Crack, Black, Busted
Is the war on drugs working? If its goal is to lock up African Americans, the answer is yes. Just ask Freddy Doyle.
The war on drugs is really a war on people like Freddy Doyle. Is it just punishment for crime, or an example of skewed priorities?
By DANIEL GREENE SMITH
There are five doors, several tons of steel and many preconceived notions that separate Freddy "Diamond" Doyle and me as I arrive to interview him this summer at the Dane County Jail. The 22-year-old native of Michigan City, Indiana, was convicted of crack dealing for the second time and is awaiting transfer to prison, to begin serving a four-year term.
Doyle, to my surprise, is soft spoken and polite and has a baby face--such a baby face that the day before he was arrested, he says, a clerk refused to sell him cigarettes because she didn't believe he was old enough. By that time in his life, Doyle had been shot twice, and had lost five or six of his friends to shootings and crack wars.
"I'm not a bad person," he assures me. "I've never really done anything bad to a person physically or bodily. I never harmed a person. I just felt like I wanted the things that I seen a lot of people with like the fancy cars and all of that."
Instead, Doyle ended up behind bars. (The day after our interview, he was transferred to Dodge Correctional Institute, awaiting further placement within the state prison system.) Depending on your point of view, he's either another statistic in the fight against crime or another casualty of the war on drugs. What's certain is that he'll be locked up, at taxpayer expense, for some time to come.
It should come as no surprise that Freddy Doyle is a black man. In the minds of many Americans, the words "crack" and "black" go together. Nationwide as well as statewide, the words black and prison go together too. Black people constitute only 13.8% of the U.S. population but 50.4% of its prisoners.
Wisconsin incarcerates black people at a rate nearly double that of the nation as a whole. Blacks here account for just 6.6% of the population and 47.4% of those imprisoned by the state Department of Corrections. According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based organization, African Americans have a better chance of ending up in prison in Wisconsin than almost any other state in the country. Only Minnesota locks up a higher percentage of its black population.
Drug offenses are the main engine driving this disproportionate incarceration of blacks. In Madison, where African Americans account for just 6% of the population, 54% of all the people arrested for drug offenses in 1999 were black, according to records provided by Madison police. And blacks accounted for 80% for the sale and manufacture of opium, cocaine and derivatives in the city last year (see chart). In this category, black people in Madison were 64.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites.
"Dane County has the worst statistics in the state when it comes to racial disparity in drug charges and imprisonments," says Steve Hurley, a longtime Madison criminal defense attorney, drawing from his work on a criminal penalty study committee. "It's shameful."
Currently, there is growing negative attention focused on the war on drugs. Recently, former Madison Police Chief David Couper publicly stated what others have long argued--that this war is unwinnable, and a waste of law enforcement resources. Less often scrutinized is the role that race plays in the waging of this war.
Indeed, some people say this largely explains why this war is still being fought, amid overwhelming evidence that it is not stopping people from using drugs. Perhaps the true goal of this war is to place large numbers of African Americans behind bars, keeping them out of the job market and in many cases taking away their right to vote. If so, it is a huge success.
Although arrest and incarceration rates appear to show that a much high percentage of blacks use drug than whites, statistics on actual drug use contradict this. According to the 1998 Federal Household Survey, "most current illicit drug users"--72% in fact--are white. African Americans, the survey says, constitute just 15% of total users.
The reason for this disparity, says Hurley, is that "we target poor people and black people for arrest." Why? "It's easier to catch poor people. It's harder to catch people buying or selling drugs in a country club. If you concentrate your police force on one group, you'll get arrest records and convictions that reflect the concentration on that group."
In Madison, programs like Blue Blanket have long focused law enforcement on "challenged" neighborhoods--those with lots of poor people and blacks. The arrest that sent Freddy Doyle to prison occurred in May 1999, in Penn Park in south Madison. Police had the park under surveillance as Doyle placed a package into a garbage can. The package was retrieved by police and determined to contain $1,000 worth of crack cocaine.
Hurley thinks there are political reasons that enforcement efforts are focused on blacks: "You pick on a population that historically does not exercise its franchise, or that is so small that even if it exercises its franchise it doesn't truly make a difference in the election of an official. They have little voice." In contrast, he asks, "What do elected officials have to gain from arresting white people?"
Indeed, says Hurley, one reason there hasn't been more outcry over the war on drugs from the predominantly white public is that "It ain't their kids being arrested. It's somebody else's [black people's] kids being arrested."
Enis T. Ragland, a black man and chief of staff to Mayor Sue Bauman, has a different perspective.
"The police are in black neighborhoods to protect us from each other," he says. "They [white people] don't have 50 people running in and out of a house every hour to buy drugs. They're not driving up and down the street with the stereos booming. They're not ripping off their neighbors to feed their habits. Mostly their children are not going unfed. They [white people] aren't shooting each other for the right to sell poison and death to their own communities."
A police officer, who asks that his name and jurisdiction be withheld, agrees. "We're not in the poor neighborhoods because we're worried so much about drugs," he says. "It's the violence that goes along with drugs, and that's usually about the money involved--so and so ripped off so and so. The drugs come with violence, but it's not the drugs were worried about so much, it's the shootings and the violence that goes along with it."
Hurley isn't persuaded. "Why do we primarily attack the drug problem with black folks?" he asks. "There's plenty of white on white crime, there's plenty of white people getting shot, there's plenty of white people using and selling drugs but we don't concentrate our police force in those neighborhoods."
There is, suggests Hurley, something sinister in what has happened to Freddy Doyle and thousands of young black men like him.
"One hundred and forty years ago, we fought a civil war in part over enslaving black people in essence to do certain jobs that were economically unpalatable to free white people," he says. "Now we duplicate some of that experience in a much more sophisticated way. We concentrate a police force in a black neighborhood. We arrest and convict the black people of certain crimes. Once they're convicted of a felony, we have disenfranchised them more effectively than the use of a poll tax.
Convicted felons lose the right to vote, to own firearms, and are put at a permanent disadvantage when it comes to finding jobs. "People who are convicted felons," continues Hurley, "have difficulty getting employment and wind up doing the jobs that more affluent white folks don't want to do."
So it's the reinvention of slavery?
"I'm not calling it that," says Hurley. "What I'm saying is the effects of concentrating a police force in a black neighborhood and then following through with the legal system to get convictions has some of the same effects. We like to gripe about all those black males that don't support their families, and cause their families to be on welfare. But the fact is if you incarcerate 25% of the nation's adult black male population, you have prevented those men from supporting their families and that has it's own consequences."
'CRACK IS MONEY'
Freddie Doyle was raised by his mother; his father moved to New Orleans when he was very young. He described a neighborhood where drugs and gangs were always around, where dealing was normal. He says some of the older kids would beat him if he didn't go to school because "they didn't want me to go through what they went through." But when he was 15, he says an older gang member offered him $2,500 to drop out of school and start dealing rock cocaine. And that's what he did.
Doyle says that for him, crack dealing was a job--and a good one at that. He could make up to $1,000 in three days. He didn't smoke the drug himself because "I seen what it does to people." And he wouldn't sell it to anyone he cared about.
"Every time I'm selling a rock, I don't like doing it," he tells me in a jail conference area. "But they won't give [me] a chance at getting a $11 or $15-an-hour job. I have to do something to maintain. I've been convicted of felony already and they [employers] look at us like we're just nothing, and we're human just like everyone else, anyone that's been to a penitentiary."
After Doyle's first felony, he says he tried to go straight, but became "discouraged" after months of rejections. And so he went back to "the only thing I know"--his profession of seven years, crack dealing.
"Crack cocaine is money," says Doyle. "You can be broke and have nothing but if you got that you got money. And just like money, it's the root of all evil and people need it and people want it, and they'll do what they can to get it."
Doyle says that when he does get out of prison, he's going to keep "pushing and pushing to get a job." But he doesn't give himself good odds. He thinks his past will be held against him.
Later, I ask an employer about Doyle's situation, and he essentially agrees: "I'm not a social service. Hiring a convicted felon is a risk and my competitors aren't taking those kinds of risks. I'm in the business of making money, not social work."
As a crack dealer, Doyle was also motivated by the bottom line. "I was seeing the money," he says, "so that's what I fell off into." He pauses, considers his present surroundings. "Now maybe I should give working at Wendy's a try."
Doyle shakes his head and laughs at his remark. "I tend to do the right things some of the time and the wrong things most of the time," he tells me. "I've been going though this too long now. I'm 22 and I can't take it no more and I'm tired of it. I'm not even from Madison. Now I'm away from my family, and it hurts me."
When I tell Ragland about Doyle's situation, and the justifications he makes, he responds vehemently. Crack dealing, he says, "is a cop out, it's an easy way out. These are people thinking only about themselves. They're not thinking about their families, their children and their communities."
Ragland says that "the gang mentality" doesn't make any sense to him. "Here's a guy who looks just like me--same color, hair style--but he's wearing red and I'm wearing blue so I have to try to kill him. We're both fighting over a corner of concrete that neither one of us own for the right to sell poison and death to our own communities. We should be fighting for the right to buy a house, or the right to get into college, but in our brainwashed mentality is such that instead of fighting for those things we're turning on each other."
According to the state Department of Corrections, it will cost taxpayers $1,716 a month ($20,593 a year) to keep Freddie Doyle in prison. As of July 31, there were 2,562 Wisconsin inmates--12.2% of the state's total adult prison population--serving time for drug offenses. This excludes inmates doing time for drugs in addition to other crimes, like robbery or sexual assault.
In other words, Wisconsin is spending about $52.5 million a year just to lock up nonviolent drug offenders like Doyle.
What if this vast sum were spent instead on things like education and job training and housing and health care. Wouldn't that investment increase the likelihood that poorer minority populations would be able to pursue and get jobs instead of committing felonies? Wouldn't the state be better off decreasing the prison population and increasing the taxpayer population?
"We know we're putting a large amount of our resources [in law enforcement and the penal system] and it isn't working," says Hurley. "Rationality would dictate that you remove the resources from there and put them in another place."
Ragland agrees. "If a job and an education were as easy to get as a rock of crack cocaine and a gun in our poorer neighborhoods," he says, "my people would not be in this position." And he believes there needs to be other approaches besides just locking people up: "People need help. Being addicted to drugs should get you some medical attention, some treatment. Every study supports that treatment and education are the way to handle it, not the penal system."
So what's the problem? "Our elected officials can't seem to get that through their minds yet. The polls say, 'Get tough on crime. They don't say, 'Fix the problem, and save our children and our money.'
But while Ragland agrees there ought to be changes in how mainstream society and the criminal-justice system view drug offenses, he also thinks young black people like Freddy Doyle need to take personal responsibility.
"I'm frustrated with the position majority culture puts us in, but I'm also frustrated with the choices my people make when they're put in those positions," he says. "We [African Americans] have a shorter-term look at things and it pushes us towards immediate gratification. Our rights were 'given to us,' as if they weren't inherently ours for being human beings. In our country, we've only had the right to vote for 35 years. Anything that's given can be taken away.
"While we've been human for as long as white people, white people have only recently begun to recognize that, and they can unrecognize that. Those facts, and our history where we were stripped of our culture and our religion, has brainwashed many of my people as well and pushed some of my people to take risks they shouldn't take."
As Ragland sees it, the drug problem ties into a much larger dynamic. "It's easier to lock up the problem than it is to address the problem, and they see us as a problem," he says, referring to white society. "That's the mentality. They see us black people as a problem and not as part of American society. Once we're seen--or if it ever happens that we're seen--as part of America, that's when things in our country will change."
Toward the end of my interview with Doyle, I ask him if there's anything else he'd like to say. In response, he makes a plea--for his future, and perhaps the future of others in his predicament.
"I made mistakes in my past, but that's in the past." he says. "I hope that when I get out, people will give me a chance, even though I've been to the penitentiary. I just want a chance. I want people to be fair."
1999 Madison Arrests for Drug Offenses
Total arrests 734
African American 396 (54%)
White 334 (45.5%)
Other 4 ( .5%)
For possession (all drugs)
African American 223 (45.5%)
White 263 (53.7%)
Other 4 ( .08%)
For sale or manufacturer of opium, cocaine or derivatives
African American 151 (80.3%)
White 37 (19.7%)
Source: Madison Police Department. Numbers reflect cases prosecuted under Chapter 961, the state's drug statutes.