not sure I agree with her on this; I’m not sure, as a white person who as a rule favors structural over agent-based explanations, I will ever agree with her on this, but I also think that I don’t need to. I do agree with her argument that “racial indifference” as opposed to “racial hostility” was a key force in the creation and maintenance of the New Jim Crow. But with even a little bit of compassion, it’s obvious that the New Jim Crow is one of, if not the single biggest problem in America today, deliberate or not. 

Why have I taken 2,000 words to arrive at this obvious conclusion? Mainly because I like to talk, but also because I think my experience illustrates how it’s often difficult for a privileged white person, even a relatively liberal and educated one like me, to see obvious things. More radical friends have told me that the criminal justice system, or the police, usually both, were systems of oppression, but usually their arguments were so ludicrously out of my experience that no part of what they said processed. Even through my awkwardness, I was still caught up in stereotypes. (I still am caught up in stereotypes). I couldn't clearly see the link between the Brown and Garner cases and a larger problem. I considered my experience with drugs to be entirely discrete from the experience with drugs that could put you in prison. And when I was running my lecture series, I never wanted to know why the inmates were there. The point was reform, second chances, providing opportunities that they hadn’t had. If I had known that some of them were there for offenses that I myself had committed, I might have seen them a little differently, less as victims of some remote and abstract fate, and more like me. As it was, I never questioned the system, not seriously, at least.

This inability to see obvious things may be why the Justice Safety Valve Act, a proposed bill that seeks to relax mandatory minimums, has received so little support. It also could be because it was proposed by a Tea-Partier. Ignorance is also, obviously, an impediment to serious reform; there may be outrage at Darren Wilson, or Daniel Pantaleo, or the officers who supported them, but if the idea of a generally fair system remains, as it did for me, we won’t get anywhere. 

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