Director's Message

By Nora Callahan,
Executive Director,
November Coalition


"Earth to Prison. Come in Prison. Do you copy?"

I have been reading Janet Reno's February 29th testimony to the Senate Committee on Appropriations. "Breaking the cycle of drugs" is a phrase she repeats often these days, and it appears within requests for budgetary increases at every level of federal law enforcement.

Janet Reno sums up the current sad state of affairs saying, "One of the most pressing criminal justice challenges we will face as a nation in the next few years is the reentry of offenders into society upon their release from prison. We have nearly 2 million Americans incarcerated, two-thirds of them in state and federal prisons. This year, nearly 570,000 inmates will return to communities across the country."

Patra's phone call turned my attention from Reno's testimony. Patra has two sons in federal prison. Jeff completed five years and was on probation for a marijuana conspiracy. He was able to live at his mother's house while he worked on what Reno so aptly calls "reentry". One definition of the word "reentry" can be used to describe earthly objects that return from outer space. Reno must see parallels for the prisoner who's going home.

Patra's son, Jeff, got a bicycle and secured a couple of $6/hour jobs, and would have dated a nice woman he'd met - if he could have afforded movie tickets and popcorn, but then there was the problem of the bike. He hoped for and needed a paying job that would cover housing, food, transportation and a date. Or is this far too much to ask?

Perhaps there is hope yet. Reno writes of reentry problems, "We must have programs in place to break the cycle of drug use and its consequences and to provide support services to help these former offenders successfully reenter their communities. Our FY 2001 budget addresses these needs."

I've just finished a brief heart to heart with Patra. Jeff had grown weary riding that bike from one low-paying job to another, knowing he'd be years from a decent running car at the rate he was peddling. One phone call later, and Jeff was back in federal prison for another five years. A second son, Stephen, has also been swallowed by the prison system.

Reno's assertion that people leave prison with the same problems isn't new. Equally distressing, she ignores the well-documented problems of hate, bitterness and cynicism, all learned well in prison. With all of this in mind, here are some of Reno's proposals that would have helped prevent Jeff's return to prison.

Reno asks for $75 million tax dollars for the Justice Department's Zero Tolerance Drug Supervision program. Money for this program will "help manage the reintegration of prisoners into society and minimize public safety risks while maximizing productive activity."

The Justice Department's program would include funding for "re-entry courts" modeled after the federal "Drug Courts" program. Reno says of it, "The message of the [reentry] court would be work with us, stay clean, stay out of trouble, get a job, and we will help you in those efforts. But if you come back testing positive for drugs, if you commit further crimes, if you violate the conditions of your release, you're going to face a more serious punishment, every step of the way." That is an exact quote from Reno's testimony.

Reno laments the number of prisoners who never have their problems addressed while confined, dreams up a new program with a budget of $75 million and drops a measly $2 million of the 75 million dollar increase onto the proposed problem she sets forth. That is some real bad grant writing, and it's a lie.

Many former prisoners' problems in the past pale in the light of confounding dilemmas that await them after release. Reno would make the demand even stiffer. These proposals have nothing to do with helping a former prisoner succeed-and everything to do with making it easier for law enforcement to send them back to prison.

Paroled prisoners are backed against a wall that threatens to close them in tighter. How does one evaluate a social program that might sound good but is designed to fail?

"Unfortunately, many of them will return home with the same problems they had when they entered prison," Reno laments in the problem she sets forth to solve. "And as a result, two-thirds of all returning offenders will be rearrested within three years of release. This is unacceptable."

Yes, Janet Reno, this is unacceptable, and so are your proposals to remedy it. All that your programs can hope to accomplish is to accelerate the revolving door of injustice and to continue building prisons to house those recycled 'failures'. The threat of more imprisonment is not going to help pay the rent, secure a job, or quell a desire to escape such grim reality by imbibing in a chemically induced high.

The U.S. Department of Justice Strategic Plan 2000-2005 includes 40 new federal prisons and limitless contract agreements with private prison corporations to take us "beyond 2002". Reno's programs call for more federal police - agents and officers paid to go "undercover" to tempt those on probation who are praying, "Lead me not into temptation."

It is our job, both prisoner and those who are free, to talk with our legislators and urge them not to support programs that will make punishment harsher or community release a planned failure. It will soon be our job, both prisoner and free person, to design and promote community-based release plans that will break these cycles of certain failure.

We don't need more of the same - we demand a change. Roger that.


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