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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Shattered Lives: Portraits From America’s Drug War by Mikki Norris, Chris Conrad, and Virginia Resner

A Poignant lllustration of the Drug War's Human Casualties

Creative Xpressions Press • 1998 • 118 pages • $19.95 paperback

Although many writers criticize the drug war, few, if any, more poignantly illustrate its human casualties than the authors of Shattered Lives: Portraits From America’s Drug War.

Mikki Norris, Chris Conrad, and Virginia Resner paint a human face on the thousands of incarcerated Americans serving out drug sentences:

  • Americans like Joanne, Gary, and Steve Tucker, together serving 36 years for selling legal hydroponics gardening equipment from their family-owned store. Prosecutors charged and convicted them with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana based on the offenses of a handful of their customers and on the Tuckers’ refusal to allow DEA agents to install surveillance cameras in their store.
  • Grandfathers like Loren Pogue, 64, serving 22 years for conspiracy to import drugs and money laundering. Pogue helped a paid government informant sell a plot of land to undercover agents posing as “investors.” The buyers, whom Pogue met only once, allegedly were to use the land to build an airstrip for smuggling drugs. That there were no actual drugs involved, that Pogue was an upstanding citizen with no prior drug history, and that the airstrip was never built failed to mitigate his virtual life sentence.
  • First-time offenders like Will Foster, sentenced to 93 years by an Oklahoma jury for cultivating marijuana for the purpose of alleviating pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

These are the seldom seen victims of our nation’s growing drug war hysteria, unfortunate casualties of more than 80 years of lies, propaganda, and political posturing.

Shattered Lives pays special attention to the families torn apart by drug prohibition and the children left behind in its wake. “I have four children who all live with family, but in separate homes and towns,” recalls Jodie Israel, 34, a first-time, nonviolent offender serving 11 years on marijuana conspiracy charges. “It is so hard to explain to a child why you can’t be with them and I believe it puts a tremendous burden on their little hearts . . . . It is not just the prisoners doing time, it is our families, too. I believe it is just as hard on them as it is on us.”

Jodie’s story, and her family’s plight, are not unique. The authors profile dozens of cases where the punishment is inappropriate to the “crime.” Consider the case of David Ciglar. “My family is devastated,” writes Ciglar, 39. A former firefighter who saved more than 100 lives, Ciglar is now serving a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for marijuana cultivation. Authorities also seized his family’s home. “My wife live[s] every day wondering if she can make it financially and mentally. My kids don’t know why their Dad was taken away for such a long, long time.”

According to the Department of Justice, 1.7 million Americans subsist behind bars and one out of 35 Americans lives under the direct control of correction agencies. This inflating prison population, one that stands six to ten times higher than those of most Western European nations, is largely attributable to the war on drugs and the increasing prevalence of mandatory-minimum sentencing. Dubbed the “law of unintended consequences” by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, mandatory sentencing shifts judicial discretion from judges to prosecutors.

Mandatory-minimum laws were first introduced in the 1950s, but lawmakers eventually repealed them because of their inflexibility. However, to appear “tough on drugs,” Congress reintroduced mandatory-minimum sentencing in the 1980s and they are now applied almost exclusively in drug cases. According to Judge Franklin Billings, these laws deny judges “the right to bring their conscience, experience, discretion and sense of what is just to the sentencing procedure. [I]n effect, [mandatory sentencing] makes a judge a computer, automatically imposing sentences without regard to what is right and just.”

Shattered Lives is based on the award-winning photo exhibit “Human Rights: Atrocities of the Drug War.” All three authors served as curators and coordinators for the exhibit, originally constructed in 1995 in con junction with the United Nations’ 50th anniversary. Like its predecessor, Shattered Lives has both a literary and visual impact on the reader. The book’s oversized format makes even more compelling the portraits of those forever scarred by the excesses of drug prohibition.

If the ultimate goal of art and the written word is to move the reader, then Shattered Lives succeeds as have few analyses before.