While substance abuse has been around for a long time, the current opioid crisis really is something new. It grew up fast around the 1996 introduction of OxyContin, and the juggernaut of aggressive marketing, high dosages, and powerful pills that could be swallowed, snorted, or injected got people hooked fast. At this point there are some 2.6 million people addicted to opiates nationwide. Overdoses are the leading cause of death for those under age 50, and in a decade the total deaths from opiates exceeded all deaths from HIV/AIDS. The statistics are numbing. But let them be the gateway for the invaluable stories Beth Macy recounts in Dopesick (Little, Brown, $28) about individual users, their families, doctors, and communities. Macy is a passionate reporter and while she focuses on the western part of Virginia--the region she knows best, and which is also among the hardest hit by opiates—she gives a comprehensive look at the history of drugs in this country, traces their different demographic trails, totes up the costs, and outlines the nation’s wrong-headed and/or conflicting criminal justice, drug, and health-care policies.
An investigative reporter for Mother Jones, Shane Bauer engaged in undercover journalism to see the reality of a privately run facility in Louisiana. With no background checks, he was hired by Corrections Corporation of America in 2014 as a guard. Training lasted thirty days. Bauer lasted four months in the job, during which time, as he reports in American Prison (Penguin Press, $28), he was tested daily by inmates and colleagues, saw federal regulations routinely flouted, and constantly wrestled with himself over how involved to get in doing the job he was hired for. Beyond projecting strength to avoid being victimized, he surprised himself by how much he cared about being perceived as tough and decisive, and faced ethical dilemmas over whether to write up prisoners for minor offenses. By the third week he felt himself ineluctably affected by the culture of prison, growing angrier, more defensive, and paranoid. Like one-third of the nation’s prison guards, Bauer suffered symptoms of PTSD—a rate higher than among returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. While profit, not justice or rehabilitation, is the driving force behind today’s prisons, Bauer’s detailed history of incarceration in the U.S. shows that this is nothing new. The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” and this loophole has been taken as a license to exploit prisoners as free labor.
Carol Anderson won the National Book Critics Circle Award for White Rage, her revelatory analysis of the nation’s systematic repression of African-American social and political gains. Her important new book, One Person, No Vote (Bloomsbury, $27), is an equally astute history of voter suppression in America. Examining both social and legal barriers, Anderson focuses on the 2013 Shelby ruling that effectively eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by invalidating two key provisions regarding federal preclearance. A professor and chair of African American studies at Emory, Anderson puts the ruling in the larger context of U.S. racism, traces the ruling’s immediate practical effects on voters, especially black voters in the South—subject to voter identification laws, voter roll purges, and gerrymandering—and proposes ways to redress this harmful decision.