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August 25, 2007 - Des Moines Register (IA)

Another Congress Forgets Prisoners, Reform

By Fran Koontz and Ray Koontz, Special to the Register

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With our son in prison, we held out hope that a Democratic Congress would usher in a return to reason and would reform federal prison sentencing.

Eight months later, nothing has happened. Drug addicts and mentally ill people continue to be incarcerated, and tax dollars continue to be wasted.

We had hoped to see Congress reinstate parole in the federal prison system and outlaw mandatory minimum sentences, which take discretion away from judges. We had hoped to see the release of nonviolent offenders who had served more than 10 years and are over age 45.

Beyond wasting money, continuing to warehouse them past that age is just plain criminal.

Forgotten in all of this, of course, are the prisoners, rotting away at taxpayer expense. They work at less than slave wages, with no hope of parole and no treatment for their mental illnesses or addiction.

Here's a glimpse at a rare visit:

They stare out through bars as their families drive into the parking lot. We wave toward the window that we know to be theirs, smiling through our tears. We fill out forms and take off our shoes and belts. Rings and watches go through metal detectors.

We're not allowed to wear toeless shoes, sleeveless blouses or jackets past a certain date, even though it's chilly in the visitors room. We can't carry purses, only clear plastic, with $20. Everyone runs for the vending machines. We'll be here six or eight hours, and that's the only food available.

We wait, nervous, anxious for our son to come through the door from the cell area. There he is, smiling, hurrying toward us, arms outstretched for our far-too-seldom hugs and kisses. That's all we're allowed.

We long to hold him, touch him, make sure he's still whole, body and spirit. We're not allowed. Only one hello hug and kiss, and one in saying goodbye.

We talk about everything and nothing. He catches up on family doings. He longs to attend the Koontz family picnic, play ball with cousins, visit with aunts, see all the new "little ones" born in the past 11 years.

Unless Congress acts to remember our forgotten sons and daughters, we won't live to see our son at our table again.

Prison building is a growth industry in the United States today. Once a prison is built, it's a capital investment and must be filled. The jobs, once created, must be sustained for those working them. Small towns compete for "prison industries," while we outsource real manufacturing jobs overseas.

Sons and daughters of the working class fill these prisons, kids who drank too much and used illegal drugs, hurting themselves and those who loved them. Forty-five percent of federal prisoners suffer from mental illness, according to the most recent Department of Justice data.

Fifty percent reported using illegal drugs in the month before their offense, but less than half of those classified as drug dependent or abusing took part in any drug treatment since their admission to prison, the department reported.

These mentally ill people and drug abusers have been forgotten by lawmakers who get elected on "tough on crime" platforms.

Many people say, "Well, they broke the law." Yes, and they destroyed themselves and their families in the doing. Should taxpayers spend millions each year "protecting" themselves from people who themselves need protection - but only from themselves and their illnesses?

Our kids are sick. Let's stop locking them away. Contact your representatives in Congress to demand changes in federal prison laws. Are representatives meeting the needs of their constituents and these forgotten prisoners, or are they meeting the needs of special interests?

At election time, we should not forget those who let this terrible travesty of justice continue.

Now, the presidential hopefuls are coming to town, promising job protection, health care and education. Some want to protect the "sanctity" of the unborn while ignoring the lives of those already here.

The poor, jobless, homeless, mentally ill, addicted and imprisoned are all ignored. Oh well, they won't vote anyway.

The candidates have to raise big bucks to buy TV time to keep K Street vendors as friends. Yet, after November 2008, the prisoners, our loved ones, will be forgotten again for another four years.

Please let our son come home.

Ray and Fran Koontz live in Des Moines. Their son, John, 51, is serving his 11th year in federal prison on drug and weapons charges. He was sentenced to 25 years. There is no parole in the federal system, and prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentences. Unless the laws are changed, John Koontz will be 62 when he's released.

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