By Chuck Armsbury
What do you do at November Coalition?" is a fair question posed routinely in letters, emails, phone calls and face to face. Callers express surprise when a live voice answers the phone with "November Coalition, this is Chuck," unexpected in a time of automated systems and message machines. They're more surprised when one of us in this three-person rural office actively listens and offers some guidance. We've been "doing" this informal advocacy five days a week for more than 11 years.
We're not lawyers, though many people who contact us think we may be or can find one for the problem(s) they need solved. Mostly, we encourage people to get active where they live, embrace bottoms-up change, and take a 'use what you got to get what you need' approach to solving problems. That usually works to raise spirits and hope, but then last Spring came this troubling email, warning of a possible drug war death:
"My son was charged with drug possession with intent last year. The drugs (except for a small amount of pot he had on him) were not his, and the police know that. He had met a woman a couple of weeks previously and went out with her. She had drugs in the back of her car that he was not aware of, and they were stopped by police.
"We found out later that she had been doing this for a couple of years with police knowledge. I have a taped conversation with her talking about how the police have forced her to do this for a couple of years, after she was charged with a previous crime.
"Anyway, my son was arrested and then offered (by police) that they'd request probation if he helped them set up a bust on a dealer. He was told that he cannot request any attorney about his arrest or the deal is void. He helped them with what they wanted, posted bond and waited for a court date for over a year.
"Well, here's the latest problem; he has received death threats for helping police -- so there must be an 'officer informant.' He's been scared to death because he's been threatened that he'll be killed in jail.
"There was a court date set last week, but notification was sent on Friday afternoon for a court date on Monday morning, so notice was not received in time. His bond was then forfeited, even though the court was contacted as soon as the notice was received, and it was their screw-up.
"So now he will be jailed to await trial as soon as he shows up at court. We fear for his life, and we can't afford an attorney. We don't know what to do and fear the system here more than anything else, since there's a lot of corruption.
"Do you know of any way at all we can get help? Thanks so much."
Attorneys aren't hungry for such cases, and no help was found. I heard from this distraught mother again recently:
"At this time my son is in hiding due to the threats on his life. We can't trust police or anyone else due to the threats that have been made. I'm sure there's a warrant on him for the bond forfeiture, due to not being informed of the hearing date, though we haven't heard anything and I'm afraid to contact anyone again.
"The police shouldn't have told him not to get an attorney involved, but I doubt a court-appointed attorney would have done anything anyway. I fear the outcome will be my son's death in the end, as so many others. You have permission to use our story but please don't use our names due to fear of further repercussions. Contact me if you need anything else. I appreciate your interest."
Our 'interest' includes more than listening and caring; it's also a continuing dedication to expose the low-down dirty, ugly snapshots of the drug war informant system expressed in this mother's forlorn words. Nora's Directors Message links our 'interest' to the relevant conduct/real offense revolution in sentencing.
Betty's been calling me regularly for the last few weeks. Her son in a Kentucky prison couldn't pee in a bottle when ordered -- while guards watched. Though knowing he may be suicidal, they then punished his 'shy bladder syndrome' by placing him in a solitary unit for six months. I've listened patiently and repeatedly to Betty's story of her abused son and abusive father, stayed on the phone while she cried. She can't afford an attorney, and the local press ignores her. She insists the local police are corrupt.
Yet, Betty's determination, at age 65, to help her son inspires and teaches nonetheless. Losing doesn't seem to break her, as long as she can talk with someone who listens and teaches fundamentals of citizen advocacy, and right now for her it's November Coalition's home office. As we went to press with this RW, Betty left a phone-message of thankfulness for having found legal counsel for her son.
The doorbell rang, and the woman at the front door told a sad tale of debilitating lupus and brain cancer affecting her and a friend. Though Washington State legalized medical marijuana in 1998, medical doctors remain reluctant to recommend cannabis, and won't locally for the woman who came to November Coalition's door.
Tracy Ingle's story started with a phone call to our office from his sister. Our office networked with members and friends to find an attorney in Arkansas to defend Tracy.
A South Carolina student emailed with a question about prosecutions of mothers with so-called 'crack babies.' Have prosecutions leveled off? Can you help me with my research? And Anthony wrote to say thank you for trying to get him moved from Portland (OR) to the Dallas (TX) area to be near his ailing, incarcerated mother at Carswell. He needed contacts in Dallas, and I gave him names of people in the area to contact about housing and employment.
If you appreciate such everyday work we accomplish with a voluntary, national network of people anchored in Colville (WA), become a new member or renew your old membership today. If you're inside prison walls, that's only $10/year. Outside members pay $30/year, and students join for $15/year. If you or your loved one appreciate a 'live voice' on the phone, send your membership money in today. If you especially appreciate receiving this issue of the Razor Wire, pass it on to a friend with a reminder to become a Novemberista now.
Outside groups like November Coalition
were only dreamed of in the 1960-70s era of prisoner resistance
and its calls for community organizing. Today, we're a living
legacy with a host of independent voices demanding real change,
bottoms up change, in police departments, courtrooms, prisons
and the communities where we live. Help
sustain the Coalition's 11-year-old grassroots' movement
with your membership money, a renewed dedication, and be enlivened
by an optimism of uncertainty that dispels pessimism.
Kenneth Brydon is News Editor for the recently revived San Quentin News -- the pulse of San Quentin. Volume 2008, No. 1, was mailed to our office with a request for permission to reprint articles from the Razor Wire. "Up to this print, the SQ News was last put out in 1992," wrote Brydon in a cover letter.
Well laid-out on yellow paper with photos, SQ News includes articles on the Men's Advisory Council, SQ Law Libraries, getting an AA degree, the 1964-created San Quentin Utilization Of Inmates Resources, Experiences And Studies (SQUIRES) mentoring program, Overall Health And Wellness and smaller pieces on the SQ Giants baseball team and California Reentry Program.
Brydon also told about a special workshop within SQ that labored over a year to publish an anthology of fiction and nonfiction writing, Brothers in Pen: A Means of Escape, with a "range of subject matter as wide as the imagination." -- Rattlesnakes, Black Power, prison boxing matches, painful childhoods and transformation in the 'hood.'
Anthology contributors are serious writers, many of them Lifers, and all proceeds from sale of the anthology "go through the William James Association to support this creative writing class through the Arts-in-Corrections program. To purchase Brothers In Pen online: www.lulu.com.
Subscribe or send submissions to Education Department, San Quentin News (USPS 4870-700), San Quentin, CA 94974. Death row stories are welcome. Editors close with Sanskrit saying, "Learn to behave from those who cannot."
Larry Levine spent 10 years in federal custody, a first-time, nonviolent offender. After release, Levine did what most released prisoners seldom do: he stayed determined to help others like him in 1998 who "were scared, angry, confused, and totally overwhelmed by a Criminal Justice System I knew little about. I had no idea what to expect, no one to turn to, and was on my own."
Years spent studying and challenging BOP "Program Statements" gave Larry a rich insight into how rules are made, followed or disobeyed by prison staff. On the outside he offers unique advocacy for those about to enter a federal prison.
In a phone interview Levine made it clear he works for a fee, a sliding fee based on income and need. Calling it Fedtime 101, he offers "direct one-on-one counseling and guidance, to ensure you have a complete understanding of the issues lying ahead of you and your family."
Levine claims he'll address concerns expressed by an incarcerated person's loved ones, and insists his mission is "to provide the most accurate, up-to-date information, addressing all key issues concerning BOP Policy, pre-and post-custody policy, and what really happens when someone goes inside."
Larry has two websites where you can learn more about his history, special consulting service and initial efforts to organize California ex-felons into a voting bloc: