Director's Message

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director, November Coalition

This letter was published in our latest "print" edition.
This newspaper is mailed into almost 500 prisons.

Public opinion is changing at a dramatic pace. The Office of National Drug Control Policy will be releasing a plan later this year. There is vague mention of drug war prisoner release.

On June 6, 1999 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article entitled, "Judges Decry Mandatory Minimum Sentences". The following was reported:

"Bob Weiner, a spokesman for Gen. Barry McCaffrey, commander of the White House war on drugs, said that reduction of the prison population by 250,000 is 'the guts' of a new White House policy to be announced later this year. McCaffrey warned recently that prisons were becoming a 'drug gulag' as a result of the rising population of narcotics offenders."

We called ONDCP for verification, but all we know at this point is that there will be a plan revealed at the end of the year, a plan that the White House has not approved yet. The Office of Drug Control Policy did not tell us that the newspaper misquoted McCaffrey or Weiner, but they would not reveal any details about the plan beyond "drug treatment" would be a large component of it.

Does this news mean that it is time to heave a sigh of relief and relax? Quite the opposite. I know that I've admonished our membership over and over that I believe that the path and time frame of true reform is up to us. If for one brief moment we think that those vested in the drug war are going to give up and make way for facts and rationale to enter into the debate without a struggle, not a chance. We have to work harder for drug policy reform, criminal justice reform and restoration of civil rights, and we must work diligently.

The climate for our work has changed. It is no longer a cold and indifferent public to whom we speak. Millions of families have been affected now, it is time that we join hands to stop the injustice and bring home those that we love.

Our membership continues to grow and those that contact our office are not only offering to help-they are helping.

Our Dollar Campaign has resulted in $1,737 in prisoner donations this year-up from less than $500 this period last year. While that isn't a lot of money-we are making every cent count and here at headquarters, we know that from prisoners wages-it means that some of you are making a generous sacrifice.

How I wish I could answer each letter that many of you write, but gone are the days of being able to set aside a few hours to "chat" like I once was able to do. Always know that we are listening to you.

You might be wondering what I'm thinking about the report in the Pittsburgh Gazette. Did McCaffrey's assistant, Bob Wiener speak out of turn? I am cautiously optimistic. Perhaps he was (as the saying goes) running an idea up the flag pole to see if anyone would salute. Well, dear prisoners and those who love them: Attention!

And Salute!

My love to you all,

The following (a slightly edited version),was given by Nora Callahan at the 12th Annual Drug Policy Foundation Conference on May 21, 1999

I'm going to talk about the prison industrial complex today, more particularly, the privatization of prisons. I could stand before you with statistics that would shock you at first and then I'd have to watch your eyes glaze over, so we will put a few statistics on the overhead and talk for a little while about what this means, and should mean to every American.

Corporate profits are being made in a grand scale on the backs of American prisoners. Corporate profits soar as prisons overflow with people, our fellow citizens, many who are nonviolent people who endure inhumane treatment in the name of the war on drugs and our war on crime.

Corporate profits are vested in inhumanity and in how well they can guise the inhumanity and it is spreading world-wide. These prison corporations do it well. And it's happened before, people trading in humans and profits "earned" by some in taking away the freedom of many.

Political agendas have flourished by turning entire segments of citizenry into captives. This is nothing new. The historical reference has been given simple terms by which they are remembered today. American Slavery immediately comes to mind; Stalinism, we all know at least of few details of that terrible regime. The most renown era of history in which relocation camps became concentration camps, then death camps we now call Nazism and the Holocaust followed.

We don't yet know what name this American era will one day be called, because it isn't over yet. In fact, it has just begun and before it's roots sink deeper, we need to end the drug war and the war on crime and all war on American people because you can't win a war like that. Everyone looses, except the stockholders.

Too much money is now being made on prisoners. The taxpayer foots the bill, but corporate and community profits are keeping the scales balanced too keenly, therefore it is our responsibility not to act as "good Germans" and take nothing more than casual notice. This system, this prison industrial complex is working very efficiently and profits outweigh some of the cost, and that is our growing concern.

In Texas, a group of children left their chairs in Sunday School, got down on their knees and clasped their hands and prayed. They prayed that a new prison would open in their neighborhood. They prayed fervently so that their under-educated parents could earn $10,000 more dollars a year than a tenured teacher and so that their community could prosper.

Prisons, unlike many industries, don't use chemicals, they don't make a lot of noise on the outside, they don't pour pollutants into the atmosphere and they thrive when the economy is weak.

Towns that used to cry, "Not in my backyard!" will buy the land themselves and donate it to the BOP or the DOC or the CCA!

Criminologist Nils Christie said it best when he wrote, "Timber companies need trees; steel companies need iron. Prison companies use people as their raw material. The industry grows richer as it ensnares more people."

In the transfer of responsibility for incarceration to corporate entities, we have done something remarkable in America. We have always been remarkable - we Americans - and now - we have produced a strong market and demand for crime itself. Crime is now the hottest economic investment around!

It was a natural step for Congress to make crimes out of acts that are not really crimes at all and make drug laws that shouldn't be laws. I'll say this again: Crime is now the hottest economic investment around. It's so hot that children are ordered to their knees to pray for prisons. I remember a time when praying for prisoners had an entire different meaning than it does today.

Some prison corporations' mantras have become, "If we build it - they will come." The prisoners. Do private prisons save the taxpayers any money? Not really, but no one is sure. The Government Accounting Office doesn't think so; if the savings is there - it is minimal. But, a little goes a long way in a huge expenditure, and prisons are just that.

What private prisons do is cut. They cut red tape. They cut a little time during the building, the prisons go up quicker, staff isn't trained very long and require even less in the way of background and education than their public counterparts. At the visitor's entrance in CCA owned prisons the bulletin board says: CCA Excellence in Corrections" At the bottom is "Yesterday's Stock Closing" with the price. Public money turns into private profit and everyone is happy.

I am not happy though. My brother is a prisoner of the drug war. I went to visit him a few weeks ago, he was sent there a year ago and has been down a long time now. The prison rises foreboding in the midst of what was once an Arkansas bean farm. My brother wrote of it not long after they moved him there from a prison in Wisconsin. I'm going to read you just a part of his doleful description.

"I have just suffered a transfer to what is referred by the Bureau of Prisons as a "low security" institution. I ponder my surroundings, and ask myself, is this particular hellhole the new design? Is this currently the rage - and rage should be the operative word - is this currently the rage in the federal system?

It is warehousing people, literally, in long open dormitories separated into the minimal sized space for two men, about 82 square feet to be exact. These are called cubicles and one has to see it to believe it. Our living space is similar to cattle stalls, with five foot walls on three sides that slope down on the open, fourth side. Four long rows of these cubicles fill the warehouse and if you sleep on a top bunk you look over lines of huddled forms, like casualties in a military hospital. If one could lift the roof, the comparison to sardines would be inevitable."

He went on to describe the work factory and told me what the prisoners call the place. It's called the Slave Ship. It is hard loving a prisoner - sometimes so hard you think your heart will crack wide open and wish to God those prison walls could crack instead. Will the federal government and state agencies be able to compete with privatization? Will Forrest City be a success story?

It probably no longer matters because they have been forced to try, and they are doing a good job of cutting things right down to the nub. Privatization has forced public prisons to conform and cut costs while communities around them prosper.

We sat on hard plastic visiting chairs in the din of the noise because they won't take a little of the profit on the over-priced, under-quality food vending business, and the gouging of our phone calls between heart wrenching times that stretch into years between visits-you know, just a little of the profit from all of our pain to provide some sound absorbing material so we can talk.

I guess they want us to remember where we are, as if we could forget.

The noise! But you are so glad to be with him, to see him face to face, that you wouldn't care, except my poor old mom is so deaf and aside from what a hearing aid in each ear canal can interpret, but that is hard because the hearing aids amplify all that horrendous noise still further. My mom sits confused most of the day. I know that she is wishing she could stand to turn the things off and sit in silence, but she would miss all that her son was saying, so she sits in that roar of all that noise, and Gary sits in agony because he's been sick for a long time.

In private prisons, the guards are shareholders so they monitor costs. One guard told a reporter last year, "You make sure you don't waste money on things like cleaning products. Because it's your money you're spending." They don't waste much money on doctors either.

Private prisons have less employees, private prisons are more dangerous. Those statistics can not be denied. There is as much as 50% more violence when compared to the prisons that we taxpayers have bought, now own, maintain and fill to overflowing.

Private prison employees make lower wages, there is greater turnover and staff is constantly in training mode. There are few programs for the prisoners and the prisoners know first-hand and full-well that they have become a stock-market commodity. We are now the world's leading jailier. It's our country - is this what we want?

In 1996 contractors broke ground and built 26 federal and 96 state prisons. One year - 122 prisons! In 1995, Corrections Corporation of America's stock soared from $8 to $37 a share. Prison guard unions in California boast that 38 of 44 crime bills under three governors were passed because they wanted them to. They spent huge amounts of money on the 3-Strikes and donated over a million dollars to Pete Wilson's last campaign.

Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas brings defense policy to mind - now this. Should prison guards be determining our criminal justice policy? Of course not, but they are.

We are on a dangerous road away from justice and liberty. A dead end road with a wide prison gate and a sea of razor wire.

Private prison profits depend on a consistent prisoner supply. That could be why there are still members of Congress and state government, pushing for more mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing all the way around. I'd put my life on it. How many of our leaders own stock in private prisons? How I wish that I knew.

All of this when we know that other things work better than imprisonment. We allow these prisons to be built at enormous cost - human and financial - when we know that we could build a basketball court in an impoverished neighborhood and get a better result for the effort. We could treat our addicts and take the black market profits out of drug sales and stop the flood of them across our borders with a simple supply and demand formula, but we build prisons instead.

I know that I have acted much as the Good Germans of the 1930s and when they came for my brother - it was too late. Let it not be too late for you or your loved ones.

My brother ended his missive about his new surroundings by saying:

"Perhaps it is the time of year, the cold, iron gray sky. I suppose it could be the dreary fact that I have already been locked up for nearly a decade, and as far as I am concerned, the government has gotten its godforsaken pound of flesh. And yet I have almost twice that long to do before my 'debt', for a non-violent drug offense, is paid. The years stretch out ahead of me and threaten in a real sense to change the essential being that I am, something I have tried very hard to hang on to.

I once marveled at how Germany could have produced the kind of mindset which sent so many millions of people into the camps, the gas chambers and the ovens, but now I know. With an acute sense of loss and horror I realize that this is not a phenomenon peculiar to that time and place. It is rather a recurring human theme, and one that is alive and well in the USA at the end of this shameful century.

Come one, come all and welcome to the gulag, welcome to the Land of the Free. Lest you feel safe, or read this with a sense of self-righteousness, think long and hard about your children and of the slave ships being built to house them not long from now."