August 31, 2003 - The Bloomington Alternative (IN)

Under the Yellow Brick Road

The following article was submitted by Bloomington social justice activist Charity Ryerson, currently an inmate at the Federal Prison Camp at Pekin, Ill. "It's pretty terrifying to see so many mothers, wives, grandmothers and just downright amazing women wasting their lives in here," Charity writes. The article was written by Canton, Ohio, journalist Frank Rinella, in cooperation with several inmates at the Pekin facility.

In life, we span the globe in an ever-changing society where the hustle of daily living often contrasts with The Golden Rule: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We have become a people divided by ungratefulness, mistrust, and warfare; a people driven by greed and self-gain. Our "justice" system in America has become exactly that -- "Just-Us" -- referring to a government entity consumed with winning at all costs and having no room for compassion and second chances.

Eighty-four percent of all offenders now imprisoned are first-time or non-violent offenders. Many are serving draconian sentences for drug conspiracy convictions while only having minor culpability. As a sentencing judge most appropriately wrote, "Congress decided to hit the problem of drugs, as they saw it, with a sledgehammer, making no allowance for the circumstances of any particular case. Under the sledgehammer approach, it makes no difference whether a defendant actually owned the drugs with which he was caught."

In a court of law, nor does it make a difference whether there are any drugs at all. "Conspiracy" is a catch-all phrase and charge intended to curb the drug problem in America by allowing indictments up and down an alleged drug distribution network, regardless of physical evidence. A person's word is enough to form the basis of a prosecution The person offering up information about another is usually involved in a criminal case himself and the choice becomes one of either telling a story pleasing to the prosecution or becoming the sacrifice.

The conspiracy laws were implemented to target a "King Pin" who is commonly shielded by underlings and never prosecuted. However, this system has failed in that the "King Pins" have the most valuable information to offer the government authorities, and the underlings are left serving time "under the yellow brick road," as federal conspiracy sentences are extremely lengthy with a starting point of ten years imprisonment without the possibility of parole. U. S. attorneys and law enforcement officers have become obsessed in hunting down drug offenders for their own career advancement, fortune, and recognition. The greed of the game has altered the rules by allowing lies to replace the truth and money to replace justice.

Take, for instance, the case of Ruth Catter, a first-time nonviolent drug offender serving 188 months in federal prison for a conspiracy charge. Ruth worked for the county prosecutor's office and the feds were interested in information about her boss. She was unable to provide any relevant information; thus, was unjustly imprisoned for a crime which she did not commit. She was prosecuted for who she was instead of for any crime she may have committed. As evidence of further corruption in Ruth's case, the officer in the property room was fired for theft and an investigating officer was forced to resign for inappropriate behavior.

During Ruth's first year in prison, her 21-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver and her eldest daughter's leg was crushed in the same accident. It has been only through a loving God that Ruth has been able to maintain and go forward. The perpetrator of the collision served only eight months in prison.

This is not to suggest that violations of drug crimes should go unpunished. Inherent in promoting a peaceful existence, there must be order and values. A judge should be allowed to sentence a particular defendant by taking into consideration the nature and circumstances of the crime, the criminal history of the defendant, and how the individual and society would best be served. Under our current system, a judge has absolutely no discretion. He might as well be Charlie McCarthy.

Another example of a victim of the system is Connie Popejoy, a mother of three, indicted for a methamphetamine conspiracy. Connie lived on a farm. During a drug raid, Anhydrous Ammonia was found in her barn. The chemical is used as fertilizer. Unbeknownst to Connie, Anhydrous Ammonia is also used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Although she had no knowledge of the illegal use, Connie was held responsible for the chemicals and sentenced to 177 months in prison. This is her first offense, and without the possibility of parole, there is no hope. No one should ever have to live life without hope.

Lori Kavitz is serving 292 months in prison as a first-time nonviolent drug offender. Her case allegedly occurred within 1,000 feet of a park, which substantially increased the penalty. The rationale is that parks are playgrounds for children and that children would, thus, be in close proximity to drug-dealing activity. In this case, it didn't matter that the park was not frequented by children, nor that the equipment was dilapidated. It didn't matter that there weren't any drugs in the case, nor that a murder occurred within 1/2 block of the park. This is hardly what could be considered a play area of children and certainly not what Congress intended when implementing laws.

Vinette Crowley and her husband were indicted for an alleged methamphetamine conspiracy. Faced with life in prison, they both took a plea. Vinette received 97 months imprisonment and her husband was sentenced to 240 months. They were sentenced using the wrong manual which would have made a difference of 19 months in Vinette' s case. Now on appeal with respect to the 19-month difference, the Assistant U.S Attorney has characterized the error as "insignificant." Since when is 19 months of a person's life simply something to throw away?

Diana Webb is an attorney who represented criminal defendants in court. She was befriended by a man who later tried to kill her. Drugs were a part of his life and when he was indicted, she, too, became a part of the indictment by association. The case did not contain any drugs.

When the government realized Diana was an attorney, she became the target of the prosecution for career advancement of the case agents, as well as political aspirations of the Assistant U.S. Attorney for a judgeship. Diana was sentenced to 150 months which represents more time than all three co-defendants combined and almost three times that of the "King Pin."

Col. Gerald Schumacher, who assisted the Customs agent, came forward several years after the case was closed and stated how the government substantially misrepresented facts and how he was heartened by another agent and intimidated when he was going to blow the whistle. The Assistant U.S. attorney then lied in a motion concerning evidence. Diana Webb is still in prison. What does that say for City Government who tolerates such a scandal?

A poll of the American public reported that a vast majority of Americans believe mandatory minimum sentencing is not fair (72%) and favor mandatory drug treatment and probation for non-violent offenders (74%). It is a shame that those who physically harm, kidnap, rape, intentionally maim, or kill someone will serve substantially less prison time than a first-time non-violent drug conspiracy offender.

Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a first-time non-violent offender can be, and is in many cases, sentenced to a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Hence, an offender's outdate for record-keeping purposes reflects a chilling "deceased." He or she will never make it out of prison alive. The front gate should post a sign which reads: ABANDON ALL HOPE HERE, as opposed to FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, because there is nothing "correctional" in nature about a prison. The goal of the judicial system is punishment and not reform.

Under the current law, since drugs are not even necessary for a drug charge, anyone could be indicted, including you. You could become part of a drug conspiracy by innocently lending your telephone, car, or a helping hand to a neighbor. Giving a ride to a friend or renting property could send you to federal prison for the rest of your life.

The new American way is: (1) Don't be a friend; (2) Don't lend a helping hand; (3) Don't support a fellow citizen in need who is stranded or down on his luck; (4) Shut your door on the helpless and crippled; and (5) Forget being neighborly.

Basically, the new American way is "Don't be American." Not one citizen of the United Sates of American should ever have to feel that way or live under those conditions in this country.

Our Founding Fathers taught us principles of integrity, brotherly love, helping each other, unity in a crisis, and maintaining a beautiful family bond. Every day, prosecutors tear down "The American Way" by offering leniency to lie in order to convict others, and pitting brothers against brothers in the courtroom. Then if they are really cordial, they let mothers and daughters go to prison together, after taking all of their property in a government forfeiture, leaving whatever family is left to fend for themselves in foster care or in the streets.

Our Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves to see how the Constitution has been manipulated for the usual -- power, money, and a "Just-Us" system. May we all pray that our politicians will remember that they serve the interests of the people and not their parties.

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We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform, they also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

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