Even as America continues to lose competence on the world stage, one pillar of our society stands uncontested: the skyrocketing number of prisoners. In the U.S., the home of the free, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world — triple the prison population of Russia. These numbers have been on the rise since Nixon’s 1971 declaration of the “War on Drugs.” While America’s crime rate remained stable between 1972 and 2012, our prison population grew from 300,000 to 2 million. This man-made crisis was crafted to treat a nonexistent problem, using the scapegoat of petty drug crimes to disproportionately arrest minorities in order to make a quick buck and create a class of contemporary untouchables we call “criminals.”
As Michelle Alexander notes in her masterpiece, “The New Jim Crow,” America imprisons a higher percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the height of apartheid. In addition, according to the 2003 United States Justice Bureau Report, African-Americans and Latinos make up nearly 70 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population, though they account for only a quarter of the U.S. population. These figures are magnified in Texas prisons. In Texas, Latino men are two times more likely to be arrested than white men, and black men are five times more likely to be arrested than white men. While African-Americans and Latinos make up four in 10 Texas residents, they account for seven in 10 Texas prisoners. For inmates in Texas with a sentence of a year or longer, the prison population jumped 640 percent between 1978 and 2012, and according to Maco Faniel, who recently spoke at Rice about mass incarceration in Texas, Houston drug arrests rose 189 percent between the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
Labeled as prisoners, individuals are stripped of their rights and ushered into a lower class. Although prisoners have no voting power, they are counted as residents in the county they’re imprisoned in and used to involuntarily advance the political agenda of the ruling party. Not only are they political bodies, but they are also bodies used for unpaid labor across the United States. The 13th Amendment bans involuntary servitude except when used as punishment for crime. The powerless are again slyly used as chattel in our society, recreating the slavery we so vehemently tried to cease after the Civil War. The implications continue even after prison sentences end, with ex-prisoners facing lasting voting restrictions in many states and permanent disenfranchisement in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia. Former convicts are stigmatized and often barred from employment.
While many believe that drug use would increase if drug laws were relaxed, countries with more liberal drug laws have shown the opposite to be true. Countries that decriminalize drugs have lower crime rates and lower overdose rates, while HIV diagnoses have exponentially decreased. For example, Portugal decriminalized unauthorized personal use of all drugs in 2001. Initially, there were 1,016 cases of HIV reported, contrary to just 56 in 2012. Overdose deaths in Portugal declined from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012, compared to the U.S., which experienced over 14,000 deaths in 2014 from opioid prescription overdoses alone. The U.S. knowingly turns a blind eye to these facts, because to act in the best interest of the people would mean a loss of power, control and income. The fear-mongering tactics of today’s government are born from a fetish-like desire to justify policies such as mandatory sentencing laws, crafted not to protect citizens but to oppress them.
This covert economy and totalitarian mechanism of policy play a large role in the ego of the United States. If we were to abolish drug laws now, the Sackler family would go bankrupt, the crooked politicians would spiral into infinite confusion and the rest of us would be sitting at home in a blue dream blissing out to Miles Davis while the sacramental white smoke gently ghosts into the air reminding us how important the present moment is because now is all there is.
As Rice students, we have the opportunity to make a change in the world. By staying informed about the history of the War on Drugs, protesting its discriminatory policies and questioning the flimsy justification of criminality, we can help dismantle this system of oppression. Rice has a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international organization of students dedicated to spreading valuable, unbiased information and ending the War on Drugs. This organization, in addition to works like “The New Jim Crow” and the Netflix documentary “13th,” is a powerful resource for staying informed and making a change. Just as Alexander wrote, the current policies are certainly the New Jim Crow, and we should not longer stand for the systematic racism and megalomania the U.S. has practiced for so long.
Edit Dec. 5, 2017: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage change in drug arrests in Houston between the Reagan and H.W. Bush Administrations. The number has been corrected to 189 percent.