Snow was falling heavily on Nov. 26 and everyone, including myself, was ready to get on the train and go home for Thanksgiving. Soon the doors opened with a loud swoosh. I sat down next to a boy listening to his iPod. After some time, he turned to me and asked how old I was. 18, I answered. When I asked him the same, he gave a much more complicated answer, revealing that he was 17 and had just gotten out of prison that day. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to ask the question that was burning in the back of my mind.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why were you in prison?”
“Well, long story short, I could make 200 a week as a busboy, which I did for awhile, or sell drugs and make that much in a day. I’ve gotta support me and my mom. So I made the choice.”
It was 2 p.m. on a Friday and Melody Lee was expecting my call. The phone rang three times and was promptly answered. Lee, a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) New York policy office, spoke about the problems of racial injustice and systems of oppression that exist in the war on drugs.
The war on drugs in the U.S. has recently become the object of intense debate and discussion locally and nationally, with opinions over whether it does more harm than good starkly contrasting on opposite ends of the spectrum. Lee spoke to me about one side of the spectrum.
“The Drug Policy Alliance is a national organization and its prominent work is in ending the war on drugs. With that, we are especially trying to move the policy from the criminal justice system and move it more closer to a public health view.”
According to the DPA’s statistics, the amount of people arrested in 2013 on nonviolent drug charges was 1.5 million. Lee suggests these numbers are the result of a flawed system. “Where we are currently, we see that with the war on drugs in place, drug use has not gone down, it is actually more pure and accessible now than before the war on drugs was instituted. In fact, what we are seeing is it has fueled mass incarceration.”
Not only is mass incarceration for petty crimes an issue, racial discrimination continues to plague the justice system. Lee said, “Based on our data, communities of color are being targeted and this law (the legalization of marijuana possession in New York since 1977) is not being enforced equally. Our work has been around legislation to standardize this and address this very injustice.”
In fact, DPA has many victories to show for. It spearheaded major reforms under New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. The reforms include the restructuring of New York’s sentencing structure, as well as expanding rehabilitation and incarceration alternatives. In other words, these reforms were grounded in compassion for the people arrested in minor drug offenses.
The DPA and Lee take a humanistic approach in their understanding of people arrested in drug-related crimes. She said, “We actually don’t refer to people as drug convicts because, first and foremost, we see them as people. At DPA, we see language as something that is incredibly powerful. So recognizing something like the word like ‘convict’ continues to perpetuate stigmatization and further dehumanizes these individuals.”
Behind The Door
Every prison has it, and that’s “The Door.” The door that separates the free person from an unpleasant world of imprisonment. Sitting outside that door in Dutchess County Jail, any visitor can’t help but notice it, as the only two chairs in the waiting area face it.
I was escorted by a heavily clad police officer through this door. The white linoleum floor turns into cozy rug. Sheriff Anderson’s office is big and bright, its walls and shelves full of colorful knick-knacks, pictures and cards.
Sheriff Anderson, or as some call him, “Butch,” has been Sheriff of Dutchess County since 1999. Graduating from the 110th session of the FBI National Academy, he was appointed Undersheriff in 1993. He has seen everything—murder, robbery, assault and so on. So quite naturally, his voice exudes volume and authority.
“You know what? Let’s just bring them all in.” Five men in suit and tie filed into the room. Detective Lieutenant Patrick Whelan, Detective Sergeant Jason Mark, Captain John Watterson, Captain Jerry Lennon and Undersheriff Kirk Imperati sit down, in that order.
The conversation began with Sheriff Anderson. He said, “Our weakness is money and equipment and education.” The last quarter of 2013 shows this weakness, with Dutchess County having experienced a heroin epidemic. And although the amount of reported heroin overdoses have gone down since then, the police prefer a proactive approach, rather than reactive.
Undersheriff Imperati said, “As the Sheriff said, we are hand strung a bit to a lack of funding, reduction of funding, also repeal on the Rockefeller laws have taken the teeth out of the charges that we can do as law enforcement in reference to drug related cases. So it makes our job more difficult. In my opinion, there aren’t severe enough consequences on drug-related offenses.”
But there is unanimous agreement in the room that money is only part of the problem. There are a whole host of factors. Like Melody Lee, Sheriff Anderson acknowledged the crucial importance of treatment and rehabilitation. He said, “In Dutchess County, you had several psychiatric units in Harlem Valley and Hudson Valley… These were huge facilities that handled people with mental illness.” In a tone of bafflement and frustration, he continued, “They closed them and just turned them out on the street! It makes it very, very difficult.”
Even the police realize they can’t do it alone. Captain John Watterson said, “You have to have a triad affect, you have to have parents and children as one group, schools as another group, and law enforcement and the community as a whole working together to combat these crimes.”
And to the problem of mass incarceration, Detective Lieutenant Patrick Whelan said, “The mass incarceration term, was, I think, a buzz word used to gain some notoriety. There is no wholesale arresting people. Each individual is judged on their crime or their innocence—whether they are guilty or not.”
Undersheriff Imperati doesn’t think mass incarceration is a problem locally. He said, “In Dutchess county, we are actually ahead of the curve in terms of our alternative to incarceration programs that we have, and with working through probation and the entire criminal justice system. We come up with recommendations with these low-level related drug offenses and even if it reaches the level of criminal court or even to county court, they have a drug court.”
Imperati references numbers to show that they are always looking for alternatives to mass incarceration. “In Dutchess County, we have over 3,000 people in the criminal justice system and our daily population in the Duchess county jail is 500. So over 2,500 people are not in jail because we are doing the best we can to provide programs to reduce recidivism. So the numbers speak for themselves that there is no mass incarceration in Dutchess County.” It seems that on a local level at least, places like Dutchess County are making efforts to combat national issues.
After a period of silence, Jerry Lennon said solemnly, “Let me remind you that police don’t put anybody in jail, it’s the court system. We arrest the offender, the court system decides if they need to be incarcerated.”
In terms of racial bias, Sheriff Anderson believes Dutchess County is fair. “Where I think this comes from is Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, the big cities…That’s who the media covers. I don’t see it as a problem here.” Recognizing the possibility for a wide range of views on this topic, he turned to the other men in the room, “What do you guys think?”
For Captain Watterson, the answer was simple: “No.”
“Unfortunately,” said Imperati, “Sometimes the media paints with a broad brush. Do some people do it?” He thought for a second. “Locally, no.”
Sheriff Anderson said, “One of the missions since I’ve been here, is that: 1. Treat others how you want to be treated. 2. I don’t care how many arrests you make, how many tickets you write. I care about how many people you help.”
Vassar students speak
The words, “I’m wearing a green jacket and white scarf,” popped up on my screen. And sure enough, there was Michelle Zhang ’15 off in the corner table, ready to talk about what she thought of the war on drugs.
A student here at Vassar, Zhang is involved with the Vassar Prison Initiative, an organization that raises awareness about problems of mass incarceration and the prison system through annual publications, book drives, film screenings and local activism. Zhang said, “This is a tough question to deal with. This practice of incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people for nonviolent drug offenses is not economically viable, let alone for human reasons.”
Zhang used a metaphor to explain how these sorts of problems need to be addressed. Think of a tank of gas. It is leaking potentially explosive liquid, or in this case, human suffering and injustice. “Education and other community based support structures need to happen concurrently, because if you just plug one hole, things are going to come spilling out of the other hole. Things like homelessness, mental health and education. I think we need to plug all these holes at the same time.” And in this case, we don’t want to lose gas.
Zhang suggests human perspective is currently a hole. “Change won’t come from the top down, but more of an individual shift in consciousness and in this ideology of punitive rhetoric.”
An hour after speaking with Zhang, Deborah Altman ’16 sat down in the same exact chair and spoke similarly on the war on drugs; the only difference was how she came to learn about the problems. Altman took a class offered by Vassar at the male prison in Green Haven. “We took the class with pretty much the top tier of educated people who had been doing very well while they were in prison.”
“Some of the people were going to be in prison for life. I think that in another life they would be my educators, my professors in different circumstances, because they were that powerful and moving and eloquent in everything they had to say.”
“It’s hard to understand why people don’t care more, but it might just be because they didn’t sit in class with people as powerful and as amazing, and as crippled by their circumstance early on. A lot of them don’t know how to handle anger, you know, without father figures, mother figures, academic or social support.”
Toward the end of the interview, Altman smiled and said, “It’s been a while since I took the course. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m thinking ‘Man! I forgot how mad I was every time we came out of that class.’ It feels like, ‘How do people not know about this? How are people not reacting? There is nothing good coming out of it!’” Then in a somber voice, she said, “It’s a really hopeless feeling.”