The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier
Editor 

Forum Looks At 'America's War On Drugs' -Brevard NC

 


“The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure,” said local NAACP president Tommy Kilgore.

Kilgore was speaking during the recent NAACP’s presentation of “America’s War on Drugs: Mass Incarceration & Its Impact on People of Color: Finding a Better Way” at the Unitarian Universalist Church. The program, which attracted roughly 100 people, included a showing of the documentary, “The House I Live In,” (see related story) and a panel of four experts who made brief presentations and answered questions from the audience.

Kilgore said that even though whites have used illegal drugs as much as blacks, there have been four times as many blacks jailed as whites and sentences for blacks have been twice as long.

Jim Hardy, who moderated the event, said that as a high school teacher and father of two children in 1971, he believed in the war on drugs but that “over the years I have evolved.”

Hardy said the war on drugs has been going on for 45 years and the country is still “awash in drugs.”

The “War on Drugs” was launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Hardy referenced an article in this April’s edition of Harper’s magazine in which Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman revealed what the “War on Drugs” was really about.

According to the article, Ehrlichman said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt their communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Hardy said people are aware that drugs are dangerous and can cause harm to individuals, families and society. But he also said Americans need to look at the result of how people who use drugs are treated.

Hardy said some people abuse drugs, adding that 100,000 Americans die each year due to alcohol, with 25,000 of those deaths on the highways. However, most adults consume alcohol without any serious harmful side effects.

Hardy then introduced the panel of experts, which consisted of Dan Carter, Alvin Long, Christiana Glenn Tugman and Larry Goodwin.

Carter, an award-winning historian, has spent a great deal of time studying European prisons, particularly those in the Netherlands. He said that while there are cultural differences between Europe and the U.S., some European concepts could be applied here. One is not given lifetime or lengthy sentences. Prisoners who are released after age 55 have a recidivism rate of less than 8 percent and just 2 percent commit violent crimes.

“It (crime) is a young man’s game,” said Carter. “There is no reason to believe that lengthy sentences deter crime.”

Carter said the opposite is true; the longer people stay in prison the greater the probability they will commit crimes when they are released.

Other ways to improve prisons and decrease recidivism are providing alternative ways to deal with initial offenders, providing drug and alcohol counseling and resources to prisoners, reducing the case load for parole officers, providing financial resources for job training, and providing Pell grants to prisoners once released.

Carter also said the prisoners should not be prohibited from voting. If a person becomes permanently disenfranchised, then they are less likely to participate in the civic structure and relapse into crime.

“All of these things are possible,” said Carter.

He acknowledged that implementing such concepts would be costly, but they would be far less than what it costs now to run our prisons. He also said that due to a lack of a social welfare system, 22 percent of American children live in poverty and millions of Americans have no health insurance. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to make the case that criminals be given any additional resources. Carter also said there are individuals and businesses with a vested interest in keeping the current incarceration system intact.

Carter said decriminalization of drug use in Europe has not led to a substantial increase in drug use. He said decriminalizing drugs does not “resolve all the problems,” but Americans need to ask why America has a recidivism rate of 57 percent while European countries have a recidivism rate of 30 percent.

Regarding the politics of incarceration, Carter said judges in Germany are appointed by a panel of experts, and that system protects them from politics. In America, however, there appears to be a “culture of revenge” and politicians feed that culture by running on a platform of being “tough on crime.”

Long said he was a drug addict whom people “did not want to have in your neighborhood.” He suffered from a sense of degradation and hopelessness and spent a lot of time in prison and jail. He first used drugs when he was in his 20’s.

“Once it took off, it just took off,” he said of his drug use. “Addiction is a mental health issue as well.”

Long said he was arrested in multiple states and sometimes he was not charged with a crime when he could have been. He said he would not have been able to get his life back on track without the constant help of others.

“There were people in the community who did not give up on me,” he said.

Now Long is returning the favor by running 14 halfway houses in Buncombe and Henderson counties. He said former inmates need support, as well as accountability and the ability to communicate, when they come out of prison. They have to be introduced to ways of changing their lives.

“It is easy just to give up on an individual coming out of prison,” he said.

He also said former inmates need all of the things working people need – a safe place to live, a secure food source, and a job, as well as counseling support –so that they do not relapse and can actually change their lives for the better.

“This is not something that happens overnight,” he said of changing people’s behavior for the better.

Tugman is an Asheville attorney who formerly worked in the Public Defender’s Office. She currently heads the homeless program in Asheville and Buncombe County and works in several prisons to help inmates prepare for life after incarceration.

Tugman said it is difficult for prisoners to connect with others and discuss their emotions and problems. Many of them have “horrible stories” about what happened to them before they even entered prison. While in prison, inmates hide their feelings “at all costs,” which makes it more difficult to trust and connect with people once they are released.

“They've been covering their pain for a very long time,” she said.

Tugman said education is important – those who obtain a degree in prison have a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent. While prisoners cannot get a Pell grant, some of those who have been released can now apply for those grants. She said the “collateral damage” of being a felon is enormous because they cannot have certain jobs, such as working in nursing homes, when they are released.

While Tugman said institutional change needs to occur, citizens can have an immediate impact by helping those released from prison one-on-one. Not only does such support help the former prisoner, but it also helps the latter’s children and parents.

“It’s a ripple effect,” said Tugman.

Tugman said some good things have happened in Buncombe County with the establishment of a Drug Court, DUI Court and court for veterans. The outcome for all involved seems to be much better.

“It’s far cheaper to run a Drug Court than incarcerate,” she said.

Tugman said it costs $38,000 a year to incarcerate one person in North Carolina.

Goodwin is an expert in addiction treatment who worked at Bridgeway at Transylvania Community Hospital. He also worked with soldiers in the military who had substance abuse problems in the 1970s. He said that in 1972, Fort Jackson in South Carolina was preparing for an onslaught of heroin addicts as the war in Vietnam wound down. But the onslaught never occurred because most of those who used heroin in Vietnam were not chemically dependent. He said they had been in an environment where they were afraid and hopeless and became somewhat rebellious because they perceived the country’s leadership as failing them. But once they were out of that environment, their drug use ceased.

As a result, Goodwin said if people have a positive change in their social and economic environment, their “drug use will decrease.”

He said there were some soldiers who were chemically dependent and had lost control physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and they needed treatment.

Goodwin said there was a discrepancy in the military because those with a history of alcohol abuse could receive treatment while those who abused drugs were given a less than honorable discharge. Eventually, the counselors were able to circumvent those rules. When those with drug problems received six weeks of intensive inpatient treatment and one year of outpatient treatment, 87 percent of them were abstinent two years after their treatment.

“Those are phenomenal numbers,” said Goodwin. “Treatment works; incarceration does not.”

Goodwin said that it would be “ridiculous” if a person who suffered a heart attack was not treated at a hospital because he ate too poorly and did not exercise and instead was put in prison and placed on an exercise regimen while reducing his caloric intake.

Those arrested for drug abuse, however, are not treated for their addiction but imprisoned. Since the addiction is not treated, the chance of a prisoner relapsing after being released is much greater than if he had been treated.

He said that mental health counseling is also needed, but since the state government revamped the mental health system,“We’re all in trouble.”

 
 

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