02/05/12 Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander author of "The New Jim Crow" visits with Dean Becker of DTN + Mary Jane Borden of Drug War Facts re US prison population

Century of Lies
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow
Download: Audio icon COL_020512.mp3



Century of Lies / February 5, 2012


DEAN BECKER: The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more. Now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.


DEAN BECKER: Thank you for being with us on this edition of Century of Lies. I’m so glad you could be with us because over the last year plus you’ve heard many mentions of Michelle Alexander. She’s been at many conferences. Been called upon for her knowledge and to recount her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.” It is my privilege, heck a distinct honor, to once again welcome Michelle Alexander. How are you?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Good. Thanks so much for having me on your show.

DEAN BECKER: You have made a difference. You have awakened politicians and pundits. You have given many people reason to reexamine this policy of drug war. Have you not?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well that was certainly my hope and prayer in writing the book that it would help to lead to an awakening about what we as a nation have done in this drug war particularly to poor communities of color. There’s so much mythology about the drug war - Its history - Its consequences.

I hoped by pulling back the curtains and offering some history, data and closer analysis that it would help to have others achieve the same awakening about the cruelty of this drug war that I finally did.

DEAN BECKER: Even the NAACP has kind of embraced the knowledge that you relayed as well along with other organizations. Am I right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah. When I first started writing this book I was dismayed that so many of our nation’s civil rights organizations were not making ending the War on Drugs a top priority given the devastating consequences of the war in poor communities of color. Not just by imprisoning millions of folks but by branding them criminals and felons and rendering them permanent second-class citizens – stripped of their right to vote, automatically kept from jury duty and legally discriminated against. Denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement.

What I’ve been so gratified by is that over the years since I began writing the book and since it’s been released many leading civil rights organizations including the NAACP are devoting more time, attention and resources to the issue. The NAACP did adopt a resolution condemning the drug war and putting the organization officially on record as opposing it.

There are signs that things are moving in the right direction but I fear that there is still not enough being done at a grassroots level to mobilize public opinion because politicians today across the political spectrum still are very reluctant to publically reconsider drug war policies. Until we galvanize real momentum and put a lot of political pressure on these folks I think that all we’ll get from them is kind of shifting rhetoric on these issues but more of the same.

DEAN BECKER: You know he’s not alone among the pundits. Several noted columnists around the country, heck around the world, have made mention of your book and the truths contained therein but one of the more recent write ups was from nationally syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts. He offered 50 copies of your book to his readers to encourage them to share this same information, right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. I was so thrilled by that. I had no idea that he was planning to do that – offer free copies of the book to those who were willing to actually read it. That was his caveat that people had to agree to actually read the book and be willing to take it seriously enough to read it and hopefully do something about the problems that are described therein.

I think one of the reasons that the book has created some shockwaves in many communities is because the data is just so jaw dropping. There are more African-American adults under correctional control today (in prison or jail, on probation or parole) than there were enslaved in 1850 - a decade before the Civil War began.

The stunning increase in black incarceration in the United States can’t be explained simply by crime or crime rates. It’s due in large part to a war that has been declared on poor communities of color – a war on drugs. A war that despite studies consistently showing for decades that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites this war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color resulting in some states where 80 to 90% of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race – African-American.

When we see the data and see how flimsy these excuses and rationale for the war have been over the years and the trillion dollars that have been invested in this war – dollars that could have been invested in education or job creation in the communities that needed it most – it leads one to wonder why in the world we would have chosen this path. Unfortunately we’ve chosen it because we’ve abandoned many of the ideals that we claimed to embrace. Mainly that we are actually on the same path that Dr. King and so many racial justice advocates were traveling a few decades ago. I think we’ve made a dramatic U-turn and the War on Drugs is a major part of that detour.
DEAN BECKER: The same week that I interviewed Leonard Pitts I also interviewed the District Attorney of Houston, Harris County. Once again reminded her of my request that she delve into the beginnings of this drug war to examine the racial screeds, the outright bigotry that was involved when these laws were crafted. She admits that she’s done a little bit of reading but she had not read your book. The very next day I bought another copy and sent it to her. I hope to bring her on later this year to talk about your book and the beginnings and how it’s played out in cities like Houston where we round these young black kids off the street corners like mustangs on the prairie and stuff them into our jails. Your response, please.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. I hope that more law enforcement officials will read the book and engage in meaningful discussion and dialog with those who are seeking large-scale reform of our justice system and an end to the drug war. One of the things that I’m most encouraged by is the growing membership of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I think it’s a testament to really how so many of the drug war practices are and prove to be that so many law enforcement officials now are saying, “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to do what I have been doing for years.”

Some retired police chiefs, former prosecutors as well as some current law enforcement officials including some judges who have spoken out against the drug war saying, “Enough is enough. We can’t possible continue this direction any further.”

DEAN BECKER: Once again we’re speaking with Michelle Alexander. She’s author of a book I urge you, dear listeners, to please get a copy. Read it. Share it with your friends. Send it on to your elected officials. It is “The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.”

You know, Michelle, I see the ignorance or at least faned ignorance from politicians at every level on up to the candidates running for president. Newt Gingrich was asked what he thought Washington and Jefferson would think of the marijuana laws. He thought that they would come down on it even harder than we are currently doing. This despite the fact or his ignorance of the fact that Washington and Jefferson grew cannabis on their own farms.

The lack of knowledge, the lack of learning from history is beating us up again, isn’t it?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. That’s one of my concerns. If we don’t learn from history we’ll be doomed to repeat it. Time and time again we have seen that racially marginalized groups and stigmatized groups are scapegoated by politicians for short-term politically gain. The cost is the emergence of these vast new systems of social control over and over again.

We’ve seen these same types of political dynamics leading to a familiar place. This drug war clearly as I describe in great detail in the book was really born with black folks in mind. It was part of the southern strategy that the Republican party used racially-coded “get tough” appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor, working-class whites particularly in the south and try to flip those southern states from blue to red.

This drug war was born in large part of an intentional effort to exploit our nation’s racial divisions and anxieties for political gain. It’s a war that is destroying the lives of people and communities of all colors. Young, white kids whose impoverished and is getting a prison sentence instead of drug treatment he desperately needs but can’t afford is suffering because of the drug war declared with black folks in mind.

You see the same kinds of racially divisive politics that gave birth to the drug war now leading to a prison building boom aimed at aimed at suspected illegal immigrants. Corporations have found that they profit from the caging of human beings. We see private prison companies lobbying not only for harsh drug laws and mandatory-minimum sentences and three strikes laws but also lobbying for harsh, anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and elsewhere.

Ultimately we are going to have to reckon with our racial history and our racial present if we are not only going to end this drug war but end this history and cycle of creating cast-like systems in America.

DEAN BECKER: It’s diverging a bit here but the fact of the matter is we’re winding down our wars in Iraq, we’re winding down our war in Afghanistan but the truth be told there are still tens of thousands of “consultants” working for the U.S. government. Civilians costing us even a lot more money than even did those soldiers. The parallel I’m wanting to bring here is that they talk about diminishing the total number of prisoners here in the U.S. but the private prisons are beginning to take over the “duties” of the state and federal incarceration efforts, right?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. It remains the case that less than 10% of the U.S. prison population is held in private prisons but if the private prison industry has anything to say about that that will change in the years to come and their share of the market will continue to grow. There have been a number of studies published recently showing that despite the claims of private prison companies that they can house inmate more cheaply and with as much security as publically run prisons that that isn’t actually the truth. Even though in private prisons there have been far higher rates of violence in the prison, problems with health care provision even more so than the publically run system which is not a model of good health care by any means. In this system run for profit the private prison industry attempts to cut corners, cut costs really by cutting back on basic civil and human rights afforded to those which it houses behind bars.

DEAN BECKER: Again, we’re speaking with Michelle Alexander. She’s author of the great book “The New Jim Crow.”

Now Michelle let’s talk a little bit about some of the more personal stories. There’s a couple of young gentlemen – last name Garrison – I interviewed their mother about their situation and I think they were sentenced to 20 years for their involvement, for their entrapment I believe it was on some cocaine charges. They spent I think 17 and 18 years behind bars. Whereas if they had been young white boys I think it might have been a different story. Your response.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: There’s no doubt that we’ve seen countless cases across the country. Situations where young black folks in particular are swept up through these drug sweeps and drug task force operations and charged with drug crimes when upon closer examination it turns out there really isn’t any evidence that can hold water against them at all. The reason that so many of these cases fall apart upon close examination…I should underscore that most of these cases don’t receive close examination because people are pressured into pleading guilty in order to avoid extremely harsh mandatory-minimum sentences. They’re told by prosecutors, “Well, take this deal of a couple of years in prison or 5 years in prison. If you don’t take the deal then I’m going to seek life imprisonment or a 20 year sentence against you.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld life imprisonment for first time drug offenses so prosecutors aren’t bluffing when they say they can throw the book at you if you refuse to play the game and just plea out once you’ve been charged. So many of these cases that have been brought by drug task forces and are a result of these drug operations are a result of federal funding flowing to these agencies where they get rewarded in cash by the millions for the sheer numbers of swept into the system for drug offenses creating this financial incentive to law enforcement to just file as many charges as possible and try to obtain as many convictions as possible in order to qualify for their multimillion dollar grants from the federal government.

You have people who are on payroll by the government. People living in communities of color whose primary source of income is being paid by the government to snitch on their family, friends, neighbors, relatives accusing them of various drug crimes. People who are charged with drug crimes can try to negotiate leniency if they promise to snitch on someone else and point the finger elsewhere which leads to notoriously unreliable testimony and evidence but for the most part courts have sort of looked the other way.

People are threatened into plea bargains with this kind of evidence and the threat of harsh mandatory-minimum sentences. Very few of the people who find themselves behind bars ever get the close scrutiny that results in them being freed as in the case in Tulia. The most widely known cases where there were so many people that were arrested on false charges as a result of a federally funded drug task force operation.

DEAN BECKER: There was that cop or cop wannabe who basically set up all those people in Tulia - fabricated the charges. I was told that every sample of cocaine that he turned in looked like it came from the same bag because it was the same chemical content. Tom Coleman was the guy’s name. He eventually had to go to trial over his deception as well, didn’t he?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes. There’s actually been a couple of documentaries produced about the Tulia case. In part because there’s such a flagrant violation of people’s rights and such utter disregard for the actual innocence of people who were being rounded up by this detective. Many of them received sentences of 50, 60, 70, 90 years in prison for these drug offenses that were completely trumped up. If it hadn’t been for the NAACP legal defense fund and a very aggressive lawyer down in Tulia, Texas who kind of smelled something rotten in a few of these cases and began looking more closely, you know those folks would still be behind bars today.

People often kind of laugh when I say there are a lot of innocent people behind bars today. People kind of say, “Oh, you can’t be serious.” I reply, “Oh, I’m absolutely serious.”

I’m not just talking about people who are released from death row because of DNA evidence. I’m talking about all the folks where DNA evidence will never be available and who took pleas because they were terrified of being in prison for the rest of their life. On some trumped up charges on some trumped up evidence that they don’t feel like they can actually persuade a jury. If you have a police officer, a man in blue swearing to God that that bag of drugs was yours. It really is a frightening scenario for so many people who find themselves caught up in that kind of corruption.

DEAN BECKER: It was the Friends of Justice - a civilian group in Tulia that were working to expose this fraud. They held marches in Houston and then a huge march in Austin to the state capital. It was that day when I was marching beside a 6-year-old kid whose father was in prison. He was holding up a sign and he had such a big smile on his face knowing that maybe he could make a difference. That’s the day I really became an activist.

It’s got to change.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Friends of Justice is a fantastic organization. For the listeners who may not be familiar with it I urge you to check out the organization online. Find a way to get involved and support their work.

It really was Friends of Justice media advocacy associated with the Tulia case that began to attract national attention to the plight of those rounded up in that drug bust. It was their work that I think really persuaded the NAACP legal defense fund to get involved. It was an example of how one small organization can make an enormous difference.

DEAN BECKER: I have great hopes that some broadcasting outfit…maybe the Oprah Winfrey network would start a new show with you and bring forward scientist and doctors and politicians and really hash this thing out. Delve to the bottom of this thing and awaken the American people to the need for change.

Your closing thoughts, please.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I think what could be most helpful even beyond a television show or media show that features experts is a media outlet that features those people who have been most impacted by this drug war – whose lives have been destroyed. So often we hear from the politicians and the so-called experts and the policy wonks and all of that but it is extraordinarily rare that we actually get to meet through the media those who have been caught up in the system, who have been branded and felons as a result of some drug crime, who can’t find work and are forced to check the box on the application for the rest of their lives, who are barred from public housing and even denied food stamps because of their conviction, who are struggling for survival, who have lost custody of their children over an allegation that they once possessed or sold drugs.

I think people respond much better to human stories than they do to facts and data and analysis. My hope is that in the months and years to come that we will find a way through the media to tell and allow the voices of those who have been locked up and locked out as a result of this drug war and their families to finally be heard.

DEAN BECKER: Alright friends, we’ve been speaking with Michelle Alexander. She’s the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.” Dear listener, please get a copy and share it with your friends and your elected officials.

Michelle, is there a website you’d like to point folks toward?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Folks who would like to have more information about the book and also get access to organizations and resources to get active, my website is http://www.newjimcrow.com. There’s also articles, videos and other resources posted there as well.


MARY JANE BORDEN: How many people are under the control of the U.S. criminal justice system for drugs?

Hello drug policy aficionados! I’m Mary Jane Borden, Editor of Drug War Facts.

The question for this week asks, How many people are under the control of the U.S. criminal justice system for drugs?

Various reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics detail characteristics of the U.S. criminal justice system that includes those housed in federal, state, and local prisons and jails, along with those on probation or parole.

The “Prisoners” report series represents a good place to start counting. This annual series goes back almost 20 years to the “Prisoners in 1994” report. Remarkably, 8,800 persons were admitted to state prison for drug offenses directly from court in 1980. Fast forward twelve years to 1992 - that number soared by +1155% to 101,000.

The “Prisoners in 2009” report placed the number of offenders in state prison with “drugs” as their most serious offense at 242,000 in 2009.

The report quantified the number of federal prisoners with a similar offense at 95,000 in 2009. This represented growth by a whopping +1843 over the 4,900 “drug” federal drug prisoners in 1980.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also has a comparable series of annual reports on Probation and Parole. According to the 2009 report by that name, only 3,486 adults were on federal probation with drugs as their most serious offense. However, there were 579,000 state “drug” probationers that year.

Federal parolees with drug offenses equaled 55,000 in 2009 and state parolees counted 207,000 for similar convictions.

Thus, over 1.2 million probationers, parolees and state and federal prisoners were under control of the U.S. criminal justice system in 2009 with “drugs” as their most serious offense.

These numbers can be found in a new Drug War Facts table along with other Facts like them in the Prisons & Drug Offenders Chapter of Drug War Facts at www.drugwarfacts.org.

If you have a question for which you need facts, please e-mail 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.


Young man: Ok, let’s say drug prohibition does support terrorism.

Older man: And murder?

Young man: And murder.

Older man: Torture?

Young man: And torture.

Older man: Corruption? Bribery?

Young man: And whatever.

Older man: What’s your point?

Young man: Change the law.

Older man: I gotcha. Make it cheap, more available, everywhere. Like soda or cheesy puffs.

Young man: Exactly.

Older man: Cocaine at the playground. Crack stands at the laundromat. Heroin at the mini mart. Like that?

Young man: Face it, old man. That’s what we’ve got now.

Please visit the website of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition at leap.cc.


DEAN BECKER: I am the Reverend Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network. Standing in the river of reform. Baptising drug warriors to the unvarnished truth. DrugTruth.net.


DEAN BECKER: You know, I think the drug war is truly over at least as far as public awareness. Public activism, well, that’s something else and that’s really got to involve you.

As always I remind there is no truth, justice, logic, no scientific fact, no reason for this drug war to exist. We have been duped. Please visit our website: http://endprohibition.org. Prohibido istac evilesco!


For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org