I may have been a rube, but I knew enough not to startle the gargantuan glowering prison guard with that double-barreled shotgun propped on his beer belly. As a sixteen-year-old toiling in the hot sun in 1973 alongside convicts on a road gang, I understood that the summer help was not exempt from the laws of physics. It was so easy being polite downwind from the shotgun that working for the Virginia Highway Department was my southern etiquette finishing school.
A couple times a week, a bright orange dump truck toting a cage full of convicts from a nearby state prison pulled up to work sites on rural back roads in the Shenandoah Valley. The hairless-headed guard would take his crouched position, ready to start blasting anyone who took off running. The convicts would exit single file from the cage and pick up their shovels, picks, or other tools. “Make my day!” was that guard’s motto long before Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry debuted.
There were no restrictions on contact with the convicts as long as you didn’t help them escape. I was fascinated to hear the convicts’ life stories – or, more accurately, the story of how their lives turned to crap.
A few black convicts on the road gang had been busted for drug dealing. Two years earlier, President Richard Nixon had proclaimed that drugs were “public enemy number one” and that drug use was a “national emergency.” Prosecutors around the nation took the cue and started busting narcotics offenders by the busload.
I often shot the bull with an amiable mid-20s black guy from Richmond, Virginia. Willie’s colorful bandana stretched across his head trumpeted his disdain for drab prison garb. He admitted to me that he had been a dealer but swore he’d never met the key trial witness who claimed to have bought heroin from him. Willie was stunned by the fabrications prosecutors used to nail him. He didn’t seem particularly bitter about doing time but was convinced the justice system was a crock. Decades later, I wrote in Playboy about the Drug Enforcement Administration knowingly using dishonest “confidential informants” to fabricate evidence at federal trials.
Willie was already half way through his prison sentence and was counting on getting out early for “good behavior.” Unfortunately, thanks largely to mandatory minimum laws, the number of drug offenders in prisons rose tenfold between 1980 and 2005, spawning a vast prison industrial complex. More people were locked up for drug offenses than for violent crimes, and possessing trace amounts of cocaine was often punished with longer sentences than rape, murder, or child molesting. And prison guards became one of America’s fastest growing occupations, increasing five-fold and becoming one of the most powerful political lobbies in California and other states. Americans who a century and a half earlier recognized how slavery corrupted slaveowners failed to recognize that being a prison guard can also deprave human nature.
Prior to goofing off on the highway department payroll, I toiled two summers in a peach orchard in a job enlivened by nonstop profanity from an ornery former Army drill sergeant foreman. Most of the convict road gang didn’t seem that different from some of the down-and-out peach pickers who busted their tails for $1.40 an hour to fill metal buckets around their necks with cursedly fuzzy peaches. At least convicts never showed up drunk at the start of the workday. But the judicial system treated narcotics violators as demons who needed to be scourged, not like human beings who transgressed an arbitrary line between licit and illicit conduct.
Several convicts bragged to me that summer long ago about having access to the best illicit drugs. Government could not even control its own prisons, much less every street corner in the land. The following decades saw one campaign after another to banish drugs from behind bars. In 1999, President Clinton proudly announced an initiative for “zero tolerance for drugs in prison,” plowing more millions of dollars into canine teams and new drug-detection technologies. But scandals kept on coming. In 2013, a convict who was also the boss of the Black Guerilla Gang impregnated four beefy female guards at a state-run jail in Baltimore. That gang practically ran the jail, bringing in as many cell phones and narcotics as they pleased. Last week, a federal grand jury in Maryland indicted another 15 prison guards, inmates and outside “facilitators” for smuggling narcotics and cell phones into prison.
Seeing first-hand the boundless bullshit of the war on drugs planted seeds of skepticism in my thick young head. I scoffed at “Reefer Madness” in my high school health class. I had smoked marijuana a few times but did not feel compelled to burn down any orphanages afterwards. A decade later, I published my first attack on marijuana prohibition in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
Nowadays, many activists are pushing for laws expunge drug possession convictions from people’s records – a reform that could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who did no violence to fellow citizens. That humane reform would be far more effective than the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s crusade to make it a federal crime not to hire ex-convicts.
Some leftists are going further and calling for closing down all jails and prisons and releasing all convicts. In New York City, activists disrupted a public meeting with the chant: “Hell no to the status quo! These prison walls have got to go!” Apparently, anyone who is incarcerated is a victim of social injustice. This is where activism descends into lunacy.
Some of the guys on that 1973 road gang were behind bars for savage rampages. A sullen, Hulk-sized white dude told me he was in prison because he had beat hell out of his girlfriend’s husband. I never aspired to test the boundaries of that guy’s sense of humor. But he seemed like a ticking time bomb who could explode no matter where he was. Simply because many people are wrongly incarcerated or unjustly convicted doesn’t turn all convicts into angels.
Regardless, permitting politicians to demonize anyone possessing “controlled substances” is nuts as long as there is no way to control politicians. The demagoguery that has pervaded the War on Drugs for half a century is one of the great disgraces of American democracy. Maybe my time working alongside those convicts helped spur the theme of Lost Rights: “America needs fewer laws, not more prisons.”