It is little surprise that drugs and addiction are often discussed in the pages of American prison newspapers. The war on drugs led to millions of Americans being arrested and imprisoned as a consequence of drugs.
One of the newest additions to the collection is the Dixon Digest out of Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana. While incarcerated contributors to prison newspapers often speak about their addiction as something in the past, this April 2021 issue is written by correctional officers boasting about a major seizure within the facility. The contraband vacillates between things that are illegal only in prison and things that are broadly illegal, such as an ounce of methamphetamine.
Though references in Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspapers collection to prison drug treatment and Narcotics Anonymous seem predictable, it’s the drug-themed poetry that is surprising.
Written by G.R. Wirth at the Arkansas Department of Corrections Wrightsville Unit, the poem bounces from an accurate history of methamphetamine to a cautionary tale. The drug history, in poem form, begins with meth use during World War II, goes to the cocaine craze of the 1980s and culminates in the domestic meth manufacturing boom that was taking place in 2003, when the poem was written in the Arkansas’ Wrightsville Unit prison and published in the Long Line Writer.
“You’ll sell all your possessions,
Steal your Grandma’s TV.,
There’s nothing to stop you,
When you want some of me!
But don’t be discouraged,
‘Cause I’m easy to make,
Right in your own kitchen,
Like baking a cake!”
The US successfully reduced the type of home meth-labs Wirth mentions in his poem. Now, methamphetamine is produced on an industrial scale and imported. Its price is lower today than it was in 2003, but domestic “meth labs” are quite rare.
“They’re all out to get you,
Won’t give you no peace,
The robbers, the snitches,
The DEA, and Police!…
Some call me Crystal,
Crank, Dope, or Meth,
I answer to any,
But my real name is ‘Death.'”
It is unclear if Wirth was in prison for drugs.
Also published in the Long Line Writer but originally written by D. Thormodsgard in the Minnesota State Prison, “A Short Life” strikes a more somber tone. The pain and regret of addiction is a frequent topic in the essays and poems within the collection.
“My life so far has been a mess
From the cocaine to meth and all the rest
I am hoping some day will come
When all my wrongs can be made undone”
At the bottom of the page, the editor pleaded for submissions, “…the first obligation is to publish material from Arkansas inmates. That can’t be done if you don’t send it in.”
Drugs remain a common reason for incarceration. In federal prison, 45.3% of people were sentenced for drug crimes, though the proportion of people in state prison for drugs is nearer to 20% and varies depending on the state.
Louisiana has the highest rate of imprisonment in the nation; Arkansas is the fourth. Despite decades of high incarceration rates, both Louisiana and Arkansas have some of the highest rates of violent crime in the US. Arkansas is one of few states that does not pay even a nominal wage to its incarcerated workers—who often still work in agriculture on the “hoe squad.”
The war on drugs is but one component of mass incarceration. Myriad other facets, from policy to intimate portrayals of humanity, are found within the American Prison Newspapers collection.
Support JSTOR Daily! Join our new membership program on Patreon today.