The US locks up more people than any other country in the world, spending over $80billion each year to keep some two million prisoners behind bars. Over the past three decades, tough sentencing laws have contributed to a doubling of the country's prison population, with laws commonly known as 'three strikes and you're out' mandating life sentences for a wide range of crimes.
But a clear sign that Americans are rethinking crime and punishment is a voter's initiative on California's November ballot called Proposition 36 that seeks to reform the state's three-strikes law. Some 27 states have three-strikes laws patterned after California's version, which was one of the first to be enacted in the country.
Since it was passed in 1994, nearly 9,000 felons have been convicted in California under the law.
One of them is Norman Williams, a 49-year-old African-American man who was a crack addict living on the streets. He was convicted of burglarising an empty home and later stealing an armload of tools from an art studio. His third strike: filching a jack from a tow truck in Long Beach. His fate sealed under California's three-strikes law, Williams was sent to a maximum security prison [for a life sentence] alongside murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.
"I never wanted to do my whole life in prison. Nobody wants to be caged like that," Williams says.
Williams was lucky. After 13 years behind bars, his case was reviewed by a judge and he was released. He is one of about two dozen 'three strikers' who have won sentence reductions through the work of a Stanford University law clinic founded by Michael Romano. In Williams' case, the prosecutor actually agreed that the original sentence was too harsh. An idea emerged from Romano's work: Why not draft a ballot initiative to ensure that sentences like Williams' will not be repeated?
"When people originally passed the three-strikes law in 1994 the campaigns were about keeping serious and violent murderers, child molesters in prison for the rest of their lives," Romano says. "I think that's what people want and are kind of shocked to hear that people have been sentenced to life for petty theft."
IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I've been inside a prison cell. Now I'm back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I'm taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can't get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I've ever inhabited. You can't pace in it.
Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate's life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.
"So when you're in Iran and in solitary confinement," asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, "was it different?" His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.
He's right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn't go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was "confidential."
What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?
I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California's Pelican Bay State Prison—but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person's stability and another's insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the "dog run" at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn't write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?
"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.
When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back.
Posted by copwatch | Wed, 08/29/2012 - 12:32am story
Here is the September issue of the Rock newsletter. It was mailed out to prisoners August 29, 2012. This and previous issues are available by clicking on the “Rock Newsletter” link at http://www.prisonart.org.
Posted by copwatch | Sun, 08/26/2012 - 11:32pm story
Prison Radio recorded attorney Rachel Wolkenstein, Pam Africa, Ramona Africa and Linn Washington outside of the Criminal Court at 13th and Filbert in Philadelphia minutes after the filing of Mumia Abu-Jamal's pro se objection to his sentence
Posted by copwatch | Tue, 03/06/2012 - 11:33pm story
These are photos from a Security Housing Unit (SHU) cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. The person who lives here has been in SHU for more than 25 years, since August 1986, and in the Pelican Bay SHU nearly 22 years, since 1990. Read his description below each photograph.
Join the emergency action to support the California Prisoner Hunger Strike on Friday, Oct. 14, 10:30 a.m.‐1 p.m., at McAllister and Van Ness in San Francisco and tell CDCR and Gov. Jerry Brown to meet the strikers’ five core demands
by Isaac Ontiveros, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity
Posted by copwatch | Fri, 07/01/2011 - 1:44am story
~Venue for an Artist...three strikes...by devorah major ~Bit of History...Three Strikes You're Out ~Hood Notes...Three Strikes Caused This Prison Problem...by Larry Gerston, Ph.D. ~News You Use...Private Prisons: Greed and Corruption ~Politics Y2K11...Florida's Racist New Law...By Mansfield Frazier ~Disgruntled
Posted by copwatch | Tue, 07/12/2011 - 4:22pm story
URGENT: MEDICAL CONDITIONS REACH CRISIS IN PELICAN BAY HUNGER STRIKE
According to a source at Pelican Bay State Prison, who prefers to be anonymous, the medical conditions for many strikers have deteriorated to critical levels, with fears some prisoners could start to die if immediate action isn't taken. For at least 200 prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay, medical staff have stated:
"The prisoners are progressing rapidly to the organ damaging consequences of dehydration. They are not drinking water and have decompensated rapidly. A few have tried to sip water but are so sick that they are vomiting it back up. Some are in renal failure and have been unable to make urine for 3 days. Some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated."
Since the hunger strike has spread to at least a third of CA's prisons, family members have informed Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity of their loved one's conditions. They have reported hunger strikers have lost 20-30 pounds, are incredibly pale, and that a number of prisoners fainted and/or went into diabetic shock during family visits this past weekend. Some prisoners have been taken to the prison hospital in at least Corcoran and Pelican Bay.
Posted by copwatch | Mon, 07/11/2011 - 1:17pm story
Call Every Day!
Gov. Jerry Brown (916) 445-2841
Secretary Matthew Cate (916) 323-6001
Call and say this:
“Hi my name is _____. I’m calling about the statewide prisoner hunger strike that began at Pelican Bay. I support the prisoners & their reasonable “five core demands.” I urge the CDCR to negotiate with the prisoners immediately & in good faith. Thank You.”
Posted by copwatch | Wed, 12/15/2010 - 12:04am story
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 10:18 PM
A general strike by prisoners throughout the Georgia prison system has shut down 10 prisons since Thursday.
Elaine Brown, former chairperson of the Black Panther Party, describes it as the biggest prison strike in U.S. history. She's taken the lead on advocating for the prisoners from the outside, and insists the strike was initiated and self-organized by the prisoners themselves. The story finally made it into the NYTimes today, where they report prisoners used contraband cellphones to communicate with one another, and now, to talk to the press.
Posted by copwatch | Wed, 07/14/2010 - 9:29pm story
So today, July 14th, the Mateel meal (free cooked meal) was held at the Vet’s park across the street from the bookstore in Garberville (because the Mateel kitchen staff is down at the reggae site). Police (Humboldt County Sheriff’s Dept) arrived and told people that the Veteran’s have said they don’t want anyone sitting in the park, that they want it cleared out. People asked where they could go and there were no places. Police said they will arrest people who are sitting in town anywhere.
Posted by copwatch | Sat, 10/24/2009 - 1:23pm story
Humboldt County boys, aged 13-18, already a target of criminalization, are being shipped off to Bar-O-Boys Ranch in Del Norte County so that the state can make profit off of their forced labor and internment. Although this facility claims to "rehabilitate" targeted youth, they are in reality employing slave labor. The same Ranch has even been accused of working a young boy, Benjamin Lucchesi, to death through "compulsory morning exercises" on October 9, 2000.