The November Coalition
University of North Carolina Wilmington
In 1970, 16.3% of the Federal Prison population was serving time because of drug offenses. This represented a total of 3,384 individuals. By 2000, Prisoners sentenced for drug offenses represented a total of 57%. On September 30, 2000, the date of the latest available data in the Federal Justice Statistics Program, Federal prisons held 73,389 sentenced drug offenders. State prisons also hold a large number of drug offenders. In 2000, drug law violators comprised 21% of all adults serving time in State prisons. This represents 251,100 out of 1,206,400 State prison inmates. In 2001, 1 in every 146 U.S. residents was incarcerated in State or Federal prison or a local jail. As a result, the U.S. nonviolent prisoner population is larger than the combined populations of Wyoming and Alaska. As we know, the corrections population is not limited to those in prison. There were 5.9 million adults in the ‘correctional population’ by the end of 1998. This means that 2.9% of the U.S. adult population — 1 in every 34 — was incarcerated, on probation or on parole. The vast majority of those incarcerated for nonviolent offenses is behind bars, or otherwise involved with the corrections system, for a drug related offense.
If incarceration rates do not change, 1 of every 20 Americans (5%) can be expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime. For African-American men, the number is greater than 1 in 4 (28.5%). The primary reason for the remarkable increase in the incarceration rate is the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget has increased by 1,954%. Its budget has jumped from $220 million in 1986 to $4.3 billion in 2001. The November Coalition formed in response to the massive incarceration of offenders. In addition to the systemic problem of over-incarceration the November Coalition also points out the disproportionately devastating impact of mandatory sentencing on individuals and families.
According to their web site, the November Coalition includes “a growing body of citizens whose lives have been gravely affected by our government’s present drug policy. We are prisoners, parents of those incarcerated, wives, sisters, brothers, children, aunts, uncles and cousins. Some of us are loving friends and concerned citizens, each of us alarmed that drug war casualties are rising in absolutely horrific proportions.” The November Coalition is a non-profit, grassroots organization with the goal of “educating the public about the destructive increase in prison population in the United States due to our current drug laws. We alert our fellow citizens, particularly those who are complacent or naive, about the present and impending dangers of an overly powerful federal authority acting far beyond its constitutional constraints. The drug war is an assault and steady erosion of our civil rights and freedoms by federal and state governments.”
Formed in 1997 by survivors and victims of the drug war, the November Coalition uses real life examples to illustrate how a drug arrest can become a “frightening introduction to conspiracy statutes, government’s liberal use of informants, guideline-sentencing laws, and the nightmare usually leaves defendant and family confused and full of despair.” Long-term imprisonment has dramatic effects on personality and personal relationships. Prisoners suffer from severe restrictions on their human and constitutional rights, and all of these difficulties exact a toll on both the prisoner and those who love them.
Stories told by the Coalition provide support for the belief that tax dollars are endlessly poured into an ever expanding prison industrial complex that exists, in part to incarcerate the poor. The Coaltion argues that the discriminatory impact of drug policies should have been predicated, and if not, the discriminatory impacts are certainly clear to today’s policymakers. In effect, the policies create a situation in which the most vulnerable are least able to defend against injustice. In effect, our policies do not represent a realistic a war on drugs. They represent a war on people. The Coalition points out the similarities between alcohol prohibition of the 1920’s and drug prohibition today. Drug users have been dehumanized through demonizing propaganda, in particular “the crack epidemic,” that dominated national media during the late 1980’s.
The November Coalition seeks to rehumanize the victims of the drug war by telling their stories. By reading these stories it is clear that many drug war victims are regular people, good citizens and neighbors, whose lives have been derailed by a misguided war on drugs. The Coalition publishes “The Razor Wire” to report on drug policy reform efforts, legislative updates, and news about drug law vigils and meetings. This publication also includes letters from prisoners and others who have been victimized by the war on drugs. The organization also uses its extensive website, including “The Wall,” an online collection of prisoner photos and stories, to document the impact of the war on drugs.
The November Coalition provides an example of the internet’s potential for grassroots challenges to policy. The organization was started by a handful of people with a strong desire to educate people about a policy that they believed was having a devastating impact on individuals and society. As the November Coalition has demonstrated, the internet can be an extremely effective tool for information sharing. The organization has also demonstrated the internet’s potential as a tool for organizing those who share an opposition to a policy that has shaped our justice system, filled our prisons, and shaped the societies of America and many other countries.
References and Suggested Reading
Bonczar, T. and Glaze, L. (1999). “Probation and Parole in the United States.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington DC: US Department of Justice.
Harrison, Paige M. and Beck, A.J. (2002). “Prisoners in 2001,” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.
Irwin, J., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (1999). America’s One Million Nonviolent Prisoners. Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute.
November Coalition – http://www.november.org
Common Sense for Drug Policy – http://www.csdp.org/
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation – http://www.cjpf.org/
Drug Policy Alliance – http://www.drugpolicy.org/
Media Awareness Project – http://www.mapinc.org/
National Drug Strategy Network – http://www.ndsn.org/
Students for Sensible Drug Policy – http://www.ssdp.org/