When documentary-maker Angus Macqueen travelled to the United States to film a segment for his three part documentary called 'Our War on Drugs', he could never have foreseen the man who would become the star of this, the second episode in the trilogy, a small time drug dealer from Queens named Thomas Winston, would not live to see the program hit its broadcast date.
By the time it was shown on Channel 4 (August 9th 2010), Thomas Winston, a likeable character who had drawn a bad hand of cards from the life deck when he was born some 29 years earlier, had been stabbed to death.
In the program, Thomas is first seen campaigning against the 'Rockefeller' drugs laws in New York State, where sale or possession of small amounts of drugs are given a mandatory sentence equivalent to second degree murder, and have long been seen to be both discriminatory and draconian.
He also spoke at the local prison, telling drug offenders it was their choice alone whether they chose to reoffend.
The film tracks Thomas's moving story over a number of months, as he first interacts with the legal system and then as his probation officer and lawyer attempt to help him get his life on what the authorities like to call 'the straight and narrow'. But gradually he is drawn back to his old life.
As his probation officer says during the program, here is a man who can earn $15,000 a week in the drugs world or $200 before taxes working in McDonald's.
"You do the maths" she tells Macqueen.
Its a shockingly clear indictment of how the actual harms created by drugs are not necessarily to do with the drugs themselves. But more to do with the way they are prohibited, thus ensuring a bouyant black market which is worth trillions of dollars worldwide every single year.
A truly massive industry dwarfing the likes of Microsoft and Google in terms of nett annual worth. But unlike these two technology giants, the drug industry isn't run using computers. Its run by people who use guns and knives.
Thomas Winston lived in 'The Projects'. A 'social housing' development; the Queensbridge Estate in New York lies within sight of the Manhattan skyscrapers, but is seemingly a world away.
The largest housing complex in Queens also houses one of the largest concentrations of drug dealers seen anywhere in New York state, with some apartment buildings hosting as many as 40 independent drug dealers, all competing for trade.
According to one dealer, anyone who gets busted is soon replaced. On the same day in most instances, as the Police continue fighting a war which was lost a long time ago.
In the documentary Macqueen interviews a young black drug dealer as he weighs out over a thousand dollars worth of crack cocaine into small baggies. One nights sales for this dealer, who like many others in Queens, take most of his orders over the telephone these days.
"Its not bad, but its early yet", he tells the camera as he counts a handfull of 20 dollar bills.
Its a scenario which will become all to familiar here in the UK, as traditionally we have followed the American way ever since Nancy Regan created the 'Just Say No' campaign back in the 1980's.
Ironically, around the time Thomas Winston was born.
War on Drugs - Fuelling The Prison Boom
Never mind putting your money in oil, or pharmaceuticals if you are looking for a long term investment.
In the United States, the new business to be in is the business surrounding locking people up.
Indeed so fast is the growth in the new prisons business, human rights campaigners are looking at the war on drugs as the newest form of legal slavery.
Prison Inc. = Slavery?
Human Rights organisations are condemning what they are calling a new form of inhumane exploitation in the United States, where they say a prison population of up to 2 million - mostly Black and Hispanic - are working for various hi-brand American corporations for around 25 cents (around 18p) an hour.
For the tycoons who have invested in the prison industry, it has been like finding a pot of gold.
They don't have to worry about strikes or paying unemployment insurance, vacations or sick days.
All of their workers are full-time, and never arrive late or are absent because of family problems.
Moreover, if they don't like the pay of 25 cents an hour and refuse to work, they are locked up in isolation cells.
There are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the US.
According to California Prison Focus, "no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens."
The figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S.
Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world's prison population, but only 5% of the world's people.
From less than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the jail population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million.
Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the United States, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100 private prisons, with 62,000 inmates.
It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000, and so the exponential growth increases year on year, making private prisons a good, long term investment.
Why? Because life sucks and people like to get high to escape from it every now and again.
Lawmakers know this, so in order to keep the production line of free labour running, its important to maintain drugs prohibition as this is the single highest provider of new prisoners.
According to the Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG), which is an independent research and media organisation in Montreal Canada, the private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up without any thought for rehabilitation. The revolving door many drug dealers find their way into, inevitabely leads to a cycle of offending, prison, release, re-offending, re-imprisoning etc etc.
Income from Influx
Prisons depend on this. Contrary to the penal system implementing rehabilitation in to the community for newly released prisoners, big business is ruled by the bottom line. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners' work lobby for longer sentences, in order to expand their workforce.
The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street, which is incidentally one of the prime pieces of drug dealing real estate in mainland America. Although you will seldom see any black drug dealers working Wall Street. Thats where the white dealers sell to the white users.
"This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors."
According to sources, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.
Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture.
Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more besides. Enough to run its own shopping channel.
Federal law stipulates five years' imprisonment without possibility of parole for possession of 5 grams of crack or 3.5 ounces of heroin, and 10 years for possession of less than 2 ounces of rock-cocaine.
A sentence of 5 years for cocaine powder requires possession of 500 grams - 100 times more than the quantity of rock cocaine for the same sentence.
Most of those who use cocaine powder are white, middle-class or rich people, while mostly Blacks and Latinos use the cheaper, crack cocaine.
So the authorities created a law against crack cocaine carrying with it sentences upto 10x more serious than that for the powder cocaine the white Wall Street users prefer.
White V Black
Human Rights Watch have published a series of reports making clear that Whites, Black and Hispanics sell and consume narcotics in equal numbers, yet over 80% of the prisoners in New York State are Black or Latino. Inside a prison, barely a white face can be seen.
As an example of the disparity in sentencing, in Texas, a person may be sentenced for up to two years' imprisonment for possessing 4 ounces of marijuana.
But in New York, the 1973 Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory prison sentence of 15 years to life for possession of 4 ounces of any illegal drug.
The passage in 13 states of the "three strikes" laws (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies), made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons.
One of the most disturbing cases resulting from this measure was that of a prisoner who for stealing a car and two bicycles received three 25-year sentences.
So with all of this in mind, its hard to see how Thomas Winston from Queens, was ever going to escape the drugs trade, and no matter how hard he tried.
Ultimately he never did escape, and he paid the absolute price, leaving behind a young daughter who must now work her own way through the mine-field of the drugs war, whilst being brought up in environment which makes it almost impossible to do so.
Thomas Winston wanted to making money. Its all anyone wants to do. Make enough to provide for your family.
But when the options are either $15,000 a week selling drugs to people who are going to buy them from someone else if not from you, or $200 per week before tax working at McDonalds, there are not many who would choose McDonalds.
And in all honesty, who could blame them?
By Vicky Pelaez
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