Drug War Prisoners

This paper was given at the Second International Conference on Prisoners of the War on Drugs on March 21, 1999. The Conference was presented by the Committee on Unjust Sentencing and the Colloqium Committee of the Department of Sociology of York University, Toronto, Ontario. Canada.



My neighborhood has this epidemic
its name is crack cocaine
The propaganda that's been spreaded
says with us there lies the blame
My people don't own no coca fields
on which this drug is grown
Nor do we pilot the airplanes
on which it's mostly flown
My brothers were recruited to sell it,
exploitation of our struggles and strife
While others get rich off the conspiracy
we pay with our freedom and life
My sisters became modern-day mules
vulnerability being their main asset
Now they, too, toil in prisons
and our freedom is a long-odds bet
My mother lost her children to crack,
one's dead and two are in jail
A fourth one steals her money and hope,
and her youngest is catching hell
My children lost their father,
and my woman has lost her man
Is crack really an epidemic?
Or is it "their" Masterplan?
Reginald Alexander, 1998




I was born Reginald Alexander; the inner-city streets christened me "Cash". A nickname that in my younger, misguided years was flaunted and worn like a badge of honor, and one that stood testimonial to my reputation as a big money maker in the illegal drug trade. Now, years later and having been imprisoned for the past 2,603 days in a cold, drab cell, my street moniker is like an unwanted tattoo that covers my body and misrepresents my true character. One that hints of monetary success, but belies the hard facts - the many interconnected tragedies that dwell underneath.

Perhaps more accurately descriptive of my years in the drug trade -- even more than my moniker -- are the gunshot wounds that tatter by body, or the many surgical skin grafts that were necessary to repair these wounds. These are permanent reminders of near-brushes with instant death, that occurred while chasing that elusive all-American dream to become rich. A dream delusionally pursued, and encouraged by the almost indescribable lures of drug-dealing; fast money, faster women, and inner-city street fame.

Foolishly, like too many of my people before me and after, I once thought it glamorous to be a drug dealer. A macabre philosophy I estimate is shared by 75% of inner-city youths and the majority of all the inner-city's residents. An astronomical percentage, yes. But unerringly reflective of the social maladies that pervade urban America. Understand that in the inner-city -- "the Hood" we call it -- the drug dealer is more prominent than the college graduate, or the long-tenured working man. The barometer is money, and ghetto fame; the means by which either is acquired matters none. In the 'hood, it serves you better to be feared than respected, and the collective faith in any God is fast dwindling to no greater than a grown-up's faith in Santa Claus. Money has become omnipotent in place of the Supreme Being we were once taught to worship

  City officials have put up fences around the low-income housing projects, with armed security stationed at entrance and exit points. They claim it was done to keep "undesirables" out. But my people know it was done to keep us all trapped in. Hope has bowed out to desperation and, in the mad scramble to rise above poverty, my people have fallen victim to the intoxicating lures of drug dealing. It offers the quickest reprieve from nothingness, though it has been repeatedly proven that such a lifestyle will end in an early, tragic death or a lifetime behind bars.
  With a bleak and fatalistic ending virtually assured, why do so many still choose to become drug dealers? What exactly is the lure and causes? Ultimately, what are the unpropagandized effects of drug dealing in the inner-city? Who all share in the blame? Illicit drugs have been prevalent throughout the inner-city for as long anyone can remember. Drugs and crime seem to go hand-in-hand with poverty, misery, oppression, desperation, and despair. When cocaine -- particularly crack -- hit the city's streets, in the early 80s, like a mid-winter snow storm, sparing no neighborhoods or class of people, it wreaked irrevocable havoc on the ghettos across the nation. The ghetto's inhabitants were easy prey for crack's euphoric high, its temporary escape from oppression and, of course, its "get rich quick" potential. Not long after crack's appearance on the scene, the inner-city further deteriorated into an abysmal existence, as rival street gangs and dealers waged bloody war over the right to sell drugs on certain corners. Many young men lost their lives, and continue to die and kill over drug turf! Too many lost their freedom as a result of dealing drugs and succumbing to this insidious drug game, and today America's prisons overflow with the convicted; victims and casualties of these tumultuous times.
  Yet the lure remains strong, in part because the local drug dealer who has thus far prevailed, or guilefully evaded such catastrophe has temporarily benefited from the huge demand for crack. He has become the neighborhood star! And is often praised and emulated. His luxury cars, wads of money, and perceived independence is often envied. He seems to represent what few of my people can match; financial security, and a station beyond oppression. That is a large part of the lures.
  Tragedy, and painfully acquired wisdom, have changed who I am and how I think; yet I can relate to the inner-city's mindset and pulse because I've been there. My blood still stains the ground where I had lain, gunned down, crying, and praying to a God I'd abandoned. Begging Him to rescue me from the clutches of death and spare my children and wife the heartbreak of trying to survive in this unforgiving world without me.
  Death did not claim me that night, but prison would a few years later. Make no mistake; prison is death too. Just very, very slow.
  I must at this point say, while peer pressure and physical threats from local street gangs certainly share a small portion of the blame for luring some into dealing drugs, it is a vast media misconception that this takes place on a large scale. I suspect that the media is not thoroughly misled, rather it chooses to produce mass disinformation. Those who believe the media have little awareness of the true mechanisms that churn the wheels of inner-city illegal drug trade. Never forget that nothing motivates crime like prolonged poverty!
When discussing the lures and causes of drug dealing in the inner-city, all discussions must start there! Webster's Dictionary defines poverty as "lack of money or possessions." Those of us born into poverty know that it is also a lack of hope!
Poverty breeds a feeling of inferiority that can suffocate a generation of people. Drug dealing misleadingly offers fast money and instantaneous elevation from a poverty-stricken existence. That bait -- to my people -- is like a hooked worm to a fish. I speak from first-hand experience, not presumption. Yet I often wish that wasn't so. I'd not hesitate to trade my grave experiences for the return of my freedom. Eight years of physical imprisonment, and an everyday struggle to avoid a systemic mental shackling.
In the illegal drug trade, it has been proven, time and time again, that early death, or prison, is imminent. Still, one drive through any ghetto in America will expose you to drug dealers on every other corner.
Because poverty is imprisoning too. It chokes like a hangman's noose! What would any of us not do to escape that fate?
The street creed dictates that the strong must feed, on any prey at hand. An unforgiving and dispassionate idealism, no doubt! Media disinformation campaigns accredit such idealism to my inner-city brethren. But "corporate America" ruthlessly practices the identical creed, in fact invented it.
Crack cocaine is a highly addictive drug; it has brought down politicians from lofty perches. It has turned mothers into five-dollar whores, husbands into vagabonds. No one familiar with the drug can deny its addictiveness. Yet I seriously state that the addictiveness to using crack pales in comparison to the hot! addictiveness to dealing or selling the drug! I have first-hand knowledge of that type of addictiveness.
Once a person who once penniless, hopeless, insecure, and degraded has used drug dealing as his tool to overcome that multiple psychological oppression, he will go to all extremes to prevent his return to it. Any type of freedom is a hard thing to willingly surrender. My ancestors died fighting for freedom. Prisoners have been gunned down attempting to scale razor wire fences, trying to return to freedom. Wealthy businessmen have cheated their partners, and have sometimes killed to preserve their financial freedom. So, then, although illegal and moralistically wrong, it becomes clearer why many of my people, including myself, resorted to drug dealing as a means to prosperity and maintaining it.
I've witnessed many of my people say they'd rather die young than live a long life in poverty. That message is reflected in today's music, which mirrors life. A New York rapper, DMX, says in a song: "Either let me fly or give me death / let my soul rest / take my breath / Cause if I can't fly I'm gonna die anyway / Ain't gonna' be long, I'll be gone any day."
To "fly" is to be free. Poverty imprisons him, as does lyrical censorship, and he is saying he's rather die than remain impoverished and throttled.
It is undeniable, the vast majority of fatalities and drug-related crimes are committed by the young , black, inner-city male. Because the system has made him the most susceptible. Go into any prison in America and you'll find the inmate population is predominantly African American. A drastic disproportionate ratio to society-at-large. Among this disproportionate amount of incarcerated black men, you'll find that an innumerable amount of them are imprisoned on drug-related offenses.
I suspect a not so unplanned phenomenon, which I explore in great detail in my full papers. It is my hope that you'll be provided with the full text at some point. But let me continue on for a short while, then I'll conclude.
From the slums of New York to the palatial estates in Hollywood, material possessions are more valued than moral virtues. This media and societal concept is what induced turned me, Reginald Alexander, a high school honor student who dreamed of becoming a journalist and a Pulitzer prize winner, into "Cash" the drug dealer.
The media, large companies, advertisers, manufacturers and small businesses are to blame for the continued wide-spread dealing of drugs. Consider that many companies such as NIKE, and designers such as Tommy Hilfinger, create a lucrative line of products and apparel, and market their ads directly for the inner-city youths. They do this despite the staggering prices of their products and the reality that the inner-city family has the lowest average income of any class of people in America. You can bet that marketing staff at NIKE and these other companies are well aware of the numbers. Yet they continue to make and market $180 sneakers, and their target customer is not mainstream America. So-called mainstream Americans realize that $180 for a pair of shoes for a kid who will quickly outgrow them or wear them out, is not a sound investment. These products are aimed at inner-city drug money and help to perpetuate the continuous inner-city drug phenomenon.
I challenge you to explain away the wrongness of the thousands of neighborhood pawnshop owners, used car salesmen and proprietors, and jewelry flea market operators who specifically cater to and exploit the drug dealer, and silently encourage him to continue an ill-fated life of crime. For their business's success solely depends on the drug dealer's illegal acumen. Why else are their display cases stuffed with gaudy gold necklaces and pendants, items made for and directed at drug dealers? Who else in the ghetto will purchase fist-sized gold replicas of a 357 magnum? Or wear wrist-thick gold chains around their neck, with a gold pendant replicating a scale used to measure out cocaine?
These supposedly honorable businessmen have set up shop in the inner-city areas where they prey on the weak -- me and my people! -- then at night escape back to the suburbs.
All of these predatory companies and businesses have a collateral and a negative effect in the inner-city, and continue to play a substantial, but unblamed, role in promoting the illegal drug trade. The collective effect on the inner-city and its inhabitants is monstrous! It is what fertilizes and allows for the cycle of my people's destruction to persist. Year after year. Tragedy after tragedy. Incarceration after incarceration. Death, pain, tears, regret, and on and on -- non-stop.!
The neighborhood that I'm from is not unlike any other poverty-ridden neighborhood in the US. It consists of worn-down houses, condemned buildings and lives. Rat and crime-infested projects, broken homes, shattered dreams, broken hearts and endless suffering. Delusion. Despair. Downright sociological misery. In every single home there's someone who has lost a loved one to this drug war, this insidious scheme. The inner-city drug dealer has been portrayed as the most despicable of the human race. But don't you believe that! We are mere pawns in a huge chess game, where the Super High devil creators and perpetrators of America's illegal drug trade continue to remain anonymous. We pawns have been sacrificed by the Kings!
A misinformed outsider may suggest that an easy alternative to poverty is to go to college and earn a degree, to improve our legitimate earning potential. To these I say: the trap is set long before we are the age to attend college. Then , too, try to comprehend that at no point in his or her life has the inner-city person been intimately exposed to a blueprint for legitimate success. While the "powers that be" make certain we are exposed to a drug dealer on every corner. Hence the fence around the projects.
Swallow this: I don't even know one college graduate -- not personally!
At birth I was blessed with a mental faculty to house an impressive intellect, but in my 'hood it was useless -- a non-commodity! No one advised me as to how to use it. So the 'hood beat my intellect into drug-dealing guile, then prison snatched me into its unrelenting vise.
Now what do I have? The inner-city has changed my given name from Reginald to Cash. Prison erased both my street name and my moniker, and replace them with a number. I am now inmate number 292215! The decimation of my name and of my existence is sad. Even sadder is that there are thousands and thousands of stories like mine. Some have said there are no words to describe the collective, well-disguised extermination of my people. I say there are too many words to describe it! I was allotted this time, at this forum, to try and personalize my story -- my people's predicament. I've ventured, and I've tried, to scream out to you with my pen. My words are in behalf of myself and all others convicted of drug offenses and related crimes. I also speak for my brothers and sisters who are silenced, but not forgotten, in their graves.
As I conclude this message, this article of truth, I can feel the sting of tears pushing at the corner of my eyes. But I refuse to let them flow. I feel lost in coming up with an answer to my people's problems -- our fight against this unseen, undisclosed juggernaut. But I do know that the answer is not tears. For like intelligence, compassion without direction is useless in this war.
By Reginald Alexander
EF 292215
Georgia State Prison
Reidsville, GA 30499
P.S. The Parole Board recently denied my parole and won't reconsider again until 2007
Copyright by Reginald Alexander, 1998
Reginald Alexander is in the eighth year of a life sentence at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia for inner-city drug dealing, compounded by a false charge of murder, so Reginald was told by the detective who placed the charge, that would make sure his sentence was prison for life. His compelling manuscript has been proof-read to the satisfaction of the author only in part "because the prison staff 'shook down' my cell and confiscated the original papers along with other writing material and manuscripts. This shakedown is just one of the means of agitation that prisoners must endure." Reginald brings to the conference a wealth of detail on the "crack" cocaine phenomenon unobtainable from conventional sources. His thesis points to a two-way advantage inherent in the inner-city drug dealing scene -- an advantage, short-lived, to the dealer, and a consistent advantage to a class of merchants who supply the goods on which the dealer spends his profits. The writer's dream of becoming a journalist, interrupted by his falling for the "lure" of inner-city drug dealing, will resume if a parole board ever grants his release.


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