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August 2004 - Con-tact News (US)

The Run Down

A Changing World, Unending Imprisonment, And Hope

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director, The November Coalition

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Reading prisoner mail during a lunch break summer of 1997, a friend asked if I was just giving people false hope. It wasn't a ques-tion easily answered. It was the following day I told him, "Nope, there isn't any such thing. Hope keeps us human."

That said, "Hope is a poor man's friend," my husband Chuck Armsbury reminded me one day, "and when I was in prison, hope and despair intermingled. I never gave up." They are the essence of life, hope and despair others might say. I concur, but when it spreads out unevenly it distracts me from life's pleasure. Why should some have more than their fair shares of hope, while others a dose of despair that is immeasurable?

The November Coalition, a group formed in 1997 to represent the challenges that the drug war brought to society -- a challenge that remains -- hidden prisoners, all of us who love a prisoner. Seven years later, I still hope for early release, the end to criminal injustice, and that spreads around, with lots o f rumors.

The questions posed to me most often are on the status of bills, rumors of bills, and future prospects for early release in the federal system. There are federal bills that warrant attention, and support, but most need significant improvement (amendments) to impact prisoners significantly. After I answer that question, I ask people to organize, direct them to our website at, and to our various projects, and ideas that will expose website readers to November Coalition's Bottom's Up, a Guide for Grassroots Organizing.

About a dozen people inside and outside of prison walls founded the November Coalition because we were convinced we had the power to change our circumstances. When the world shifts under us, our strategies to accomplish those things change, too. Strategies should include stretching a beginning organizer's skills, and a longtime activists talents, too. People need to meet each other (or re-meet), start new conversations, and spread them, and their talents and actions around.

Today, much of the serious journalistic world is focused on events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the number of officials from U.S. prisons embroiled in photographic prisoner abuse is part of the unfolding story that will present itself, likely far into the future. So, we get a lot of questions about that current event, too. Abu Ghraib prison abuse is an intense reminder how broken systems that render absolute power over other human beings can col-lapse into a tangle of human psychological frailty and abuse that results in torture. But, instances overseas, bringing much needed exposure to the long-standing problem of abuse in U.S. prisons, is our result. It should have been the reverse.

Instead, the weakness in the U.S. system of corrections became a model to replicate overseas. Therein, the big story has yet to hatch. The system fails prisoners, and civil servants supervising them, and administration is now an impossible task The result is a correction-al system that fails society and the injustice spreads around.

One of many challenging problems is finding common ground for people on opposite ends of the affected spectrum to talk together. We should, we can --the injustice affects us all. If that level of dialogue were to begin, policy makers would be 'all ears.' Or in other words, I don't believe most correctional officers, or prison administrators are abusive, and blame for bad systems should not fall on the civil servants entirely -- ever. "I was just following orders," doesn't work either-ever.

There are policy makers behind systems pushed beyond the brink of capacity and accountability. And when we speak of lead-ers, we need to talk about presidents, congress, governors, mayors, city and county councils and the people that vote, and don't vote and attend hearings when they should.

I'll close with something that lies heavy on my heart this year. We have good and bad spreading around. Blame is spreading, too, and needs to. Our system of government has been built to house a sys-tem of checks and balances. When that fails, the blame should be spread through the system that hasn't been checking and balancing -- the fine art of representative democracy. A 'we the people' chorus must begin. In times of crisis, it is often repeated that people must lead their leaders. That is us.

So, that's the run down of what's on my mind this issue. Share yours by writing us at The November Coalition, 282 West Astor, Colville, WA 99114; or call (509) 684-1550. Friday, 5 PM Pacific Daylight is the best day to catch the November Coalition staff, but we can't accept collect calls. Talk back! What's on your mind? I'll try to answer your collective minds in this column.

Working to end drug war injustice, the November Coalition, a nonprofit, educational foundation was founded in 1997. Annual memberships are $25 for 'outside' citizens, $15 for students and $6 for prisoners. We encourage 'outside' citizens to sponsor prisoner memberships. If you honestly don't have a 'hustle,' as Chuck would say-let us know and we'll try to find you a sponsor! Visit our website at, join us, and don't miss the published Razor Wire newspaper.

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