Beneath the Underdog: Drugs and Incarceration in the Americas

August 16, 2011

During a visit to Trinidad and Tobago in June, I had the privilege of spending time with Gordon Rohlehr, the esteemed Guyanese literary scholar. It is from him that I take the title of this article. Rohlehr explained that any meaningful definition of community must take into account layers of power in society and include not merely the downtrodden, but also those whose struggles and humanity often fall below the collective radar, people whose imposed marginality marks them as a class “beneath the underdog.”

The brilliant jazz bassist and civil rights activist Charles Mingus used the phrase as the title of his autobiography. The lifeworks of both Mingus and Rohlehr tap into the better parts of our collective humanity. They remind us to hear the voice of the marginal and submerged, to look beneath stereotype, poverty, racism, and the shadows cast by power to recognize the music, beauty, and expressive power of people and communities not always deemed worthy of society’s attention.

There is perhaps no starker example of the importance of this lesson than the peaceful hunger strike that prisoners at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison launched July 1 to protest the inhumane policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The hunger strike came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that called on the state of California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years in order to relieve overcrowding. The prisoners’ demands include an end to collective punishment and solitary confinement, and the provision of adequate and nutritious food (posted at

These prisoners, many of whom suffer extreme forms of cruelty, deprivation, and torture, are seeking to reassert their humanity and to question the racism and poverty that shape policing and carceral conditions across the United States. Although few have made the connection, the Pelican Bay prisoners’ bold assertion of their civil and human rights should be understood within the context of a new reevaluation of the so-called War on Drugs and its terrible consequences, including the disappearance of thousands of people into the prison-industrial complex. The Pew Center found in 2008 that the United States confines more of its own citizens than any other country in the world—one in 100. In 2009, half of federal prisoners were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, according to

Unfortunately, the United States has exported this counter-productive and destructive model to Latin America through the drug war. This is made clear in Systems Overload, a report released in May by the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America. The report documents how drug policies promoted over the past two decades by the United States in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay have led to extremely punitive drug laws that fall disproportionately on the poor and dispossessed. According to the report, the average incarceration rate between 1992 and 2007 more than doubled in all of these countries except Bolivia, for which complete data was unavailable.

These reports join others—from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, medical professionals, and President Carter, to name only a few prominent recent interventions—in calling for a review and revision of these policies. Such interventions aim to ameliorate the rampant human rights abuses that these policies foster, while failing by almost any measure to protect public health, reduce drug trafficking, or undermine the power and influence of the drug kingpins who profit from the drug war.

The prisoners at Pelican Bay are also seeking to intervene in the debate. They remind us that if we fail to listen to those beneath the underdog, we all are all complicit in the ongoing degradation of our collective humanity.



Suzanna Reiss teaches history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She blogs at, where a shorter version of this article originally appeared.


Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 2011 Cuba Issue.


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