Tom Matlack wants drugs and prison to become a part of every American’s life. He’s not as crazy as you think.
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings…
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
I have a Google alert for my name that lets me know when someone writes something about me. Sometimes it’s a nice surprise—someone saying that I’m actually a decent human being—but a lot of the time I get links to someone criticizing some crazy post I have written. I just like to keep track…not that I respond all that often anymore; it’s more a really silly way to keep score. And I admit to getting some kind of sick pleasure by stirring the muck. Pissing people off is perhaps the highest form of flattery.
On August 24th, I got quite a start. I got an email with a Google alert link to a guy with my same name and his mug shot. Apparently this Thomas Matlack was booked just after midnight the night before. He had long hair and a soul patch. The guy’s eyes looked bloodshot and very sad. He was arrested in Casselberry, Florida—which is the interior of the state, about parallel with Cape Canaveral.
“Just a coincidence,” I told myself, deleting the email as fast as I could. But those sad eyes have haunted me ever since. I’ve spent enough time visiting prisons to be scared to death of having to stay in one. And my fear of prisons and the very thin line between those of us on the outside and those stuck inside has made me think very hard about what a rational prison policy might be in this country. I am convinced that I didn’t end up in prison not because of some superior moral fiber than my namesake, but by the sheer luck of birth.
If there is a problem of economic inequality in our country—and when guys like Warren Buffett start signing up to pay more taxes to stave off food riots, most people would have to agree there is—prison policy plays a pivotal role. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we Americans house a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate is unmatched the world over. No other country has close to 2.3 million inmates.
As a part of an “American Exception” series exploring the U.S. criminal justice system, New York Times reporter Adam Liptak goes to great length to show how “criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.”
But its not just a moral issue; it’s a economic one. Prison is the driving force behind the acceleration of poverty in our country. Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington showed in a recent study just how poverty sends people to prison—at least under current law—and prison, in turn, ruins any ability for that person—and very often that person’s children—to escape poverty. “It’s a vicious feedback loop that is affecting an ever-greater percentage of the adult population and shredding part of the fabric of 21st-century American society,” noted Sasha Abramsky in her Slate piece, “Toxic Persons.”
And, of course, it’s inherently racist. In 1980, one in 10 black high school dropouts was incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent. Western and Pettit calculate that 68 percent of African-American male high school dropouts born from 1975 to 1979 will spend time. Of the 2.3 million inmates, well over a million are minorities. The percentage of African Americans in this country is 12.6 percent.
My niece is a senior at an elite college this year. She grew up in New Jersey and went to public school. She was a good student. I never heard about her getting into trouble. She doted on her younger brother and was quite involved in theater. She didn’t get into a good college because of any privileged upbringing; in fact, her father never went to college. No, she just worked hard and stayed out of trouble.
This particular niece happened to go to the same college I did, so I have been particularly interested in the periodic reports over the course of her college experience. There was the semester abroad where she met a new boyfriend, the shows she acted in, the psychology classes. But she has kept coming back, again and again, to a particular group of people, a group that fundamentally changed her.
Because she is an aspiring actress, I expected to hear about Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men; or Michael Bay, the famous producer of Transformers and a billion other films; or even Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While all of these alums have been on campus, I didn’t hear about it from her.
What I heard about was a yearlong course in which my niece went into a maximum-security prison to work with the female inmates to adapt Shakespeare and then Dante to the women’s own life stories. My niece and her classmates worked with the inmates to take their plays and bring them to the stage. The inmates performed inside for their peers and their families. Then the students performed the same plays back at school for their classmates. Both performances were transformational for all involved—the inmates, students, and audience members alike.
So my question is pretty simple. What if every elite college (meaning an undergraduate university where enrollment is selective) made a course involving intense interaction between students and inmates mandatory? If there are two education systems in our country—one ending up in prison and the other with a fancy diploma—that would go a long way toward bridging the gap. If kids these days are anything like my niece—who reported to me that “the professor wasn’t even all that great, it was the inmates that I learned everything from”—they will get it.
Then, what if we went one step further in this line of thinking? What if we made these same privileged students attending a selective four-year college commit to two years of national service post graduation? This would include classroom teaching, but also tutoring, mentoring, working at boys’ and girls’ clubs, being Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and even supporting police in the most dangerous areas. Target those areas of our country with the highest rates of poverty and incarceration (same thing, obviously).
I have two teenage kids. I am not very excited about the idea of either one setting off to fight for our country, though if that was their choice I would, of course, be proud of their service and courage. But I would be particularly proud of them if they set off to save our country on the ground in some poor community where most of the men are making a living in the drug trade and ending up in prison. To my way of thinking, that is way more important than tracking down the bad guys who happen to be sitting on strategic oil reserves a world away.
So here’s my most controversial but most important idea: Let’s make it impossible to make money selling drugs in the ghetto by decriminalizing them all. Let’s put drugs in the CVS rather than the projects.
I was discussing this idea over dinner recently with a good friend who happens to be a great mom and social worker. She disagreed strongly, pointing out how addictive cocaine and heroin are. “We don’t want to make them available to our kids,” she said after I had gone through a long-winded explanation of how I would auction off licenses to corporations, just like the FCC has done for years with the airwaves. “Drugs like that change your brain chemistry and are addictive immediately.”
Here’s the thing: Those drugs are available on every street corner in housing projects across the country. Sure, affluent moms would prefer not to have them available at the local pharmacy. And they may have a point, in theory. Hard drugs are addictive and dangerous, not just in their impact on body chemistry but on families and communities. But then, there are millions of moms whose kids have to walk past crack houses and drug dealers every morning on the way to school. Even more troubling, those moms are raising their kids alone because the fathers are in prison…and they basically have to hope to hit the lottery, lest their own sons follow their dads to the same fate.
As Julio Medina, at one time the head of the largest drug gang in the South Bronx and a man who was sentenced to life in Sing Sing by the Federal Task Force on Drugs, told me, “The family business was drugs…I was really good at it. I just never knew I had a choice. I felt the need to take care of my family since my dad was not around.”
Sure, we may not want drugs in the leafy suburbs. But to say that kids shouldn’t be exposed to coke and heroin is to ignore the reality faced by the growing underclass. Being out of sight to the privileged does not mean it isn’t rotting our country from the inside out.
Prohibition did not work with booze, and it isn’t going to work with drugs either. Prohibition led to the growth of the mob, and our drug policy has led to a fundamental fracture in our society. Legal booze and cigarettes kill many more people than any narcotic in our country—yet by legalizing, taxing, and educating, we have successfully taken the criminals out of the process, generating huge tax revenue that we have used to educate the populace on the dangers of smoking and drinking.
Fighting the war on drugs by attempting to stem the tide of supply from Mexico and throwing everybody in the supply chain here in the States in prison is not working. Drugs, prison, education, and poverty are inextricably linked, and that complexity of issues goes to the very heart of the failing economy and is a true threat to national security.
Maybe I am crazy, but I would rather have the drugs out of the shadows and brought into the light where we can see it. I’d rather have legal producers of narcotics dragging small-time drug dealers into court for infringing on their economic rights rather than perpetuating the downward spiral of our poorest people—particularly minorities—by locking them up for drug-related crimes.
So if college students become engaged with inmate populations and work in the most at-risk communities as part of a national service program, and we legalize drugs to get them out of the streets, what do we do with the 2.3 million inmates we currently have? How do we think about violent crime going forward?
Half a million people in the United States are imprisoned on drug-related charges. That’s ten times more than in 1980. It’s hard to estimate how many of the remaining 1.8 million inmates are incarcerated for more serious violent crimes committed as part of the hand-to-hand combat associated with the black-market drug supply chain or, in fact, because addiction made violence and property crime the only means to get a fix. There are certainly murderers and bank robbers who just commit crimes because they have evil intents completely unrelated to drugs—but I would argue that at least half of the current inmate population is in some way related to our drug policy, with its ripple effect on poverty, social structure, unemployment, the economy, and national security down the road.
So my vote would be to separate violent criminals from those who are charged only with non-violent drug crimes, are addicts, or suffer from mental illness. Rather than keeping addicts locked up, focus on treating them. Keep the laws on rape and murder and violent assault as they are—and strengthen them if you want. But separate issues of law and order from a war on drugs that hasn’t worked. Locking up a large proportion of poor minority men in our country does far more damage than good.
I’m still thinking about the other Tom Matlack. He’s a few years older than I am and a few inches shorter. I don’t know what he did or what happened to him, but those haunting eyes are like looking in the mirror to me. Every time I go into a prison, I am overcome with fear. I think that the guys inside must be monsters. Seeing the bars and the cells only heightens my terror.
And then I sit down. Someone offers me a cup of coffee. A hand rests on my shoulder in a sign of welcome. I tell my story, and he tells his. He weeps, and I weep too. And I realize just how much we are the same, these supposed monsters and me.
There’s just one difference: I get to leave.