Having, once again, gone through the long agony of a prison transfer, courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons, I found myself transported from a god forsaken Arkansas beanfield to an older facility deep in the heart of Texas. There are actually old oaks here and the other night, a blustery, balmy evening, I wound my way among them, then stopped to listen to something I hadn't heard in ten years: the sound of wind sighing powerfully through the trees. Ten years without that sound, an amazingly sorrowful fact.
With dappled shadows dancing around me and a full, misted moon hanging in the sky like a Chinese lantern, I noticed a larger shadow nearby detach itself and, to my surprise, take the shape of a big tabby cat, which promptly discovered my legs made good scratching posts. I reached down, again marvelling, and touched its silky head as it purred, another sound from long ago. I stroked the glossy fur, feeling an animate creature under my hand for the first time in a decade, an almost mystical experience. A cat, a real feline, a harbinger of things to come, hopefully, but a terrible reminder of the immeasurable deprivation of prison. A desolation so absolute, none of us thought it possible within the boundaries of our own country.
Isn't it incredible how much they take from us on this vast, non-compliant canvas, and take it so lightly? At one time in America it wasn't so. The nation respected freedom and denying it was done carefully and sparingly, a combination of temporal proximity to the Constitution, perhaps, the recognition of rehabilitation over retribution, and, above all, common sense, which in criminal justice matters translates into something called fundamental fairness.
The current era is dictated by brutish indifference, ignorance, and racism, delivered with a punitive animus that simply has no American parallel. It is such a mindless rage to punish, it has drawn fire from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It is one thing to punish someone for breaking a law, but this country goes to such extremes we are an international disgrace. It uses the inordinately harsh prison sentences it metes out to virtually erase a person's life at every level.
Time, like water, erodes the firmest foundation and it begins with the loss of friends, one's marriage or lover. Later on, the prisoner becomes totally disconnected to his children and then one after another his or her parents die. Within five to ten years the process is complete and the prisoner's life is dust. Is it just irony or is it something more sinister that the average federal drug sentence is about 80 months? New York and Michigan might as well be called fundamentalist states for the barbarous
nature of their drug sentences. That young black women are sentenced to twenty years for brokering a two ounce sale of cocaine is outrageous; it makes the alleged crime a virtual misdeameanor by comparison.
I was arrested in New Zealand pursuant to a U.S. warrant. I fought extradition for a year and during that time learned the difference between a judicially wise and benevolent system that comprehends the fallibility of human nature, and the U.S. system, which has become nothing less than savage.
The New Zealand system starts with the proposition that a five-year prison sentence is considered "crushing" and so to be given it, one's crime must be serious. Unlike the U.S., the New Zealand system places great emphasis upon keeping marriages and families intact, with the preponderance of those sentenced to nonviolent crimes sent either directly to or allowed rapidly to work their way into forestry camps.
Cabins are provided for well-behaved inmates. Family visitation and work furloughs home soon follow, the aim being to reintegrate the offender back into society as quickly as possible, to preserve his familial and domestic ties, and to cauterize alienation. Compare this to the American model where the exact reverse is the rule: deprivation to the maximum extent and with atomization of the family structure a virtual priority, to inflict a prisoner's civil death.
Nothing damages human relationships more than time and distance, simply because human life is so short. It is recognized in virtually every study that the federal government sentences nonviolent people far too harshly while it simultaneously banishes them to its overstuffed penal colonies far from the prisoner's home.
This obstinate lunacy has gone unchecked for the last decade, expanding exponentially, with no end in sight. Is it any wonder that once a government takes everything from an individual, he or she often loses the ability to find their way back, to grip the meaning of life again? Is it any wonder why so many fail, why so many return to prison?
Few nations so utterly disenfranchise prisoners and ex-prisoners so completely as this one does, and few have contrived such an ingenious system to keep them that way, from the loss of basic rights to drug testing and supervised release, which is often more intolerant than prison itself. The aim is to deprive and deny, and to propagate the hopeless cycle.
I have marked this milestone bitterly well, listening to the wind in the trees as a state sponsored privilege rather than a God given right. Too many of us, my friends, endure a similar madness. *
G. Patrick Callahan is a prisoner of the war on drugs.
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