Thursday, March 08, 2007

They lied! And another thing or two.

Here's how badly I didn't want to run on the treadmill yesterday. I usually start running at 10 or 10:30 a.m. That gives breakfast a couple of hours to settle and gets me home at a time where I can eat lunch within about a half hour. [This strategy is recommended in Marathoning for Mortals.]

I had an appointment at 1 p.m., so I knew the run would have to happen earlier than normal. At 9 a.m. the wind was calm and the rain/snow hadn't started. My friends, I jumped in the car, headed for the two-mile flat road and – even though it was cold and early and did I mention cold? – started running at 9:10 a.m. Six miles later [jogged one mile, ran the next mile four times back and forth, jogged the last mile] it was 10:20 a.m. A faster than necessary pace, but it was cold! I think I might have already said that.

The wind started blowing just as I got home from the run, but the rain/snow didn't happen at all and, in fact, it was quite a gorgeous day. Coming back from the hairdresser's I saw a sign in front of a bank that said 63°!

I'm now going to spout off on a topic that's dear to my heart, but may not be to yours. If you think we're [that would be the U.S. in general] soft on crime, you might want to switch to another channel.

As you know, if you've been here for any length of time, I volunteer at a federal women's prison. Tuesday night's meeting was one of the most intense and rewarding sessions in the more than five years I've been a volunteer. It was, of course, unplanned. But sometimes God works magic when you least expect it. And when you most need it.

The prison is classified as a camp – the most minimum security level in the federal system. Most of the inmates are there for drug crimes; those who aren't are there for money crimes. Sometimes the two cross over – embezzling money to pay for drugs, for instance.

The facility has 1000 beds; the current population is 1145. Those who aren't assigned a bunk bed in a regular cubicle get to sleep on cots along with 30 or 40 other women in a TV room or entry way. Privacy? Fuhgeddaboutit. Dignity? You've got to be kidding.

Drug crimes include manufacturing, distributing, selling and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the drugs involved can be anything from weed to meth to heroin to cocaine to prescription goodies dispensed by your doctor and mine.

Okay, back to the meeting. One of the first women who spoke is young – 19 or 20, maybe – and she asked how she could learn to accept that God meant for her to spend the next 17 years of her life there. This was her first offense, she wasn't physically present when the crime occurred, her co-defendants told that to the judge and yet she was sentenced to more than 200 months, all because of the kind and amount of the drug that was sold. If you Google 'mandatory minimum drug laws' you'll find out what that means.

Now here's the thing. The people who wrote those laws didn't mean for moms and grandmas to get thrown in jail. They wanted Mafia kingpins to get caught and sent away for a long, long time. Long enough, maybe, to do something meaningful about the drug problem we have. Their intention was, I think, good. The execution, though? Couldn't be worse. Judges have interpreted these laws – mandatory minimums and conspiracy laws – to mean that if a sister doesn't rat on her brother, she's as guilty as he is.

It's probably more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

I'm not saying these women aren't culpable to some degree. I'm saying 17 years for a first offense is, um, a little harsh. And not terribly rehabilitative. But then our prisons aren't really in the business of rehabilitating any more.

Another woman spoke a little later in the meeting [we were talking about the Serenity Prayer, by the way], and wondered whether she could change her young children's situation or whether she had to accept that their dad was using again and leaving them alone for days at a time. They live 500 miles away from the facility, each phone call costs $3 and she makes 12¢ an hour helping to keep the prison operating. She was desperate for advice, and while we don't usually give advice, there was plenty available. There also was plenty of experience at handling the exact same situation.

She learned several things during that meeting:
  • She wasn't alone.
  • There is a solution.
  • It might be the hardest thing she's ever had to do.
Now here's the miracle part. We have a new assistant warden who believes everyone deserves to be treated with compassion and concern. Do you know how rare this quality is in correctional workers? I invited her to drop in on our meeting any time, and she came both last week and this one. She does this on her own time. She said she enjoys it, and she'll leave if she ever feels that any of the inmates are censoring their converstions.

There's not much she can do about the woman with the 17-year sentence. That's a done deal, and public defenders aren't known for mounting aggressive appeals. She's going to intervene in the other woman's situation, however. She's compelled to, and she said if we [the volunteers] know of other situations like that we should let her know. She'll do everything she can.

Not because it's her job. Maybe I'm naive, but having been through several wardens and assistant wardens during the past five-plus years, I think I can tell the difference between one who's putting in time until retirement and one who cares about making an intolerable situation a little more tolerable.

I realize the prison I'm involved with is a minimum-security female camp. I wouldn't be so sympathetic to a rapist or murderer or even a drug kingpin. These women deserve better. Our prison population would decrease by half, instantly, if they were just put on house arrest instead of sent away.

Their children are being cared for by grannies and sisters and, sometimes, drug-addict daddies. And sometimes foster care. Those children are learning that the stigma of prison isn't so bad after all. They might, because of their life circumstances, also end up doing hard time.

We're losing the drug war. If you've read this far and want to learn more or help, go to:
It also would be helpful [but I'm not holding my breath] to find a politican willing to take a stand against mandatory minimums. You can locate your Senators and Representatives by clicking on the links. You voted for them; they need to know how you feel. Mine know how I feel … which is why I'm not holding my breath for change to take place in time for that 17-year sentence to be reduced.

Thanks for putting up with me this morning.

Fifty-one days until race day.


Grumpy Chair said...


I just finished reading "An Innocent Man" by Grisham. I was appalled by the lack of evidence and harsh sentencing (death penalty)in that Oklahoma town.

I took several corrections classes in college, and the instructor (a former warden who was from India, Dr. Sandu) was so compassionate about treating inmates with dignity. I was very lucky to be in some of his classes, since he retired the year I graduated.

It really is sad. I think a small, first time offense should be dealt with probation and long-term rehab treatment. Maybe put the money that would be spent to incarcerate, plus any money spent for foster care, toward rehabilitation programs.

Someone has got to do a study on the long-term effects on children whose parents commit non-violent crimes and are put away for years because they couldn't afford representation (paid lawyer) to keep them out of jail.

Okay, I will put my ACLU card back in its long forgotten hiding spot. Thanks for helping jog my memory. I used to care about these things.

Jack Sprat said...


I'm with ya (and with the folks at the jail -- both the interned and the workers). I've always felt that judges should have the ability to judge. We need smart, experienced people who are well versed in the criminal justice system to figure out the best solution. Whenever there is a ballot measure that *requires* specific kinds of *punishment* I always feel as if it is a vote AGAINST good courts.

Oh well, when they make me emperor, I'll fix all of that. In the mean time, bless you for bringing some normalcy to a world of women living in a strange, abnormal world.


Lori said...

Like Jonathan said, there should be some things left to the discretion of the judges who, presumably, have some experience in some ways about all of this. I'm afraid, we are headed towards a bit of an Orwellian future in a way with required sentences, vague laws which favor prosecution or certain branches of the government.

I'm glad that your prison has someone there who cares and has some power to do something. And you and other people who go out there to help these women.

I've always been struck by Jean Harris after she was released from prison. She became a big advocate for women in prison and their children (she had a number of fellow inmates who were sentenced under the Rockefeller rules in NY). Makes you wonder about Martha S.

denise said...

A few weeks ago I might have felt better about agreeing on the "let judges judge" idea. And then there was this little trial in FL about...let's see...what was her name...oh yeah, Anna Nicole Smith! That judge certainly appeared to be a wacko and someone I don't think I would want making "judgement" decisions without a lot of structure.

That's the problem with a lot of our systems - they depend on humans. And we humans are not short on mistake-making skill.

But it is good to know there are people like the warden you describe, Debbi. It also makes me wonder how many of those you have observed who appear to be putting in their years to retirement started out with that same dedication and had it drummed out of them by the rules and regs they have to abide by. I can kind of relate to that!

Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

(P.S. Thought of you today when I read an article in the paper about a knitting guild that is making helmet liners for the troops in Iraq. If you're interested in reading about it checkout atlantaknittingguild (dotORG). They have an link to the article.)