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March 20, 2005 - The Stamford Advocate (CT)

Helping Inmates Is Best Course For State

By William A. Collins, Syndicated columnist, former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ALDERSON FEDERAL prison Camp in West Virginia is quite a happening place. It recently housed Martha Stewart, Marie Salupo and Jennifer Burk.

We mostly know about Martha. She was busted, unlike most male colleagues, for lying to the FBI and for after-hours stock trading. (Men may be exempt from that law.) Her five-month stay was duly chronicled, and she will soon be making more money after release than she was before. Yes sir, a valuable growth experience.

Marie, in turn, was busted for crossing the property line at the Army's Fort Benning, thereby protesting the malevolent School of the Americas housed there. Like many, she tired of the U.S. training thugs to keep our friendly Latin American caudillos in power.

After serving her three months, Marie shipped out to Zimbabwe as a Maryknoll missioner. Her stay at Alderson was marked by assisting fellow felons and by strong support from other Maryknollers and family. It flew by.

Jennifer got three years for some less-exotic offense, and suffered greatly as friends and family gradually drifted away. No TV monitored her release. She's determined to make a go of life now, and we can only hope for the best. Unfortunately, the U.S. government will devote no resources to help her succeed.

Neither does Connecticut. As elsewhere, our prisoners are treated shabbily, as though miserable conditions would somehow make them see the error of their ways. Health care is erratic, drug treatment scarce and schooling constantly subject to budget cuts. No job placement is offered, and respect is purposely withheld.

In a recent case, some poor soul was released by a judge in Hartford, but his clothes were back in Enfield. He had to make his way there on his own in prison garb to pick them up.

This is not to say that prisoners should be treated like scholarship students. Some, after all, are dangerous. Psychopaths are not unknown. But common sense should tell us that treating individuals with respect is a better long-term investment than maligning them. The Marines and the Taliban mold trained killers by removing every shred of dignity. Is this our goal for prisoners?

Granted, it used to be worse. For a few years, the Legislature thought it would save money by trimming the parole and probation budgets. As a result, the prison population zoomed and we were suddenly shipping surplus inmates off to Virginia. Cooler heads have since prevailed, and our census is back down to 18,000, all of whom we can accommodate here at home. This makes the prison guards union very happy.

Of course, if every citizen were wealthy, those same guards would be very annoyed indeed. Consumers of drugs could then consume in their own homes, away from the prying eyes of police. Every suspect could also make bail, and retain a lawyer to spend adequate time on his defense. Plus they would lobby against Connecticut's foolish mandatory minimum drug sentences. Soon our prison population would plummet and angry guards would be getting laid off.

But we're not all going to get rich, and drug statutes and prisons will always remain stacked to some degree against the poor. Their transgressions will continue to be hunted down more vigorously than those of the middle class, and their "crimes" will still carry heavier penalties than similar offenses by suburbanites.

Except that this year there may be a glimmer of hope. The new General Assembly seems a cut above its predecessors. No, our Jennifers will never be treated like Marthas, but with our new corrections commissioner and new legislative leadership, we may finally see a little more equity.

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