Director's message

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of The November Coalition

Running out of time: Presidents and prisoners

I ran out of time before I could do ... a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment, Bill Clinton lamented in exit interviews at the end of his term. Sadly, too many prisoners haven't run out of time, rolled through my mind, and I was literally stunned that he spoke so candidly, so late in office. Clinton's thoughts on the injustice that occurred during his eight years of office are now sealed as part of his presidential legacy. And as of January 8, 2001, he had pardoned from prison the fewest number of prisoners than any other modern president.

In the Rolling Stone, December 28, 2000, interview Clinton said he felt that "small amounts of marijuana had been decriminalized in some places and should be". We also learned that he doesn't think that students arrested for possessing marijuana should lose their school loans. He talked about racism and the drug war, criticized the sentencing guidelines and remarked that, overall, prison sentences are too long in this country. He said he tried to change the disparities, the "unconscionable" disparities between crack and powdered cocaine.

I could not help but look back and remember how hopeful many prisoners and their loved ones were when we heard his newly appointed attorney general, Janet Reno, promised to take a hard look at mandatory sentencing eight long years ago. We rarely heard another word about it and had thought, naively in retrospect, that the Clinton administration would, at the very least, use the Office of the Presidency to open a discussion of federal sentencing and drug policy reform. Neither came until the moving vans were scheduled for arrival.

Weird is my foremost conclusion of the Closing Clinton Comments now, but I was actually reeling after first reading his eleventh hour sentiments. More people were arrested for marijuana possession during the Clinton administration than any previous presidential administration, and who was telling him that in some places small amounts of marijuana had been decriminalized as if that were a lot of places?

His own Drug Czar was the great reminder that federal law prevails over state law until the Supreme Court says "no it doesn't", and the honorable justices don't say that often enough. Concerning the legislation that denies student loans to those convicted of drug law violations - and maybe I missed it along the way - but this is the first I heard Clinton had any opinion beyond how to write his 'John Henry' on that terrible so-called Higher Education Reform Act he signed into law last year.

Prison sentences have gotten longer and harder to endure under his administration, and more people went to prison for drug law violations than ever before; over 100,000 people went to federal prison since 1995 alone, and the majority were drug law violators. We saw no reform of crack and powder cocaine sentencing. He appointed a military general to oversee the U.S. drug war - not a doctor to address drug abuse and addiction, or an economist to see that we gave taxpayers a payback for all the money spent. Nope. He appointed a general - with plenty of experience in waging war. And that was a Democrat.

The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, General Barry McCaffrey, said in his departing comments, "I've seen more misery in this job, more human destruction, than I did in combat." Yes General, it's been a long and bloody drug war, and you above many a good soldier should know that misery and human destruction are always the consequences of war, and seldom do people look back on their participation in war with fond and joyous memories. Wars are grave and serious because people are maimed and die, and seldom are the outcomes of so much destruction worth the cost of choosing fighting over peaceful and sensible resolution. There could have been a better way, there should have been another course is what is always said of wars. And there is a better way than this deadly drug war.

That is why the November Coalition is dedicated to ending the drug war and why McCaffrey attempted to get everyone to stop calling it a war and begin calling it a cancer-something he couldn't get the soldiers in this war to do, but he kept trying right up until the end. Police and prosecutors just couldn't get the cancer metaphor to kick in as easily as the doors across America. It is being waged as a war.

I'm okay with Clinton acknowledging the injustice meted out on his watch, so better late than never. Instead of having to make a case, he made it for us, now some of us move on and George W. Bush will move in.

In my humble opinion, Clinton's silence until leaving office makes about as much sense as the guy that's coming in to take his place, and so illustrates why predictions about presidents are probably senseless for people like me to make. I don't think we know what a new President facing a new and rapidly emerging public consciousness around drug policy issues is going to say or do. We will soon find out, but in the meantime we have an offensive strategy with a new President and a new Congress. We aren't waiting for these new folks to be heading out the door before we ask for prisoner release.

By all measures drug policy reform is a hot topic in the public minds and hearts. The media continues to report on significant stories from the ill fated Plan Colombia to the forced drug testing of US school children. The public's understanding of the problems with the drug war, and the difficulties lowering drug consumption with a selective drug prohibition model has been under intense scrutiny since 1998. Prior to 1998, it was rare to hear a rational voice, and debate was almost non-existent. Rarer yet was a critical analysis by the press.

My-my how some things have changed. There is a line drawn in the sand and the sides are 'divvying' up. The harsh and unjust sentencing of drug law violators is one of the drug war topics that regularly makes a headline and competes successfully for investigative report material for print and television. A major motion picture that exposes a failed drug war, Traffic, was released in January to rave reviews. We see the word "amnesty" in the mainstream press, right next to "drug law violators".

Why is our issue being covered well in the media? Because the media sees public interest in this issue-congratulations, we've done a good job of taking an "abstract" drug war mowing down the poor and oppressed and revealed enough of the "human interest" story to get some decent coverage. It's not a war on drugs-it's a war on people. Legislators are saying that now. US Congressmen John Conyers (D-MI) and Maurice Hinche (D-NY) each said those same words to me with other November Coalition members last October.

While public opinion changes, prison conditions continue to deteriorate due to the lack of critical legislative reform. Voters have been increasingly willing to make the changes their elected officials will not, and have consistently prevailed the last half of the 90's. A change in attitude is great; victories have been sweet, but the November Coalition needs some relief. We need it right away. So do the wardens and guards.

Everyone affected by imprisonment policies-from wardens asked to do an increasingly difficult job, to guards who work the over-crowded cell-block beat, to the prisoners who have little choice but endure, to the loved ones of all of these people affected by our drug sentencing and prison policies-must speak up and demand our legislators give us needed reform.

We cannot let another presidential or parliamentary term pass without addressing real reform that can benefit not only us, but every American in this hemisphere-our coalition now extends to all of the Americas. The intent of any law must be to create a safer world - not simply a world that is less free. The criminal justice system is so broken down that I doubt we can find anyone who could successfully defend it today. The saddest thing about that statement is that it isn't even a radical statement. A majority of federal judges and prison officials would agree.

I talk a lot doing this job. I listen a lot, too, and think about what I'm hearing. I read as much mail as I can. It's a shared task, and we have weekly staff meetings where various prisoner concerns are brought to the attention of our staff of four, find the path to our email list of leaders, out to Razor Wire readers, eventually making a call to action to thousands of volunteers who live all over the world. We are always talking to each other, sharing information, appreciation and our hopes for the future. Prisoners, their loved ones and our new found friends in communities everywhere want relief for the prisoners of the drug war.

State and federal prison systems show every sign of being over-burdened and unable to continue for much longer. We are overdue for critical reforms in the criminal justice system, and after all the talking, listening and sharing, I've cooked our thoughts into a vision for our immediate future. Your work on sharing this vision, making it a reality, can begin today.

There is manifest, chronic injustice in U.S. sentencing policy. Therefore, we will be formally asking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees of the 107th Congress to introduce legislation abolishing guideline sentencing and redress the injustice of past guideline sentencing by creating an incentive pre-release community custody program for nonviolent prisoners now in federal prison. Our proposal will also call for bipartisan review of past and present strategies of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A bipartisan panel of experts in drug abuse and addiction, criminologists, penologists, former prisoners and concerned community activists should conduct this review. The review panel will be responsible for compiling a list of drug laws in need of critical reform and present these recommendations to the 107th Congress for resolution.

The November Coalition has been awarded a grant by the Lindesmith-Drug Policy Foundation allowing us to bring together our membership in every community for both informal, introductory meetings to day-long workshops for teaching how to organize and take action at community, state and federal levels more effectively. If you are interested in meeting with other November Coalition members in your area, please see the side bar on this page. It is our hope that each one of you will take advantage of this invitation and opportunity to meet others who share your same concerns.

Prisoners, your part of this emerging project is to get us introduced to your family members and friends. We need names, addresses and phone numbers so that your family members can get an issue of the Razor Wire, be encouraged to get involved in our projects and educational campaigns and help to get you home. If it has been awhile since we contacted your family - and you think an additional contact from us might convince them to join our organization - send us their current contact information.

Be sure to tell us if you have sent the names before because it will save us a lot of staff time updating their information. If you re-send current contact information for your loved ones and friends, predicate their receiving a current issue of The Razor Wire with a letter from you. Tell them to expect to receive a copy of our newspaper. Let them know that you asked us to send another copy and you, personally, write them and ask them to read the information carefully and encourage them to join us in this struggle for justice. Most loved ones that join the November Coalition do so because their loved one in prison asked them to become an active member. You hold certain keys that could bring you freedom sooner.

Prisoners of the drug war, many of you will be released in the coming months and returning to your communities. We need you to be a positive force for change. You need to do what this broken system insists you do against sometimes impossible odds- and succeed in rebuilding your lives. Please do not forget the brothers and sisters that you have left behind and your commitment to ending the drug war and bringing all those serving unjust sentences home.

Bill Clinton didn't save us, and neither will George W. Bush - that my friends and fellow November members-is up to us. If you haven't joined the November Coalition, do it today! Time? Well we've a lot to do before the new leader's time will be up-a lot of time and a lot to do, let's make the most of it. The November Coalition would like to say goodbye to this new guy as freemen. Do I hear an Amen?

In struggle,