Reader’s Forum: Carl Farmer

Chapter Seven: Building the Penal State in The War on Alcohol

When I first heard of Lisa McGirr’s book ‘The War On Alcohol’ I assumed it would be a condemnation of the evils of drink and how to live a purer life of total abstinence.  Oh how wrong I was!  This book is about the rise of unfettered federal power without an understanding by individual citizens.

My information about Prohibition comes from memories told to me by my parents and the movies. My memories are of the later prohibition of Mary Jane in the 70’s.  Both sets of memories can be looked upon as a funny and amusing experience. Fortunately, none of us were ever caught or incarcerated.

I started reading the book by reading the chapter on the rise of the Penal State and then read the rest of the book.

The penal state comes to prominence under Herbert Hoover and is refined by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  H. Hoover wanted a total reform of the American justice system by increasing the power of the federal government and announced his intentions in his inauguration.  Thus, the control and prevention of crime became a national issue for the first time.  Many surveys were carried out and acted upon both by Congress and by executive commissions and orders. Well-meaning ideas concerning treatment of working class blacks and whites and immigrants were enacted often without consultation with the recipients.  ‘We know what’s best for you.’  Incarceration of minorities and underprivileged persons became the norm.  More prisons needed to be built and more officers were needed for enforcement.  The Federal system was needed to coordinate, collect and control the rise of crime.  Once the system was up and running it was easily changed to concentrate on narcotics when the prohibition of alcohol was repealed.

Unfortunately, the idea of totally prohibiting addiction rather than medically treating the problem continues. This seems to be an American attitude compared to what occurs in Europe and Scandanavia where a system of treatment and maintenance for the individual exists.

It is also the story of what happens when a good intention goes wrong.

Carl Farmer is a designer and political activist now living in Rhode Island.


Side Note: Here is an interesting 2008 NY Daily News article about RI’s most infamous “rum runner”, Danny Walsh. It is one example of how Prohibition contributed to the expansion of organized crime.

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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

2 thoughts on “Reader’s Forum: Carl Farmer

  1. Carl Farmer’s remarks and the Daily News article have been quite an education, even before our phone call! Keep ’em coming!

  2. “Unfortunately, the idea of totally prohibiting addiction rather than medically treating the problem continues.”

    True, and that certainly needs to be adressed, but our prisons also contain a vast number of people who use illicit drugs for recreational purposes, and those who provide them. As in the past, the prosecution of such individuals does not appear to be distributed equitably across racial and socio-economic lines.

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