Review by Rachael J. Hughes
It’s hard to fathom, reading this book in 2017, that Richard Stratton would have to do time at all for his offense: smuggling hashish and marijuana into the United States. But in his memoir Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs (Arcade Publishing, May 2017), he is sentenced twice with over 25 years in prison.
His mantra is: I am not a rat. He could have sold out plenty of business partners, as he was testified against, but he chooses the high road of dignity—ironic as it may sound—and challenges the government’s “war on plants.”
Stratton becomes what is known as a “jailhouse” lawyer. When he is not placed in solitary confinement due to overcrowding, or subjected to “Diesel Therapy” (being bussed around the country from prison to prison), he works tirelessly to challenge the government on its stance on a harmless plant and its harsh stipulations against it—and him.
As Stratton helps himself up the ladder to freedom, the justice system pries his fingers of the rungs one at a time. During his tenure with the Bureau of Punishment (BOP), he is slapped with the Kingpin status—the leader of the “Hippie Mafia”—and given a decade more of time to be served concurrently with his original fifteen-year sentence. One of the ironies of this memoir is that he finds he has easier access to drugs of any sort and stripe while “on the inside,” and is, in fact, under the influence of these when he decides serve as his own lawyer—a request granted by the judge, who seems to hope this will lead to his failure.
Just when he constructs a solid case and has a star witness—his friend Norman Mailer—the judge halts his case, preventing him from any courthouse victory. But Stratton does not give up easily. He writes with his typewriter (prison contraband) and visits the library as often as he can, to reduce his sentence. He laughs in the face of lawyers who suggest ratting out associates in his enterprise. He keeps his dignity despite routine anal proddings and strip-downs. In the meantime, he helps fellow inmates reduce their sentences, befriends mafia don Joe Stassi—continues a fruitful friendship with Mailer—and maintains his silence against his crimes in a monk-like fashion.
Stratton’s story is an inspiring one. At the heart of memoir, there is transformation. The reader will see the internal struggle of Stratton’s psyche as he is faced with harsh prison life—a life that entails witnessing stabbings on the way to the mess hall, suicides on the way to work, and the misuse and abuse of prison guard power. It is an eye-opening account of the wrongdoings of the justice system, as well as a memoir of honesty and character development. While the BOP’s intent is supposedly reformation, further corruption is often the result behind the bars and walls and razor-wire. Stratton illustrates this beautifully while he undergoes his own spiritual transformation, but still holds true to his defense of a harmless herbal remedy he reiterates is given to us “by God.”
Readers will be endeared to Stratton’s internal struggles and inspired by his strength of character as a soldier in “The War on Drugs.” At times harrowing, at times funny, the pages will blow rapidly by as his story unfolds.