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January 2, 2005 - (US Web)

Column: Stewart Speaks For Women Inmates

By Nancy Grape

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The pictures were from newspaper archives, but the words belonged to Martha Stewart herself. And nothing did her more credit than those she chose to speak for over the holidays.

Stewart turned the media spotlight not on herself as an achieving woman brought low by a slip in judgment. She called attention instead to 1,200 other inmates at the federal prison in Alderson, W. Va., with whom she shared what meager cheer was available over Christmas and New Year's.

It was, as Stewart might say of plum cakes, "a good thing" to do. More than that, it was the right thing. And for that she deserves considerable praise.

She also merits a relevant question put to federal authorities on her behalf. If 2004 was "The Year that Sent Martha Stewart to Prison," can we look forward to 2005 being "The Year of Ken Lay"? Surely the big boys who ran their bonus-heavy red wagons over the life savings of countless employees and investors merit the same glinty-eyed justice that sent Stewart to prison for lying to Congress.

Millions of Americans are waiting and watching.

Dozens Of E-Mails

I know that firsthand. Last year when I wrote a column about Stewart, shortly after she was sentenced to five months incarceration and five more of home confinement at her estate in Bedford, N.Y., I received e-mails by the dozens from people, many of whom believed she was being unfairly singled out for punishment.

I didn't think so. Unlike many who wrote to me, I think lying to Congress is a serious offense. Members of Congress represent you, they represent me. They govern in our name. And when they're lied to, you and I are lied to as well. That's why Stewart's punishment, in my judgment, fit her crime.

Yet I agree with those who said, in effect, the proof of justice would be in the pudding. Many of them did not - and do not now - expect the pudding to spill over and stain moguls like Lay at Enron and others.

It's up to the courts to prove them wrong. For now, however, it's important to get back to Stewart and what she had to say as the calendar turns ever-closer to her release from prison, scheduled for March.

"So many of the women here in Alderson," she declared in a holiday open letter, "will never have the joy and well-being that you and I experience. Many of them have been here for years - devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family."

Turning her Web site spotlight on them, she said, "I beseech you all to think about these women - to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for non-violent first-time offenders and for those involved in drug-taking.

"They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison, where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life 'out there' where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills and no preparation for living," she observed.

Look at that paragraph closely and you will see it contains a serious indictment of the "rehabilitation" that our federal prison system pretends to offer.

"No real help." "No real programs to rehabilitate." "No programs to educate." "No way to be prepared for life 'out there."' "No skills." And "no preparation for living."

The absence of all those factors - so often promised in smoothly flowing speeches when politicians talk about "corrections" - leaves only one word to describe what Stewart has found at Alderson - warehousing. That's what taxpayers are buying with millions upon millions of dollars they spend on prison, now a full-fledged special interest industry. Stewart knows her life was very different from that of her 1,200 fellow prisoners before she arrived at Alderson. She knows it will be very different once again when she leaves.

Distinguished By Courage

For now, however, Stewart has been distinguished by her courage. She spoke plainly and bravely in September about her decision to go to prison immediately, rather than waiting months, perhaps even years, for the outcome of an appeal seeking to overturn her conviction.

"I suppose the best word to use for this very harsh and difficult decision is finality and my intense desire and need to put this nightmare behind me, both personally and professionally," she told a New York City press conference.

"The only way to reclaim my life - and the quality of life for all those related to me - with certainty now is to serve my sentence, surrender to the authorities so that I can quickly return as soon as possible to the life and work that I love," she declared. "I labored long and hard to build this company. And I love the company, my colleagues and what we create so much."

Embarking now on a fresh new month in a fresh new year, Stewart can look forward to freedom once more. Even after the doors of her West Virginia prison close behind her, however, let's hope she continues to look back. And to speak out.

Women in prison need her voice, offering our nation a better recipe for them.

Nancy Grape comments on state and national issues for the Maine Sunday Telegram. She can be contacted at:

Copyright © Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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