Abolish Prison! The US Incarceration System Is Broken and Needs to Be Replaced
Prisons are terrible, torturous places where people—who are usually poor and disproportionately of color—are subjected daily to crimes more horrific than the ones that probably sent them there. The vast majority of individuals behind bars are there for nonviolent drug and property offenses. Now, which is worse, do you think: Stealing a late-90s Honda or putting someone in a cage for years where we know they will be physically and emotionally abused? We ask whether criminals can be reformed, when we think of them as people at all, but maybe we should stop to consider whether the idea of prisons and jails can be rehabilitated in the wake of all the injustice they have wrought.
Perhaps the evils of incarceration outweigh the good. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be reform, as welcome as that may be, but something more radical: release.
These Nonviolent Female Prisoners Have Been Rotting in Prison for Over a Decade
A few weeks ago, I found a book at a thrift store called The Tallahassee Project. It’s a collection of photos of nonviolent female federal inmates who were incarcerated as part of the war on drugs. Each photo is accompanied by a letter from the woman depicted, explaining her situation.
The majority of the women shown in the book were charged with “conspiracy” based on the statements of informants who spoke to authorities in exchange for reduced sentences. Often, this conspiracy amounted to little more than being the girlfriend, wife, or mother of a drug dealer.
The book was compiled in April 2001 by a guy named John Beresford from an organization called the Committee on Unjust Sentencing. I googled John to see if there was any update on how the women in the book were doing. I guess there’s a part of me that likes to believe that once a horrible injustice has been brought to the attention of the public, somebody, somehow, will do something to fix it.
That’s not the case here. Unfortunately, John died in 2007, and took his Committee on Unjust Sentencing with him. I checked to see if the women from the book were still in prison, and many of them still are—rotting in prison since before 9/11 because they got messed up with drugs.
Below are some of the women who haven’t been released, along with the the letter they wrote to John 12 years ago.
Alice Jones (Inmate ID Number: 29560-004)
Sentenced to 24 years for conspiracy, drug conviction
Estimated release date: 04-24-2015
"I am a mother of two, a 19-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. For 25 years I owned and operated my own property rental business, which I began from the ground up. In 1992, I was arrested and subsequently convicted for a drug conspiracy of which I had no part. The government attempted to seize my home and business. A thorough investigation of my business and tax records proved my business to be legitimate. No drugs were even seized from me or my home. My criminal record was based entirely upon people with multiple arrests and lengthy police records, who were attempting to avoid further convictions.
I did not ever imagine such an atrocious nightmare could ever occur in the United States. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”
'Orange Is the New Black', Reviewed by VICE's Prison Correspondent
Even before I got locked up, I enjoyed reading and watching prison-centric shit, ‘cause like many people I’m fascinated by the subculture of the incarcerated. I’m not quite sure why so many people either sympathize with the so-called bad guys or simply get off on watching other humans suffer, but they definitely do. Now that I’ve done some time, I realize that prison-centric entertainment usually ratchets up the absurd and outlandish aspects to the point where I can’t even relate, ‘cause my experiences were so drastically different than what’s on the tube. Luckily, there’s Netflix’s new show, Orange Is the New Black, based on the experiences of a woman who did a little time, so not only do we get the ridiculous entertainment that we all crave, we also get some very realistic characters going through tribulations that I can relate to as an ex-con. Shame on me for stereotyping the sexes, but the fact that this show was created by a woman and is based on the experiences of a woman means we get a lot more feelings than we usually do with prison stories. This is a good thing, though, ‘cause dudes go through the same emotions in jail. I’ve seen it many times, but you won’t see it too often on the screen in the same way Orange Is the New Black captures it.
It’s a damn good show, and I know this because I’ve been told so by many people. It’s even getting more love than Arrested Development, at least in my very, very small circle of friends. That has actually been making me a touch paranoid, because I don’t know if everyone I see on a day-to-day basis knows my status as an ex-con. One of my bosses said the other day, “Have you seen this new show, Orange Is the New Black? It’s really good… I think you’d like it.” I was like, Oh shit, he must know, but who cares? He actually enjoys the show, which is good, ‘cause the show succeeds admirably in depicting at least a few fairly normal people who got locked up over some bullshit.
Thousands of California Prisoners Are on Hunger Strike Right Now
According to some estimates, 30,000 prisoners in California were on hunger strike as of last week, and thousands more still are. Contacted by VICE, a spokesman for the California prison system refused to confim the 30,000 number. If it’s true it would make the current strike the largest in California history. “I don’t even know where that number came from,” he said, insisting that the hunger strike could not be properly considered to have started until late Wednesday, because the state doesn’t acknolwedge that what it calls a “hunger strike disturbance” exists until inmates have refused nine consecutive meals. “Until then,’” the spokesman said, “we don’t know if it’s a disturbance or if they just don’t like tacos.”
Officially, more than twenty-five hundred prisoners were still refusing meals as of this week. The numbers dropped over the weekend—down from 30,000 a week prior and from 7,600 on Friday. But even that total was still more than the 6,000 who participated in the last, partially succesful, hunger strike to hit the state, in 2011.
Even if you’ve heard about the protests—they’ve been widely covered in California, but briefly mentioned, if at all, nationally—you might be forgiven for not quite understanding what it’s all about. Because California’s prisons have been all over the news, recently: There are the nearly ten thousand prisoners a three-judge panel has ordered to be released, to alleviate overcrowding in the system. There are the 150 female prisoners who were by some accounts coerced into accepting sterilizations, and the doctor who suggested the cost of the sterilizations would save the state future welfare payments. There are the thousands of prisoners who adifferent Federal overseer has ordered to be moved out of the Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, where over the last several years dozens of high-risk prisoners may have been killed by Valley Fever. There is the mental health care that has been found to be illegally deficient in the CDCR system, and the overcrowding in the system that was found, separately, by the Supreme Court no less, to have created a situation in which medical care in California prisons was of such a poor quality that it fell below the 8th Amendment standard barring cruel and unusual punishment. All of this has been in the news recently, and all of it has contributed to the spread of the strike to dozens of facilities across the system.
81 Years for Weed?
Here’s how absurd the war on drugs has gotten: firstly, an activist from Keene, New Hampshire, is facing 81 years in prison for dealing marijuana; and secondly, even though he’s admitted on camera that he did sell about a pound of pot to an FBI informant, he’s still fighting the case in court in hopes the jury will acquit him.
The man’s name is Rich Paul, and his ordeal started last May, when he was arrested for selling weed and LSD (he claims he sold a legal chemical compound that wasn’t LSD). Instead of being charged with a crime, he wrote in a Facebook note about the incident and was taken to see an FBI agent named Philip Christiana, who threatened to throw the book at him unless he turned informer on his friends. According to Rich, Phil wanted him to wear a wire into meetings of a local political group he belonged to called the Keene Activist Center, lie to them about his arrest, and encourage them to commit crimes. Rich said no, and shared his story with the public—even going so far as to explain on video that he had been busted after selling ounces of weed to a confidential informant on multiple occasions.
There are several odd things about this trial, which started today. (Follow live updates through this Facebook page.) First, it’s not clear why the FBI, or this particular agent, was so keen, pun intended, to go after the KAC. Although the organization is “liberty-minded” (in other words, not fans of the police or other forms of government), it’s also explicitly nonviolent. Those kind of libertarian/anarchist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it politics are common in New Hampshire—in fact, groups like the Shire Society and the Free State Project encourage people who are tired of being hassled by the Man to move to the state, and the Keene area in particular. Acts of civil disobedience by the KAC and other activists are relatively common; Rich himself organized 4:20 PM “smoke-ins” at Keene’s Central Square to protest drug-prohibition laws.
In an email to me late last night, Rich said that his prosecution is an outlier. “Local law enforcement in Keene has always been extremely respectful, courteous and professional. Many of them, I will not say which, sympathize with us on many of our concerns, though most do not condone civil disobedience,” he wrote.
Don’t Get Caught: I’ve Spent 8+ Years in the System for a Nonviolent Felony
I’d been involved in selling drugs since I first smoked weed when I was 13. It just made sense to me that in order to have the money to use drugs, I’d have to sell some, too. I never thought I was doing anything wrong—my entrepreneurship put smiles on a lot of faces, and I did it better than most people ’cause I showed up on time and wasn’t a greedy, lying scumbag. I did abuse my stash pretty frequently, but I had enough self-control to avoid going off the deep end.
As a kid, I attended elite prep schools, played hockey year-round, and wound up getting accepted into Skidmore College, where, smooth as silk, I kept selling narcotics, mostly to my fellow students. Soon, I was HOOKED, living lovely off all that drug loot. I drove all around the Northeast like a madman, bartering and hustling coke, weed, X, shrooms, and whatever else seemed like a good flip. (I stayed away from dope and crack, though—you have to draw the line somewhere.)
I was so cocky—I never actually thought the pork-chop patrol would come after me. I ignored the illegality of what I was doing and didn’t care about my well-being enough to investigate or even pay attention to the laws. But as I soon learned, the law was paying lots of attention to me.
On a seemingly normal Friday night in February 2004, I was outside a Barnes & Noble with my older brother and his son when I got tagged by an undercover cop who looked like an upstate trailer-park stick-up kid. In retrospect, I wish he had robbed me for all my money instead of cuffing me in front of my six-year-old nephew. At that moment, my brain was spiraling through a million made-up explanations for my arrest instead of accepting the nightmarish reality of what was about to happen next. The pigs had a search warrant, and they took me back to my crib to rifle through my head stash, which was substantial enough to get me charged with five felonies and, potentially, 12 to 25 years in prison. I was 23 years old.
I spent the night in county jail and then, thankfully, was released on bail to await my trial. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and had been as excited as a nip-sucking piglet to finally graduate with all of my peoples. The future was so bright, and unlike most of my fellow students, I was in the black: I had a ton of money saved. I had already booked my plane tickets and hotel reservations to go to Italy with my girlfriend. But not anymore. Whatever the outcome of the trial, I knew my parents would be devastated (way more than I was), and I’d probably be kicked out of school.
I ended up taking a plea bargain. I was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison. My lengthy sentence was at least partially a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time—’04 was an election year, and the politicians in Saratoga Springs, where I was living and dealing, thought the town had a drug problem. The district attorney who prosecuted me probably figured nabbing a college student “involved in a drug-trafficking ring from New York City” (as the local paper referred to me) was a good demonstration that the city was tough on crime. They made an example out of me.
I took the plea deal in August, and they told me I was going to jail in October. Because I was at home, living in my own apartment, I spent that summer in an awkward sort of hell—I was technically free, but soon not to be. Every day that passed inched me closer to The End. It was such an awful countdown—never before or since in my life have I wanted time to stand still.
When the morning of that loathsome day arrived I was already running late, stumbling out of my girl’s apartment, hungover and sleep-deprived. I left my bonerabelle sobbing uncontrollably in the bed. She couldn’t handle going to court and watching the police take me away. We’d been together a couple years, and this was the most horrible way imaginable to say good-bye. Only death would’ve been worse.
I found my parents parked on the street, waiting, already lockjawed with tears in their eyes. They were so caring that they had even temporarily moved to Saratoga Springs, renting an apartment for a few months to watch over me while I was out on bail, making sure I didn’t do anything stupid before I was sent away, which I probably would have if they weren’t there. I still cringe over the pain I put my father and mother through. I felt like the Human Turd.