I was asked by the organizers of the Strategic National Conference on Mass Incarceration and Reentry to write a piece on my experiences here at Hazelton and thoughts regarding organizing around the issues of mass incarceration and reentry. The conference will be held at the BU Law School, 765 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Ma. on Thursday, Oct. 18, Friday, Oct. 19th, and Saturday, October 20th. I have been told that my piece will be read on Saturday. For information on times, call B.U.
We Have Much Work to Do!
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to the organizers of this conference for creating this opportunity to discuss one of the most important issues confronting not only our community but also our country. Similarly, I want to thank Atty. Alexander for her monumental effort to wake us up to the mockery of justice being perpetuated through the War on Drugs. Also, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to express my views on this critical issue.
My situation as an inmate within a federal work camp is somewhat different from that confronting the 2.3 million people of all races incarcerated in county, state, and federal institutions, of whom over half, 1.3 million, are black. Having been convicted of a nonviolent crime involving money, I am incarcerated in a work camp where there are fewer restrictions than in the higher security federal facilities as well as the state and county facilities:
There are no cells for the 153 camp occupants. We sleep in bunks in a barracks type building. There are no walls preventing access to the roads surrounding the camp. While each of us has a five day a week job responsibility, requiring an average of three to five hours a day, during the rest of the day, we are free to spend our time as we choose with minimal supervision from the one correction officer on duty per shift.
Demographically, however, we are a microcosm of the larger system. Approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of us are of color, primarily black and Latino, and over half of us are black. The majority of the inmates of color are to be in their late twenties, thirties and early forties. The white residents seem to be in their forties and fifties. There are only a few of us in our sixties and seventies. Seventy-five to eighty percent of the men of color are here on drug charges. Theft, fraud, and income tax charges seem to be major categories for the white inmates.
All of us are serving eight years or less; however, there are men in the camp who have been in the system for fifteen to twenty plus years, having worked their way from maximum security to a camp. The man in the next bunk, now age 40, has been in the system for seventeen years based on a twenty year sentence for a first offense drug crime. There are other relatively young men who have spent almost half their life in prison.
Before coming to USP Hazelton, with its 1500 person men maximum security prison, its 1000 person women's medium security prison, and work camp (a 1000 person men's medium and a 150 person work camp in construction), I thought I was knowledgeable about the incarceration system, its operation, and its effects. I now realize that I never fully appreciated the impact on the families of those incarcerated. In many ways, life for the families is harder than it is for the incarcerated, particularly if the incarcerated are in the lower security facilities.
I never thought about the fact that as an inmate you have to pay for everything beyond basic clothes and work boots, food from the chow hall, and soap. If you want to hear the TV, you have to pay $40 dollars for a radio/receiver, plus money for earphones and batteries. We pay for minutes on the email system as well as the phone. Since our pay ranges from $20 a month to $70 a month, our families are carrying the major burden of paying for our needs and wants.
We pay for food, candy, cakes, cookies, and the like purchased at the commissary. If we want personnel care products, fancy new sneakers, and the like, we have to buy it from the commissary. Nothing can be sent in except books from publishers or bookstores. As I see men coming from the commissary each week with bags loaded with sweat suits, sneakers, food, hair products, tooth paste, etc., I think about the burden on the families that have not only lost the income we were providing but now have to pay for everything we need and want.
A month ago, BOP launched a new money making system. For $70, they will sell us a radio/receiver with an MP3 attachment that enables us to download songs from their system for approximately a dollar a song. As I hear the men bragging about the fact they have over a hundred songs from the system that has only been operating a month, I have to think about the wives, partners, relatives, friends at home and what they have to do to pay for our pleasures.
Hearing the men talk about the expectations that they have for their children and mates during their absence and thinking about the expectations I have put upon my wife, Terri, I am again reminded of the burden our incarceration puts on our families. They no longer have our support; yet, we expect them to be a continuous source of unconditional support. I know, all too well, that there are very few community organizations focused on helping the families of those incarcerated carry the weight. So the reality is that our families not only have to bear the emotional turmoil stemming from our incarceration but also the material burden of providing for our needs, in too many cases, without a support network.
The effect of incarceration on the children of the incarcerated is an issue that I heard rarely discussed in our community forums. Yet, how can we deny the impacts and the negative effects that occur in too many of those situations. A few months ago, I read that the Bush administration had launched a program primarily through religious institutions to provide mentor support to children whose parents were incarcerated. The article said that the program had been scaled back but was still operating. I wonder whether families of the incarcerated in our community have any access to such resources.
Another issue that I should have thought more about as an activist and Councilor is the minimal preparation for reentry provided by the incarcerating institutions. Perhaps, it's unfair for me to make generalizations from my experience at the work camp at Hazelton. However, when you consider the cost of clothing, food, staff salaries, medical care, building maintenance, etc. and the general attitude toward the incarcerated, you can appreciate the perverse logic in minimizing the rehabilitative help for those who are supposedly incarcerated to be rehabilitated. Recidivism is then labeled as the proof that the incarcerated are "genetically criminal" by some of the more staunch conservatives of both parties.
At Hazelton, there is only one apprenticeship program. There was no reentry program to psychologically prepare inmates for reentry until a new counselor was hired a year ago who began to put an emphasis on programming. Unfortunately, he was removed after six months and the present counselor seems to have no interest in the type of program development the former counselor was initiating. The use of the term counselor seems very inappropriate since there doesn't seem to be any "counseling" that is done by the person. While you can see through the window of all the other administrators in our unit, the counselor put cardboard up at his window so that it is impossible to see whether he is there.
The case manager who handles "early reentry" as mandated by the Second Chance Act was so lax in his efforts that we staged a one meal "hunger strike" to focus the attention of the administration. Fortunately, it seems to have worked without any of the leaders being sent to solitary as some feared. It took four case managers working over time for a month to bring the paperwork up to the standards set by BOP. You would think that in this area that frees up space for the ever expanding work camp population, they would have paid more attention to honoring the federal "early reentry" commitment. In his apology to us, the warden said that he was so busy dealing with violence at the maximum security prison on the compound, he had overlooked our needs.
I came into Hazelton, understanding that the criminal justice system seems to have been commandeered by prosecutors who are using their powers to "terrorize". Fortunately, Atty. Alexander's book, Mass Incarceration: The New Jim Crow; Atty. Silverglade's book, Three Felonies a Day, and others are beginning to make the public aware of this atrocity. However, to talk to men day after day about their situations is chilling. In some cases, as in mine, the prosecution made up the crimes for a variety of reasons. However, in many, many others the prosecutors seemed to have searched for reasons to bring people to jail who at most should have been on probation. You have to wonder whether they receive bonuses for the number plea bargains and convictions obtained.
In closing, let me share a few thoughts on an agenda for change. Our four hundred year history of struggle in this country has shown that for any strategy to be effective, there must be a united front of forces bringing together not only the energies of various sectors of the black community across this nation but also the progressive elements of all races. We can only imagine where we would be today as black people without the broad base multi racial coalition that brought the significant changes of the sixties. Such a coalition needs to have units in every state as well as cities and towns within the states.
It is also important to recognize that the organized voices of those who have experienced incarceration and their families have to play a leading role in this struggle. Hopefully, we have learned that effective strategies to eliminate the cancers that plague our people as well as the communication of the depth and nature of the problem must be rooted in the real life experiences of those who have had the experience. There is a role and a need for all elements of our community in this struggle but in its leadership must be those who have experienced the venomous bite of criminal injustice.
Let me close with suggestions for a number of objectives that need to be considered by such a united front:
1) The development of a safety net/support system in every community to provide support to the families of the incarcerated. This support needs to have many forms but, particularly, we must focus on letting the children of the incarcerated know that We Too Are Their Family.
2) The development of a reentry support system that identifies the number of men and women who will be reentering our communities from the county, state, and federal systems on a monthly and yearly basis to enable us to plan for the resources needed to prevent chaos for those reentering the community as well as the community itself.
3) The development of a rational approach to drug use in this country rather than continue suffering from the devastation that results from the War on Drugs while drug use continues unabated.
4) The development of a Prosecutorial Terrorism Watch in our communities to identify and publicize the rampant behavioral misconduct by prosecutors in order to bring justice into the criminal justice system.
5) The development of a movement to institute nonviolence as a way of life in our communities based on the principles:
a) That each and every human being has an internal spark of divine consciousness; and
b) That we have a human as well as spiritual responsibility to "love thy neighbor as thy self".