It Ain’t The Promised Land…Part Seven

The prison industry at Canaan is not the problem. Rather, it is very much symptomatic of a much older, deeper, and entrenched policy that builds prisons, buys votes, and destroys lives. Currently, there are approximately 2,500,000 men, women, and children imprisoned in federal, state and local penitentiaries and jails that stretch across this country from its most exciting cities to its smallest and isolated rural communities. No matter their locale or size, they imprison not people, but broken dreams, misguided visions, and failed policies. Each year, that number grows exponentially. Already out-of-control, at the current rate, by the year 2020, the number of prisoners nationwide will reach epidemic proportions.

Currently, there are 10 million convicted felons in the United States, or about 20% of its adult population. Something is very much broken here. To suggest that a society can be described as healthy which at any given time jails upwards of 10% of its people, indeed 25% of prisoners worldwide, at the same time its population is less than 5% of that same world is to turn day into night… an exercise in perverse delusion… or perhaps the best indication that “tough on crime” is but a relentless cheap campaign slogan that plays to the moral agenda of the powerful few while it targets people based largely on race, class, and politics.

The so-called war on drugs has gone on for too long, causing far more societal damage than the underlying drugs themselves, or any short-term economic law enforcement “benefit” generated by their criminalization. Currently, approximately 60% of all federal prisoners are incarcerated because of victimless drug offenses fueled by the desire of offenders to get high or to help others to do so. Another 10% or so of the prison population is comprised of non-violent white-collar offenses.

America’s love affair with drugs is both seamless and timeless. It dates back to the earliest days of the Republic when more than a few of its well-heeled founders enjoyed snuff to ease pain, pass time, or simply escape. Some things don’t change.

Today, sentences for federal drug offenses continue to be draconian and often run into decades of real prison time. While use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes is now lawful in some three dozen states, several dozen prisoners nationwide are doing life sentences with no chance of release because these victims stand convicted of multiple pot offenses and nothing else.

It’s far too easy, and too slick, to simply say that drug offenders make personal choices driven by character weakness or financial greed and thus should not be heard to complain… not in a country where the chase for profit has embraced an addictive tobacco and alcohol industry of death that kills tens of millions of Americans each year through disease and violence… and has for a century or more.

Today, in Pennsylvania, where the Canaan prison complex sits like a mausoleum for the living dead, there are fourteen federal prisons of all security levels ranging from camps to maximum security and a private facility which collectively imprison almost 15,000 prisoners. Nationwide, there are more than 250,000 federal inmates.

Annual costs per federal inmate are approximately $23,000 for minimum security camps, $27,000 for low security, $28,000 for medium security, and $36,000 for high security prisons. Costs per inmate housed in community corrections (residential re-entry centers, and home confinement) for the BOP are approximately $27,000. By contrast, the yearly cost of community-based supervision by probation officers is approximately $3,500 per offender. Dollars alone, the stark, indeed dramatic, difference between building prisons or new probation offices is breathtaking, all the more so considering the recidivism rates. For those so-called offenders who stay at home with support from their families, employed or acquiring real skills, re-arrest figures remain no worse or lower than that for those locked away for the same offenses while their families slip further and further into poverty and despair.

Can it be that the high-growth prison industry in Pennsylvania, indeed nationwide, has become a political perk for politicians such as the late and all-powerful US Senator from the Keystone State, Arlen Specter, who built jails and thus bought votes from his constituents all the years he served as one of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers and, for many years, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Through his reign, Pennsylvania saw an unprecedented growth in its federal and state prison system while not a single new university was built during that time.

In Pennsylvania, almost 60% of the federal inmate population, which mirrors the country as a whole, is locked away in camps or low-security level facilities. By their very nature, such prisons are filled by those who have been convicted of non-violent drug or white collar offenses. Based on their history, they present no risk or danger to the broader community. They remain, however, imprisoned far from their homes and community at tremendous costs to their families and society as a whole… doing often long, and always lonely, time for retribution’s sake and little else. Today, such prisons are running almost 50% above capacity.

Imagine how much better, healthier, and wiser we could all become overnight with a 60% (if not greater) drop in the federal prison population and the billions it costs to maintain these human warehouses nationwide.

“Count time, count time, count time,” echoes throughout Canaan as the lights dim and another night of darkness takes hold.

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It Ain’t The Promised Land… Part Five

Part 5

Bunk 11. Born into the heart of the deep south in 1947 while segregation still controlled the destiny of millions of her black citizens, to talk to Freddie is to travel down well-worn, distant roads paved over, but not repaired. For him, the journey from Southern cradle to Northern prison has not been solitary. The stain of racism is his ever-present companion.

The youngest of four children born to a farm couple in rural Williamsburg, South Carolina where his family tree traces back to slavery well before the Civil War, he remembers, like yesterday, segregated black schools, churches and water fountains. Raised on a steady diet of his grandmother’s tales of slavery, she often warned him not to cross the imaginary line that separated their property from the “white man’s.” The few white kids he knew were the ones he played with out back behind the large plantation house where his mother cooked meals, washed floors, and did laundry to make ends meet. The tobacco, cotton, and corn crops they grew only went so far in those tough and, at times, dangerous back roads.

Even now, sixty-plus years later, Freddie cannot forget news of local lynchings or the night when, but eight years old, he was awakened by his mother’s screams as the local Klan threatened to burn down their home unless his dad paid protection. He did.

From the day the hooded men on horseback attacked his home until he went up North, some eight years later, to live with his older brother, Freddie was not the same. The Klan had turned an adventurous childhood into one of sullen moments, fear, and withdrawal. Begging his parents to return with his visiting brother to New York and not quite yet sixteen, he quit school, never to return, and left with three dollars his dad had given him and two from his mom.

Within a year of his arrival in upstate New York, Freddie found himself homeless. Tired of his brother’s binge drinking and abuse and no longer willing to surrender his meager paycheck to him, he moved out. Still but a teenager, Freddie began a decades-long journey into one addiction after another… at first with heroin and ultimately crack. For the next 35 years, his life revolved around drugs and little else. Never a major dealer, he bought, he sold, he used… he bought, he sold, he used. The pattern repeated itself over and over again as his journey, which began as a terrified eight-year-old in the hate-filled South led to stops in Harlem, back to South Carolina and, ultimately, prison.

The Harlem of the late 70’s and early 80’s belonged to Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes, and heroin. On every street corner, you soon learned that the drug was king and that all night meant just that…all night. To Freddie, who had fled from years of dope and despair in Rochester and in search of getting “straight,” Harlem held out hope. Soon, however, he found the lure of its streets and after-hour clubs too much to resist. For the next eight years, he was trapped in a vicious, endless cycle of dope, parties, and more dope on the streets of Lennox Avenue. Free at last from the overt racism of the South, the challenge was simple… to sell enough dope to get high and to avoid the violence and police corruption of the time uptown in New York City.

As his thirties gave way to his forties and the street drug of choice changed, Freddie, like thousands of other Harlemites, discovered crack. Too much to resist and desperate to escape the full-time rush that was crack, he returned to where it had all begun many years before in Williamsburg, South Carolina. The return to the family homestead was to prove so much fool’s gold.

Returning some 35 years after he had left the Deep South, to Freddie, it seemed little more than a blink of an eye. Although the Klan sheets had given way to the board rooms of new nearby corporate headquarters, little else had changed. Blacks still lived and played with black, whites with whites, and to travel down rural roads of Williamsburg County late at night was to tempt fate.

For Freddie, the transition from uptown Harlem and user to family farm hand proved to be a daunting task. Soon, he relapsed.

Over the next decade, until his arrest in 2001 for possession and distribution of crack, Freddie successfully transplanted his Northern lifestyle to his birthplace. Once again, he found himself smoking crack, partying, and smoking crack as he ran the drug from the coast of Florida to South Carolina to support his habit and to make ends meet.

Although he had but 100 grams of crack and a few ounces of cocaine powder at his disposal at the time of his arrest, federal prosecutors threatened to enhance the overall drug weight in his case if he went to trial. Facing a life sentence if convicted on the basis of so-called “ghost drugs,” Freddie pleaded guilty to a minimum 20-year sentence. Like enhanced mandatory minimums, ghost drugs…those not actually possessed but merely contemplated… have become the drug hammers that have filled federal prisons from coast to coast.

In the year between his arrest and sentence, Freddie was jailed in Effenhorn Detention Center. During this time, he quickly learned that, in South Carolina, federal prosecutions were race-driven… with most prisoners black and guards, prosecutors and federal judges white. Frequent were the times that this now fifty-something black man was called “boy.” No less frequent were the cases he came across where like-accused white defendants received sentences far less than his. Some things don’t change.

Following sentencing, Freddie was sent to the low-security prison at Petersburg, Virginia. Within days of his arrival, there was an incident involving a young black man assigned to a cell with a Klan member imprisoned for burning down black churches. Ignoring his repeated requests for a transfer, eventually the young man was attacked and severely injured by his Klan cell-mate. Later, Freddie learned that race-based incidents with black prisoners targeted by other prisoners and guards were commonplace at Petersburg. After 9/11, such attacks grew… with Muslims increasingly targeted. Freddie recalls shouts of “towel-head” and “nigger” as they echoed throughout the prison.

Towards the end of his first year at Petersburg, Freddie began to feel some discomfort in his stomach. Gradual at first, it gave way to periods of excruciating pain coupled with bouts of disorientation and chronic lethargy. Eventually, the pain became constant, causing him to often double over, to the alarm of fellow prisoners and some guards. Though he knew something was seriously wrong, over the next year or so, he received no sophisticated tests. Like many other prisoners throughout the BOP who report significant medical ailments, he was told repeatedly that it would pass. When it didn’t, inconclusive routine blood work was ordered.

Fortunately for Freddie, one day while at sick call, unable to walk or stand straight, a concerned physician’s assistant took the extra step of sending his blood work to Southern Regional Hospital… a private facility located not far from the prison. It saved his life.

With his voice cracking, years later, Freddie recalls the news he received the very next day. It was advanced stage IV cancer with not much chance of survival. Almost miraculously, he proved them wrong. He lived.

Admitted to the same hospital, Freddie soon underwent a four-hour operation to remove a large cancerous mass that had grown throughout his stomach. He awakened to the news that, although most of the mass had been removed, the prognosis was not good and that an extensive chemotherapy regimen remained as an almost last-ditch effort to save his life. Just ten days after his surgery, Freddie was returned to the prison… his body filled with tubes and racked with pain. He remembers lying for days on his bunk with little medical follow-up… unable to eat or properly care for himself.

Almost six months to the day of his surgery, and without notice, Freddie was transferred to the BOP medical facility at Butner, North Carolina for his chemotherapy… an intensive eight-month regimen which left him often violently ill and, on occasion, praying for the final relief that comes from death.

A determined man of strong faith, he had the sense that somehow he would survive… that there was a plan of sorts for him. Today, Freddie remembers the fright he felt with the insertion of a “port” … or surgically-placed reservoir attached to a tube in his chest cavity through which the chemicals were introduced into his system.

Following each five-hour treatment, he had to wait 28 days, all the while again racked with pain, nausea, and uncertainty… hoping that his blood cells would return to normal so that the next round of chemotherapy could begin. At one point, the port had to be removed because of an infection that would not go away. The treatment stopped, only to begin all over again, anew.

For eight months, the process repeated itself. At various times, Freddie was unable to eat and lost thirty-five pounds. He remained constipated throughout; unable to move his bowels, he developed a painful hernia which remains to this day.

Freddie recalls lying in his prison bed fighting infection, waves of nausea, and slipping in and out of consciousness… searching the ward for familiar faces which changed day by day as prisoners died, mostly from delayed treatment. Often he would hear them screaming out, reliving earlier times and places as they took their last breath and passed away. He estimates that during the year he stayed at the Butner hospital, a hundred or more prisoners died, mostly from cancer and because, like him, valuable treatment time had been lost to medical indifference in BOP facilities throughout the country.

Not far from Butner is a small but growing graveyard with the bodies of those prisoners who died without families or too poor to purchase the remains of their loved ones. It costs $1,000 per body. Although unseen by most, it is said that the headstones abound not with the names of the dead, but their prison numbers.

Eight years after surviving cancer and now in the fourteenth year of his 20-year sentence, Freddie, now 68 years old, is a frail man who tires easily. Never fully restored to his former health, there are moments when he just “does not feel right.” Of late, his CEA, or early cancer warning scores, have begun to once again elevate… a sign that worries Freddie but is ignored by the medical staff at Canaan.

Freddie can be seen early each morning mopping the floors in the bunkhouse. Each night, he prepares a “homemade” meal with goods purchased from the commissary. Creative and tasty, Freddie’s recipes are popular especially with the young prisoners at Canaan. He also likes to share stories with them as he provides counsel in moments when they are scared or depressed.

Although Freddie has seen two recent sentence reductions for drug offenders, he has not benefited from either. His mandatory minimum sentence renders him ineligible for any reductions.

While the BOP provides for “compassionate” and “second chance” releases, because he looked death in the face and survived, he is not eligible for either. Late at night, Freddie sits on his bunk wondering whether he will live long enough to walk out of prison and return to the South of his youth. Only time will tell.