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Don’t be a lick

Do you know what a “lick” is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here.

For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a lick is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking. “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant. At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain.

The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture. It’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn… it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song Already Gone: “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

[Originally published on 11/20/14 as “The case for not being a lick”.]

Video visitation: it’s coming

Visitation was packed. The line to get in barely moved. Tired moms chased screaming kids across the parking lot. Angry girlfriends, denied entry for wearing spandex and sleeveless shirts, stormed off in profanity-laced tirades. A grandfather passed out from heat exhaustion. After a two-hour wait, it was finally my mom’s turn to be frisked, then led through a gauntlet of metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and drug dogs. The guard who escorted her rolled her eyes and smiled, “Come on, video visits!” As if my sweet, 70-year-old mother, who has spent every Saturday for the last 12 years eating microwave food, walking laps, and playing cards with her wayward, knuckle-headed son would share this longing for dystopian efficiency over human contact. She does not. No prisoner or visitor wants this.

It’s coming, though. Not only because these contact visits — which have been standard operating procedure in the Florida Department of Corrections for the last 150 years — are now suddenly deemed a “security threat,” but mainly because there’s a market for it. Companies like Keefe and Access Correctional stand to make millions when video visits become the new normal in Florida prisons.

Most county jails have already made the transition with little or no resistance, but there’s a glaring difference: County inmates are either awaiting trial or serving minuscule sentences. Prisoners in the department of corrections are serving anywhere between a year and natural life. Imagine never being able to hold your daughter again, or give your little boy a piggyback ride, or kiss your wife, or hug your mom. You can argue that the prisoner deserves this. But do his children? His wife? His parents? Families serve sentences together. These types of policies have collateral consequences that extend far beyond the inmate.

John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago studies loneliness and he’s found that feeling socially isolated disrupts not only our brain but also our endocrine and immune systems. Over the long term, lack of human contact can be as damaging to our health and well-being as obesity and smoking (Men’s Health, Jan/Feb 2015).

In this era of Skype and Facetime, my words probably ring trivial. Old fashioned, even. Especially to the millennial who maintains several relationships over a mobile device. That’s not my world. There was no such thing as a smart phone when I was arrested. Many of my fellow prisoners were locked up before the advent of the internet.

Again, who cares? Outside of prisoners and their families, no one. And let’s be honest, the average inmate’s family is not exactly affluent, connected, or politically powerful. The Florida Department of Corrections knows this and passes its draconian rules with little resistance, as I’m sure they’ll do with this one.

To mangle a Leonard Pitts quote: Things like this will continue until the families of prisoners understand themselves as a constituency and organize their voices accordingly.

A nation in reverse

By now I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers — the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are locked up right here in the land of the free. One in three Americans has some type of criminal record, be it felony or misdemeanor. Our national embarrassment of mass incarceration and the commodification of human beings is alive and well in 2017.

The sad thing is, we were this close. You can’t see my fingers but… This. Close. There was bipartisan support for criminal justice reform at every level of government. “Non-violent drug offenders” had become a Beltway catchphrase. President Obama was commuting an historic amount of federal prison sentences. The most hard-line conservative seat on the Supreme Court had come open and Hillary Clinton, wife of Bill, with every reason in the world to undo what many view as the last bastion of slavery, was a stone-cold-lead-pipe lock for the Oval Office. What could possibly go wrong?

Blame it on Russian meddling, rust-belt angst, ex-FBI director Comey’s 11th-hour email investigation announcement, or a lack of voter turn-out because Dems thought they had it in the bag. For whatever reason, here we sit. A nation in reverse.

Never mind prison reform. The environment is under siege, Medicaid is under siege, Wall Street is on the verge of running rampant again after the quiet dismantling of Dodd-Frank (a piece of legislation put into place to ensure that the financial crisis of 2008 — an event that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth — would never happen again). Our president is disrespecting long-standing allies while complimenting dictators. The Montenegro shove, the Paris climate pull-out, the Mueller investigation, the Emoluments Clause lawsuits, North Korea, Syria, and tweet after mind-numbing, illiterate tweet. It’s exhausting and riveting and terrifying and hilarious.

Meanwhile, as these pyrotechnics dominate the news cycle, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has doubled down on an outdated War on Drugs policy, urging federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences on drug offenders. He’s even asked Congressional leaders to allow the Justice Department to prosecute medical marijuana providers. Stock in private prison profiteers like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America — down 40 percent in the last six months of Obama’s term due to a planned phase-out in the federal system — is once again soaring. Business is good. And with the resurgence of heroin, it’s only going to get better.

Rumors of the demise of the Prison Industrial Complex have been greatly exaggerated.