This summer I spent many hours walking around the streets of New Haven working with people and talking to them about problems they see in their families and communities.
Ruth and I worked together collecting information about the costs of phone calls for prisoners. Many of Ruth’s family members are or have been in jail. As frustrated as she is with the system that’s locking up her relatives, she’s frustrated with one of her grandchildren who “keeps doing stupid things” and is so addicted to drugs he seems to have little interest in changing his ways or improving himself.
Barbara is a friend I’ve worked with for a few years. One day she walked out of her house to see the police beating her son. When she asked for the police officer’s badge number she said he arrested her for assaulting a police officer. With a possibility of facing this felony charge and doing prison time, she settled for a misdemeanor plea of interfering with a police officer. Nearly every day she sees police in unmarked cars driving around trailing groups of young black men from the neighborhood. She said the police frequently jump out of the car and drag the young men to jail. It’s the “war on drugs” that the police use to justify this surveillance of the community.
Michelle’s husband finished a five-year prison term in March. By May he was back in prison for another two years for another nonviolent drug offense. Michelle believes that the lack of treatment in the prison and the lack of opportunities for ex-offenders is much of what led her husband back to prison. She has started a grass-roots organization for people coming out of prison — to help find them jobs, and to speak out against the injustices they face in and out of prison.
Drugs are central to the problems people and families in New Haven face. Nearly 30 years into the “war on drugs,” drug abuse has not decreased. And now, the destructive effects of drug abuse on individuals and communities have been compounded by the devastating effects of mass incarceration. Incarceration is not only an inhumane response to drug abuse, but also an ineffective one. Rarely does prison get people off drugs. Nearly 80 percent of people who go to prison will be arrested for something else within a few years of getting out. Furthermore treatment, education and job training that could help people, is rarely available in prison. The waiting periods for treatment programs in prisons are often longer than many people’s sentences.
I have come across some people who cite their time in prison and fear of returning to prison as key factors in convincing them to finally quit. However, even in these cases it is often too late in their lives to continue education and too late to prevent whatever damage their drug abuse might have caused to in their family and community. Even in these cases where some would say our system works, it works only once a lot of personal and communal damage has already been done.
The war on drugs has failed, and nearly destroyed communities in the process. We must turn to alternatives that will get to the root of the problem of drug abuse and treat people humanely in the process. Improve family structures by creating living wage jobs and enough good employment that people don’t have to work multiple jobs and can be home with their family. Provide adequate mental and physical health services for people to help work through the pain and the difficulties of life. Invest in education and provide extracurricular programs for kids to expose them to stimulating, positive activities. We need to invest in our communities.
But this is not the direction that our nation or our state is going:
n Schools often have more police officers than guidance counselors.
n It is still illegal to provide treatment for cocaine abuse. Cocaine addicts in New Haven who want to quit regularly have to pretend to be alcoholics in order to get into treatment centers that are designed to treat alcoholism.
n The Connecticut drug courts used to provide an alternative to incarceration for people arrested for drug related crimes. In the statewide cutbacks this summer the CT Department of Corrections decided to end the drug courts rather than to reallocate funds from prisons to alternatives to incarceration that are proven to be cheaper and more effective.
n While these services are cut Connecticut continues to pay $90 million a year to hold New Haven residents in jails around the state. The vast majority of these people who are being held are nonviolent offenders arrested for drug possession or sale. Connecticut has spent over $1 billion in the last 10 years for prison construction alone.
Imagine the possibilities if just some of this money was invested in New Haven schools and into activities for youth, into comprehensive treatment facilities, or into creating more living wage stable jobs so that more people could afford to spend time with their children.
When we have remained silent the state has moved away from making positive change in our cities. Whether you believe that prisons have a role in overcoming drug abuse or not, if you believe we must invest in our communities and work to solve some of their problems, we must come together and work for positive change.
Stephen Osserman ’02 is a graduate student in the School of Music. He is a member of the Student Legal Action Movement.