Personal Voices: America From Inside

I am about to witness my fifth presidential election from inside a United States prison.

I offer these thoughts to readers who may have an interest in knowing how the growing American prison population perceives the electoral process. Elections are the essence of democracy; they give each eligible voter an opportunity to be heard. Unfortunately for me, as a federal prisoner, I cannot vote, and am thus marginalised as an American citizen. Whereas others are concerned with the state of the economy, or foreign policy, my primary interest in elections has been whether any political leader would implement policies enabling non-violent prisoners to earn freedom. I do not expect such an issue to play much of a role in any campaign.

I began serving this term in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was approaching the end of his second term as president. I was only 23 then, and despite having no history of violence or prior incarceration, I was convicted for my participation in crimes related to the distribution of cocaine. My sentencing judge thought a 45-year sentence was appropriate in my case. It was the starkest but only the first example of how our country's continuing move to the right would influence my life. Over the past 16 years I have had ample opportunity to observe and reflect on its impact on my life, and that of my country.

A first election behind bars

In the 1988 election, George Bush senior easily defeated Michael Dukakis, the erstwhile governor of Massachusetts, to become our nation's 41st president. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton television commercial -- highlighting the case of a prisoner who committed a violent crime while on a "furlough" (weekend pass) -- to polarize voters by portraying Dukakis as a soft-on-crime liberal.

I still remember the fear that Bush's election team tried to instill in voting Americans. The Bush campaign broadcast clips about the revolving-door prison system that would exist under a Democrat, suggesting that Dukakis would release heinous psychopathic predators back into society. The propaganda worked. Under the first President Bush's administration, there began an unprecedented rise in prison population levels.

One of Bush senior's first televised addresses to the nation in 1988 came with his declaration that the scourge of drug use was the greatest threat to our nation. In an orchestrated drug transaction near the White House, President Bush held a bag of ominous white powder in his hands and promised to stop the flow of drugs into America. His new cabinet post of "drug czar" was filled by Bill Bennett, an ostensible pillar of moral virtues, who was charged with purging the nation of all recreational drugs other than nicotine and alcohol.

When Bush senior took office, there were fewer than 700,000 human beings incarcerated. As of this writing, the United States now imprisons more than 2.1 million people. This steep rise is partly a consequence of the "war on drugs." A majority of these prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent convictions related to the distribution of drugs. There is no evidence that the importation or use of illegal drugs has diminished.

From hope to disillusion

In 1992, from where I stood, Bush appeared invincible as a candidate for a second term. He enjoyed high popularity ratings as a consequence of the first Gulf war to eject Saddam's forces from Kuwait in 1991. But many American voters were concerned about the domestic economic recession. Bill Clinton, the former governor of Arkansas, rose to prominence by exploiting the growing impatience with Bush on this issue. I was several years into my prison term by then, studying toward my undergraduate degree from behind the high walls of the United States penitentiary in Atlanta. I followed closely the media's coverage of Clinton's ascent, and the more I read about his background, the more inspired I became about the candidate from Hope, Arkansas.

Clinton campaigned on a platform that would balance fiscal conservatism with social progress. His particular focus, he promised, would be the creation of new employment opportunities for all Americans and the slashing of budget deficits. But as a long-term prisoner it was the possibility of a different attitude to prisons that inspired hope in me. I wanted, then as now, to earn my freedom.

Bill Clinton's younger brother, Roger, had served time in federal prison for his participation in the distribution of illegal drugs. Had Roger been convicted under the draconian drug laws ushered in during the Reagan/Bush years, as I was, he would have served substantially more time in prison for the same conduct. I expected, naively perhaps, that candidate Clinton's personal experience would prompt him to support fresh policies that would offer non-violent prisoners the chance to earn their way to freedom.

Despite numerous, vituperative attacks on his personal character (for, among other things, having smoked marijuana) Clinton began to rise in the national election polls. While other Americans became encouraged with the new hope of a Clinton presidency, prisoners from across the nation became increasingly optimistic that some kind of relief would come.

On election night, every television room in the penitentiary was tuned into the election results. Convicts of every ethnic, educational, and socio-economic background were cheering as the numbers accumulated for Clinton. After several hours, I retired for the night, ecstatic. A couple of months later, I remember tears of joy welling up in my eyes as I watched it become official at the televised inauguration. For the first time in several years, I began to feel as if I might be welcomed back into the American embrace.

Over the next eight years, Clinton's presidency created millions of new jobs; budget deficits turned into a huge budget surplus. But under the relentless pounding from the Republican right he was defensive. He governed according to the polls. From my perspective, he provided management rather than leadership. And for prisoners, he implemented policies that actually lessened our access to programs that would enable us to earn freedom. Indeed, under Clinton's watch, funding dried up for prisoners trying to educate themselves. I was disappointed to see opportunities for college studies vanish, and a new crime bill that further reduced access for prisoners to judicial relief. Clinton was no friend to those in prison.

The biggest slap in the face came as Clinton left office. The United States Constitution makes it possible for the president, in an act of mercy, to commute the sentences of federal prisoners. Yet until the final days of his presidency Clinton had been parsimonious with his grants of executive clemency; in fact, his dismal record in this regard rivaled that of his conservative predecessors, Bush and Reagan.

In the final days of his term, Clinton abused his pardoning power by granting relief to political donors and those with connections to the White House. Even worse, after he left office and was powerless to act, Clinton publicly acknowledged that too many people are serving too much time for non-violent drug crimes.

Keep your head up

By the time of George W. Bush's inauguration in 2000, I had 13 years of imprisonment behind me. Despite his claim to be a "compassionate" conservative and his constant references to Christian values, I did not expect Bush junior's compassion to penetrate prison gates. In fact I expected the harshness of prison life to escalate. After the 2000 election, I set free all hopes for relief from this lengthy sentence I serve.

Now we are into the 2004 election season. I expect that John Kerry will continue to attack Bush for leading America into war when, perhaps, there was no imminent threat to the United States or to our allies. The difficult US job market will be a hot topic, as will the Bush tax cuts and their contribution to the monstrous budget deficit problems that threaten economic stability in our country.

I do not expect either candidate to talk about the 2.1 million people serving time in American prisons. Our felony convictions have disenfranchised us; we are powerless and forgotten. It is as if we live in exile. But somehow, the election process still matters to us, and I will follow it closely and even eagerly.

I have been imprisoned for virtually my entire adult life. As such, I hope for a United States leadership that will advance the criminal justice system by recognizing the absurdity of confining non-violent people convicted of victimless crimes for multiple decades.

After all, I am still an American. I long for a return to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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