One man's hands
One man's hands, can't tear a prison down,
Two men's hands, can't tear a prison down,
But when two and two and fifty make a million,
We will see, that day come 'round,
We will see that day come 'round. (Pete Seeger)
When Lindsay's dad, Dr. Barry Beyerstein, died suddenly this week at the age of 60 he was exactly the same age as my own father at his sudden death. I still remember my bewilderment and disorientation, although it was 50 years ago. I was 15. There's nothing to say except I hope that great pain killer of grief, "tincture of time," works speedily.
I didn't know Lindsay's dad personally although I knew he was a shining figure in Lindsay's life, that he was important in the struggle to bring some rationality to drug policy and that he was widely admired. Even my casual knowledge was more than enough to understand why he was so admired. It's not surprising his loss is felt keenly in many places. This post is about one of his causes.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, the U.S. currently has the largest documented prison population in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms. We've got roughly 2.03 million people behind bars, or 701 per 100,000 population. China has the second-largest number of prisoners (1.51 million, for a rate of 117 per 100,000), and Russia has the second-highest rate (606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000). Russia had the highest rate for years, but has released hundreds of thousands of prisoners since 1998; meanwhile the U.S. prison population has grown by even more. Rounding out the top ten, with rates from 554 to 437, are Belarus, Bermuda (UK), Kazakhstan, the Virgin Islands (U.S.), the Cayman Islands (UK), Turkmenistan, Belize, and Suriname, which you'll have to agree puts America in interesting company. South Africa, a longtime star performer on the list, has dropped to 15th place (402) since the dismantling of apartheid. (Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope)
The great lock-up is fairly recent, starting, as far as I can tell, in the Reagan years. One of the reasons is an irrational and class-based drug policy:
A major reason for the dramatic increase in the U.S. prison population and associated increases in the number of Blacks, Hispanics and women, has been substantial increases in the numbers of persons sentenced to prison for drug crimes. Back in 1980 the number of prisoners convicted for a drug offense was only 19,000 or about 6 percent of the state prison population which numbered less than 300,000. By 1998 the numbers had increased by 237,000, or 21 percent of the state prison population. Furthermore, the average sentence for drug offenses had increased from 13 months in 1985 to 30 months by 1994. Many of these offenders are simple drug users who have no record of violence and who pose little danger to public safety. (Policy paper, National Policy Committee, American Society of Criminology)
Lindsay has a special interest in the workings of legal drug pushers, Big Pharma, so I thought this clip was appropriate, given the context:
One man's hands. Barry Beyerstein helped that day come 'round. Meanwhile, the fight goes on.