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Posts Tagged ‘prison’

The Enigma of Moral Laws

December 17, 2011 Leave a comment

We humans just love to believe we’re analytical and logical beings. Recall a discussion on an issue where you disagree and I’ll bet you recall both you and the other parties trading ‘facts’ at a furious pace, everyone involved believing fervently that logic and reason, and perhaps even truth, are on their side. Failing personal experience, turn on CSPAN and watch your Congress debate an issue for a few hours; or go to your next city council or county board meeting. Somehow the ‘facts’ and the ‘truth’ seem to be on all sides.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the devout pontifications of the true believers in the halls of government and solemn chambers of the courts that ‘we are a country of laws’ and that ‘we are governed by the rule of law’. In one form or other, that has been the cry of every king, emperor, dictator, overlord, and petty potentate in history. A belief reinforced, of course, by punishments so hideous and grotesque they’re incomprehensible. And yet, history shows that the rule of law, no matter how inhumanely enforced cannot trump the true governor of all human societies: Culture.

It is culture that informs us, from a very early age, about what is right and what is wrong; about how we are to treat family, friends, strangers. It is culture that teaches us who we should marry, and in what number; when sex is okay, and when it’s not; what is obscene or pornographic, and what is not; what kinds of public behavior are acceptable, and those that are not. It is our culture that informs us who is one of ‘us’ and who is not. And to the extent that laws and culture agree, the culture will enforce the law. The Prince, to borrow from Machiavelli, is mostly irrelevant.

But where culture and the Prince part company, and the Prince attempts to enforce his or her moral will over the ruled, in defiance of the culture of the ruled, the Prince is doomed to failure. A thousand years of conquests in the Middle East did not turn Jews into gentiles. Even hundreds of years of exile, first during the reign of Babylon and then again during the Roman occupation did not destroy their culture. Nor did the Roman occupation destroy the cultures of the Greeks, Palestinians, Visigoths, Egyptians, or anyone else. Three centuries of crucifixions and other brutal killings did not end the Jesus movement. Despite the ‘rule of law’ and what might be called—to put it in a modern context—the war on Christianity, it grew to be the dominant religion of Rome itself, and then of the post Roman world. Despite thousands of be-headings, burnings at the stake, and torture elicited retractions, neither the distribution of the common language Bible and emergence of protestantism nor the rise of the age of science could be prevented. For all it’s brutality, the four hundred year long campaign to bludgeon the population into compliance through fear and intimidation failed. The inquisition lost to cultural evolution. As did the American Temperance Movement in its attempt to make drinking illegal, and the Soviet Union in its attempt to homogenize the diverse cultures over which it had imposed its will.

In point of fact, no law contradictory to the culture of the time has ever succeeded, no matter how brutal the punishment imposed. And yet, even today, politicians insist on believing they can make laws contrary to the morality of the time, and if they just impose severe enough punishments, give enough speeches, find enough ‘experts’ to go on TV and preach how good the law is for society, that they can change the culture.

The truth is, it’s the other way around.

American unjustly and inhumanely incarcerates more people than any other nation on Earth! According to some statistics, one million Americans a year are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana; careers ruined, lives shattered. And what do we have to show for it?

A for profit prison industrial complex (PIC) that, according to this fact sheet (pdf) has been growing at more than 6% per year. Crime, in a traditional sense, is no longer the sole, or even prime focus of what the government and press prefer to call the ‘criminal justice system’. Today the interests of government and private industry have merged. Money is now the driving force behind law enforcement, the war on terror, incarceration, and even how the PIC is perceived by the public. Or perhaps more accurately, how the PIC hopes they are perceived. A gullible public is, after all, a compliant public.

But the truth, as the old saying goes, is in the tasting. Just as the Roman Catholic Church was terrified of losing it’s hold over Europe, and the money that came with it, sooner or later culture will win out over the PIC. How soon? How many more lives will have to be ruined before the beast is brought to heel? That depends on your choices in the voting booth.

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Marijuana Legalization: Let’s Get The Facts Straight

October 21, 2011 2 comments

You know, while it’s certainly the job of columnists to give us their opinion on things, I take exception when they start making up facts to suit their opinion. Especially when that columnist is a veteran who writes for a national paper. But this morning I endured just such a column by George Skelton, of the Captial Journal, in the Los Angeles Times. Skelton takes issue with the California Medial Association’s (CMA) legalization stance (also published in the Los Angeles Times). According to the Times, The CMA believes that:

It is an open question whether cannabis is useful or not. That question can only be answered once it is legalized and more research is done. Then, and only then, can we know what it is useful for.

Skelton quotes the CMA as saying:

We need to regulate cannabis so that we know what we’re recommending to our patients. Currently, medical and recreational cannabis have no mandatory labeling standards of concentration or purity. First we’ve got to legalize it so that we can properly study and regulate it.

Which of course, Skelton also takes issue with by asking: “Whatever happened to studying a drug first to determine its benefits and risks, then deciding whether it’s safe enough to legalize?”

If Mr. Skelton knew what he was talking about, he’d know why that can’t be done. It’s been tried! As of August, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will only allow the National Centers for Drug Abuse to study the drug. For what? How to treat abuse, of course. Professor Lyle Craker of the University of Massachusetts has been trying to get permission to study the plant for nine years, according to this New York Times article.

But the Drug Enforcement Administration—more concerned about abuse than potential benefits—has refused, even after the agency’s own administrative law judge ruled in 2007 that Dr. Craker’s application should be approved, and even after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March ended the Bush administration’s policy of raiding dispensers of medical marijuana that comply with state laws.

Which, as this Santa Cruz Patch article explains, has led the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to take the DEA to federal court for upholding a monopoly on research marijuana, and for blocking research into the medical efficacy of marijuana.

Another fact Mr. Skelton overlooked is that the Federal Government itself has conducted research into the medical efficacy of marijuana. Called the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program, it began back in 1978. Some say there were originally as many as thirty four subjects in the study, this website shows eight. In May of 2008 the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) issued a press release that stated:

The federal medical marijuana program—referred to as a Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program—resulted from a lawsuit filed by glaucoma patient Robert Randall, who successfully showed that his use of marijuana was a medical necessity.

The program slowly grew for over a dozen years. In the wake of a flood of new applications from patients battling AIDS—who found that marijuana boosted their appetites and relieved the nausea often caused by anti-HIV drugs—the George H.W. Bush administration closed it to new applicants in March 1992, but continued supplying federal marijuana to those already receiving it. Four of those patients survive today.

The Federal Government also holds patents on marijuana for medical use. The abstract for US Patent Number 6630507, which is held by the U.S. Government states:

Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This new found property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia. Nonpsychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidoil, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention. A particular disclosed class of cannabinoids useful as neuroprotective antioxidants is formula (I) wherein the R group is independently selected from the group consisting of H, CH3, and COCH3.

So on the one hand, the U.S. Government insists that there is no known medical use of marijuana, and blocks research for anything but treatment of addiction, while on the other it holds a patent precisely because its own study found the drug to be efficacious in the treatment of certain medical conditions. Had Mr. Skelton been interested in the facts of marijuana, rather than trying to support his beliefs, he might have discovered this information himself, and asked why the Federal Government continues to deny requests to reclassify marijuana so that research can continue in an independent way, without the obvious conflicts of interest present inside the Federal Government.

Mr. Skelton also scathingly snarks: “What raised my eyebrows was a repeat of the old canard about how locking up stoners eats up too much tax money.” […] “Fewer than 1% of the inmates have been sentenced for marijuana or hashish crimes of any sort, according to state prison data.” Perhaps, but consider this. In a presentation to the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2010, Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance opened with a couple of disturbing statistics.

The United States now ranks first in the world in per captia incarceration rates, with less than 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Roughly 500,000 people are behind bars tonight for a drug violation.

[…]
Police made 1.7 million arrests in 2008 alone, including 750,000 for nothing more than possession of marijuana for personal use. [pg. 2]

A White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske quote from this LEAP document, entitled ‘Ending the Drug War: A Dream Deferred,’ sums things up beautifully:

“I understand, from firsthand experience as a police officer and police chief, that we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of a problem this complex, and that a ‘War on Drugs’ mentality is too simplistic an approach to be effective.”

Fortunately, Mr. Skelton’s antiquated and unsupported point of view are on the wane. In a poll published last week, Reuters announced that half of Americans now support full legalization of marijuana, Last year a gallop poll showed that 70% approve of legalization for medical use. The only question is, how long will it take lawmakers, who must answer to bureaucracies terrified of having their budgets cut, to answer to their constituents rather than those agencies?

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

June 29, 2011 1 comment

Article V of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution (also known as ‘the fifth’) states quite explicitly that: “No Person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… ” This prohibition is repeated in paragraph 1 of Article XIV (the fourteenth amendment) in admonitions to the States, and tacks the now famous ‘equal protection’ clause on to the end for good measure. We commonly interpret this to mean that, as U.S. citizens, we are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, and that we should all be treated and tried equally under the law without regard to race, gender, religious affiliation, or wealth.

So when a cop showed up at his son’s school and clapped the irons onto Louis Gonzalez III without so much as a by your leave, he must have thought he’d been transported to a third world country. He received no Miranda warning, no explanation of why he was being deprived of his liberty and, as soon as he arrived in the jail holding cell, his property. Only after he’d been stripped naked and dressed in prison scrubs was he, hours later, dragged into a briefing room where a police detective told him why he was arrested and finally ‘read him his rights’. The cop was, as all cops are, convinced he was guilty. The LA Times, in an excellent piece of reporting, describes Gonzalez’s ordeal this way:

He was standing on the sidewalk outside the Simi Valley Montessori School, having just flown in from Las Vegas, hoping to get a look at his 5-year-old son’s new kindergarten. Standing there, waiting for the door to open so he could scoop the boy up in his arms and fly him to Nevada for the weekend.

The first officer arrived on a motorcycle and headed straight for him. He did not explain the charges as he snapped on the handcuffs. As Gonzalez stood there stunned, he noticed little faces pressed against the schoolhouse glass, watching, and asked if he could be moved just a bit so his son didn’t have to see.

Soon he’d surrendered all the items that tethered him reassuringly to the rational, workaday world. The BlackBerry he used a hundred times a day. His Dolce & Gabbana watch. His credit cards and photos of his son. His leather shoes and his socks, his pressed shirt and jacket, his belt and slacks and underwear. Naked in a holding cell, he watched his things disappear into plastic bags. He stepped into a set of black-and-white-striped jail scrubs, the kind his son might wear on Halloween.

A month passed in his single-bunk cell, and then another, and he had nothing but time to reckon all he’d lost. His freedom. His son. His job. His reputation. He had to wonder how much he could endure.

The other inmates in the solitary wing of the Ventura County Jail didn’t talk about their cases, because anyone might be a snitch, but his charges were well-known on the cellblock. More than once, they warned him about what awaited if he were convicted and sent to state prison. With a sex crime on his jacket, he knew, he would be a target forever.

“Like you’re waiting for death,” he said. “Dying would probably be better.”

[…]

If Gonzalez was presumed innocent under the law, the Ventura County Jail did not expect other inmates to honor that distinction. He was held in a segregated unit and received his meals through a slot in the heavy metal door. He wore a red-striped wristband denoting a violent offense. An hour a day, the doors opened so he could shower and make phone calls.

Now and then he could hear people going crazy in their cells, kicking their doors, screaming on and on until they had to be removed. He thought of himself as mentally sturdy, a survivor, but knew how easily anyone could crack. So he crammed every waking hour with routine. He read out-of-date newspapers and John Grisham novels and the Bible. He made a paper chess set and stood at the crack in his cell door, calling out moves to opponents down the corridor.

He listened to other inmates dwelling on the food they missed. One guy would say, “TGI Fridays, calamari,” the others would groan, and it went on like that for hours.

He learned a rule about surviving lockup: Never take a daytime nap, no matter how tired you are. Because you might not sleep that night, and you’d be left for hours in the dark of a cold cell with only your thoughts and your fear.

[…]

In his single-bunk cell in the Ventura County Jail, on a concrete slab desk, Louis Gonzalez III found himself compulsively writing letters to his 5-year-old son. They were a chronicle of their truncated time together. Telling him how they’d cheered for the Yankees. How his favorite toy had been a mechanical garbage truck. How he’d been a picky eater from the start, but crazy for Cheerios. He never mailed them.

He imagined his son in the cell with him, pushing around his Hot Wheels. In the silence and the isolation, his dream life had acquired surprising vividness. He could almost hear the little plastic wheels on the concrete.

He had a recurring fantasy. He saw himself in prison, 10 or 15 years from now, his conviction long since sealed, his appeals denied. His son, grown into a young man, would be his salvation, would take it upon himself to look into the case. He’d show up and say, “Mom admitted that she lied.”

Gonzalez, an innocent man, would spend 83 days in a tiny, solitary cell, deprived of everything that helps keep us sane: Family, useful employment, entertainment, interacting with other human beings, and for most of us, room to move around. (Most jail cells are no more than six feet by eight feet.) And he was treated better than many. I recently interviewed a young man, also innocent, who had spent ten days in the Sacramento County jail, fending off repeated rape attempts by other inmates. Being ignorant of the ways ‘inside’, he reported the first attempt to one of the jailers and was laughed at. “What do you want me to do? You’re in here to be punished,” the jailer scoffed.

Like Gonzalez, there had been no trial, no conviction by the Constitutionally mandated jury of his peers. But in the eyes of the jailers, the cops, the DA, and pretty much everyone else, both men were already “in [there] to be punished” for the crimes of which they were accused.

And in Gonzalez case, even having the charges dropped, even getting a judgment against his accuser ordering her to pay his legal fees for the false accusation didn’t undo the damage. Eventually his defense team would win a judgment of ‘factual innocence’ for him: A legal statement proclaiming his innocence. It would save his career, but the damage done to his reputation, the fact that he’d ‘done time’—83 days of time—with all that meant in the eyes of the public, could never be undone.

global prison populationSome will say that all of this is necessary for the public safety. To which I must reply: Is it? As can be seen from the graph at right, the United States incarcerates eight times the numbers of people found in European prisons. And yet, the crime rates are comparable. The French were furious when videos of former IMF president, and French citizen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn were broadcast around the world showing him being led around in hand cuffs by New York police. In France the accused are the accused, not the guilty. For a French citizen to be treated like a criminal before conviction is unthinkable. And yet somehow, even though they don’t attempt to drive those accused of a crime insane with solitary confinement, boredom, and constant threats to their safety, their society doesn’t seem to suffer from a constant plague of crimes committed by the accused.

America likes to think of herself as a shining beacon on a hill, as President Reagan once put it. An example for all the world to look to of liberty, with justice for all. But if the Gonzalez case proves nothing else, it shows us how far away from that shining beacon we have strayed. Had Gonzalez not been wealthy enough to fund out of pocket legal expenses greater than most of us could borrow for a new car; had he, like so many Americans, been dependent upon public defenders—who are known to the poor as “public defectors”—he most certainly would have been convicted. Because in American we do not get equal treatment under the law. We are not innocent until proven guilty. We are guilty until proven innocent, and that is exactly how we are treated; and we only have the best justice system money can buy.

Which is why our prisons are full of, not rich people, but of the poor.