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News & Features » March 2013 » “Calculating the Price Per Pound of an Incarcerated Black Man’s Flesh,” by Ricardo Cortés

“Calculating the Price Per Pound of an Incarcerated Black Man’s Flesh,” by Ricardo Cortés

In 2000, I was struck by a simple infographic in Wired magazine comparing earnings between several major industries. I was surprised by the low ranking of movies with respect to their command of popular culture. Moreover I was moved by how the bar graphs told a story; I tore out the page and taped it to my studio wall. Five years later, as I was formulating the idea of an illustrated book about coffee and drug prohibition, I read that coffee was the second most-traded commodity after oil. It seemed fantastic that coffee was that popular. I began to research the trails of several interrelated commercial, cultural, and political behemoths, and I imagined ways to compare them.


The book became A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola. Its focus grew beyond coffee, using several plants as vehicles to survey the perpetual fascinations and objections people have with “drugs.” I also detailed a long history of The Coca-Cola Company importing Peruvian coca leaf during an international prohibition of the coca plant (coca is the natural source material to make cocaine). This hypocrisy spoke to me as par for the course when engaging the tentacles of Drugs and the fight against them, so I thought it might be fun to thread some figures about a year in the life of Coca-Cola, coca leaves, and the Drug War.

I already knew the punchline. I wanted to bring my book from the anthropology of plant prohibitions to its real world effects: men and women locked in cages–cut from their family; cut from work-earnings potential; cut from political participation. I wanted to show the incarcerated as they are valued in much of our society, i.e. not at all. Slabs of meat. There may be some who are offended by the analogy; I only wish there was an even more offensive way to describe locking people in cages for “drug crimes.”

I initially considered presenting statistics in dollars and drawing them in representational piles of cash. According to the US Department of the Treasury, one dollar bill weighs approximately one gram. From that figure I could extrapolate any amount and illustrate the appropriate mountain of bills. But that felt a bit obvious. Ultimately, I wanted to articulate a measurement more novel than money. I decided to make a series of calculations and commentary by using weight.


In 2007, The Coca-Cola Company sold almost 135 thousand tonnes of beverages.

Besides the Wired graphic, a Harper’s Index-like tally of related curiosities became my anchor. It seemed an abstract but interesting detail to determine the total weight of all beverages sold by The Coca-Cola Company in one year. In the company’s 2007 Annual Report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission I found: “The Coca-Cola system sold approximately 22.7 billion unit cases of our products . . .” The report explained that 1 unit case equaled 192 fl. oz. of finished beverage, thus the “Coca-Cola system” had sold 4,358.4 billion fluid ounces of product in the year 2007.

Keeping in mind that the myriad Coca-Cola Company products may have different weights, I chose to estimate using its most popular beverage: Coca-Cola. How much does 1 fl. oz. of Coke weigh? I contacted a biochemist with access to an Ohaus Balance, who helped me discover 1 fl. oz. of Coca-Cola weighs 30.7333 grams. So, 4,358.4 billion fl. oz. of Coca-Cola product sold multiplied by 30.7333 grams = 133,948,160,000 grams, or almost 135 thousand tonnes of beverages.


In 2007, Stepan Chemical Company imported forty-five tonnes of coca.

Over the past century, Stepan Chemical has imported thousands of tons of coca leaf for the flavoring purposes of Coca-Cola. How it managed to do so, at odds with a ban on coca around the globe, is documented in my book. The company is exceptionally uncommunicative about its relationship to Coke’s “secret formula,” but I was tipped by an article in the Miami Herald (“Peru Firm Exports Coca Leaves” by Lucien Chauvin, July 2003) that named La Empresa Nacional de la Coca (ENACO) as the coca purveyor to Stepan’s facilities. A search of ENACO’s annual reports led to the reportage of its 2007 sales of coca leaf outside of Peru, 100% of which went to Stepan Chemical. The company received 45 tonnes of leaf.


In the US, law enforcement made more arrests for illegal drugs than any other crime, incarcerating forty-three thousand tonnes of human flesh. With a federal drug control budget of over 13 billion dollars, it made us a costly meat . . . almost $140 a pound.

I made leaps from the weight of caffeine and coca-laced soft drinks, to imports of cocaine-rich coca leaf from South America, to the dirty costs of the US Drug War. It’s a stretch, but hopefully by this point in the book readers will be making connections between them too. So, let’s break it down . . .

According to The Sentencing Project of Washington, DC, there were an estimated half million drug prisoners in the United States in 2007. That year, US Department of Justice statistics indicate the average person held in state and federal custody (by race, sex, and age) was a black male of 25-29 years. US Department of Health and Human Services data reported such a man’s average weight was roughly 190 pounds. Thus, the total weight of incarcerated drug law offenders was, very roughly, about 43,000 tonnes of flesh.

It gets tricky here. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), its 2007 budget was $13.128 billion. This is the figure published in my book; however, upon publication, I received an email from Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance. He wrote, “It’s actually twice that . . . the number appeared lower during the Bush years, since his administration fudged the budget to make it look cheaper – but Congress has now forced ONDCP to return to the previous way of counting the budget, which takes more of the costs into account.”

In 2002 the ONDCP dropped many costs from its budget reporting, such as prosecuting and incarcerating federal drug law offenders, and exaggerated costs slated for drug treatment and prevention. The ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 2006 was designed to address such inaccuracies, but by 2008 the National Drug Control Budget still omitted all activities that Congress ordered reinstated.

So let’s fix my final calculation, using a budget approximation to fix the skew. Since my book’s publication, more recent Health and Human Services data increased the 2007 mean weight of the “average incarcerated,” the 25-29 year-old black male, from 190 to 198 pounds, so I’ll adjust the total imprisoned weight to 99 million pounds. According to the US Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Domestic Policy, the ONDCP underreported its budget by one-third, thus bringing the originally published figure of $13.128 billion to $19.692 billion. This back-of-a-napkin calculation would suggest that the cost of running the Drug War, to the effect of incarcerating human flesh (mostly dark skin) is almost $200 a pound.

And yet, that’s a bargain! In New York City, the yearly operating cost per inmate at Rikers Island is $167,731 (most admissions into the NYC Department of Corrections are for drug charges; the “average” inmate admitted to custody is a 34-year-old black male). That, incredibly, breaks down to approximately $847 per pound to keep him locked down.


Ricardo Cortés is an author and illustrator of books on plants and prohibition, including A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola and It’s Just a Plant – A Children’s Story of Marijuana. He is also the illustrator of the #1 New York Times best-seller, Go the Fuck to Sleep. See his work at: www.Rmcortes.com or follow him on twitter.

Posted: Mar 7, 2013

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , ,