Incarceration Is Not Treatment

By Mark Goodson 03/23/17

We have 50 years of evidence that cracking down on border patrol or threatening the countries that supply illegal drugs doesn’t curb drug supply.

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A woman in prison, holding the bars and looking down.

A man or woman says, “I am an alcoholic.” The phrase garners sympathy because people accept that alcoholism is a disease. No one demonizes an alcoholic looking for help. But outside of recovery circles, the same does not always hold true for someone who is addicted to drugs. Saying, “I am an addict,” carries different weight. The public wants to treat addicts in courts of law, not detoxification centers. I recall learning that alcohol was a drug in health class. Still, what feeds alcoholism is legal, some of what feeds addiction is not.

President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, citing drug abuse as public enemy number one. Nixon attacked the Mexican and South American supply chains to no avail. A decade later, President Reagan extended Nixon’s war to the demand side. In a 1982 radio address, he called for an increase in the number of judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement people to strong-arm drug abuse into submission. This, while Nancy Reagan espoused a “just say no” campaign. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill perpetuated the criminal crack down on addicts. Clinton later acknowledged in a CNN 2015 interview that the bill, an unprecedented expansion in the punitive aspects of criminal justice, helped bring about the country’s mass-incarceration problem today, going so far as to say, “Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.” This bi-partisan, zero-tolerance, correctional-facility approach to addiction has failed.

Alcoholics and addicts know that this disease is not one to wrestle with. Freedom from drug addiction begins with education—the very thing that the incarcerated are deprived of, and it requires treatment and social support. Recovery informs addicts of the nature of their illness instead of just treating the underlying symptoms that keep drug offenders in active use.

North America represents five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Calling this land the land of the free is shamefully ironic. We imprison addicts—and disproportionately addicts of color—better than anyone else in the world.

Organizations such as the Equal Justice Initiative, headed by Bryan Stevenson, a man who helped usher in the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed sentencing minors with the death penalty, are at work to change the addict-as-criminal stigma that keeps prisons full and diverts funding away from effective drug treatment and rehabilitation.

A bloated private-prison system has transformed the war on drugs into a competitive demand for incarcerated people. In a 2016 memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates cited three years of steady decline in the federal prison population due to “revised drug-sentencing guidelines, [and] new charging policies for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.” The memo called for a reduction in the use of private-prison contracts for federal inmates, a measure that would continue to discourage the criminal treatment of addicts. This was a much-needed win for criminal justice reform.

GEO Group and CoreCivic are publicly traded private-prison companies that compete on the free market to make incarceration more profitable. This is twisted logic by any measure of common sense; more profit means less spending on the criminals our prisons are trying to rehabilitate.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Yates’ memo, a clear indicator that the new administration will try to roll back the progress made toward clemency for non-violent drug offenses. CoreCivic’s stock price finished the day a point higher. Since Donald Trump was elected, both CoreCivic and GEO Group’s stock prices have been growing steadily.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a documentary currently airing on Spike TV, humanizes one story of incarceration. At 16, Browder was charged with stealing a backpack. While those charges were later dropped, he spent three years at Riker’s Island jail. Filmmaker Jenner Furst told NPR in a recent interview what motivated her to tell Browder’s story: “Animal Rights groups have done a lot of activism to stop housing in isolation for animals in laboratories...Yet, there’s millions of Americans in extreme isolation. The United Nations has ruled more than 14 days straight as torture.” Browder did not recover from the psychological effects of his time awaiting a trial and a verdict in Riker’s Island, and two years after his release he committed suicide.

This is why when President Trump, in his first address to Congress on Feb. 28, said “We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth — and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted,” I didn't believe him. We have 50 years of evidence that cracking down on border patrol or threatening the countries that supply illegal drugs doesn’t curb drug supply. What’s more, if the administration wanted to “expand treatment” to those “so badly addicted,” it would not be taking steps to expand the private prison system. As an addict, I worry for the immediate future of our country.

Another promise of the current administration—one that helped Trump get elected—was the restoration of law and order. Law and order doesn’t need to be restored, it needs to be reformed. A steady expansion of punitive justice has led to our present mass-incarceration epidemic which, according to an illuminating article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, has put one in four black men born since the late 1970s in prison. With prisons competing for profit, an expansion of law and order is a call for continued mistreatment of addiction and a perpetuation of well-documented racism.

If you’re struggling with alcoholism or addiction, you understand the irrational grip alcohol and drugs has on your actions. If you’re in recovery, then you understand that the road to healing begins with the admission that you have a problem. The U.S. is in denial about how to deal with major issues, such as the opioid epidemic; getting tough on drugs has been the bi-partisan failing policy for half a century.

I don’t grow upset when I hear rants about what President Trump is doing as the leader of the free world. We have placed the free world behind bars already. Trump is more symbolic—in fact, he’s a direct representation of the people—of a land that doesn’t distinguish between criminality and addiction.

The same question asked of addicts at interventions can be asked of the U.S. today: have you had enough?

Mark Goodson is in his 8th year of continuous sobriety. His writer's website celebrates the simple joys of sober life. He also raves, rants, and reflects on life as a husband, father, and teacher. A poet until he ran out of money, he now teaches English, and raises two children with his wife. Find Mark on Twitter and Facebook.

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Mark Goodson is a sober father, writer, teacher, and poet. Check out his blog, The Miracle of The Mundane or follow him on Twitter.

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