This newspaper is mailed into almost 500 prisons.
The following is a compilation of two public presentations made recently. I attended the Second International Conference on Prisoners of the War on Drugs, held in Toronto Canada on March 20-21. It was sponsored by the Colloquium Committee of the Department of Sociology at York University and The Committee on Unjust Sentencing of Los Angeles, California. A week later I was in Washington D.C. for the conference of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
This is my story, how I came to be an activist in drug policy reform.
It was 1989 and the arrest was little more than a few days behind us. We were the typical family in crisis and we didn't have a clue as to what was going on. You don't. All our family had was a choking fear that something was dreadfully amiss.
My loved one had been taken to a holding facility, that is what they called it, but does that mean a jail? If it was a jail they would call it that. There is no communication, not by mail because you don't know how to do this yet. Write a letter? Write when you are in crisis? We had the telephone all our lives. You use a telephone in crisis. What is safe to write? You know, in a letter. A letter at a time like this, how would you start such a letter anyhow?
"How are you?"
You can't write, that is out of the question, so you wait for word. Words come in a headline more days than not. They are lies though, you know that much. And you would go on and on about it, but your husband wants the subject changed. You don't want to worry the kids. So it becomes an obsession of the mind and heart and you wait. You read in the newspaper that he's been beaten by an inmate and taken to a local hospital. That is how you find out how he is. And about this time you realize how powerless you are to help him.
Our parents were old and those were dark days-dark days that never ended.
Days have turned into 10 long years, for everyone, especially my brother. He is a prisoner of the U.S. drug war. My father has died. My mom? Well, she has grown a lot older and sadder. She says to me each time we talk, "I'm tired honey."
Every one does the time
The United States has filled our prisons with non-violent citizens and build still more. Our country has earned the dubious distinction of "World's Leading Jailer." In the history of mankind, no single country has ever jailed a higher percentage of its citizens. And our country wants the whole world to do the same.
Our cities have become the battleground. Gang violence that prohibition fosters has destroyed U.S. inner cities. Selective prosecution of minorities in some communities has criminalized one out of three black men.
There has been a steady, persistent erosion of our civil rights. The Drug War promotes a hideous system of betrayal: we are becoming a nation of informants and snitches. Our police and legal system is riddled with corruption. The shameful practices of forcible entry into homes and forfeiture of property without due process is now commonplace in America.
My brother Gary was arrested and indicted in a federal drug conspiracy involving cocaine in 1989. Eighty pounds of cocaine found at one man's home and in his car became cocaine that my brother supplied him. Was there a chain of circumstantial evidence that led them to Gary? Well, yes, if you deem a Seal-a-Meal purchased from Price Club and a small lock that an FBI agent testified was manufactured in Columbia. Hardly a chain of circumstantial evidence. The only chain of anything was the chain of violated constitutional rights; Gary was convicted on the basis of what a couple of men said, two men that faced decades of imprisonment. I know that many of you reading this can tell the same story. The drug war had taken to too large a toll on my family. My step son came to our home drug dependent. Our insurance wouldn't cover any mental health treatment for him. They would build him a prison bed, but not a hospital bed.
My father began to lose a 20 year battle with cancer and his doctor told me one day, "If he was in Europe, or even Canada, we could get him pain free. I'm sorry." He died in a all consuming convulsion, and he was afraid. That image was seared into my heart and mind forever. He didn't have to die like that.
Gary's trial followed my father's death. When my mother screamed as the guilty verdict was read, I was glad my dad was dead. For a time, I wished us all dead.
Instead of dying however, I became involved with FAMM; a lifeline in more ways than one. In turmoil, lots of emotional turmoil, working to change the laws was the only time that I could feel right in my heart and mind.
It was also my way of letting Gary know that he was not forgotten - a way that I could show him that my love and commitment could extend to behind the walls and wire of prison.
We have a grave state of affairs in America. Politics has
replaced compassion and hysteria has pushed aside reason.
After a few years with FAMM, I founded the November Coalition to speak to the broader issue of drug policy reform. In early 1997 my brother, Gary Callahan and his friend and fellow prisoner, David Perk decided that the millions of family members ought to rise up and oppose the drug war. It had indeed crushed my own life and it sounded kind of simple. They asked me to form a formal organization and gather the troops.
It's a war after all
Only one problem: our soldiers are a ragtag group. We are for the most part financially destitute because the government has taken our homes, our bank accounts; they even take our family photos. Then they splash our names in the newspapers as though we were the offspring of Al Capone and take our pride. Any money a family can pool together goes to a lawyer. Now we are shamed and broke. And we lose; nobody wins a drug case in America anymore, or so few that the victors are nondistinctive. The prison bars slam shut and every year we lose still more. Wives give up and move on, children grow up and go on, but they are broken, too.
That's a tattered, destroyed group. Loving the prisoner is a hard road and it makes some so hard they break. We break and only some of us mend again.
And so now we go, some the walking wounded, obviously living on borrowed time because we can't yet get through a day without depression that dogs a person powerless. Some of us live on the rage that boils inside of us, a rage at knowing that our government has betrayed us.
Our soldiers. Will we continue to muster?
Shame is a silencer that isolates the loved ones of prisoners. It is our responsibility to show the world that these laws are more culprit than those we love. It is bad law that imprisons those we love. It is not justice.
Early on, when the mail was just beginning to pour in from prisoners all over the country, my friend George would drop it by the cafe where I took my lunch break. I was working for a newspaper at the time. Another friend, Duane would pick up the letters and scan them and one day he asked me in a very dismal tone, "Nora, what are you doing? Maybe you ought to really think about it. Aren't you just giving all these people false hope?"
I looked at the letter I had in my hands and it was obvious the guy was hopeful for the first time in a long while. I didn't answer the question. Hope? Was I simply dispensing false hope? A few days later I answered Duane's question.
"No. No, I'm not giving them false hope because there is no such thing."
Hope is part of what makes us human. It is also our first objective as loved ones of these prisoners. Without hope we can do nothing.
We must all first take hope back into our hearts. These laws are more culprit than those we love and it is our government that should be ashamed.
For most, learning what is flawed in the drug war is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. By in large, the families know little. We don't go into the legal process equipped to deal with it. Even prisoners have written saying, "When I went to prison, I figured I was the only guy that this had happened to. When I got here I found out we all got here on the word of an informant. And none of us were caught with any drugs." A family on the outside is left confused.
We need answers and they need to come quick because too many times, a family, rather than be crushed with despair, will abandon the prisoner. Time isn't on our side anymore - not for us. Time is the enemy.
We must have hope, and we must dust off, lift our heads and not be ashamed and thousands of family members are doing that now. Learn all you can about the drug laws that have stolen those we love away. Learning a little can help your voice be clear. Get to talking, get to walking and I know firsthand that it is a hard road because most days, victory feels as far off as those we love. Hope is a thirsty thing and without it we can't keep the momentum alive and it is that - and that alone, in a nutshell-that will end the war on drugs.
We all have figured that much out.
Momentum... momentum... momentum.
Opposition to mandatory sentencing and our drug laws is building. Each time we push, if we push a little harder the walls that hold our loved ones will crumble. I believe this with all my heart.
Leaders you must go out ahead and people will follow. Find a few allies and watch your chapter grow.
Charles Knight, a drug war prisoner, recently wrote saying, "Thanks for proving that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't always on oncoming train."
We must take hope, we must not be ashamed, we must have a voice and commit ourselves to changing these terrible laws. The loved ones of prisoners of the drug war number in the millions - it is time for us to come out of isolation and make our voice so loud that it cannot be dismissed by our leaders. We can be the collective presence that adds to the momentum that grows and grows and grows.
Charles Knight, we are an oncoming train, but you are aboard!
My love to all of you,