Here’s a draft of a talk I delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brevard, Dec. 16, 2012
The American Gulag
by Cecil Bothwell
“Make me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold onto
To believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go.”
– John Prine
The phrase “Angel from Montgomery” refers to a pardon for a prison sentence from the governor. It is also used to refer to a last minute pardon from the death sentence. The phrase originated in Alabama where the capital is Montgomery. The way John Prine framed it in his song, the woman is living in her own self made prison from which she can’t escape. Hence she needs a pardon (the angel from Montgomery).
If we take a thoughtful look at the entire prison system in America, it’s pretty clear that we are in need of an army of angels from every state capitol, to free not only the unjustly incarcerated, but to free our society from a system of laws and sentencing guidelines that is as poisonous as it is ineffective.
My personal experience of incarceration is fortunately very brief. When I was 22 years old I was a member of the Florida Farm Bureau – I was following Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “get back to the land and set my soul free” and I was homesteading a patch of Florida swamp land while I worked as a masonry subcontractor. The farm bureau had a discount offer from a local tire store, and I needed a new spare tire. I went into the store on a Thursday afternoon. While the mechanic mounted the tire, I went to the counter to settle the bill with the store owner, showed him my Farm Bureau membership card and drivers’ license, and then discovered I did not have my check book. So I said I’d have to return the next day with the check. I got tied up managing my masonry crew on Friday, and decided to make the payment on Monday.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the mechanic had put the new spare tire in my car trunk, a fact which I discovered over the weekend.
On Monday morning, early, I was awakened by a knock on my cabin door, pulled on a pair of pants and opened the door to greet two sheriff’s deputies with a warrant for my arrest for theft. You might imagine I was pretty surprised. I asked what I had stolen and they said, “You know, kid.” They insisted on accompanying me back into the cabin while I put on a shirt, socks and shoes, put me in the back of their squad car and hauled me to jail. They refused to tell me anything about the charges until I was booked for stealing a tire, and photographed, and allowed one phone call and escorted to a cell where I sat alone, wondering what would transpire. It was late that night when a friend finally appeared to bail me out, after the longest, loneliest day of my young life. Imprisonment is frightening. The sense of helplessness is devastating.
The next day I paid for the tire, told the owner that while I had previously purchased tires for both my car and my flat bed truck at his establishment, I wouldn’t be back. The judge later dropped the charges (although I had to pay court costs) and admonished me that he hoped I had learned a lesson.
I did learn a lesson: I was and remain convinced that if I had looked like the tire store owner in short hair and a plaid work shirt instead of long hair, a beard and a tie-dyed tee shirt, I would never have been charged or arrested. He had an opportunity to teach a long-haired hippie a lesson and the sheriff’s department was more than happy to help out. I doubt that the tire man missed my business.
That was obviously an extremely minor brush with the law, but it loomed very large in my life experience forty years ago, and everything I have learned about our legal system since that time has reinforced that lesson.
Much more recently I started a jail ministry with a few other folks at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, and garnered a great deal of first hand experience with low-level criminals in the Buncombe County Detention Center, over a five year period.
First, a note about why I wanted to start that ministry. I had been an investigative reporter for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newspaper for several years and had received a fairly constant stream of complaints about conditions in the local jail. Like any other story that depends on whistle-blowers, it’s urgent that a reporter obtain either documentary proof of allegations, or find believable witnesses who are willing to be quoted on the record. Otherwise you have nothing more than hearsay.
Then a woman died in the jail and her adult daughter came to me alleging that her mother had been denied insulin while incarcerated and had died of complications from diabetes. A lawyer who had spent a few days in jail on contempt of court charges, came forward, though off the record, and told me that she had heard the woman moaning and screaming in pain, begging for her insulin injections, and being left untreated until she blacked out and died. Somewhat later I obtained the state coroner’s report which identified intestinal ischemia as the cause of death, and it only took a little more searching to find that intestinal ischemia is often a result of untreated diabetes.
No one was ever charged for that crime.
Another informant came forward to remind me of a death which had occurred a couple of years earlier, and had gone virtually unreported. I dug into the details I was given, did public records requests and learned that a man had been arrested for driving his tractor-type lawn mower, in his own yard, while drunk. He was put in a holding cell and was found dead an hour later. He died of a broken neck. When I reported that in the newspaper, as part of the woman’s story, I got an anonymous tip from a man who claimed to be a guard in the jail. He said, “We all know who killed him.” Then he hung up.
Then I got a call from a man named Carlos Payne, who said he had information about the jail that he’d like to share with me. From his voice I got the impression, correct as it turned out, that he was a large, black man. And while I have worked hard to overcome the cultural biases I was taught as a child, I have to admit that I was viscerally scared when he indicated that he wanted to meet me, alone, in the basement of a nearby church. A fellow reporter insisted that I not go alone, and so the two of us met Carlos in a darkened room in that church basement.
Carlos was pretty scary, and he’d done time for involuntary manslaughter. But he was also an obsessive/compulsive and had kept meticulous daily records of his time in jail and in prison. Further, he had befriended a guard in the Buncombe County jail who had obtained a print copy of his official record during three months in the jail. The official record completely corroborated his allegations that he had repeatedly requested blood pressure medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, and had been repeatedly refused that medication with the guards noting that his demands were not to be believed. They noted that he cursed them repeatedly for the failure to provide medication.
Finally, he blacked out and fell, breaking teeth which caused bleeding, and was rushed to Mission Hospital where the doctors diagnosed his extreme blood pressure, renewed the prescription he had been asking for all along, and sent him back to jail where they then provided his daily prescription and according to the record, stopped cursing the guards.
His sentence had been for 90 days in jail, with a three year suspended prison sentence as long as he obeyed the rules while in jail and reported to a parole officer during the three years. But when he was supposed to be released, he was taken before a judge who was told by the commander of the jail that Payne had violated the jail rules by cursing at guards.
According to the court record, Payne told the judge that he had only cursed because he was denied life-saving medication, and that he had quit cursing once he was provided with his prescription. The officer told the judge that Payne was lying and that the cursing had continued right up to his release date. The judge ruled that the officer was believable while the defendant was not, and sentenced him to three years in North Carolina’s prison system.
Three years later, out of prison, Payne obtained the written jail record he showed me, and wanted his story to be told.
I tell you all of that to explain why I had been trying to get inside the jail to learn what I could about conditions there for a few years. But I was denied permission by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail. They do not allow visitors other than those who come in during visiting hours, to sit in front of a glass panel to talk to one inmate while guards monitor the conversation.
Then I learned about the only exceptions to that rule. Churches are allowed to create ministries which can conduct meetings with up to 10 inmates at a time, and discuss whatever they wish. Some social services organizations are also allowed to conduct counseling sessions.
So, we started a jail ministry through the Unitarian Universalist church. We had to have criminal background checks, an instructional session with the jail programs administrator, and be trained by attending a couple of Bible ministry sessions with a Baptist preacher, but then we were free to conduct our own program. It was and is the only non-bible ministry in the Buncombe County jail.
As it happened, when we finally got going, the old, crooked sheriff had gone to federal prison and a new, much more modern and professional sheriff had been elected. Whereas before, guards were selected as punishment for misdeeds as patrol officers, guards are now required to apply for what are now higher paying jobs, and have special training. Medications are well supervised and according to the inmates I’ve spoken with, guards no longer beat prisoners on the elevators. They used to administer beatings there because it is the only place where there are no security cameras.
We were only permitted to meet with non-violent inmates. Most are there on drug or DUI charges, some for failure to pay child support, and a few for theft, and other relatively petty crimes. Most admitted some guilt, but generally disputed the level at which they had been charged. District Attorneys always throw the book at arrestees, threatening the worst possible convictions, in order to coerce plea bargains to lesser charges. That avoids court trials in terribly overbooked courts.
Although my initial motive for creating the ministry was to get inside the jail, to get a feeling for the place, to hear from inmates in their own words about the experience there … the actual ministry was much deeper. I met people operating in a world that’s mostly hidden from my position in life. Of course, I know the statistics, I read sad tales in the newspaper, I understand the financial cost to society of social welfare programs and the court system, but most of the people in the Buncombe County jail are not newspaper readers, are not politically active, don’t have library cards, don’t come to my book signings and don’t attend services at the Unitarian Univeralist church.
They didn’t go to college, they may not have graduated from high school, most don’t hold regular jobs, and they don’t eat at the mid-scale and upscale restaurants in Asheville. They are invisible from where I usually sit.
Most of the inmates I’ve met express remorse, at least about getting caught, and usually about the lives that had led to their current predicament. While the Bible ministries all tell participants that they must accept Jesus as savior, and that they will never fix their lives without Him, we tell participants that we don’t care what beliefs they have about Jesus, or the Bible, or what will happen when they die. We talk about how they might fix their lives when they get out of jail or prison, to avoid the recidivism that is so characteristic of these people. For most that I met over the years, this was not their first time in jail, and it would not be their first time in prison when they were sentenced.
More than a few told me with surprising honesty that THIS time they planned to go straight when they got out. That is, they would go straight after a couple of weeks, but first they would check in with their contacts, and do some drug deals to raise enough cash so they could live until they found jobs. One young man told me his girlfriend had their baby since he’d been arrested, and he was going to do whatever he had to do to buy Pampers and baby food and baby clothes the first day he got out.
And this is where we run into the deep problems with our current laws, our enforcement policies, our judicial system, our prison system and the collateral damage we are doing to individuals, families and communities in America.
We imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more people imprisoned than Josef Stalin’s gulag state. The world average for incarceration is 150 per 100,000 population. The American prison system stands at 753 per 100,000.
We imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crimes at both the federal and state levels in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and our prison population exploded.
Those with the most incentive to sell drugs are those with the least to lose. Desperate, out-of-work parents with a small baby, and who have had some exposure to drug dealing have very little to lose and a tremendous amount to gain by making a few sales, usually to people they already know.
Because drugs are illegal, there is a high markup. Marijuana, which is essentially a weed, and extremely easy to grow, could easily be sold for a nominal amount, but because it is illegal, requiring an extensive underground network for production, distribution and sale, the price per ounce runs into several hundred dollars or more, with high profits accruing at each step in the distribution chain. The same is true of other naturally occurring drugs: cocaine, heroin, peyote, and mushrooms.
Once someone has been arrested and convicted of a drug crime, the incentives become even higher, because felony convictions make it very hard for ex-cons to find decent jobs. Even with moderately good intentions, like many inmates I met, the lure of quick cash is strong. And, of course, the odds of getting caught during any one sale are very, very low.
Now as it works out, the people most likely to be arrested for drug dealing are those who carry out their trade on the street, soliciting sales to strangers. Again, it is the poor who are most likely to risk exposure in street dealing, and the poor who are most likely to be customers on the street.
The truth is that surveys reveal that illegal drug use is ubiquitous in American life. As a percentage of the population, white middle class people use as many and often more illegal drugs than poor non-white people. But they don’t get arrested very often. Deals that go down in suburban living rooms, corporate lunch rooms, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, country clubs and the like are not very likely to run afoul of drug suppression teams from the local police force. Furthermore, there is racial and class bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges. There are unwritten rules about driving while black or brown, rules that we children of the white ruling class never have to consider, unless we grow our hair long, or adopt other outward badges of nonconformity.
Evidence of bias was never more personally clear to me than about ten years after my day spent as a jailbird. I had just completed a year as a house parent in a group home for developmentally disabled children. I was headed to Mexico on a six week camping trip, and my hair was still down over my collar.
At a stopover in Tucson, reacting to a dare from an old friend, and abetted by tequila, I shaved my head.
Two days later I was standing on a sea wall in Mazatlan, Mexico, talking to a retired policeman. I asked him to relate his most memorable experience after a career with the LAPD. Without hesitation he said he loved the sound of his baton coming down on hippies’ heads during demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said they split open like ripe watermelons.
I knew in an instant that he would never have told me that story before my new haircut and I adopted that new disguise for the next 8 years, just to experience the world as a skinhead instead of as a hippie. It was during that time that I first heard myself referred to as Mr. Bothwell.
The racial bias in our enforcement system is so pervasive that it is sometimes, and I think accurately described, as a new form of Jim Crow. Nationwide, about 1 in 138 people are incarcerated, which alone seems pretty high, but, of course, men cause most of the problems, young men even more so.
Among white men, aged 16-64, 1 in 87 are incarcerated. Among black men in the same age group, the number is 1 in 12. For black men in their late 20s, the number is 1 in 8.
When unemployment is high it is always higher in the African American population. Partly this reflects racism in hiring, but it also reflects a reasonable reluctance to hire ex-criminals.
A friend of mine, in Asheville, presents a case in point. Ed Chapman spent 15 years on North Carolina’s death row before he was exonerated. He had been convicted by a prosecutor and law enforcement officers who suppressed evidence, buried the result of a police line-up, and even ignored the jailhouse confession of the actual murderer (who is also on death row, for other crimes.) Once he was released, he’s had a very difficult time finding a decent job, because potential employers identify him as an ex-convict.
Our laws have helped create and build a permanent underclass. Many or most of those young black men have fathered children, and so while they are doing time their babies grow up in single-mother households, and single mother households comprise the highest proportion of homes below the poverty line. And when those young fathers get out of prison, unable to find work, they can easily represent one more dependent instead of one more wage earner in the household. Unless, of course, they are willing to do some drug deals and generate some cash.
And here I might note that while there is a high markup on illegal drugs, there are so many people dealing at the street level that studies suggest that most low level dealers don’t earn much more than minimum wage for their time. But, at least its a job.
For those whose morality is offended by my argument that we should go ahead and legalize the most popular, least physically dangerous drugs, I would say this: the American people have voted with their wallets. We have more drugs on the streets now than when the much heralded War on Drugs was declared about fifty years ago. The drugs are often higher potency. The prices are higher, due to our suppression efforts, so the profits are greater and the incentive to sell is greater. By making less harmful forms of some drugs more expensive, for example cocaine, we have spawned worse problems via conversion to crack cocaine, which delivers more bang for the buck. Because the supply chain for crystal meth is shorter, and often more reliable, if not in your own neighborhood, it is easier to get than other drugs which are physically less hazardous. We have succeeded in making the problem worse.
And at the other end of the supply chain, we are making drug king-pins rich, encouraging an international arms trade across the Mexican border and elsewhere, funding the rebel armies that protect the king-pins and destabilizing governments around the globe. For instance, heroin is Afghanistan’s major export commodity, and some Afghani Taliban groups rely on the heroin trade.
(The following paragraph is an addition to the talk as originally delivered at the Brevard UU Church on Dec. 17.)
The banking industry is implicated as well, because king-pins don’t stuff all that cash into mattresses. The British bank, HSBC, was recently found guilty of laundering billions of dollars in drug money, but was only given a slap on the wrist by the United States justice department. The negotiated penalty was $1.9 billion, a “record” settlement—equal to a few week’s profits for the banking giant. But the government had the legal authority to confiscate all of the banks assets, and all of the assets of all of the bank officers implicated in the laundering. Instead, they were let off easy due to expressed fears about what repercussions a meaningful penalty might have triggered in international finance. If you are caught with a single marijuana cigarette, the police can confiscate your cash, your vehicle, even your home. If you are caught laundering money for murderers, extortionists and international drug lords, you may lose your Christmas bonus. The injustice is bizarre beyond belief. [end of new material]
A year from now we’ll begin to learn how much money Colorado and Washington are saving due to their recent decisions to legalize marijuana. They predict savings in the millions in law enforcement, court costs and incarceration. Some foresee a noticeable uptick in tourism as well. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will honor those state-level decisions and not pursue recreational marijuana users in those states.
My experience with the Buncombe County jail ministry has strengthened my belief that most of the poor souls doing time for drug crimes would much prefer to be home supporting their families. If we legalized drugs, they might get jobs in drug stores because there wouldn’t be a profit to be made on the street, and drug king-pins are not the sorts of employers who provide paid vacations and health insurance. When I asked them about what jobs they have done in their lives, they often expressed clear pride that they had once worked doing roofing, hanging drywall, changing tires, putting down asphalt or even digging ditches for a plumbing contractor. All of us gain some sense of self-worth from contributing to society, from providing for our families, from doing our fair share.
One drug dealer I met in jail even bragged to me about the rules concerning children and charitable giving he had organized among dealers in South Asheville. He insisted that his homies had agreed never to sell to kids, never to sell near schools, and to divert money to a program that bought school supplies for the elementary school in their neighborhood.
I have no idea if they stuck to the sales rules, but I looked into it, and they definitely bought those school supplies – or at least, someone claiming to represent the local dealers had delivered the goods.
When I thought about that, it was hard to claim that school supplies paid for by drug sales were any more or less moral than our state-sanctioned education lottery, which is about as morally twisted a way to pay for schooling as I can imagine.
America can do better. I hope we can all help.