Acceptance speech

(Editor's note: The following is the acceptance speech given by Nora Callahan at the Institute for Policy Studies Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award ceremony in Washington DC on October 16th, 2000.)

On behalf of all members of The November Coalition, many who languish behind prison walls, I thank the Institute of Policy Studies for their decades-long commitment to human rights both at home and abroad. An overwhelming tide of drug war prisoners and those who love them, take great hope in knowing that the Institute's commitment to expose human rights' abuses has not been dulled into silence by the pounding drug war rhetoric that has dominated legislative and media discourse for more than 30 years.

That dominance is fast losing steam as the dark failure of the drug war is brought into the light. The facts are now in, dozens and dozens of studies finished, innumerable statistics - this isn't working. Today, many more of our esteemed leaders, some of them guests here tonight, are committed to ending this war on drugs that is really a war on people.

We know that the drug war is waged primarily on those who are our most vulnerable citizens, people of color, the poor and the sick. They have become the political punching bags and scapegoats of those who would moralize about some behavior, those who would rather wage war than seek peaceful, compassionate solutions to the troubling aspects of illegal drug use.

There was an eerie silence as prison expansion became a prison industrial complex. My brother was swept into it, during the first wave of increased imprisonment in the late 1980s, and since that time, though separated by many miles, together we watched an epidemic of imprisonment crawl across the country. Our families, in a sea of millions of people who grieve the losses from imprisonment, question the injustice, but then are forced to endure a prison system that has little regard for humanity and fails to meet basic human needs.

Nine years ago, Teresa Aviles' son Isidro was arrested with $52 dollars, no drugs. There was no evidence against him except the word of a life long criminal. Police threatened to arrest his family; so he plead guilty to a cocaine conspiracy and was sentenced to 23 years in federal prison without hope of parole or earned release. There is no parole in the federal system.

After seven years into that sentence, Teresa received a call from a woman who would not identify herself, but told Teresa that her son was sick and not getting medical care. Teresa called the prison and was told that Isidro was 'fine'. He would be taken to a hospital for tests, but he was 'fine'. She drove from New York City to White Deer, Pennsylvania where she was denied a visit with her son and told that he was 'fine'. He was going to be taken to a hospital for testing, but he was 'fine'.

The unidentified woman called again to tell her that Isidro had been taken from the prison. It would be 22 days before she found her son, and two additional weeks before she could afford to travel.

Isidro lay unconscious in a hospital bed surrounded by guards, guards who told Teresa, "You are not allowed to talk to Mayo Clinic doctors or staff! You can see your son, but for information, you have to talk to the prison doctor."

She broke the rules. One of the Mayo doctors took her hand and told her that Isidro was dying. How? What? But before any answers could be given her, the guards intervened. The prison doctor never came, never returned this mother's calls, and while in grief, shock, confusion, with guards surrounding her, she held her son in her arms to tell him good-bye. Enduring such calamity, with her job in jeopardy, she clung to one frantic thought. She would need money to bury her son; she would need money to bury her son.

She would need money to bury her son.

Eleven days later a prison official called to tell Teresa that Isidro, because he had less than a year to live, could come home on what is called a "compassionate release". "Can you care for him?" she was asked.

Can she care for her son? Of course she could care for her first-born son. Within the following half-hour another prison official called. Isidro had died earlier that day.

The autopsy report, among other discrepancies, documented the young black man as a white man, and it's been two years since his death, and, still, Teresa Aviles has questions about the circumstances of her son's illness and death while in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This mother deserves some answers.

There are too many sons and daughters in our 'American Gulags' and too many mothers who have no answers to the injustice, the brutality and death that comes to those in our prisons. American prisons are not places of rehabilitation; they are places of torment and despair, as if separation from those you love isn't punishment enough.

Prisoner Chrissy Taylor writes to say she is tired of being treated less than human. She's doing 17 years, has been in prison since she was 20, has turned 30, and still has almost 7 years left to serve - 17 years for going to a hardware store and picking up some chemicals at the request of a boyfriend. She tells us the guards treat her like she is stupid. Maybe her actions were stupid once, but does that mean she is stupid for 17 years? And she's getting tired of being leered at, 'stripped' of all humanity when she strips for a 'shakedown'.

The drug war has eroded our civil rights, and our youth, mostly black youth, despair behind walls of steel and stone, making their way from high to medium security prisons, then to 'lows'. They'll spend their last years behind a fence, or boundary line they must wait behind as much as 10 or more years to cross. We have thousands of federal prisoners milling about behind waist high fences. That is how dangerous these people are! These places are called the camps.

Other prisoners won't follow the course from high security to camps. Tyrone Love was sentenced to 20 years for a crack conspiracy. In 1996, when Congress failed to address the disparity of crack and powder cocaine, there were prison riots, and prisoners were rounded up for transfer and further punishment after little or no investigation. Tyrone was beaten, transferred to the federal high security prison in Colorado and beaten again. Tyrone now lives underground, locked down for 23 hours a day, always alone. He's been existing like this for four years, has two more years to serve and will be released from the "hole" to the street. Tyrone has kept his sanity, but most do not.

The US now imprisons more than two million people, and 25 percent of them are drug law violators. The medical community tells us addiction is a disease, just as treatable as diabetes. But who is dispensing the cure? Policemen, prosecutors, judges and jailers.

We allow our own kids to take prescription amphetamines such as Ritalin - yes, an amphetamine, a performance enhancing drug - while Congress just passed harsher penalties for illegal amphetamines. We give military aid to Colombia, our tax dollars buying the helicopters, gunners and bullets that will kill Colombian farmers because Americans use coca products and marijuana. Innocents die in no-knock drug raids; yet we still build more prisons, not treatment centers.

We used to be ashamed. Families like us, who had a loved one convicted and sentenced for a drug law violation. But we are leaving and have left the isolation of shame to be no longer silent. It is our government that should be ashamed!

The November Coalition is both honored and proud of this award. This recognition has inspired us, but, even more, it renews hope as we see more and more people come to know our struggle for freedom and our cry for justice. There is no justice in the war on drugs.

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