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This edition of The Razor Wire is available as a full size, full color, fully printable Adobe Acrobat PDF file.

Criminal Actors - the Informant System and the Drug War

A portion of a public presentation by Nora Callahan, Executive Director

Watch a Quicktime Movie of Nora's full presentation; from The Beyond Bars Conference, December 3, 2005, Bellingham, WA (50 mB file)

As summer travel ebbed, I dove into the study of the informant system, as pertains to those whom the police arrest, then pressure to go back into their places of home and work and set others up for arrest. On December 3rd, I gave a presentation at Heritage College in Bellingham, Washington, as part of a daylong workshop called Beyond Bars. Here are a few excerpts.

Scared people are coached to go out, and then playing the roll of criminal actors, go out, and entrap into this mess, the people they love the most.

In this study of the informant system I ran across something written by an attorney who works for white-collar criminals, and his paper about snitching took this angle: It is a good thing to have [a snitch system]. And they shouldn't do any time, a snitch shouldn't do any time, because they are already going to be punished. Nobody is going to like them anymore. No one is going to trust them ever again, and that is their punishment. Don't give them any time.

How many informants do we have in communities? We can't measure it because of this secret system, but experts have some guesses.

"What happens to young people when their streets are full of criminal actors? Do they end up with any respect for the law? Who's the law? We have no law!"

Because researchers know what is behind the search warrants granted, they know that almost 98% of the time the police don't have any goods on anyone, just a confidential informant. A lot of informing is going on, and it's escalating.

The courts are so clogged that everyone who works for the courts is told, "Do not bring this to trial; get this settled."

So they squeeze these people into rolling on their mother. Our family involved my brother's girlfriend; it was her brother who turned her in, and so we went through this ourselves. And it is hard to try to explain to people this part - people do 20, 30 years and they get through it. Somehow, I don't know how. I've never been to prison, but they get through it, and what dogs them all of the time is this - how could my sister do that to me? How could my friend do this to me? That stays with them. That psychological damage never goes away. And it spreads to everyone in the family, just like anything traumatic does, and you get a bunch of sick people.

When I grew up, the Russians were doing it a lot, the informant system throughout all the communities. A person could be hauled off and interrogated and taken off to the ice fields. It terrified me, those Russian people. We studied these communities in Russia after that period because there was a lot of mental illness. Our country went over there to help them with all their crazy people.

And do you know what our country found out? Our scientists and doctors went over there and came back and said, "It was all those informants. It made them crazy to live among people, and nobody knew who was going to rip them off, or who needed to 'get in good,' or some favor. And so turn someone in, and that person gets hauled off to Siberia. It made people crazy. Well, that's what is happening in our communities now.

How many of you have heard that in the United States of America we have the lowest violent crime rate since the 1960's? Well then, why are we the world's leading jailer? Did that make sense when you read it? Did you have trouble with it? I did, too. But, I think I've figured it out, and I'm not a scientist, but talked to some when I was down in Seattle and ran it by them, and they said they'd check into it.

I've an idea -- a theory. The violence? It's all concentrated where they are policing real hard, places like Camden, New Jersey where citizens are black and poor and can't defend themselves. All the violence in San Diego is concentrated into the Barrio, and places in LA where they force poor people to live; then they police the hell out of them. Not only with uniformed police officers, but who else? Our friends! Pretending they're police. Acting with impunity.

What happens to young people when their streets are full of criminal actors? Do they end up with any respect for the law? Who's the law? We have no law!

Remember the mandatory minimums? You guys know about all that stuff? Back in the 1980's they took all the power from the judge, and what did we go around saying? They gave it to the prosecutor. But that's not true. You know who has the power to punish in the United States? YOUR FRIENDS - if they get caught! That's who has the power in America, the informant on the street trying to save their butt from maybe - a life sentence - maybe five years. Doesn't matter, five years? Life? It doesn't mean anything to the young person, it's all the same-five years scares them. Maybe ten years scares them; the government will use whatever years to scare you bad enough, because they can.

They've assessed this all themselves and said so. The United States Sentencing Commission had to write an assessment of this experiment, this reform. And they said themselves they can't monitor it; it's secret, we have a problem here, it's not transparent law enforcement anymore. But, they aren't going to do anything about it. They're not. Unless we say stop. Demand that they stop, organize, and get together.

Question from audience: Seems our government is moving toward more fascist systems, is this part of fascism?

Nora: This informant system is part of what happens when government isn't public anymore. This is when they need us to turn on each other, and the control factor is they have a lot of prisons and they can open new ones and if the government won't build them, the private companies will, then the government just leases the space, so they've got beds. And when they don't have beds, they just put up tents.

Comment from audience: In my neighborhood there have been murders over this issue

Nora: Murder of informants, yes. In my neighborhood, too. In the woods, two young boys taken up and murdered and all they found was a couple of dreadlocks. They were digging their own graves before they were shot. And there's one boy doing 67 years, and two did 12 months. They talked first.

Chuck: That's a good example if I could add on to it. There were three people charged in an act of conspiracy in Stevens County about three years back. The prosecution and courts both guided into a drug conspiracy by simply alleging that it was. This is part of the problem of how the courts proceed. So, once they had that down, they could proceed on the basis of words. There are so many cases, these drug conspiracies, and so-called trials, in which there isn't anything, except the words of others. This leaves defense attorneys essentially in a weird quandary, they are left feeling kind of dirty; they can't do anything.

They can only talk about what are the options; it's a sales talk. It's not about whether or not a person is guilty. So, in the case of the murdered informants, the two guys, probably one of them the shooter, he ratted or rolled over first, and so did his friend. So, the last guy to get picked up, gets 67 years and the other two, twelve months in county jail. It's the way conspiracies work and you can bargain away that much and get one year, versus 67 years.

Question from audience: When you use the term 'snitch' or 'rat' I think there is a tendency to look at informants with disdain -

Nora: Oh, the repentant heroes?

Questioner: Well, I feel like we aren't as thorough about this, seems that people due to drug policy facing 30 years, 40 or life, so these are people who are put in a situation by the system where they are given no option. While we are all responsible for our decisions, even these people that have become informants, I feel like it is important to remember that we have set up a system that puts people in the position that they have to choose this. They aren't necessarily bad people. You know, what would we all do?

Nora: Yes. Yes. That's right. That's right, because we have this weakness. When they set up the Stanford experiment in the college, and half the kids were guards and half the kids prisoners, they had to stop that thing right away because in a matter of hours friends were abusing friends. And they went, oh my god, how come? Because we are weird. [Laughter] We need checks and balances. We can't have absolute power. Because when we get it, we'll put the hurt to somebody. I don't understand it all, but that's the way it is.

And what if it's true, what that white-collar guy's attorney says about informants? The guys that do the corporate ratting should go home, not have any time - that is what his paper is about. Out of Vanderbilt Law School, talking about informants, part of that reasoning is the idea of redemption. Oh yeah, I was bad and selling a bunch of drugs, and I'm sorry and get some time off for doing that. That's maybe an okay thing, that we accept responsibility if we are involved in crime. If you murder somebody well, you go forward and say, Well, I killed him and feel awful and now I'll go do my time.

This other thing? It's insidious, and yes, I believe what happens is you send all those informants back home, that are now rejected by family, friends, church, business - it's proven it does all those things. What happens when some cities in America have 13% of their young people working as informants? And they're sick, too. And people don't like them, and eventually everyone knows. What happens to those people? They have to leave their community. So we are fracturing social order. We are destroying the basic foundations of us being able to live together as human beings. Trust. And they call it a legal system.

Snitch Culture Run Amuck

In mid-November, 35-year-old Chadwick Shane Cochran was beaten to death by fellow inmates at Los Angeles County Jail, according to the Associated Press. Authorities report that gang members, who mistakenly thought he was an informant, screamed "Snitch!" while beating and stomping Cochran for up to a half-hour. Cochran, who was mentally ill, was in jail for a nonviolent offense.

Also, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that two criminal trials in October were brought to a halt because of the presence of "Stop Snitchin'" t-shirts. The shirts are an increasingly popular trend on the urban streets of eastern cities.

"Snitching becomes a fact of life," according to Alexandra Natapoff, an associate criminal law professor at Loyola Law School who published a University of Cincinnati Law Review article on the phenomenon (see "Snitching: The Institutional And Communal Consequences").

"At every barbecue, at every holiday party, someone is under law enforcement pressure to snitch. That in my mind is a destructive public policy."

For more on the Stop Snitchin' movement, visit

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