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Voices of the Incarcerated

Letters From the Frontlines of the Drug War

by ANTHONY PAPA

Locking people up for nonviolent drug crimes has become the way of life in the United States. Because of this, our prisons have become tremendously overcrowded and our criminal justice system is broken.

To remedy this, Attorney General Eric Holder has initiated a number of proposals to end mass incarceration, including the revamping of harsh sentencing guidelines and the rollback of mandatory minimums. Even President Obama has offered to help fix the broken system by using his pardon powers to help free nonviolent drug war prisoners who have fallen into the cracks of the criminal justice system.

When thinking about ways of helping those prisoners that have been subjected to bad drug laws, I thought the best way to help them is to bring attention to their cases through the media. As a drug war activist, I’ve seen that to be successful in the avocation of an issue, you have to keep pushing it out to the public so it becomes a repetitive theme, akin to a moving poem or a haunting melody.

With this in mind I decided to create a program that would give prisoners the ability to tell their stories to the world. The more stories presented that showed the failure of these laws, the better the chance that positive reforms can occur.

So in January of this year, the Drug Policy Alliance took out ads in the Prison Legal News, a monthly American magazine and online periodical that reaches a vast population of prisoners. The ads asked prisoners to give us information about themselves that would be entered in a database for possible use. Soon after, I started to receive hundreds of letters from prisoners poignantly telling their tales of how they have had fallen victim to the drug war.

Here is an example of the powerful drug war stories we received from incarcerated drug war prisoners:

“Dear Sir, I’m currently doing a 25 year sentence for dealing marijuana. I have to tell you the whole story that way people will get the Big Honest Picture. I come from a small Texas town in the Heart of Texas, Brownwood, Tx going west. Where the good ole Boy’s still rule. It’s the kind of town that if you get busted with $50 worth of weed, you’ll make the front page of the local newspaper – A great Big full blown color picture of yourself. You’re a movie star whether you like it or not. And they have a you call a DrugFree Zone which basically is the whole town. In TX that means you gotta do a 5 flat yrs, to come up for parole.”

To read the full letter go here.

The more stories we can hear of those subjected to draconian sentencing laws, the better chance we have to fix this broken system. You can help contribute to this project, too. If you know of someone who is imprisoned for a drug crime, please contact us at:

Drug War Stories
c/o Drug Policy Alliance
131 West 33rd Street, 15th floor,
NY, NY 10018

or tpapa@drugpolicy.org

Information to include in your correspondence:

* Name of the incarcerated individual

*Current prison he/she is in

* Kind of drug involved
• Length of sentence

* Weapon involved (yes or no)

* Contact information for person on behalf of imprisoned individual (email / phone number)

Their stories, and those of countless others, must be heard.

Anthony Papa is a manager of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance’s Blog