One of the great joys of working as an actor is that, from time to time, you find yourself in places you would never in a million years go to on your own free will and once there find yourself talking to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. It was under these circumstances that I found myself talking to prison guards on the set of Shawshank Redemption in Mansfield, Ohio.
I have always been sympathetic with reports of injustice in the prison system, I’ve always understood that money usually buys the kind of justice you receive, that being poor and accused more often than not means you’re on your way to jail. I’d also been through experiences in my adolescence that brought me close to the long arm of the law and have always felt that “There but for the grace of god go I.”
What I had not understood until doing Shawshank was the prison system through the prison guards’ eyes. I asked these salt of the earth, crew cut, ostensibly Republican, square-jawed prison guards what they thought was wrong with the prison system, what they would change about it if they had the power. Their response shocked me: “Legalize drugs.” They understood better than anyone how the prison system works. “You’ve got 17-18 year old kids coming in here for possession or sale, victimless crimes, serving 2-3 year sentences. Now there’s a three-year waiting list for GED high school equivalency courses, a three-year waiting list for job training programs. They’ve got nothing but time, serving these sentences next to violent felons and lifelong criminals. What do they learn here – first, how to survive, how to fight, how to kill, essentially how to be better, more violent criminals. This isn’t prison for these kids. This is crime school. They come out after three years with no GED, no job training, no rehabilitation. The only thing prison has given them has been a hardened heart and a cynical soul. They’ve turned a kid that made a dumb mistake into a professional felon. And no one wants to hear prison guards’ opinions. Politicians come to the prison for a photo op, show that they’re tough on crime and push for more prisons and harsher sentences.
What I learned in Mansfield, Ohio is at the heart of the problem that we have in the American criminal justice system. This drug war has been a complete disaster. In 1980 half a million people were in jail in the U.S. Today, there are over two million. Under the Clinton Administration we have seen in the name of the war on drugs an increase in what were once illegal searches and seizures, a whittling away in the courts of the fourth amendment, a rise in racial profiling and a new growth industry in America, prison building. It is also important to note the disproportionate amount of people of color that have suffered the effects of the drug war. A friend of mine calls the drug war “America’s version of ethnic cleansing.”
Also, talking with a friend who was recently visiting New York from South America brings troubling news from Columbia. Our recent expenditure of billions of dollars to the Columbian military to fight this war on drugs has been resulting in recent weeks in the massive displacement of thousands of peasants from the land of their ancestors. Thousands of poor are being forced off their land by the Columbian military. Why? My friend believes there is a connection between that and a recent discovery of massive oil reserves under this same land. This fraudulent drug war is now, quite possibly, justifying immoral foreign policy.
It is my honor to be here tonight to receive this commendation from the Fortune Society, a grass roots group that is working hard to undo the disastrous results of this idiotic drug war, a group of committed individuals who have not given up on those amongst us who, through bad luck, or misfortune or poverty, or just plain stupidity, have found themselves in the almost irreversible hell hole that is the U.S prison system. I say almost because it is possible to turn one’s life around once out of prison. It’s just real hard to do and considering the cards stacked against you, thank God for organizations like the Fortune Society that realize that it is to all of our benefit to help the ex-prisoner turn their life around. A very smart nun once said to me that everyone is better than their worst act. Redemption exists. In these reactionary times we have to remind society time and again that we all deserve a second chance, we all deserve to be judged by what we do today not by the mistakes of yesterday, that we are all capable of forgiveness and forgiving and deserving of the higher plane that forgiveness and redemption can bring us.