Drug War Responsible For U.S. Prison Population Exceeding Prisoner Population Of Stalin’s Gulag


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The United States has more people in prison today than the population of Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago when it was at its peak. According to an article by Fareed Zakaria, the reason this has happened is entirely due to our costly, and utterly ineffective, “War on Drugs.” Zakaria discusses the U.S. prison population as being seven to ten times higher than that of other industrialized nations because of it.

Also among the statistics he lists are the 1.66 million people arrested in 2009 because of drugs, and that four out of five of those arrests were simply for possession. Not robbery or burglary, not DUI, not drug-related violence, possession. Sentences vary widely based on the type of drug found, and how much is there, among other things. Approximately 80% of people serving a sentence for possession are first-time offenders, and the average federal sentence is just under seven years, while the average sentence for a state offense is 20 months.

There are also mandatory minimum sentences in some places, which tie a judge’s hands and completely ignore a person’s background, character, and, perhaps most importantly, how much of a danger they are (or aren’t) to society. Scott Earle, a Florida man addicted to painkillers, received an unduly harsh sentence of 25 years for connecting an informant with his Vicodin supplier. Florida’s mandatory minimums were intended to target violent drug traffickers, but seem to disproportionately impact nonviolent, low-level offenders addicted to painkillers. Click here for more ridiculous sentences.

In 1980, the U.S. had roughly 150 people in prison for every 100,000 people in the population, which was pretty much on par with other industrialized nations. The War on Drugs, however, has yielded the #1 illegal drug use rate in the world, rather than diminished it, and the illegal drug trade itself is worth $320 billion worldwide. The illegality of drugs here makes them a valuable commodity, breeding violence and helping to keep gangs and the cartels alive.

Our War on Drugs not only targets people who would be better served with getting help instead of a prison sentence, but it’s also cost us $1 trillion over the last 40 years, with no real results, save the exploding prison population. It hasn’t made neighborhoods safer, it’s made them more dangerous. It hasn’t reduced crime, it’s increased it. That’s $1 trillion down the drain for nothing.

Putting people away doesn’t keep them away from drugs either. In fact, drugs are also available in prison, sometimes more so than outside, because inmates don’t have to keep finding new suppliers on the streets. Inmates can also get their drugs from visitors and various smugglers and innovative smuggling tactics. Gangs can, and do, pay off COs to bring drugs into the prisons as well.

Charlotte Peterson, a recovering drug addict, says that people who are addicted to drugs are often self-medicating for an undiagnosed mental disorder. This makes it so that getting them help is even more important, not just for the addiction, but also for the underlying problem that caused them to turn to drugs in the first place.

Furthermore, Ms. Peterson says that prison has no support system the way rehab does. An inmate has the guards, who don’t care, and other inmates, many of whom are also addicts, and/or violent, and who also don’t care. Visitors in prison are rare compared to a rehab hospital. It’s even worse when the conviction is federal, because a person convicted on federal drug charges can be shuttled off to any federal prison where there’s room. For a friend of hers, that was more than 1,300 miles away from anybody he knew.

By contrast, in rehab, a patient has the rehab staff, which includes medical staff, as support, in addition to their friends and family. Rehab is a far safer environment from the perspective of the patient, because they’re not only treated like a patient receiving treatment, rather than a criminal who is undeserving, but they also have access to that large support network of staff and loved ones that just doesn’t exist in prison.

All the war on drugs has done is place a trillion-dollar stigma on people with addictions, so we can label them as undeserving criminals who must be removed from society. We’ve spent a trillion dollars trying to hide the problem, rather than studying it and attempting to understand it. We then call ourselves “tough on crime.”

From her personal experience and her experiences with other addicts, Ms. Peterson knows that addicts don’t want to be addicts, and they will seek help in kicking their addictions if that help is affordable and easily accessible. She says, “You know if you’re 3 days into kicking a heroin habit and you know you can go to a clinic and get free rehab, you’ll do that. 99 times out of 100, people will do that.”

In other words, imprisoning people for drugs does nothing to reduce the rate of drug abuse in society, and does nothing for addicts themselves, which means it does nothing for either drug abuse or crime rates.

She was clear that she does not mean that people who commit crimes because of drugs should get a free pass. She believes that they should still serve their sentences for those crimes, but should also get rehab outside of the prison system, because rehab with a solid support system is the only thing that truly works. Portugal decriminalized personal possession of all drugs and exchanged punishment for therapy, and because of that, according to the Cato Institute, drug use rates and the rates of many of the consequences of drug use have dropped considerably, while the number of people seeking therapy for addiction has skyrocketed. Portugal has the money to fund therapy because they no longer spend a ton of money arresting, prosecuting and punishing people for possession.

But there’s another factor in the U.S. now that can affect our drug-fighting policies. In his article, Fareed Zakaria also discusses private prisons, and the idea that privatizing the prisons saves money. The truth is, according to the ACLU, private prison companies have said that their business model depends on high incarceration rates. Lenient parole standards, leniency in sentencing, and more, can cost them profits.

The reason it’s in the states’ best interests to keep these companies happy is because for-profit organizations don’t do anything when there’s no profit in it for them. Their profits fall too far, and they’ll take their business elsewhere and turn the prisons back over to the states. Therefore, the states are likely to want to keep these companies happy by supplying them with a lot of prisoners. The War on Drugs helps considerably with that.

However, whether money is actually saved is another story. In Arizona, an analysis by the Department of Corrections shows evidence that private prisons can cost the state more than keeping them publicly operated. There’s this perception, particularly among conservatives, that the private sector can always do something more efficiently for a lower cost than the government. However, the market doesn’t work in every sector, and Arizona is turning into an example of that. And it is not the only one, with other states turning to this model as well.

Prison should be for keeping people who are a real danger to society off the streets. Murderers, rapists, child molesters, in other words, people who are violent, are the people who need to be put away. Sentencing someone to years in a state or federal facility on a drug charge where no violent crime was committed needlessly contributes to overcrowding, adds to the burdens on already-stretched resources, and yields no benefit to balance out these problems.

In looking through the history of Prohibition, what it was, and why it didn’t work, almost all of it could be applied to today’s War on Drugs. Sadly, that has lasted far longer than Prohibition did, and has been far more costly as well. For those who are intent on cutting government spending, ending the War on Drugs and overhauling how the U.S. handles drug cases should be a priority. It’s not fighting crime, it’s making crime worse. We have more people in prison than the Gulag Archipelago, and nothing to show for it.


eve Rika Christensen is an experienced writer and loves debating politics. Engage with her and see more of her work by following her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her blog, They Need To Go.