Home Publisher's Note A Nation of Prisoner Addicts
Publisher's Note
A Nation of Prisoner Addicts
April 2006

In his farewell speech in 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower famously described the rapidly expanding influence of something he identified as a powerful "military industrial complex," warning that such a complex was then beginning to be built around a growing standing military, the burgeoning armaments industry and the new federally funded scientific research community. In the councils of government, we must "guard against the acquisition of undue influence by the miltary industrial complex,"he cautioned. 50 years later, critics of the nation's drug policies, borrowing from Eisenhower's coined phrase, have begun to warn of a growing "prison industrial complex," pointing out that powerful groups who have a vested interest in continuing the failed War on Drugs are blocking crucial efforts to reform the nation's misguided and highly punitive approach to drug addiction.

The absurd War on Drugs - I mean, why don't we just go ahead and declare war on diabetics or, even better, the disabled? - was begun by the Nixon Administration in the 1970s with legislation that created the DEA, among other things. Since then, mandatory sentencing guidelines at the federal and state levels have led to a vast imprisonment of America's addicted population, resulting in a huge prison building boom and a large increase in the nation's law enforcement and criminal courts infrastructure.

The United States, with over 2 million prisoners, has the highest imprisonment rate by far of any nation in the world, with some estimates putting drug related incarcerations as high as 70 percent of the total. The last time our country had such a big increase in prisoners - a 500 percent jump at the federal level - was during Prohibition, a massively failed effort to control drinking whose only lasting contribution to society was the creation of organized crime as an American institution.

And now, efforts to move the handling of the drug addiction problem away from the criminal justice system into the healthcare system, where it belongs, are being virgorously oppossed by the associations and organizations that represent interests that are at the core of the prison industrial complex, groups like prison guards, police and district attorneys, among others. The main opponents of reform efforts like California's Proposition 36, which mandates treatment instead of jail for drug offenders, these groups argue that sending drug addicts to treatment won't work and is a threat to public safety. But the real threat from Proposition 36 and other similar efforts accross the nation, as these groups know and fear, is to their jobs, power and influence. A massive transfer of resources into treatment vs jail will necessarily result in a shrinking of the institutions of the War on Drugs, upon which many in these groups depend for their livelihood.

Certainly, we can expect the vested interests of the prison industrial complex to continue to block efforts for reform of our punitive approach to drug addiction, but we should, like Eisenhower warned with the miltary industrial complex, vigorously guard against their undue influence in our councils of government.


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