Tag Archives: Obama’s clemency program

Locked Down

As I write this, the phone is ringing. The landline, that is, that I am required to have as a condition of Vince living with me. I had forgotten how loud a landline phone is, and we can’t turn it on silent because Vince has to answer it when he’s home. He’s not home now but I hesitate to turn it off because I might forget to turn it back on, and that could get him into trouble.

When we first got it, there were numerous calls for Mohamed, apparently the previous number holder. Those finally tapered off, but there are still calls now and then. Like now. And the phone is still ringing … 15, 16, 17 rings … I am tempted to pick it up and tell whoever it is to bugger off, but if it’s a robo caller, that just verifies that the number is a potential customer to be strafed with more calls. Still ringing … 18, 19, 20 … ah, silence, finally!

My birthday was last week, and I asked Vince if he would consider going to a classical music concert with me at the James J. Hill House, St. Paul’s equivalent of Downton Abbey.

HillHill Hall

I was pleasantly surprised when he said yes. In fact, he was excited to go, and he spent the next few weeks searching for nice clothes to wear. I told him that Minnesotans are sloppy, but he wanted to dress up anyway. I thought that was great. I always dress up too.

He found a good pair of men’s dress shoes during his community service job at the Goodwill. If you’re a thrift store shopper, you know that decent shoes are the hardest thing to find second hand.

I’m house sitting for a friend for two weeks, and it’s heavenly to have my own place. I’m sure Vince is happy to have the condo to himself, too. Unfortunately, this was the week that the condo association chose to have the chimneys cleaned, and the sweep dropped his tools down our chimney, breaking the flue control so it’s stuck open, allowing all the warm air to be sucked out. I’m just home to write this post, and it’s really cold in here. After many calls back and forth, a guy finally came and shoved a tarp up inside of the chimney. He promised someone would come back “soon” to fix the flue.

It was also at the Goodwill that our concert plan came undone. Vince’s probation officer called him twice, and Vince didn’t answer because he just didn’t hear his phone ring. It’s true, cell phones don’t ring nearly as loudly as landlines. Vince works in a warehouse amid fork lifts and dumpsters and people yelling, so that seemed like a reasonable explanation, but not to a probation agent. Or at least, not to this one on this particular day.

The agent put him on indefinite lock down, which means Vince can’t leave the house except for work or AA meetings. So he’s back to square one.

This happened just a few hours after I posted this piece about the Department of Corrections people in the class I am co teaching. Connection? I don’t know. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you, right? And I had written and rewritten this piece to tone it down in case someone with the DOC was monitoring the blog.

This all happened the day before the concert. Vince called his agent and left a message asking for an exception for this one night—his mom’s birthday, tickets reserved weeks in advance, etc. The agent never even called him back. I told Vince we will go to another event.

I went to the concert by myself. The mansion was open for wandering, and it is splendid. Some people, including me, were dressed up but most were not. The woman in front of me looked as though she had just gotten out of bed and hadn’t bothered to run a comb through her hair. Yuck. The music was not good. I go to a lot of classical concerts and it’s rare to have someone play painfully badly, but this was the night. Oh well. I went, and that’s what counts.

UN-Doing the War on Drugs

I ended my last post by saying I would write about a road trip I am contemplating, from St. Paul to New Orleans.  I don’t know enough to write about it yet, so for now I will revert to one of this blog’s main topics, addiction—and all the consequences of addiction and trying to stop it.

I’m very excited that the United Nations will hold a review of the whole drug control system in April in New York.  It’s called the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem, or the horrible acronym UNGASS. I’d like to thank the Open Societies Foundation (OSF) for its reporting on this.  OSF promotes research documenting the heavy costs of the war on drugs and shares success stories from countries that have implemented smart policies.  I’ve plagiarized their recent blog posts quite heavily here.

The last time the UN had a special session on drugs, in 1998, the focus was “the total elimination of drugs from the world.”  Ha!  I wonder if there were any actual addicts or former drug dealers involved in coming up with that totally unrealistic goal.

Because it didn’t go well.  The war on drugs has led to public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption, and black market–fueled violence.  Governments—especially those in Latin America that have to deal with the fallout of bad drug policies—have pushed for this UNGASS.

Citizens are fed up too.  A few years ago, a coalition of organizations and individuals in Uruguay pushed until the country voted to become the first country in the world to establish a legal, government-controlled marijuana market.  The main objective of the law was to eliminate narcotrafficking.  But they also have a positive goal, to make the new marijuana production chain beneficial for poor segments of society and a sustainable business for small producers with limited resources.

For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.

UNGASS is an opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety.

I didn’t even know that there was an International Narcotics Control Board, did you?  That sounds creepy.  And it acts like a bully, apparently.

For instance, in the 90s, Switzerland had a major drug problem.  There were open-air drug scenes and one of the highest rates of HIV in Western Europe.  The government pioneered services such as heroin prescriptions, supervised consumption rooms, and community-based treatment.  The Swiss people approved this policy through a series of referenda.

What happened?  The number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002; drug-related deaths declined by more than 50 percent; new HIV infections dropped 87 percent, and there was a 90 percent reduction of property crime committed by people who use drugs.

But the UN’s Control Board accused the Swiss of “aiding and abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use.”

On the other hand, when Bulgaria introduced a law that made possession of tiny amounts of drugs punishable with mandatory incarceration for as long as 15 years, the Control Board praised their “political commitment and the will to deal with drug abuse.”  I’ve never been to Bulgaria, but life in a Bulgarian prison sounds horrifying.

OSF is publishing a series of reports in advance of UNGASS, including research into drug courts and their unintended consequences, and an examination of how the drug war affects girls and women uniquely.  You can sign up for their updates here.  Want to get more involved or have a say?  Check out this cool website, Stop the Harm.

So there!  After my recent buzzkill series of posts, I’m happy to share with you some good news and some easy ways to contribute to fixing this world’s drug problem—for real this time.

Au Mal Pain

As usual, the prison news includes the good, the bad, and the disgusting.

The good: If I didn’t work in fundraising I might not have caught this item.  The California Endowment has announced it will divest its assets from companies that run private prisons, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities.  This is fantastic!  The California Endowment is a foundation with $3,668,459,217 in assets.  That’s real money, and maybe it will start a trend.  I look at foundation tax returns almost every day, so I see where they invest their money.  It’s disgusting to see a foundation with a portion of its assets invested in a weapons manufacturer, for instance, and making grants for international poverty programs.  In part, it’s all the small arms the U.S. peddles to warlords abroad that destabilize developing countries and keep them impoverished.  That’s an extreme example but I bet it’s not that uncommon.  If you have retirement investments, you too may own part of Alliant Techsystems or Prison Corporation of America, and you are probably earning fantastic rates of return.

The not-so-good news, also in California, is a report that found abuse, racism, and cover ups a physically isolated prison about 90 miles northwest of Reno.  The town in which the prison is located, Susanville, has fewer than 16,000 people, and the two correctional facilities are its largest employers.  “Employees form tight-knit social groups known as “cars” that can foster what the report terms “a code of silence” that makes it difficult to report wrongdoing.”  They are accused of abusing physically-disabled and minority prisoners, inciting attacks against sex offenders, and conspiring to impede the investigation.   The prison’s nearly 3,500 inmates won’t report abuse because they fear the nearly 1,000 employees will find out and retaliate.  If this is true in this case, why wouldn’t it be true in Moose Lake, where Vince was incarcerated?  Moose Lake has a population of only about 2,700 and, as you might guess from its name, it’s in the sticks.

Then there are two items that would be ridiculous if they weren’t true.

First, rapper Nicki Minaj did a December 10 interview with Billboard Magazine in which she spoke out against mass incarceration, lengthy drug sentences, and the racial bias in sentencing: “What it has become is not a war on drugs.  It has become slavery.  When I see how many people are in jail, I feel like, ‘Wait a minute. Our government is aware of these statistics and thinks it’s OK?’ The sentences are inhumane.”

Earlier this year, she had said about Barak Obama’s prison clemency program, “I thought it was so important when he went to prisons and spoke to people who got 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years for drugs. There are women who are raped, people who are killed and [offenders] don’t even serve 20 years.”

I guess you could call it a case of bad timing, then when Minaj’s brother was arrested December 3 for raping a 12-year-old girl.  She posted his $100,000 bail.  Blood is thicker than principles, I guess, and I’m not being sarcastic.  As his sister, she probably believes there’s a good explanation.

Last, in prison food news, the New York Times reports that the state’s prisons have announced they will stop serving Disciplinary Loaf—also known as NutriLoaf—to prisoners in solitary confinement.  It was served with a side of cabbage.

God, sometimes I wonder if you think I make this stuff up—that’s why I provide links.

This menu change is part of a slew of reforms to solitary confinement practices.  It was brought about as the result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose director said, “Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to.”

I’ve pasted the recipe below in case you want to serve it to your family over the holidays.

Recipe for Nutraloaf

Makes 50 loaves.

Ingredients

5 pounds whole wheat flour

20 pounds all purpose flour

1.5 gallons milk, 1 percent

8 ounces fast active dry yeast

4 pounds sugar

2 ounces salt

2.5 pounds powdered milk, nonfat

2 pounds margarine

5 pounds shredded potatoes (with skin)

2 pounds shredded carrots

 

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat milk to 105 degrees, then add sugar, salt and yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  3. Add both flours and dry milk, then mix.
  4. Add margarine, potatoes and carrots. Mix for 10 minutes.
  5. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise.
  6. Grease and flour loaf pans and add dough.
  7. Bake loaves for 40 to 45 minutes.

 

Sincerely, Barak Obama

I wrote to the White House about a month ago to thank President Obama for his efforts to lower incarceration rates through sentencing reform, reintegration programs and other “upstream” measures. I thought I would share the response I received.  Too bad the White House seal and other graphics don’t show up:

Dear Anne:

Thank you for writing, and for sharing your son’s story.  Today, our criminal justice system holds approximately 2.2 million Americans behind bars, at a cost to taxpayers of $80 billion per year.  Many of these individuals are violent criminals who are off the streets thanks to hard‑working police officers and prosecutors, but many others who are incarcerated are non‑violent offenders whose punishments do not always fit their crimes.  We have to make sure that our justice system is fair and effective and is doing what it can to make individuals, their families, and their communities stronger.

My Administration has taken concrete steps to enhance public safety while also making our system more just.  By channeling resources into early childhood education and issuing discipline guidance to our schools, we are creating pathways to success instead of pipelines to prison.  Through initiatives like “My Brother’s Keeper,” we are promoting reforms to the juvenile justice system and reaching young people before they’re locked into a cycle from which they cannot recover.  Additionally, the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” and “Justice Reinvestment” initiatives aim to address the unnecessary use of mandatory minimums in the Federal system and work with states to lower their incarceration numbers and reinvest in crime prevention services.

For currently incarcerated individuals, my Administration has supported critical improvements to our prison system that target overcrowding, solitary confinement, gang activity, and sexual assault.  We are promoting rehabilitation programs that have been proven to decrease the likelihood of a repeat offense, and we are expanding reintegration programs—such as those supported by the Second Chance Act—that work with government agencies and non‑profit organizations to help provide access to employment, education, housing, and health care for the nearly 600,000 inmates released annually.  In addition, I directed the Office of Personnel Management to “ban the box” on most Federal job applications in order to end the practice of disqualifying people simply because of a mistake they made in their past.

While my Administration remains committed to taking action to improve all phases of the criminal justice system, it is time for Congress to act.  Meaningful sentencing reform and juvenile justice reform legislation would make a crucial contribution to improving public safety, reducing runaway incarceration costs, and making our criminal justice system fairer.  There is strong bipartisan support in Congress to achieve these goals, and I am encouraged that the Senate and House will continue to work cooperatively to get a bill to my desk.

Thank you again for writing.  Throughout my Presidency and beyond it, I will continue working to keep our communities safe and make our justice system fair.  To learn more about these efforts, visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Issues/Civil‑Rights/Justice.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

Seeing how Vince struggles with the after effects of being imprisoned, it is comforting to know that lawmakers on both sides agree the system must change—drastically, and now—and that my president cares enough about this to take it on even after he leaves office. I believe this is the only issue Republicans and Democrats agree on and are working on together nowadays, which tells you a lot about how messed up the system is.

Prison News Roundup, Suspicious Pork Story Edition

ANNE

Now, having written in my last post about how my guiding principle in life is the pursuit of justice, I have to confess that I have no desire to do anything on prison issues beyond writing the occasional blog post about them. I thought I would take up the prison-industrial complex’s exploitation of prisoners for near-slave labor, or their milking of families with outrageous phone charges, but I don’t want to even think about these things anymore. I no longer want to carry around clippings about prison abuses in my diary for future blog posts. I want to be free. I want to have fun. I want to go to a trampoline park, or race my Mini on a real track, or bake French macaroons, or just hunker down with a good 800-page novel for the winter.

However, there have been some big developments recently on the prison front that I can’t not note.

In case you have been at a silent retreat in Nova Scotia for the last month, you don’t know that the U.S. Justice Department has begun releasing 6,000 federal prisoners. This is the largest one-time release in history. It’s part of a bipartisan effort led by President Obama to reduce crowding in prisons and free nonviolent offenders who were given harsh sentences in the 80s and 90s. Maximum sentences were reduced in 2014 and the changes were retroactive.

About 2,000 of those released are undocumented individuals who will be deported immediately.

The others will have their challenges, as recently featured on John Oliver Last Week Tonight.  Thank you, John.

In the “I can’t believe I’m reading this” department, the nation’s pork producers are in an uproar after the feds abruptly removed all pork products from the menu for federal prisoners.

I have not eaten pork since I converted to Judaism nearly 40 years ago. I don’t keep kosher; I eat plenty of shrimp. The pork thing is just symbolic. But everyone around me seems obsessed with bacon, so I was very suspicious to read that this pork ban is based on surveys of prisoners which found that they didn’t like pork. Really?  When I asked Vince, who loves all forms of pig meat, he said it could actually be true because the “pork” that is served in prison is of such poor quality that it’s nauseating.

Of course there are those who suspect that the Obama Administration is kow-towing to Muslim prisoners (he’s a Muslim, you know).

The story mentions that pork has been getting more expensive, but why ban it completely?

My personal suspicion is that there is some corporate interest at work here, such as the American turkey industry, who took a huge hit this year due to Avian influenza and may be looking to make up for lost profits.

A note: There are 206,000 federal prisoners—er, I guess 200,000 after the aforementioned prisoner release, which still leaves about 2.2 million non-federal prisoners who will be able to pig out on pork.

Bill Clinton Confesses

ANNE

No, it’s not what you think!  But Bill’s confession at the end of this July 16 editorial in the New York Times is a positive thing, and I think the piece is worth publishing verbatim, even if it is a bit longer than our usual posts.

President Obama Takes on the Prison Crisis

On Thursday, for the first time in American history, a president walked into a federal prison. President Obama was there to see for himself a small piece of the damage that the nation’s decades-long binge of mass incarceration has wrought.

Mr. Obama’s visit to El Reno, a medium-security prison in Oklahoma, capped off a week in which he spoke powerfully about the failings of a criminal justice system that has damaged an entire generation of Americans, locking up millions — disproportionately men of color — at a crippling cost to them, their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayers and society as a whole.

Speaking to reporters after touring the cells, Mr. Obama reflected on the people he met there. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes that I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

This indisputable argument has been made by many others, most notably former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., who was the administration’s most powerful advocate for sweeping justice reforms. But it is more significant coming from the president, not just in his words but in his actions. On Monday Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people, most serving 20 years or more, for nonviolent drug crimes. It was a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 people seeking clemency, but the gesture recognized some of the injustices of America’s harsh justice system.

On Tuesday, in a wide-ranging speech to the N.A.A.C.P. [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], Mr. Obama explained that people who commit violent crimes are not the reason for the exploding federal prison population over the last few decades. Most of the growth has come instead from nonviolent, low-level drug offenders caught up in absurdly harsh mandatory minimum sentences that bear no relation to the seriousness of their offense or to the maintenance of public safety.

“If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society,” Mr. Obama said. “You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”

Mandatory minimums like these should be reduced or eliminated completely, he said. Judges should have more discretion to shape sentences and to use alternatives to prison, like drug courts or community programs, that are cheaper and can be more effective at keeping people from returning to crime.

Mr. Obama also put a spotlight on intolerable conditions, like overuse of solitary confinement in which more than 80,000 inmates nationwide are held on any given day. Many are being punished for minor infractions or are suffering from mental illness. “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked. He said he asked the Justice Department to review this practice.

He talked about community investment, especially in early-childhood education and in lower-income minority communities, as the best way to stop crime before it starts. And he spoke of the importance of removing barriers to employment, housing and voting for former prisoners. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression,” Mr. Obama said, “it is the presence of opportunity.”

As Mr. Obama acknowledged, however, his powers are limited. Any comprehensive solution to this criminal justice catastrophe must come from Congress and the state legislatures which for decades enacted severe sentencing laws and countless other harmful measures. In recent years, the opposite trend has taken hold as lawmakers in both conservative and liberal states have reduced populations in state prisons — where the vast majority of inmates are held — as well as crime rates.

It’s time that Congress fixed the federal system. After failed efforts at reform, an ambitious new bill called the SAFE Justice Act is winning supporters, including, on Thursday, the House speaker, John Boehner, and may have enough bipartisan support to pass. It would, among several other helpful provisions, eliminate mandatory minimums for many low-level drug crimes and create educational and other programs in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism.

One sign of how far the politics of criminal justice has shifted was a remark by former president Bill Clinton, who signed a 1994 law that played a key role in the soaring growth of America’s prison system. On Wednesday, Mr. Clinton said, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.” It was a long overdue admission, and another notable moment in a week full of them.

Bad Willie

VINCE

We’re sitting in treatment in a windowless room, when all hell breaks loose.  We know the clouds were darker than usual when we came here.  The chemical dependency building is about 150 feet away from the barracks.  We march over.

It sounds as if a million woodpeckers are searching the corrugated metal roof for their dinner.  It’s deafening.  I know it’s a hail storm, but others don’t because they can’t see it.

Our counselor leaves the room briefly and comes right back, to tell us we can go look outside.  And what I see is cool as hell.  The ground is covered in what looks like those 1 cent white mint-flavored gum balls and golf balls.  The ground is being bombarded by these in the millions.  It’s been only two minutes since I heard the first one hit the roof, and already they’re three inches deep.

Accompanying the hail is a rain so heavy that it, too, appears white and forms a wall that blocks our view of everything else.  It’s beautiful.  I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

Ten minutes later…heavy rain continues.  Something tells me I’m going to be very busy tomorrow on Restorative Justice Work Crew.  If there’s any damage from the storm such as downed trees or even flooding, we’ll be there to clear debris, make sandbags, and do whatever else we can to help.  I’ll write more after treatment.  (Treatment is really boring today.)

Back in the barracks.  I can see out of a window again!

The sun is out, the ground is still covered with hail, but it’s melting and creating fog, so it looks like the hail is slowly crawling its way back up to the clouds.

The hailstorm nearly wiped out our entire crop.  Over four acres, no, maybe six acres…dang.  I don’t recall.  But it destroyed a lot of organic matter.  It also caused some minor flooding in Willow River so today myself and eight others swept and shoveled all of the sand and dirt left on Main Street.  Six hours of sand removal.  Ugh.

It was another exhausting day.  As it turned out, wet sand is just as heavy as cement.  Who knew.  I’m happy that this day is over.  69 days and a wake up.

[ANNE: There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Obama’s clemency program.  As of this writing, he has commuted the sentences of 68 prisoners, some of whom had been sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

As I understand it, the program is only available to federal prisoners.  I don’t know the total pool of prisoners who were eligible, but 30,000 applied.  So 68 were granted clemency out of 30,000…and that doesn’t take into account prisoners like Vince, who are not federal prisoners.

Well, the intention is good, and it’s a start and just one part of the overall momentum to reform drug and sentencing laws.

What they are really afraid of on the Democratic side is another Willie Horton.  He’s the prisoner who was furloughed for a weekend while serving a life sentence for murder.  He decided to spend his weekend committing assault, armed robbery, and rape.  The incident torpedoed the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.  Such an incident couldn’t be pinned on Hillary Clinton, but it would feed into the Republican narrative that Democrats are weak, and soft on crime.

Willie