Bad Combination: Abuse of Power over Prisoners and America’s Misguided “War on Drugs”

My wife April engaged recently in an act of civil disobedience in furtherance of the effort to block the Keystone XL Pipeline, largely out of concern about climate change. (In the picture, April is the one with the blue bag around her neck.)

Now April has written a piece, which I commend to your attention, on her experience with the justice system. It is one particular aspect of her experience that I want to say something about here (while also linking to her piece, “Imprisonment–More Punishing than You Might Think,”).

In her piece, April mentions that she and evidently everyone else who gets arrested for anything in Washington, D. C., is required to take a drug test. Her point is made in the context of the system’s apparent inclination to humiliate those over whom it has power: in particular, each person is required to pee into a cup, and to do so in the presence of a guard.

My point is about another dimension of the abuse of power this represents. Why should the simple fact of being caught up in the system strip an American citizen of the protection against “unreasonable search”?

Why should a “crime” that implies nothing whatever about the likelihood of her being involved in the use of illegal drugs –like an act of civil disobedience against a corporation that had produced a fraudulent report for the government, hiding its conflict of interest– remove the usual requirement that the police authorities must have “probable cause” before the they are entitled to invade an American’s right of privacy?

(How widespread in America is this apparent policy of treating any arrest as a license to make that person’s body a battleground in our national war against drugs?)

Here’s what it looks like to me. My guess is that two toxic and ugly things have combined here.

One is our national obsession with the war on drugs, which has been a disaster and which reflects some of the deep follies of our national culture about how to deal with human problems –demonizing rather than understanding things, punishing rather than healing, etc.

The other is a tendency –the description of which is part of the heart of April’s piece– for the criminal justice system to abuse its power. For some people and some organizations, apparently, having people under one’s control affords temptations that should be resisted more than they are.

It is important for a society to deal with the problem of crime. It is no less important that it be dealt with wisely and justly.

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