Pubdate: Fri, 26 Jan 2007
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 Independent Media Institute
Author: Silja J.A. Talvi, The Nation.
Note: Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times. Her work 
appears in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our 
incarceration system. This system staples together a network of 
public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release 
centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, 
these facilities hold well over two million human beings, locked away 
without public oversight or scrutiny.

Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the 
United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite 
the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually 
begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest 
FBI Uniform Crime Report.

In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly 
organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, 
independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice 
experts -- who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, 
nonrehabilitative incarceration system.

Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely 
be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. 
Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a 
price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa 
is among them.

Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal 
penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her 
extended family and two young boys.

Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, 
which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been 
arrested before -- and had never been a drug user -- she was hit with 
a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a 
sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's 
good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and 
the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on 
her sentence.

The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have 
spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing 
women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.

In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; 
countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison 
retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between 
male guards and female inmates.

Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a 
self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about 
retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern 
for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when 
individual survival is on the line.

"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It 
takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."

Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really 
goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the 
immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and 
communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of 
American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending 
up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to 
prison than to graduate from college.

According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice 
Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 
2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 
percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 
200,000 women are now doing time behind bars -- an estimated 80 
percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison 
Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 
percent since 1977.

More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of 
facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they 
were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's 
King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to 
be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."

One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional 
supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the 
world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are 
contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other 
democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of 
last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.

But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because 
of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our 
political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of 
get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided 
Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state 
might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already 
dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal 
judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to 
devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's 
thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and 
women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 
173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be 
found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors.

A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds 
of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. 
Schwarzenegger has already authorized shipment of California inmates 
to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building 
new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with 
the federal court that could step in to order early release of 
prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further 
alleviate overcrowding.

"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, 
executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based 
advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized 
right now. "

Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the 
fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money 
into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. 
(California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet 
two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there 
is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until 
recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria 
generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.

As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug 
abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters 
have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the 
one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion 
programs in a number of states, including the highly successful 
Proposition 36 in California.

Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the 
NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in 
reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups 
of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations 
of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly 
disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people 
should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.

In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the 
American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. 
The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The 
New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes 
of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court 
Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel 
of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for 
radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.

 From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a 
"re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a 
criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over 
judicial discretion -- especially in drug cases -- since the passage 
of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that 
established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills 
do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. 
Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the 
Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still 
in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and 
eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some 
conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. 
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform 
Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a 
twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession 
to one year.

Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics 
of Mass Incarceration in America, cautioned progressives to remember 
that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant 
reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some 
cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in 
incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic 
stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray 
Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's 
prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 
1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal 
recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for 
relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.

While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, 
abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual 
exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical 
and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed 
to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation 
cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common 
problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and 
jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health 
problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate 
pre-existing problems.

Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied 
Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month -- and her eventual 
release to the "free world" six months from now -- is tempered by the 
knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day 
struggles of prison life.

"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are 
released," she says.
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