BEHIND THE WIRE
By G. Patrick Callahan, Prisoner of the War in America
It strikes me that the only real experts on the criminal justice system in relation to the drug war are the inmates themselves. Police, lawyers, prosecutors and judges actually play bit roles: no one knows it like it is except the defendants. Because I've been on both sides of the issues and, subsequently, went through the essential sham that a federal trial is and was sentenced to 27 1/2 years, I feel imminently qualified to speak. I have been "down" for seven years--that's what we call imprisonment, being down. Down is the operative word in every respect.
Being down is, if nothing else, a unique kind of experience. It is totally negative on every level and would take a great deal of time to thoroughly explain, a many sided horror story, like looking into the facets of a dark crystal. We take deprivation of a person's freedom for too lightly in this county. Federal judges hand out ten to thirty year sentences for drug offenders like peanut hucksters tossing hot roasted at a ball game. Just recently, as a friend and I were discussing the incredibly harsh sentences a couple of judges in the Western District of Wisconsin like to hand down, a young black man mentioned one of their names and asked if we were familiar with the woman. "Oh, yeah," was my friend's rueful reply, "the bitch gave me twenty-two years for a trunk load of marijuana." The black fellow went on to say that in the week he was sentenced, this infamous duo sentenced people to over 500 years combined prison time.
I got to thinking about that, and anyone reading this ought to think about it, too. Of the 1.6 million prisoners in this country, possibly 60% or more are drug defendants. What we're basically talking about is millions of years of prison time handed out to the ones in the system; think of the millions of prison years already served by those who have been excreted from this system, a system often referred to as the criminal system of justice. I can tell you this: resentment is running high.
Not a day goes by where I don't hear the talk, the bitter, bone deep hatred of the federal government and all its attachments. It is peculiarly vehement with those who have been charged with drug offenses. I believe this stem from the "Thou Shalt Not" quality of other sorts of crime: robbery, perjury, bodily harm, being as they are, engraved in stone so to speak. Since no such caveats were ever place on getting high - perhaps because the Bible is awash in wine - unlike other kinds of lawbreakers, drug defendants are less likely to be resigned to retribution. It is mighty hard to be doing ten to thirty years for something that literally millions of people enjoy using and something that a growing number of thinking individuals believe ought to be made legal anyway.
Our marriages rarely last and prisoners are usually shipped far from their homes. Contact with our children is minimal and usually ultimately lost. Within about two years the lives of all concerned are irrevocably altered, generally for the worst: wives divorce and remarry, children are quick to grow up, usually fatherless, many times motherless. The prisoner watches it all from the glass coffin. Behind the wire he or she is meanwhile subject to unremitting harassment, degradation, danger and discomfort: these people are separated from virtually everything that makes life worthwhile. The years pass, one into the next and many men and women simply go around the bend.
If the best revolutionaries are those who have little or nothing to lose, I submit that the U.S. government is turning out revolutionaries by the tens of thousands. People sentenced under the 1987 Guidelines who received ten year mandatory minimum sentences are just now being released. Soon to follow will be those with twelve and fifteen year sentences. I predict that by the time the twenty year bunch plods its way out of all these prisons, this country might well be in the middle of payback time:
"It is common for federal prosecutors to threaten drug defendants with mandatory sentences unless they incriminate others. Many defendants decide to inform on their associates and friends in an effort to get a lighter prison sentence. This practice frays the bonds of personal trust and corrodes the community cohesion that might otherwise act as a buffer to violence."
--"The Real War On Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission." Harper Perennial 1996.
I do not believe that society can take so much from so many people by comparison to the consensual nature of their crime and expect them to come out conformed. Most of us know that the drug war evolved through opportunistic politics and remains as such today. We know its inherent hypocrisy when compared to tobacco and alcohol. We also know that elements of the same government that has prosecuted us are also involved in smuggling drugs into the U.S.--for a look into this I strongly urge people to see the Discovery Channel's series on the C.I.A. It's all there in living color. We know that the drug war is big business for the Justice Department. If you ever been through a federal trial, you also know the Constitution has the substance of a fairy talk: it is no longer relevant. Only punishment is relevant.
But this country ought to take a quick step back and pause to consider what it is doing. If only one out of a hundred of the men I hear are serious, then this country has a white-hot division of fanatics coming out of prison, men not likely to stand when the National Anthem is sung. they are men with lead in their hearts and nothing left to lose because it's all long since been taken away.