Reviewed by Michael McColly
222 pp Cambridge University Press
Watching the events over the past months in Washington during the impeachment trial of President Trump and listening to the debates of Democrats vying to replace him, I have often thought about the two-plus-million people in America’s sprawling, carceral state. Having met inmates as a volunteer, a teacher, and journalist, I’ve thought a lot about how they must view and hear these grand appeals to the Constitution, to morality, the rule of law, and justice. Many of these appeals come from lawmakers responsible for American’s continual incarceration of high percentages of its population, not to mention the country’s growing numbers of immigrants confined at its borders.
I think, too, of the wise words of the late South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty-seven years imprisoned for his opposition to his country’s racist apartheid system: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
No other nation in the world—not even China with four times the US population—incarcerates more of its people than the United States. For perspective, America has six times more people per capita in its prisons than neighboring Canada, eight times that of Germany, and fifteen times more than Japan. Combining the number of people in federal and state prisons, city/county jails, juvenile detention facilities, plus those either on parole or on probation, that’s a staggering two percent of the US population. As most Americans know, those serving sentences or being monitored are overwhelmingly young men of color from large urban centers who have been convicted for the sale or possession of drugs.
What we now refer to as “mass incarceration” is a recent phenomenon. In the 1970’s the US had some 200,000 prisoners in state and federal facilities, comparable to rates in other industrialized countries. By 2008, the number in America’s prisons and jails had increased by a factor of ten; well over two million. Shockingly, in three decades America’s prisons have come to hold nearly a quarter of the world’s nine million people who are incarcerated.
What happened in the 1980’s? What caused the skyrocketing increase in America’s prison population and the building of scores of new prisons to house them?
Most reasonable-thinking people would agree with historian David Farber that the explosion in America’s prison population and the creation of what’s called the prison industrial complex began under the Reagan administration with bipartisan passage in Congress of harsh measures and sentencing laws to combat the crime and drug use associated with crack cocaine.
In Farber’s new book, Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed, the distinguished historian revisits the 1980’s and Reagan’s America that ushered in booming global markets as well as the devastating epidemic of crack on America’s deindustrialized urban ghettos. Farber, who has written extensively on this period of American history, traces America’s current mass incarceration to the draconian and racially-biased measures by politicians, prosecutors, and police departments. Using prison memoirs, interviews, judicial records, ethnographies on urban gang life, archival research, and underground documentaries, Farber examines how the use, street trade, and eventual crackdown on the gangs that profited, triggered the “War on Drugs.”
Farber begins by tracing the medical and cultural history of cocaine as a narcotic and drink additive from the late 19th century into the 20th century. Cocaine’s use was pervasive and popular. From use as a universal painkiller for toothaches prescribed to children and adults, to its use in what would become one of the most iconic of all American products, Coca- Cola, cocaine use, as Farber points out, has always been associated with the life of leisure, wealth, and the romance of America’s celebrity culture and entertainment business, as well as the underworld of organized crime that supplied and profited from its use. Crack emerged on the scene in the 1970’s in New York, Miami, and LA, where Caribbean and South American suppliers began selling the cheaper and highly addictive “rocks” made from cooking and mixing pure cocaine with baking soda. Smoked in pipes for a quick, intense, and a relatively cheap high, crack caught on fast, spreading as the major city gangs developed global supply chains and raked in remarkable sums of money.
Farber takes readers inside the workings of some of the most notorious gangs in America. He describes the elaborate hierarchies and networks that moved, processed, and sold the drug on the streets, often master-minded by gang leaders who were behind bars. Using interviews with men who survived the era and incarceration, he shows us how these men became drawn into the lucrative business and the powerful allure of gang life. But for others, like Clifford Bey, who spent nearly ten years in prison for selling crack, we learn the reality of how difficult times were for young black men. “What do you expect, when you’ve got a whole subsection of unemployed people? When the mills is closing down? When General Motors and Ford is acting crazy? They got kids at home and there comes some white gold. What do you think they are going to do? Man, they are going to take it and sell it. And try to provide for their families and their kids,” Farber writes,“From their perspective, distributing crack was a smart play in a bad hand.”
The author adds that despite the violence and destruction that crack brought to these communities, those who succeeded in the trade were, “in hip-hop circles…underground heroes in a racist society that left too little dignity and too few opportunities for exuberant economic success.” He reminds readers, too, that through this ill-gotten and deadly business, some of these young men provided capital for recording studios, music labels, clothing boutiques, restaurants, and other black-owned businesses in communities where investment had all but vanished as manufacturing jobs were outsourced or replaced by robotics.
Farber also describes the effects of crack use and the violence and crime that terrorized the daily life of millions of Americans. The epidemic exacerbated the fleeing of businesses and religious and social institutions, only adding to the devastation already underway in many of America’s industrial belt and large cities.
This atmosphere produced the political and judicial response that became known as the “War on Drugs.” A war, Farber reminds us, the American public—black, white, and brown—wanted its political leaders, police departments, and judicial system to wage with financial, legal, and lethal force. Farber spends the second half of the book recounting how politicians from presidents, to party leaders, to prosecutors, responded using the panic, the horrors of addiction, the high crime and homicide rates, to institute harsh, punitive, and highly discriminatory measures creating the carceral state that exists today.
Farber recounts the political scene in Washington in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Democrats and Republicans vied to be seen as the toughest on crime, producing bills that pushed for ever stronger measures, from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act under Reagan to Clinton’s Violent Crime and Enforcement Act of 1994. Now that the Democratic field comes down to Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, Farber’s account of Biden’s role is especially relevant. Biden “led the charge” promising to outbid Republicans, and shaming President Bush’s tepid response. “We need another D-Day,” Biden said on the Senate floor, “Instead, you’re (Bush) giving us a Vietnam: a limited war, fought on the cheap…” Farber reminds readers that Biden was the author of Clinton’s bill, pushing for more money for policing, prisons, FBI agents, DEA agents, and prosecutors. Bernie Sanders, then a second term congressman from Vermont, also voted for this bill—along with nearly the entire Congress, including black representatives from urban districts across the country.
Farber underscores the damage done to America’s criminal justice system and how bias remains largely in place, even as crack use declined in the mid 1990’s, and other drugs replaced it. He points out the obvious racial bias in the present efforts to confront the opioid crisis and those responsible in an epidemic that has been far more deadly than crack. “Given how American politicians and the law-enforcement community have responded to the purveyors and distributors of opioids—who are overwhelmingly white—that racism appears even more obvious,” he writes, “Given, as well, the extraordinary license government officials have granted big pharmaceutical companies, ‘pain’ doctors, medical clinic operators, and pharmacy owners to distribute their addictive and deadly wares to the public, it is obvious that the wealthy and the credentialed have escaped accountability in a way poor, inner-city drug operators never have.”
Though under the Obama administration, with Congressional approval, sentencing guidelines were loosened, and states no longer strictly enforce mandatory sentencing like that of California’s “Three Strikes” statute, the criminal justice system remains institutionally and philosophically biased toward minorities, the poor, and those suffering addiction and mental illness. The prison industrial complex, which arose out of federal initiatives and funding, now is a well-established business, as I have witnessed. GEO Group and Corrections Corporations of America (CCA) are multi-billion-dollar enterprises responsible for the construction and management of nearly 160 facilities across the country, representing eight percent of the prison population. These transnational corporations, strong supporters of President Trump’s 2016 campaign and now his re-election, are here to stay, particularly as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to round up undocumented immigrants and refugees. GEO Group and CCA are responsible for 80 percent of ICE incarcerates, and are set to build more facilities with Trump’s 2020-21 budget.
Though Farber’s historical analysis explains how these destructive forces ravaged so many communities during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, what the book doesn’t quite convey is the visceral effects of mass incarceration on communities and on those who have been incarcerated. The politics and policies are in many ways forms of violence themselves. They have exacerbated the ills—economic, environmental, and psychosocial—that have plagued these “expendable” places and people across America in the wake of deindustrialization and the economics of neoliberalism.
For most Americans, mass incarceration is an abstract issue. For many of us, our ideas of the criminal justice system are informed by Hollywood, Netflix dramas, or pseudo-documentaries on TV that hype the difficult work of law enforcement and prison guards. Most Americans remain removed from the realities of those who live in these communities from which prisoners grow up, communities largely left outside of America’s booming 21st economy.
Ironically, many prison complexes built by private companies or states are often placed in economically depressed and environmentally compromised communities that today are struggling severely with drug and alcohol use and opioid addiction. You can see them off in the distance along rural highways or along interstates among nondescript warehouses and distributing centers for major corporations. We recognize them almost at once by their ominous architecture that sit heavily on the land, the massive concrete walls, the spiraling razor wire, the fortress-like towers on the corners, and we look away or glance back with morbid curiosity. Here in Indiana where I volunteer as a teacher of creative writing, there are two main maximum security prisons: one in Pendleton, next to a waste treatment plant, and the other, built in the mid-19th century by Confederate prisoners, at Michigan City, that sits a few thousand feet downwind from a power plant on Lake Michigan.
If we take Mandela’s advice to heart, if we do recognize what is going on in these communities that have never recovered from the economics of deindustrialization, if we do enter through the gates of a prison, we will have to confront not only the shocking numbers inside America’s prison systems, but what incarceration is like and what effects it has on human beings and society. Putting young people in prison for nonviolent offenses or housing people who suffer from addiction has proven to be ineffective in addressing the root causes of either crime or addiction. Prisons are not only expensive but they do little to alter behavior, as recidivism rates prove, climbing each year a prisoner spends outside of prison, reaching eighty-five per cent at nine years. Farber’s assessment of the crack epidemic and how it altered America’s criminal justice system, though not really shedding new light on this period of American history, does connect the dots, reminding us of Mandela’s insight that prisons and the treatment of those at the bottom of a society in the end, corrupt the the health of society and its moral foundations. In his conclusion, Farber states what is obvious for anyone who’s spent any time or been affected by America’s massive prison industrial complex: “Sometimes, we need to stare at the drear reaches of our national soul to understand who we are and who we wish to be.”
Having volunteered and taught inside Indiana’s state prisons and reported on the high rates of HIV at Chicago’s Cook County Jail, it is clear that the system has failed not only the millions who live or who have lived behind bars, but also their families and their communities.
I’ve listened to the stories of the inmates; I’ve seen their bundled-up bodies, wrapped in their dull brown khaki prison garb, their tattoos protecting and projecting their pride. I’ve seen in their faces and heard in their voices both their sorrow and scarred souls, their sense of loss. Imprinted upon their words and bodies I see something of the environments out of which they came.
I have come to know them as students, as creative writers, as people aware of their mistakes, aware of the harm they’ve caused to their families, to their communities, and to themselves.
But in their writings, I’m reminded of how potent poetry and storytelling on the page can be for all of us, but particularly for those behind bars who know the ever-present fear of violence, the panic of shame, and the terror of isolation. I’ve observed too, in their voices, their gestures, their stories—the balm of humor, the redemptive power of honesty, and brotherly tenderness. Word by word, they read aloud to one another their note-takings from their highly regimented lives, describing such observations as simple as the effect of seeing a daughter’s handwriting on an envelope, of staring overhead at the regal flights of hawks circling high over the prison yard, of listening late into the night in their beds to the sounds of metal gates, of men weeping, and the sound and smell of rain. In their imaginations, too, I am often inspired by their everyday use of the mind’s magical eye, as they describe in detail their reveries that they rehearse night and day to transport themselves to moments in the past, and imagine days ahead.
Michael McColly’s essays and journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Sun Magazine. He is the author of the 2006 Lambda Literary Award-winning memoir, The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism (Soft Skull Press), which chronicles his journey reporting on AIDS activism in Africa, Asia and the US. His recent work of nonfiction blends memoir, environmental reportage, natural history as he describes a sixty-five mile walk reflecting on the widening disparities in Chicago and the deindustrialized cities of Indiana on his way to the Indiana Dunes National Park. Walking The Divided Coast of Chicago is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. He teaches creative writing to inmates at Indiana’s State Prison in Pendleton. McColly introduced Nelson Peery’s short stories in ACM in November