Prisons in the heartland

By Wava Porter-Kilby, TNC Regional Leader, Albuquerque, NM

While recently driving east along a stretch of highway in the Heartland of America, where the landscape is flush with cornfields as far as one can see, I got lost in thought, and for miles I thought about our justice system. Many of us take this drive and think at least some of the same thoughts.

It all seems like some grand deception to me now, the Bill of Rights, and the pursuit of happiness. They appear quaint ironies, relics, because I now realize that they never have been extended to all in the same measure. I have come to know, through involvement with the November Coalition and my attendance at the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation Conference in Albuquerque that drug laws fuel terrible imprisonment rates and sentencing schemes, to the point that the concepts of rights and pursuits are fast losing all intended meaning.

My sister, her two young children, and I were on our way to Illinois, where the kids would see their dad, and a grandmother would finally see a set of newest grandchildren. All this would take place in a prison visiting room, on Father's Day.

This trip was another milestone in a journey that began last October when my brother-in-law, Ron Jinks, Scott Higgins and a co-defendant were sentenced to over 12 years for a drug law violation. It had led to this particular drive from Albuquerque to America's Heartland.

For literally miles I thought about how Ron's case, and learning all that I have regarding the injustice of the drug war since his arrest, has changed my perceptions of my government and my role in it. Not only have I learned firsthand about injustice of laws lobbied for and passed, I have also learned that the "blind are leading the blind" in matters of corrections policy. In times like these, people like me have to rise to the challenge of leading our leaders.

It was a delight to see Ron visit his two children, holding his nearly 2-year-old daughter for the first time. I knew that bringing his family to him was the right thing to do. Jessica seemed instinctively to know her daddy as she hugged and kissed him, calling him "Da." Nicholas, the 4-year-old needed time to warm up to his dad, naturally showing the crippling, emotional effects of estrangement. There is no way for him to understand why his daddy is gone and why he has to visit him like this, and I don't think that he will ever get old enough to understand it.

Gazing around the visiting room and prison yard, I was startled by the obvious all around me. I had read much about racial profiling, knowing what many studies have found, but when I witnessed its effect, it was a gut-wrenching experience. Statistics became faces, and the faces were families. Almost all of the visitors and prisoners were beautiful shades of ebony, many with young children, slyly tucked away from the public eye, and national spotlight, hidden in prisons that are hidden in cornfields.

Don't let the landscape of middle America fool you with calendar-images of charming small towns, farms and white picket fences. It's more and more about prisons today. As this new landscape takes shape, what does it tell us, not only of the Heartland, but of the heart of a nation?

The miles home, I thought about the next drug reform planning meetings, our regular vigils, and new words to share while educating my community about the destructive excess of the war on drugs. The journey is not over, but I am ever committed to work with the patience of activism to bring the hidden victims of the drug war into the light of public consciousness, which is after all, the way to the people's hearts.