Orange is the New Red

Prison inmates sit or lay in their bunkers wearing orange jumpsuits

Red is the color of Communism or — the term I prefer — collectivism. With talk generated by the popular television series “Orange is the New Black” about prison reform, the one question never asked is: Why are more than 50 percent of people in federal prisons jailed for drug-related crimes?

Consider the following:

The runaway success of “Orange is the New Black” [Netflix television series] has made prison policy the hot water cooler conversation topic. When Piper Kerman, who wrote the book on which the series is based, along with show stars Kate Mulgrew, Laverne Cox, and Uzo Aduba, visited Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday, everyone agreed that personalizing the experience of the thousands of men and women dealing with the criminal justice system is the first step to changing it.

“Statistics are overwhelming and somewhat meaningless…but stories stick in your gut,” Kerman said of the power of television.

At a time when overcrowding in California has prompted federal courts to order that 10,000 prisoners be released, and when the public defender system is so overburdened that people often take plea deals to avoid risking decades-long sentences, the penal system touches the lives of millions of Americans. [reported at 9/12/13]


America’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded, and the war on drugs is mainly to blame.

Over 50 percent of inmates currently in federal prison are there for drug offenses, according to an infographic recently released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That percentage has risen fairly consistently over decades, all the way from 16 percent in 1970.

The second-largest category, immigration-related crimes, accounts for 10.6 percent of inmates. This means that people convicted of two broad categories of nonviolent crimes — drugs and immigration — make up over 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. [reported at 3/10/14]


Although the overall U.S. prison population declined slightly in 2011, the federal prison population continued to rise, with rates of drug and immigration offenders that eclipse those held for violent crimes. While only 8 percent of federal prisoners were sentenced for violent crimes in 2011, almost half of federal inmates – 48 percent – were in prison for drug crimes, according to Department of Justice statistics. Another 11 percent were held for immigration offenses – one of the largest-growing segments of the prison population.

These numbers reflect the impact of the aggressive U.S. “War on Drugs,” a major contributor to the United States’ standing as the number one jailer in the world. [see 1/2/13]

The “War on Drugs” began in earnest during the Reagan presidency of the 1980s. reports that in 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs to be a threat to U.S. national security. Speaking at the Justice Department, Reagan likened his administration’s determination to discourage the flow and use of banned substances to the obstinacy of the French army at the Battle of Verdun in World War I — with a literal spin on the “war on drugs.” The president quoted a French soldier who said, “There are no impossible situations. There are only people who think they’re impossible.”

In most other areas, Reagan argued that less government — lower taxes, less socialization of industry, fewer micro-managing regulations — was the solution, not more government. Yet somehow the federal government was supposed to eradicate the scourge of drug addiction. More than thirty years later, how well has that worked out?

Liberals are no better. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama attempted to end or reduce the role of Big Government in the area of drug trade and use. In fact, they seem to find it consistent with the rest of their policies that the federal government must be involved in controlling, taxing and/or subsidizing virtually every activity of our daily lives (except, oddly enough, for sex).

The popularity of the recent television series, “Orange is the New Black” has once again called attention to the state of prisons. Liberals and progressives tend to sympathize with the plight of prisoners, while conservatives tend to reply, “These are criminals. Why are you so concerned that they live in comfort?”

Neither side addresses the real issue: Why are so many Americans prisoners in the first place?

It’s beyond outrageous that more than half of people in federal prisons are incarcerated for reasons of drug use, abuse or drug trade. These are victimless crimes. It’s true that drug addicts victimize themselves. But government does not exist to protect us from ourselves. And, even if you think government does exist to protect us from ourselves, it cannot do so. What more proof do you need than the existence of the black market?

Alcohol Prohibition was ultimately repealed because it created more problems than it solved, for society as well as for law enforcement. It also did nothing to stop millions of people from becoming alcoholics. It’s widely disputed as to what causes alcoholism or drug addiction in the first place. One thing is for sure: Outlawing drugs and alcohol does nothing to prevent it. On top of that, the resulting crime, mayhem and federal/local expenditures resulting from the black market for a product that millions continue to want makes the world a worse place, not a better one.

“But by legalizing drugs, we’d be morally condoning drug abuse.” Since when did the litmus test for the legality of something become whether or not it’s morally acceptable? Liberty is supposed to protect liberty — not merely the liberty to do what’s moral (which is often a matter of opinion and debate, anyway).

“Legalizing drugs will permit the destruction of property.” No it won’t. Destroying property or driving a vehicle, a boat or an airplane while intoxicated will still be illegal, because these things involve the violation of individual rights to property and life. There will actually be less crime if drugs were legal, because police could concentrate on real crimes (theft, rape, murder, physical assault).

The deeper issue here is that we have an inalienable moral and political right to do with our bodies as we see fit. If we don’t have a right to decide that about drugs or alcohol, then there’s no basis for claiming a right to do it in other areas, either.

The Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama War on Drugs is based on small-c “communism” or collectivism. Collectivism refers to the idea that we’re all each other’s keepers. On such a premise, it’s morally mandatory that the government intervene to keep people from doing self-destructive or self-defeating things such as trading/using drugs. (Of course, we don’t do that with alcohol, and alcohol can be every bit as destructive.)

The color red (which used to symbolize Communism in Soviet Russia and Maoist China) is better suited than orange for the more than half of federal prisoners who are in jail for using, abusing or trading drugs. Their imprisonment symbolizes the reality of collectivist thinking in America, to the point where people are jailed for disagreeing. “We all must take care of one another,” this thinking goes, “even if some don’t wish to be taken care of, and would prefer to squander their lives on drug abuse — or perhaps even engage in recreational drug use. Who cares if it wastes money and destroys lives, and gives the government unconstitutional controls over individual, personal liberty it would never enjoy without anti-drug laws? Care for others comes above all else.”

I have no interest whatsoever in minimizing or ignoring the very real and destructive effects of drug abuse on the lives of millions of people. My only question here is: What in the hell does that have to do with the government? These are problems for human beings to work out with themselves, with their philosophy of life, with their therapists, rehab programs, or whatever is useful for addressing the problem. It should have nothing whatsoever to do with the police and prisons. Overcrowding prisons so we can incarcerate people for using drugs is madness.

As with so many other social and personal issues, government is the problem — not the solution.



Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1