America: The Exile Nation

A Review of Charles Shaw’s Brainchild

In the eyes of award-winning journalist and activist film- maker Charles Shaw, a vast amount of American citi- zens have become exiled within their own country. “Three million incarcerated; seven and a half million on probation or parole; 13 million with felonies; 65 million who can’t pass a background check. They’re exiled from the fruits of our society. From our basic moral contract,” Shaw says, speaking to me on a long-distance phone call.

His documentary film of the same name is described as an oral history of the War on Drugs and the American criminal justice system, which Shaw says is more akin to “a gigantic economic engine.” The film – available for free online – begins with a voiceover reminding us of a time in which people believed that prisons had a justified purpose of rehabilitating prisoners. This documentary depicts a different, more realistic scene: Warehouses that are used by bureaucrats, politicians, and unionists, all dependent on nonviolent criminals for modern-day slave labor.

As the film chronicles, the crime rate between 1910 and 1970 was relatively immutable. Then, in 1971, President Richard Nixon famously declared his “War on Drugs” – an amplification of funding for federal narcotic laws already in place. Shaw concurs that at the time there was a problem with inner-city violence: “Cities were cesspools. Crime real- ly was an issue. That’s not a Left-Right thing. If people were scared to go outside, they were scared to go outside. And they were definitely scared.”

Interviewed during the course of his two-hour exposé are many experts in the field of practical policy. Mark Kleiman, a Ph.D. teaching at UCLA, who wrote the book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, agrees with Shaw. Kleiman originally advocat- ed the building of more prisons to compensate for the increase in crime. Viewing it in hindsight, he says he feels a bit like the sorcerer’s apprentice, wondering where the off switch is. As Kleiman explains, drug war enforcement starts off with a “presumption of futility.”

Whereas taking a burglar off the street will result in one less person stealing, the effort of taking a drug dealer off the street has no direct benefit, as the dealer’s clients will simply find another person to give them what they want. It expands the underground market of narcotics by inviting more opportunities for other dealers.

A personal testimony of criminality and life behind bars comes from a bald-headed man known only as Steve, who quantifies the absurdity of sending a 17-year-old to prison with a bunch of hardened thugs when his “crime” was only being in possession of marijuana. “Not only is he going to get hurt, you’re going to turn loose a lunatic,” Shaw says. He adds that prison is 90-percent psychological and 10-percent physical: “The bruises go away, but the psychological part damns people for the rest of their lives.”

As these stories progress, the real-life nightmare is elucidat- ed for all despots to admire. One convicted drug offender spent 16 ½ years behind bars for owning a piece of prop- erty that held his friend’s cocaine. The police let the other man go. Another man, admittedly guilty of something, tells us that the American government employs more drug informants than the Stasi did under Soviet Union rule, and more blacks are incarcerated than under South African apartheid.

The social dilemma is best explained by an attractive New York physician who uses a cookie jar as an analogy. If, she explains, you leave a jar of cookies on top of a shelf and tell a child not to eat them, there’s a good possibility that child will find his or her way up there and eat them.

Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time CCPOA stooge, was once quoted as saying that “the Drug War is one of the games to get more convictions and more prisoners.”

On the other hand, if there were an open discussion about not eating the cookies, because of health or discipline or what- ever, the child just might be more respectful.

“More than anything,” she says, “our nation’s drug prob- lem is a public health issue. It’s an issue for the therapist. The psychiatrist. The medical doctors.” Quickly, the scene turns to another man with only a single name. Dimitri tells us about his own heroin addiction and the unfortunate death of his young wife from endocarditis – a heart infec- tion resulting from sharing dirty needles.

Adding to this insanity are the endless news reports, columns, and studies – coming out every day – that assert this very same principle. A very recent, brave column by James Bloodworth at the U.K.’s Independent was titled: “The Prohibition of Drugs Has Been an Abject Failure with a Devastating Human Cost.”

After citing the usual abysmal numbers – you know: $15 billion spent last year by the U.S. government, along with the mere 5 percent total world population who use drugs

– Bloodworth adds, “Most opponents of prohibition would refrain from claiming that legalization would provide a definitive solution to the problem of drug abuse. What we would argue, however, is that decriminalization (at a mini- mum) is, unlike prohibition, not mired in political fantasy. Those of us who believe prohibition to have failed live in the real world – a place that will always be, and always has been, people who experiment with drugs.”

Admitting to his own narcotic experience years ago, Shaw tells me how the law finally caught up to him in 2005 in his home state of Illinois. He ended up spending a year incarcerated. “Non-violent offenders have absolutely no place inside of prison,” he asserts firmly. “But that’s not to say that everyone locked up is a victim.” Having spent a lot of time around law enforcement, he’s convinced that Chicago has the most corrupt police department, explain- ing how they would railroad Latino suspects who were convicted for crimes they had never committed. “By far the worst,” he observes. Once getting out, Shaw became deeply immersed in politics and activism.

The 42-year-old brainchild of the Exile Nation Project now spends most of his days traveling and promoting his film. His book, Exile Nation: Prisons, Politics, Drugs, and Spirituality, comes out in May. It is an extension of his writ- ten work online. Alternet, Huffington Post, and Reality Sandwich are a few of his outlets in which he writes about current events, the environment, and national affairs.

During our conversation, Shaw also made clear a great misconception about private facilities: “I’m an expert here. I’ve been out there and have actually talked to the people, to the family. They will tell you it’s more humane inside of a private prison.” Being the progressive that he is, it was painful for him to admit that, like the justice system itself, the unions that serve it have become just as distorted from all their original intentions. “I think it’s like 90 percent state unions in the country [that run prisons],” he notes.

Discussed as an example was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), a public union often referred to as the most powerful special interest in the state. These puppet masters “have so much influence,” Shaw tells me, and “they can shape public opinion very easily.” He states how many people, when presented with options to reform the system, are often overwhelmed by rhetoric that denounces such measures as being soft on crime. “And you know what?” he notes solemnly. “It works every time.”

When the California Supreme Court upheld a court order last year mandating the release of 46,000 inmates, Shaw was surprised. “I thought they would overrule the order. It shows you how fucked up it is over there. Even the courts have gotten into it.” Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time CCPOA stooge, was once quoted as saying that “the Drug War is one of the games to get more convictions and more prisoners.” Brown should know, having had several closed- door sessions with union leadership and refusing to even consider Proposition 19’s passage.

On the Presidential candidacy of Congressman Ron Paul, a consistent libertarian long opposed to the Drug War and a vehement critic of fake “compassionate conservatives,” Shaw comes across as indifferent, although not entirely spiteful. “I’m advocating a withdrawal from the entire sys- tem,” he says, adding that if Paul wins the election, “the decision will fall down on the states, and the red ones will go one way, and the blue ones another way.” Texas? “Not gonna happen,” he says.

More critical were his comments on current President Obama. When asked if he supports him, Shaw says: “Absolutely not. Obama’s presidency should finally put to rest this idea that politicians are going to do what they say. It’s the system that needs to change.” He went on crucify Obama’s hypocrisy. He first stated on the campaign trail that he would not enforce federal medical marijuana raids. Then, last October, he ordered a crackdown in Los Angeles.

“I’m pretty sure he’s CIA. Yeah….he’s CIA,” Shaw says.

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