Rick Wershe is a former drug dealer and police informant who was convicted in 1988, at the age of 17, of possessing 17 pounds of cocaine. Now 46 and a father of three, Wershe is the only inmate in Michigan behind bars who was sentenced to life as a minor under a mandatory minimum that has since been repealed.
This Death Row Inmate Is Dying to Donate His Organs
In 2001 Christian Longo killed his wife and his three young children and fled to Mexico. Once he was brought back to the US, he was convicted of those murders and placed on Oregon’s Death Row, where he has resided since 2003. He was once on the FBI’s top-ten most wanted list, and James Franco is even going to play him in an upcoming movie.
Christian, now 40 and still in jail, is turning a new leaf. In an effort to give back to his community, he has decided to donate his organs upon his inevitable execution. The only problem is, due to the lack of an efficient prisoner donation protocol, he pretty much can’t. Chris is even willing to forgo all appeals of his death sentence if he can donate his organs upon his execution. Still, he’s been denied.
Through his Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone (G.A.V.E) organization, Chris is looking to change that. The mission of G.A.V.E is to remove the medical and ethical issues involved with prisoner organ and tissue donation and gain approval for some of the 2 million incarcerated individuals to donate. If successful, the organization will substantially reduce the number of people on waiting lists for organ and tissue donation (which is more than 121,000, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network).
I recently conducted an email interview with Longo about how he came to found G.A.V.E, the work his organization is doing, and the impact prisoner donation could have if certain ethical and political barriers were removed.
VICE: What piqued your interest in prisoner organ donation?
Christian Longo: After watching a friend increasingly suffer from a degenerative disorder called scleroderma, it became apparent she would eventually need a kidney transplant. After being told by my prison system that consideration may only be given for donations to immediate family, I put together a proposal for my unique circumstances as a death row inmate. I offered to end my remaining appeals and face execution if my healthy body parts were able to be donated to those in need. My request was denied.
How surprising was it to find out you couldn’t donate?
It was a Spockian “that’s illogical” moment followed by a fear that someone I cared about might not be able to find a suitable donor… which pissed me off.
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.
A Tale of Two Drug Wars
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.