What price ignorance?

Just a little over a year ago, I was locked inside the chapel at Folsom Prison talking to a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a Catholic priest about spiritual programs for inmates. Something the priest said stuck with me: “Eighty-five percent are in here because of drugs.” That’s not just men who made, sold or took drugs. It also includes those who beat or killed others, or who stole or committed all manner of crimes because of drugs.

There was a lot of talk then—as there is now—about the $9 billion-plus California spends each year to keep these men incarcerated in a system that’s failing by every possible measure, not least of which is its 70-percent rates of recidivism within three years of release.

California’s 33 prisons are filled to more than double capacity, but there are so few guards trained to handle this overpopulation that 6,000 logged so much overtime last year that their paychecks topped $100,000. Overcrowding is such a problem that the governor’s trying to send prisoners to other states, though most are taking their chances on early release if one judge goes through with his threat to cap prison populations.

Just last month, the governor proposed to throw more money at the problem by asking for $10.9 billion to build new prisons. Everyone admits that California’s prison system is in crisis. But few are willing to go beyond Band Aid fixes and tackle the problem at its root.

In this week’s cover story, “Just say ‘failure’ ” Sasha Abramsky examines what’s behind California’s swelling prison population. He places much of the blame squarely on our drug policy, arguing that it feeds a self-perpetuating prison industry while it both creates and strengthens a culture of violence in our society.

The War on Drugs—which cost Americans more than $50 billion last year alone—has not stopped drug use. It’s money squandered. And I’m wondering why we’re willing to spend $9 billion-plus each year on prisons to keep the reality of the damage our failed drug policy has done to our communities from penetrating our consciousness.