No Room at the Prison

By Chris Harris

Hartford Advocate, 05/03/01

America's so-called war on drugs has done little, if anything, to solve the country's drug problems. Instead, critics say, the war has created more problems, clogging our prisons with millions of nonviolent drug offenders. That was the message heard last week during a forum on drugs, racism, and the correlation between the two. The event, held at the First Church of Christ in Middletown, was sponsored by the Connecticut Green Party, and Efficacy, a Connecticut-based nonprofit geared toward the peaceful resolution of social injustices through raised public awareness.

The three-hour forum was a preview of sorts to Saturday's rally at Bushnell Park, another Green Party- and Efficacy-organized proceeding. The rally attracted hundreds of supporters who marched through downtown Hartford, peacefully protesting the state Department of Correction's plans for a 600-bed expansion of the MacDougall Correctional Facility in Suffield.

There are 20 correctional facilities statewide, ranging from maximum security prisons to youth offender halls. Of Connecticut's 3.3 million residents, close to 18,000 are behind bars, some of them in institutions here, and others in prisons in other states--a short-term solution to the state's prison overcrowding situation. There were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in this country last year.

Nick Pastore, New Haven's former police chief and a research policy fellow at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, spoke at last week's forum. Pastore, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, said America is "rapidly becoming two nations: one black, one white--separate and unequal." As a man who's seen three generations of one family locked up in the same prison for petty drug offenses, Pastore firmly advocates less strict penalties for drug offenders. "The drug war keeps working fine," says Pastore. "It just keeps killing people and doesn't get drugs off the streets."

Cliff Thornton, cofounder of Efficacy, called attention to the 100,000 children in prison in this country, more than half locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. Thornton says the law supports the "criminalization of our children." From an early age, children, especially African-American children, learn that they are suspects and therefore act like suspects, he says. "Gone are the days when a child would be brought home by the police to be dealt with by his or her parents," Thornton says. "Nowadays, they're taken downtown, booked, and thrown in jail with the rest of the criminals. Our children are criminals and they know it all too well. It's a perverse way to raise the first generation of this century." Thornton summed up the evening by equating current drug policy to "driving a car into a wall for 30 years. And every year we do it, we expect something different is going to happen."