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
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?