1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws: A Manual for Neo-Racism

I was raised in a White, lower class rural family.  While I definitely wouldn’t consider my family to be racist (others might) I can see the  trickle down effect of past generations’ prejudices apparent in my father’s slang. Before coming to St. Lawrence, a less educated version of myself might blindly and naively conclude that racism is a thing of the past. After all we have a Black President! But wow, could I ever be more wrong. One need only drive one hour North East of Canton to Malone’s finest Upstate Correctional Facility to see examples of today’s forms of neo? racism. In early December the NYCLU (New York Civil Liberties Union) filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York states use  of solitary confinement specifically using the example of prisons in Malone NY. This lawsuit brings up many questions pertaining to my research but for this specific blog I would like to zero in on the question of race. Here is a link to the report by the NYCLU:


This discussion should begin with the Rockefeller Drug Laws enacted in 1973 which aimed to deter drug criminals by incarcerating non-violent drug offenders with harsh sentences. These drug laws led to the overcrowding of State prisons and the birth and perpetuation of the Prison Industrial Complex which I will return to in a later blog. The basic problem in my opinion is you can’t deter drug criminals. Non-violent drug criminals need rehabilitation NOT incarceration. From first hand sources I have learned of the availability of drugs in prison. Incarceration does nothing to reduce rates of recidivism, especially if the majority of non-violent drug offenders are not being treated in rehabilitation facilities which perpetuates the cycle of incarceration (and inevitably the Prison Industrial Complex).

These drug laws were unequally directed at inner city communities of color with debilitating effects resulting in obvious racial and ethnic disparities within the NYS prison population.  According to the NYCLU these racial disparities were a result of “selective arrests and prosecution” and “inadequate representation.” According to the same article     “There were 886 persons incarcerated for drug offenses in 1980. Of these individuals, 32 percent were Caucasian; 38 percent were African American; and 29 percent were Latino. In 1992, the year in which the state reported the highest number of commitments for drug offenses, 5 percent of those incarcerated were Caucasian; 50 percent were African American; and 44 percent were Latino.

The demographics of the inmate population serving time for drug offenses in 2000 had changed little from the data reported in 1992. (See table below.) Of the 8, 227 new commitments for drug offenses in 2000, 6 percent were Caucasian; 53 percent were African American; and 40 percent were Latino. The disparities persist. Today more than 90 percent of persons incarcerated for drug offenses are African American or Latino.” A copy of that article can be found here :


These statistics show the huge disparities evident in the New York State Prison populations. There have been movements to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws such as in 2004 and 2005 when amendments were made such as the shortening of some of the long term drug sentencing. In 2009, led by Gov Patterson, there was a bill written to give discrepancy to the judge to send offenders to rehabilitation programs without the consent of the prosecutor.


These drug laws have helped lay the groundwork for our current ethos on prison policy and structure, drug sentencing, and race/power relations that are especially evident in the prison system. These systematic, en-grained racial inequalities are especially seen in prison ‘disciplinary’ strategies and practices such as solitary confinement.



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