Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Personal Voices: America From Inside Federal Prison

I am about to witness my fifth presidential election from inside a United States prison.

I offer these thoughts to readers who may have an interest in knowing how the growing American prison population perceives the electoral process. Elections are the essence of democracy; they give each eligible voter an opportunity to be heard.

Unfortunately for me, as a federal prisoner, I cannot vote, and am thus marginalised as an American citizen. Whereas others are concerned with the state of the economy, or foreign policy, my primary interest in elections has been whether any political leader would implement policies enabling non-violent prisoners to earn freedom.

I do not expect such an issue to play much of a role in any campaign.

I began serving this term in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was approaching the end of his second term as president. I was only 23 then, and despite having no history of violence or prior incarceration, I was convicted for my participation in crimes related to the distribution of cocaine.

My sentencing judge thought a 45-year sentence was appropriate in my case. It was the starkest but only the first example of how our country's continuing move to the right would influence my life. Over the past 16 years I have had ample opportunity to observe and reflect on its impact on my life, and that of my country.

A first election behind bars

In the 1988 election, George Bush senior easily defeated Michael Dukakis, the erstwhile governor of Massachusetts, to become our nation's 41st president. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton television commercial, highlighting the case of a prier who committed a violent crime while on a "furlough" (weekend pass), to polarize voters by portraying Dukakis as a soft-on-crime liberal.

I still remember the fear that Bush's election team tried to instill in voting Americans.

The Bush campaign broadcast clips about the revolving-door prison system that would exist under a Democrat, suggesting that Dukakis would release heinous psychopathic predators back into society.

The propaganda worked. Under the first President Bush's administration, there began an unprecedented rise in prison population levels. One of Bush senior's first televised addresses to the nation in 1988 came with his declaration that the scourge of drug use was the greatest threat to our nation.

In an orchestrated drug transaction near the White House, President Bush held a bag of ominous white powder in his hands and promised to stop the flow of drugs into America. His new cabinet post of "drug czar" was filled by Bill Bennett, an ostensible pillar of moral virtues, who was charged with purging the nation of all recreational drugs other than nicotine and alcohol. When Bush senior took office, there were fewer than 700,000 human beings incarcerated.

As of this writing, the United States now imprisons more than 2.1 million people. This steep rise is partly a consequence of the "war on drugs." A majority of these prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent convictions related to the distribution of drugs. There is no evidence that the importation or use of illegal drugs has diminished.

From hope to disillusion

In 1992, from where I stood, Bush appeared invincible as a candidate for a second term. He enjoyed high popularity ratings as a consequence of the first Gulf war to eject Saddam's forces from Kuwait in 1991. But many American voters were concerned about the domestic economic recession. Bill Clinton, the former governor of Arkansas, rose to prominence by exploiting the growing impatience with Bush on this issue.

I was several years into my prison term by then, studying toward my undergraduate degree from behind the high walls of the United States penitentiary in Atlanta. I followed closely the media's coverage of Clinton's ascent, and the more I read about his background, the more inspired I became about the candidate from Hope, Arkansas.

Clinton campaigned on a platform that would balance fiscal conservatism with social progress. His particular focus, he promised, would be the creation of new employment opportunities for all Americans and the slashing of budget deficits. But as a long-term prisoner it was the possibility of a different attitude to prisons that inspired hope in me. I wanted, then as now, to earn my freedom.

Bill Clinton's younger brother, Roger, had served time in federal prison for his participation in the distribution of illegal drugs. Had Roger been convicted under the draconian drug laws ushered in during the Reagan/Bush years, as I was, he would have served substantially more time in prison for the same conduct.

I expected, naively perhaps, that candidate Clinton's personal experience would prompt him to support fresh policies that would offer non-violent prisoners the chance to earn their way to freedom.

Despite numerous, vituperative attacks on his personal character (for, among other things, having smoked marijuana) Clinton began to rise in the national election polls. While other Americans became encouraged with the new hope of a Clinton presidency, prisoners from across the nation became increasingly optimistic that some kind of relief would come.

On election night, every television room in the penitentiary was tuned into the election results. Convicts of every ethnic, educational, and socio-economic background were cheering as the numbers accumulated for Clinton.

After several hours, I retired for the night, ecstatic. A couple of months later, I remember tears of joy welling up in my eyes as I watched it become official at the televised inauguration. For the first time in several years, I began to feel as if I might be welcomed back into the American embrace.

Over the next eight years, Clinton's presidency created millions of new jobs; budget deficits turned into a huge budget surplus. But under the relentless pounding from the Republican right he was defensive. He governed according to the polls. From my perspective, he provided management rather than leadership. And for prisoners, he implemented policies that actually lessened our access to programs that would enable us to earn freedom.

Indeed, under Clinton's watch, funding dried up for prisoners trying to educate themselves. I was disappointed to see opportunities for college studies vanish, and a new crime bill that further reduced access for prisoners to judicial relief. Clinton was no friend to those in prison.

The biggest slap in the face came as Clinton left office. The United States Constitution makes it possible for the president, in an act of mercy, to commute the sentences of federal prisoners. Yet until the final days of his presidency Clinton had been parsimonious with his grants of executive clemency; in fact, his dismal record in this regard rivaled that of his conservative predecessors, Bush and Reagan.

In the final days of his term, Clinton abused his pardoning power by granting relief to political donors and those with connections to the White House. Even worse, after he left office and was powerless to act, Clinton publicly acknowledged that too many people are serving too much time for non-violent drug crimes.

Keep your head up

By the time of George W. Bush's inauguration in 2000, I had 13 years of imprisonment behind me. Despite his claim to be a "compassionate" conservative and his constant references to Christian values, I did not expect Bush junior's compassion to penetrate prison gates. In fact I expected the harshness of prison life to escalate.

After the 2000 election, I set free all hopes for relief from this lengthy sentence I serve. Now we are into the 2004 election season. I expect that John Kerry will continue to attack Bush for leading America into war when, perhaps, there was no imminent threat to the United States or to our allies.

The difficult US job market will be a hot topic, as will the Bush tax cuts and their contribution to the monstrous budget deficit problems that threaten economic stability in our country. I do not expect either candidate to talk about the 2.1 million people serving time in American prisons.

Our felony convictions have disenfranchised us; we are powerless and forgotten. It is as if we live in exile. But somehow, the election process still matters to us, and I will follow it closely and even eagerly.

I have been imprisoned for virtually my entire adult life. As such, I hope for a United States leadership that will advance the criminal justice system, [criminal law system], by recognizing the absurdity of confining non-violent people convicted of victimless crimes for multiple decades. After all, I am still an American. I long for a return to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

By Michael Santos, openDemocracy.net posted April 6, 2004

Prisoners must get right to vote, says court

UK: The government will be forced to lift a ban on prisoners voting dating back to 1870 after the European court of human rights ruled yesterday it breached a lifer's human rights.


Fighting for Florida: Disenfranchised Florida Felons Struggle to Regain Their Rights US: TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Jeb Bush looked out over a roomful of felons appealing to him for something they had lost, and tried to reassure them.

Abolish the Security Housing Units: MIM
March 6 -- Protesters took to the streets in cities across the state of California to demand California prisons shut down the Security Housing Units (SHU). Like other control unit prisons across the country, the SHU are prisons within a prison. They are solitary confinement cells where prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day for years at a time. The one hour a day these prisoner sometimes get outside of their cell is spent alone in an exercise pen not much larger than their cell, with no direct sunlight.

USA: Sobering Prison Statistics
US: If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.

Helping Prisoners Find Their Way Home?
Antonio Pinder used to be scared of returning home from prison, stricken by fear that he would fall back into the life that landed him behind bars. He hadn't had a steady job before he was sent away 13 years ago, and he worried that he never would. A year out of prison, he is still searching for work.

US Prison system ending love affair with incarceration?
After 25 years of explosive growth in the U.S. prison system, is this country finally ending its love affair with incarceration? Perhaps, but as in any abusive relationship, breaking up will be hard to do.

CONS COMMIT CRIMES IN HASTE, NOW CAN REPENT AT LAWTEY - -- Gov. Jeb Bush, in a Christmas Eve address to prisoners at the nation's first ''faith-based'' prison, in North Florida.

CURE --- Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants
CURE --- is a nation-wide grass roots organization dedicated to reducing crime through reform of the criminal justice system.[Criminal Law System.]

The Truth About Private Prisons
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest operator of prisons for profit, is celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout this year "at both the company's corporate Nashville office and at all of the more than 60 prisons, jails and detention centers under CCA ownership and/or management."

New National Study of Corrections Corporation of America Warns Investors and Legislators of Risky Investment. Report explores continuing operational and financial problems; questions CCA's long-term viability as states reassess prison policies.

Finally, States Release The Pressure on Prisons?
US: After decades of massive prison growth, America may be ending its love affair with incarceration. Policymakers around the country, some of whom previously supported ratcheting up punishments, have begun to rethink the wisdom of unbridled prison expansion, and are advocating alternatives to simply "locking them up and throwing away the key."

California Parole System Deemed 'Broken'
SACRAMENTO, Calif: California spends $1.5 billion annually on parolees who mostly fail and are sent back behind bars because they are no better prepared for life on the outside than the day they entered prison, according to a report.

People with Mental Retardation in the Criminal Justice System
Based on the 1990 census, an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million people in the United States have mental retardation. Various studies have suggested between 2 percent to 10 percent of the prison population has mental retardation.

USA: With Cash Tight, States Reassess Long Jail Terms
OLYMPIA, Wash., Nov. 6 - After two decades of passing ever tougher sentencing laws and prompting a prison building boom, state legislatures facing budget crises are beginning to rethink their costly approaches to crime.

After a war waged by the U.S. military against Vietnam which took the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese people and more than 58,000 GIs, the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. It had suffered its first official major military defeat by a united people struggle led by the Vietnamese, along with a mass U.S. anti-war movement.

Report on State Prisons Cites Mental Illness
NEW YORK: Nearly one of every four New York State prisoners who are kept in punitive segregation [solitary confinement], confined to a small cell at least 23 hours a day are mentally ill, according to a new report by a nonprofit group that has been critical of state prison policies.

High court keeps alive case of prisoners held in solitary
NEW ORLEANS: The nation's highest court refused Monday to kill a lawsuit brought by two prisoners and an ex-prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who spent decades in solitary confinement.

US: Mentally Ill Mistreated in Prison More Mentally Ill in Prison Than in Hospitals (New York, October 22, 2003) Mentally ill offenders face mistreatment and neglect in many U.S. prisons, Human Rights Watch. "Prisons have become the nation's primary mental health facilities. But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be."

Shut down the Security Torture Units
San Francisco: October 18 In solidarity with other prison activist organizations, MIM, RAIL, the Barrio Defense Committee (BDC) and the Prison Reform Unity Project held a four hour rally in San Francisco demanding the Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California prisons be shut down.

Solitary Confinement: Mental illness in prisons
As noted earlier, inmates [prisoners] with mental illness are over represented in our toughest prison settings. Symptoms of mental illness (i.e., delays in response time, paranoia, difficulty interpreting the actions of others, command hallucinations, and so on) can make complying with prison rules difficult.

Post-Incarceration Sentences
Pat: "The 1990s brought a new front in the war on drugs, featuring a new layer of the Prison Industrial Complex, which has the effect of ensuring that people coming in contact with the criminal punishment system remain within the grasp of the Prison Industrial Complex even beyond prison walls."

Inside Prison, Outside the Law
Every year, tens of thousands of prisoners in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 prisoners were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons.

Day Seven of the Fast for Freedom in Mental Health:
PASADENA, CALIF: On the seventh day of a hunger strike by six psychiatric survivors to oppose human rights violations in the mental health system, the American Psychiatric Association faces a direct and unprecedented challenge from a Scientific Panel of 14 academics and clinicians.

Supreme Court Justice Criticises Sentencing Guidelines
San Francisco, August 9, 2003, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said today that prison terms are too long and that he favours scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.

US prison population 2.1 million
The US prison population grew more than twice as fast last year as in 2001, bringing the total number of people held behind bars in the United States to more than 2.1 million, a record, according to a government report.

McKean Federal Prison: An Alleged Model
McKean, a federal correctional institution [? prison], does everything that "make 'em bust rocks" politicians decry--imagine, educating inmates [prisoners]! And it works. [Allegedly works.]

Prisoners Justice Day Press Release (Montreal)
On August 10th, 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston,Ontario when the emergency call button in his cell failed to work. An inquest later found that the call buttons in that unit had been deactivated by the guards.

Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the "abolitionists." He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing.

Study Warns of Rising Tide of Released Prisoners
Washington: More than 625,000 former prisoners will be coming back into U.S. society this year, part of a record flow of prisoners who will face crushing obstacles in finding work and housing and repairing long-fractured family ties, according to a newly released study.

Incite Statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex
We call social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Second International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform
**This second gathering will be much smaller and more in depth in participation. A report on the human rights violation of discrimination in regard to prisoners will be produced. This report will be given to the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights which will be having its annual meeting near our conference and is the"think tank" for the human rights agenda of the United Nations.

Judged Forever- The Orange County Register
US: California's largest job-placement program for parolees will be shut down May 31 after an Orange County Register investigation found that ex-convicts were sent to questionable jobs [?] and that the state was charged for placements that did not occur. [? According to the ruling-class]

California Family Visiting Case
US: CALIFORNIA: Today (5/03/08) in Superior Court around twenty friends and family members of inmates from CSP Solano showed up to show their support in the Gordon vs. CA Department of Corrections (Case #322862) which deals with the subject of bringing back Family Visits to all inmates.

Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds
An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department.

Justices question prison visitation policies
WASHINGTON: In a case that could affect the visitation rights of millions of prisoners, Supreme Court justices on Wednesday struggled with the question of whether inmates have a constitutional right to visits with friends and family.