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Interview with 'Exile Nation' author Charles Shaw

Charles Shaw has been making news with his book, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, a potent look at the prison-industrial system from the inside. In Exile Shaw peels back prison walls to detail the layers of institutionalized oppression the U.S. calls both justice and big business. After reading the bleak tale of his time in the system, Mr. Shaw was kind enough to play along and answer our stupid questions.

You were sent to prison for a handful of MDMA tablets. Why did you decide to live a life of crime?

Funny you ask that. If it weren't for the fact that drug possession is a crime, I don't think I'd ever come close to a "criminal lifestyle." The only crimes I have ever committed were for drugs, and only because I was a de facto criminal. When you criminalize someone's lifestyle, you no longer have to give any credence to their political grievances. It's a great way to avoid having to address the larger issues, such as where the drugs are coming from, who's moving them, and why they are there.

Imagine you could write a review to rate your various prison experiences. Which experiences would come out on top, and how many stars would you give each?

I'd give the Cook County Jail in Chicago "Zero Stars." That place is worse than the hourly No-Tell Motels for crackwhores that populate Sunset Blvd. The guys in Guantanamo are living in five star luxury by comparison. I'd give the Stateville processing center, where all prisoners are (you guessed it!) processed into the Illinois prison system "Two Stars." This place is clean and safe, but only because it's brand new and you never come out of your cell. Lastly, the East Moline Correctional Center, where I served out my sentence, was definitely a "Four Star" endeavor in comparison to other prisons in the Illinois system. Because it was Minimum Security and situated on a campus setting, and you got to go outside twice a day, and they had a big library and moderately decent food, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. But don't let that fool you, the place was still pretty scary.

You write about the dehumanizing nature of prison. Wouldn't prison be less of a deterrent if the walls were clean, the food was decent, and the guards couldn't mistreat you?

Yes, if deterrence was their goal. It's not. They stopped "rehabilitating" prisoners in the 1970s. Today's prison-industrial complex is set up to do one thing and one thing alone, ensure your return. Considering that most prisoners are poor, because the prison system is set up to manage the "unruly underclasses"--what writers like Noam Chomsky and Christian Parenti call "surplus population" or "surplus labor"--most prisoners are worth more in prison than out on the street. When you're locked up, you are worth anywhere from $20,000-$90,000 a year, depending on the type of incarceration you are held under. Contrast that with an unemployed ex-offender who, if he's lucky enough to find a job, can squeeze maybe $12,000 a year out of some simple labor job. More often than not, they are a drain on the system, even though they are legally denied most social services. So no one in government is shedding any tears when people are reincarcerated at a rate of nearly 60% within three years. It's not that ex-offenders want to go back to prison, it's that it's almost inevitable; with no options available to them, most have no choice but to go right back to selling or using drugs.

Did empathogenic mind expansion help you feel compassion for guards and fellow inmates while they were systematically dehumanizing you?

Most of the serious work I did with entheogens and empathogens came after my time in prison. I had just begun working with MDMA to try and heal my PTSD only two months before I was busted, so I didn't get too far with it. So I suppose the answer is, no. I resented them pretty severely. You would too. It's hard to feel compassion for such craven ignorance and bigotry. But then again, they are all products of an ignorant, bigoted, craven system, the guards too. Their parents were farmers or built cars or served in the military, but all those jobs are gone now, and all they got are these shitty prison jobs, which they hate, and take out on the inmates. I suppose I have compassion now, though, particularly since I escaped that world and rebuilt my life, and they are all still there doing the same old bullshit.

Did you ever hear of MDMA making it into prison? What do you think would happen if a group of say, Fin Ball gangbangers and White Pride skinheads sat down and took MDMA together?

I think it would be fucking rad, to use the parlance of the times. I can't think of something I'd want to see more, that is more appropriate. My friends at MAPS are trying to do prison outreach work, but there is no way in hell they'd be able to work with MDMA at the moment. But if their FDA approved PTSD studies bear fruit and don't become a political lightning rod, I believe it could happen some day. And I believe it could change people. Amazing shit happens when walls drop.

After doing hard time in some of the worst prisons in America, have you finally learned the evils of drugs?

I knew about the evils of drug use long before I went to prison. I was a crackhead, I get it. The shit is bad. Ditto all the dopefiends I knew, or the methheads. Alcohol ruined my family and nearly every family I knew. My father's whole family died of smoking-related illness. I could go on. But that's not the point. The point is whether it's ethical, even Constitutional, to criminalize some drug use while permitting others. If you examined why only "some" are criminalized, you very quickly begin to see that all prohibition is political in nature. No one is seriously trying to stop the drug trade, in fact, if you start to look into who the biggest drug traffickers really are, all roads lead to Rome (or Washington DC, as the case may be). Drugs have been an integral part of the maintenance of colonial empires for hundreds of years, and they are still being used that way by the US. Oh you dispute me? Fine. Explain to me then why everywhere we go to combat the drug trade, production increases exponentially? Fifteen years after being in Columbia, cocaine production tripled. Think that's bad? When we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the previous year's opium harvest was 134 metric tons. In 2009, it was 9000 metric tons, an increase of 7500%! Today, 90% of the world's heroin comes from US-occupied Afghanistan. It does not take a Ph.D to figure that one out. Look deeper at the history, and you'll be in for a wild ride.

[Read full excerpts of 'Exile Nation' at the link below.]

Posted By jamesk at 2010-03-15 14:20:59 permalink | comments
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Sergio Lub. : 2010-03-18 18:52:53
Right on! I am witing from Colombia and all thinking people I met here know that their drug related violence is fueled by the US insane drug policy.
Chemically dependent people need help, not punishment.
New Nab. : 2010-03-17 12:08:01
Excellent stuff!

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