06/12/11 Peter Moskos

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Peter Moskos, former Baltimore cop, author of "In Defense of Flogging" + Mary Jane Borden with Drug War Facts & Michelle Alexander, author "New Jim Crow"

Audio file


Cultural Baggage / June 12, 2011


Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

“It’s not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally Un-American.”

“No more! Drug War!” “No more! Drug War!”
“No more! Drug War!” “No more! Drug War!”

DEAN BECKER: My Name is Dean Becker. I don’t condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison and judicial nightmare that feeds on Eternal Drug War.


DEAN BECKER: Thank you for this privilege to talk with you. I am Dean Becker. This is Cultural Baggage and you are listening to the Drug Truth Network on Pacifica Radio. I’m going to bring in our guest here in just a moment but I want to talk about in an era when more than 2.3 million Americans are serving time in our drastically overcrowded prisons and jails, criminals, even low-level, non-violent offenders, enter our dysfunctional criminal justice system and disappear. Innocent and guilty alike can languish in jail for days, weeks, even years before their trial. Many plead guilty for time served.

Criminologist and former Baltimore City police officer, Peter Moskos, forces us to confront the problem with a solution, at once radical and practical. Give offenders the chance of suffering corporal punishment in exchange for staying out of prison. For many, flogging seems too cruel to consider but when offered a choice between time behind bars and quick, severe, physical punishment – who wouldn’t choose the flogging? Prison is worse. With that, I want to welcome our guest Mr. Peter Moskos, the author of "In Defense of Flogging". Hello Peter.

PETER MOSKOS: Hey, thanks for having me on again. It’s great to be back.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, Peter, we had you on talking about your other book, “Cop in the Hood”, but this one is brand new and defense of flogging. Let’s start from the top. Let’s tell the folks a little bit about Peter Moskos.

PETER MOSKOS: Well, where should I start? I’m from Chicago originally. I did a lot of research in Amsterdam. My brother lives there and I’ve lived there and saw a whole another approach to the drug war and basically it’s not having it.

I went to graduate school in Sociology at Harvard and during that time I worked as a police officer in Baltimore which is unusual both for a police officer and for a Harvard student. The work there became the basis for my first book, “Cop in the Hood.” And then more recently I’ve been thinking about prisons and the craziness we’ve gotten ourselves into led to the book that you mentioned that is just out, “In Defense of Flogging.”

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, Peter, you and I are both speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I consider it to be an honor and I think more and more we’re being called upon by government agencies, regulatory folks, if you will, to discuss what will be the future of this drug war, right?

PETER MOSKOS: Yeah and how long have you been a part of LEAP, Dean?

DEAN BECKER: Since the beginning. I think I was member #9.

PETER MOSKOS: OK, I’m right up there with you then. I don’t know about you but when I joined them, I guess in 2001 or 2002, people would ask me, “Do you think we’ll ever see drug regulation in our lifetime?” And I’d say, “Well, no we still got to fight the good fight.” I got to say that 10 years later I’m a lot more optimistic. We still got a long way to go so it sort of easy to be pessimistic but there’s just been a shift in the tone of the debate over the past 10 years.

10 years ago it was still taboo to even talk about it and now marijuana legalization has been on state ballots and, you what do you know – the sky hasn’t fallen, the country’s morals are still just as good or bad as they were before. I’m a lot more optimistic that we’ll wise up one day and do the right thing.

DEAN BECKER: I’m going to read from your book. Folks, he’s written “In Defense of Flogging”:

“Years from now, if we’re lucky, future generations will look back to this age of massive incarceration with bemused wonder, seeing it as just another unfortunate blotch on our country’s otherwise noble, democratic ideals. Either that or they will judge us as willing collaborators in an unparalleled atrocity of human bondage. Let us hope for the former but future moral condemnation is all but assured.”

Peter, your thoughts.

PETER MOSKOS: The parallel I’m making there is with slavery. You know back before the Civil War there were many people, I assume some of them were probably even decent people, who supported slavery or didn’t advocate for its abolition. We find that absurb today as we should.

The idea that we lock up 2.3 million people, Americans…people profit, literally, off the human bondage. There’s no way that history is going to judge that kindly so the only question is how do we turn back the clock, how do we go back to a level of rational incarceration.

One important point, because I don’t think a lot of people realize it (they think it’s normal that we have 2.3 million behind bars), it’s not even normal for us. I’m sure many of your listeners know if you just go back to before the drug war started, in 1970 there were about 340,000 incarcerated Americans. It’s really since then and there are other factors as well but certainly the drug war is the main one that has led us to the situation that we’re in now. We have more prisoners than China and they have a billion more people than we do. At some point we got to answer for that.

DEAN BECKER: You know, Peter, I can’t remember who put it forward but there was this theory of broken windows, so to speak. You had to lower the bar of what constitutes a jail-able offense down to where just breaking a window would require that. And we have reached for that broken window level for a couple decades now haven’t we?

PETER MOSKOS: I think what you describe has happened. I don’t think it does justice to the broken window theory. I could put on my professor hat and teach about this stuff…

DEAN BECKER: Go ahead.

PETER MOSKOS: Broken windows, there was a 1982 article in the Atlantic Magazine by George Kelly and James T. Wilson and it’s been often misinterpreted by police departments but they didn’t want to just lock everyone up. In fact, if “broken windows” was doing well police would be doing a lot and making very few arrests.

It’s very clear that, you know, arrests may be necessary but that’s not the goal of “broken windows.” “Broken windows” was basically saying let us agree on what community standards are and enforce quality of life issues. And that’s quite different from saying let’s lock everyone up. In many ways, especially when it comes to marijuana, community standards are saying we should lock people up. But it’s succinctly not supposed to be a zero-tolerance approach to policing. It some ways, unfortunately, it’s morphed into that but that doesn’t quite do justice to “broken windows”. Personally I’m a supporter of “broken windows” when it’s done as intended.

DEAN BECKER: OK. Well, again, probably folks like me misperceived what was being presented and did twist it and run it into the other direction, have they not?

PETER MOSKOS: Yeah…The New York Police Department saw a big crime drop in the 90s when they implemented “broken windows” and, I think, quite successfully. But it has morphed here in New York City to zero-tolerance and New York City leads the world in drug arrests and marijuana arrests in particular. 50,000 New Yorkers are arrested for small scale possession of marijuana despite the fact that possessing small amounts of marijuana isn’t an arrest-able offense. It’s an absurd happening here.

I don’t want to quibble too much on the semantics of what happened because clearly there is a problem and that problem has led to this incarceration issue. We also need to say where we got 2.3 million prisoners. I don’t think most of them are innocent, don’t get me wrong. The former cop in me knows that most of them are “guilty as charged” or perhaps even “guilty worse than charged”. We have 7 times more prisoners than we had 4 decades ago but we’re not 7 times more criminal. These are choices we make in our sentencing policy and the absurdity of drug dealers. I mean arresting drug users is even more absurd but arresting drug dealers doesn’t stop the drug trade. All it does is create a job opening. So, in many ways, it’s slightly simplistic, but that is how we have so many more prisoners and see no reduction in illegal drug use because other people just take their place and we lock them up too.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. The enticement, the dollars just can’t be avoided especially in this dire economic straights we in.

PETER MOSKOS: A lot of police are motivated by arrest overtime. That is sort of the open secret among police departments that whether it’s through court overtime or doing the booking and paperwork after your shift, there’s a lot of money in lockups.

But I think the greater evil is with the prison industrial complex. I mean, in a way, you could say that cops are just doing their job and we should change those laws but the idea that we have strong prison guard unions (I’m a union man myself, I got nothing against strong unions) but a prison guard union should not lobby for sentencing policy. That turns humans into chattel. They see prisoners are jobs. That’s immoral.

The idea that we have private prison companies that help draft, for instance, anti-immigration laws, not because they care about immigration policy but they know, and have admitted as much that, “Well, if we criminalize a good chunk of people – we got to hold them somewhere.” And, once again, that’s profit. We can’t let a profit motive build, well we have, but we shouldn’t let a profit motive build the greatest prison system the world has ever seen. So, we got to call them out on that, if nothing else, we got to say that this goes beyond jobs for poor world communities. But it’s hard to rally an opposition against this.

DEAN BECKER: OK. Friends, once again, we are speaking with Mr. Peter Moskos, former cop, one of my band of brothers in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He has written a couple books, most recent that we’re talking about here is “In Defense of Flogging”.

Now, Peter, in reading the book, you don’t seek flogging necessarily but you do believe that it would be, if necessary, a better means of punishing people for minor crimes, right?

PETER MOSKOS: Absolutely. And, you know, for a lot of major crimes too. We have to remember that prisons were designed, the penitentiary was designed to cure criminals. It was a flawed idea. It never worked from the first prison which was an American invention back in the late 18th century. No prison has ever succeeded in curing criminals. We know that prisons make people even more criminal.

So, then, what other purposes do prisons have? Well, they hold people and some people do have to be locked up because we are afraid of them but that’s different than punishment because we’re afraid, we don’t know what to do.

You know, there may be 100,000 people we got to keep behind bars, I’m guessing at the number, but something closer to what we used to have in prison. All that’s left is punishment and we’ve taken away alternatives. The penitentiary was designed to replace corporal punishment and was supposed to be more humane. Well, if it is, I say let’s give criminals the choice.

I don’t want to sentence people. Look, I find flogging cruel and barbaric as probably many of your listeners do. These are not gentle spanks are anything kinky. You get canned (?) on your behind. It literally splits the skin. It’s bloody. It leaves scars. It’s a horrible punishment and yet, I think, given a choice between the lash and incarceration, the vast majority of convicts would choose the lash. I know I would.

If the choice was between 5 years in prison or 10 lashes, yeah, take the lashes. You can go home. Hopefully keep your family together. If you had a job you could keep your job. These are the things that people need to stay out of prison which is exactly what prison destroys.

So, to get our incarceration level back to what might be considered normal we would have to release 85% of our prisoners – that’s a tall order. But that’s the mess we’ve gotten into. So, yeah, I mean the book to be provocative but something drastic is needed to break the system up.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know, Peter, we hear the stories of corruption, abuse in these prisons, not just prisoner on prisoner but guard on prisoner, all too often. Reading in your book you bring up the thought regarding Phillip Zimbardo’s notorious 1971 Standford prison experiment. That if you give the authority to control others that it can lead to abuse almost immediately, right?

PETER MOSKOS: Yeah, it will. It will lead to abuse. In that experiment they took two groups of students and just randomly said, “OK, you guys are going to be prison guards and you guys are going to be prisoners.” And they built a mock prison and within days the guards started abusing the prisoners and the prisoners started cracking.

You might say, “Guys, this is an experiment.” But, no, given that environment, if you have a total institution and total control there is going to be abuse. Not that all prison guards abuse prisoners but in that environment abuse is inevitable. It’s an evil system.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, it certainly is. OK, once again, we’re reading from your book:

“When I was growing up in Baltimore police would whoop your ass. I don’t think that was such a bad thing. I’m pro-corporal punishment but, the thing is, the police would know you, who your parents were, if your parents would beat you, they’d just hand you over. But, if there’s no discipline at home, they’d take you somewhere and work you over. It worked.”

Now, I almost go along with that except when I was growing up in Houston they would whoop your ass and then they would take you to jail.

PETER MOSKOS: That, by the way, isn’t my quote in the book. That’s from a man you happen to know but I’ll keep him anonymous. I definitely want to have corporal punishment in lieu of incarceration. The whole purpose is to keep people out of that system because once you go in it, you might be messed up for life. So the best thing to do would be honest punishment. Because I believe when you do something wrong you deserve to get punished. I’m not against punishment. It’s just the prison system wasn’t designed to punish.

It’s also terribly expensive. I mean if nothing else, if California could go back to where they used to be in incarceration their budget would be balanced. In some ways their entire mess of what they’re going through now is due to incarceration and the increase in incarceration and yet there’s nothing on the table.

You know prison reform, and I wish them the best of luck..first of all, they get dismissed as “soft on criminals” so you can’t win an election if you’re labeled as “soft on crime” or “soft on criminals”. But no one’s talking about shattering the system or really beyond reform- alternative forms of punishment. If flogging were so bad no one would choose it. I really don’t see the harm in offering the choice.

Ironically, we often get into debates saying it’s not punishment enough. And, I mean, I hope as a country we’ve not become so evil that literally whipping people ..do we now consider that too soft?! It’s the oldest punishment there is. It’s a horrible punishment. So, let the criminal choose, I say.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, it would give them the option of maybe keeping their job, their relationship, their apartment, their car…

PETER MOSKOS: …and not spending years hanging around a bunch of criminals. There’s that problem too.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, not to mention the violence, the rape and you mention the fact in here that drugs are certainly available in these prisons so how can we hope to keep them out of society. And, I guess the point is that you can become a slave over your drug use there in prison, right?

PETER MOSKOS: Yeah, and I like bringing that up, especially when people say, you know, “the reason why we’re not winning the drug war is that we’re not tough enough.” I mean, good God, we’re tough enough. We’ve locked up 2 million more people, that’s pretty tough. If we can’t keep drugs out of prison, and we can’t, we’re never going to keep them out of free society. So, at some point, like it or not, we got to accept the fact that drugs are here. And, then the question is what do we do with it? And, you and I both agree, we got to regulate it, we got to end this drug “free for all” that we have now. We can’t do that under prohibition because if they’re prohibited, you can’t regulate them.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, there are those well-intentioned folks who talk about decrim and, I guess, decrim would be preferable to what we have but it would still leave those bad actors in charge of supply.

PETER MOSKOS: And in some ways, look, I would see that as a step in the right direction, but in some ways it could be the worst of both worlds. I am not saying that drugs are good. I don’t want to live next to people slinging crack on the corner more than anyone else does. Given that drugs are illegal but now as a police officer I’m going to take the war on drugs as a crusade but I made a lot of drug arrests. But, I saw that as a quality of life issue. I didn’t care what they were doing, the fact was that if I lived here what would I want me to do and often the answer was just shut these people up and these people were criminals selling crack on the corner.

So I don’t want to quite decriminalize it and say, “Go ahead”, I want to shut them down. I want to shut them down by setting up legal methods of distribution that don’t involve guns, that don’t involve selling to kids and does involve taxation.

DEAN BECKER: Friends, we’re just about to run out of time here and I want to tell you, once again, that we’re speaking with Mr. Peter Moskos, former Baltimore cop, one of my band of brothers in Law Enforcement Against Prohibitions. His newest book, “In Defense of Flogging” has a lot of history of criminal justice, so to speak, and how it’s changed over the years. Kind of pointing out some of the failures, some of the potentials for changing how we direct our efforts.

Peter, we’ve got just a couple minutes left. I want to turn it over to you. What am I leaving out? What do you want to relate to the audience?

PETER MOSKOS: We talked about the book a bit and I urge everyone to buy it. I’ve done a lot of interviews and I don’t’ know if people actually buy books based on interviews and something’s got to pay the rent but it’s a good read.

It’s not a long book and it’s more of a thought experiment but I want to make people think about prison in a different way because part of what’s so evil about prisons is this sort of “out of sight, out of mind” idea.

Or we take people, usually poor people, usually minorities, but almost always poor and we put them far away and we close our eyes to it. We got to open our eyes to what we’re doing to our society.

Look, I hope at a moral level it would bother people but that’s why I do fall back on the financial argument. You know cost, it depends a lot on the state, but on average it costs about 30 grand per year per prisoner to incarcerate that person. And we get now reward for it. So, if we just want to punish, let’s punish and be done with it. Let’s be honest and let’s think about it. Let’s start a debate. Let’s talk about these things. And that’s why I appreciate given a chance to have discussions like this because that’s the real goal for now.

DEAN BECKER: And that’s the whole point. I think…Well, they do polls and 75% of Americans think the drug war is a failure. Most of them don’t know what to do about it but they do know it’s a failure. And this opening of the dialogue is the means by which we will some focus to bear and get some changes made, right?

PETER MOSKOS: The rest of the world seems to wise up and we don’t like listening to the rest of the world but, you know, report after report and leader after leader is saying this doesn’t work. And most American politicians know it and will admit it in private so we have to make an environment where someone who says, “I want to rethink our drug policy”…we need the listeners and the voters out there smart enough to say, “Yes, let’s hear it.” Not listen to the opponent who says, “Nope, he’s too soft on criminals and we need to lock everyone up.”

We know that doesn’t work. We need voters to wise up and to take this more seriously and to vote on these issues. It is important. It is part of our economy. It’s part of our national defense. It’s prohibition that’s funding criminals and terrorists.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed it is. Now, Peter, do you want to share a website?

PETER MOSKOS: People are invited to get more information. I keep a blog at http://www.copinthehood.com/ and there’s a link to my general website which is http://www.petermoskos.com/. And, yes, they’re always most welcome to look and talk about mostly police issues and war on drug issues with a little bit of everything.

DEAN BECKER: Well Peter we’re going to have to let you go for now but I thank you and folks I highly recommend the book. It does open up your mind to possibilities, different ways of going about this. The book is “In Defense of Flogging.” Thank you, Mr. Peter Moskos.

PETER MOSKOS: Thank you, sir.


(Game show music)
DEAN BECKER: It’s time to play: Name That Drug by Its Side Effects.
Nausea, heartburn, development of bleeding ulcers, vomiting, swelling of the brain, extensive liver damage, difficulty with mental functioning, nucreas syndrome and death...

Time’s up!
The answer: Aspirin. Another FDA approved product.


MARY JANE BORDEN: Hello drug policy aficionados, I’m Mary Jane Borden, editor of Drug War Facts. The question for this week asks, “What about international drug policies?”

Several recent reports have highlighted the impact of the international war on drugs and called for the reevaluation of it. The first come from a series called, “Count the Costs: 50 Years of the War on Drugs” By the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

The report, “The War on Drugs: Are we paying too high a price?” lists seven definable and tragic costs of the drug war and supports each with referenceable, international statistics Did you know that, “Up to 1,000 people are executed for drug offences each year in direct violation of international drug laws.”

A similar report in Count the Cost series, “War on Drugs: Undermining development and increasing conflict” lists 7 definable ways that the drug war affects international economical development and security. Again, documenting each with referenceable statistics. Did you know that demand for cocaine in Europe has, “turned Guinea-Bissau into a narco-state in just five years.”

The recent report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy indicted international drug failure and listed 11 actual principles. The report was co-authored by notable commissioners that included former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as well as three former Latin American Presidents among others. The report summary succinctly concluded, “Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.”

Some facts and others like them can be found in the International Policy Chapter of Drug War Facts at http://www.drugwarfacts.org. Listeners should note that there are 17 chapters and 341 facts under this link on the Drug War Facts home page. Countries include U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico, a number of countries in the European Union and Australia.

If you have a question for which you need facts, please email it to me at mjborden@drugwarfacts.org. I’ll try to answer your question in an upcoming show. So, remember, when you need facts about drugs and drug policy – you can get the facts at Drug War Facts.


DEAN BECKER: OK, thank you Mary Jane. You know following on the heels of the Global Commission on Drugs Report more than one thousand articles have been printed around the world in favor of making these changes. We recently had a conference here in Houston, Democratic gathering…Professor William Martin and Jerry Epstein of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas spoke and next we are going to hear from Michelle Alexander author of “The New Jim Crow” talking about the horrors of this drug war.


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: A vast, new racial under cast now exists in America though their plight is rarely mentioned on the evening news. Obama won’t mention it. The Tea Party won’t mention it. Media pundits would rather talk about anything else.

The members of the under cast are largely invisible to most people who have jobs, live in decent neighborhoods, zoom around in freeways past the literal and virtual prisons in which they live.

Many people are reluctant to admit it but today in the so-called era of color-blindness and, yes, even in the age of Obama, something much like a cast system is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people of color today is tantamount to a new cast system when specifically designed to address the social, political and economic challenges of our time. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.

Now there was a time, I have to confess, that I rejected this kind of talk. I thought people who made comparisons between mass incarceration and Jim Crow or mass incarcerations and slavery were engaging in exaggerations, distortions, hyperbole. In fact, I thought people who made those types of comparisons were actually doing more harm than good to efforts to reform the criminal justice system and achieve greater racial equality in the United States. But what a difference a decade makes.

For after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color and attempting to assist people “re-enter” into a society that never seemed to have much use for them in the first place, I had a series of experiences that began what I call my awakening. I began to awaken to a racial reality that is so obvious to me now that what seems odd in retrospect is that I had been blind to it for so long.

I state my basic thesis in the introduction where I write, “What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of color-blindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt.”

So we don’t.


DEAN BECKER: Alright, once again that was Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow.” We’ll be talking about her on the Self Determination Show here on the mothership of the Drug Truth Network tonight.

Be sure to check out the Century of Lies where we’ll have Professor William Martin and Jerry Epstein from that gathering. And, I want to thank Peter Moskos, author of “In Defense of Flogging.”

You know, friends, it’s really time to end this drug war. It’s really time for you to do your part to make that happen. As always, I remind you, because of prohibition you don’t know what’s in that bag. Please, be careful.


DEAN BECKER: To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the Unvarnished Truth.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.
Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org

Tap dancing… on the edge… of an abyss.