The numbers are in: More than 2.3 million American adults are behind bars. That's one out of 99 -- or more than one percent.
The prison population has essentially tripled since 1988. And if you add in all American adults who are on parole, home confinement or still in the corrections system, the number grows to more than 3 percent of the United States population.
What does the current prison headcount say about our society?
China reports 1.5 million adults in jail, and its population is more than four times that of ours. If China, the nation we love to criticize for its human rights policies, had the same incarceration rate we do, then China's jail population would swell to more than 14 million. Boy, oh boy, would sanctimonious Americans squawk if China had 14 million jail cells.
How many Americans are in jail? If you fenced West Virginians in, you'd still have to import everyone from Wyoming to equal 2.3 million people. Kentucky with its 4.2 million Kentuckians could represent our nation's halfway house.
Drug use is the driving force behind the boom in American incarceration. Some people shoot heroin. Some smoke pot. College students pop Ritalin at exam time. Elementary schools force-feed Ritalin to children just to spite parents who tune out to Pink Floyd. Doctors and pain clinics prescribe heavy-duty painkillers as if handing out Halloween candy. (In fairness, patients would sue doctors into the poor house if they didn't.) And teenagers just steal whatever is in the family medicine cabinet or use their allowance to buy ecstasy for special occasions.
Of those incarcerated felons who aren't in jail for using or selling drugs, a significant number were convicted of a drug-related crime, e.g.: robbing a convenience store to get money to buy drugs.
The crime numbers that astound me the most haven't even been published because there is no way to calculate them.
First, consider the billions of dollars circulating throughout the underground economy. Just how many bales of cash has America air-mailed to Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other foreign countries to purchase illegal drugs?
Secondly, billions of dollars are spent on legal drugs. Hospice care alone is a major pipeline for narcotics. Medicare and Medicaid, as well as insurance companies, shell out big bucks for narcotics. And we have to include over-the-counter drugs in this calculation. People get high on Nyquil, and Sudafed becomes meth. Before ecstasy, teens mixed aspirin with Coca Cola. Big Pharma rules the drug scene!
And, finally, there is the cost of policing and warehousing. Whether it's the extra cost to pharmacies for hiding Sudafed from cold sufferers, the budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or that new federal prison that Sen. Robert C. Byrd calls an economic development project, the cost of policing our drug culture is enormous.
If we could cut our drug-induced social costs by half, then we could use that money to turn America into a Utopian paradise.
I am not so naive as to believe that we'll eliminate the drug scene. However, until the late 1960s, Americans certainly did a better job of managing it.
What happened in the 1960s was dreadful. A generation of Americans (my generation) actually believed they could do what had always been dreamed about but never achieved -- create Utopia. Free love, mellowing marijuana and LSD made it so.
In 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World" as a parody of Utopian society. He wrote about the world becoming a dystopia, wherein families and family values were crushed, promiscuity was the norm and soma (a hallucinogen) became the drug of choice.
Huxley also predicted test-tube babies. While that has not happened yet, we're surely closing the gap. In the interim, we have segregated Alphas from Gammas the old-fashioned, Wizard-of-Oz way with certificates of accomplishment.
The problems associated with our love of drugs have gone beyond building more prisons or reducing sentences. Steadily rising incarceration statistics tell us the problem is more complex than that.
The real question before us is: Has America become Huxley's soma-driven dystopia? Our paper money routinely tests positive for cocaine. Though not every bill has been used to snort the white stuff, enough have to contaminate ATM's. And metropolitan drinking water now tests positive for a variety of pharmaceuticals.
Bulging prisons would alarm sober people and force them to take action. But as our dirty money and tainted water indicate, Americans are everything but sober.