Silja J.A. Talvi

Has Torture Become Normalized in Our Culture? It's Still Unbelievably Inhumane

What if we called torture by another name? Would torture begin to mean something again?

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Women Refugees in Europe Wallow in Filth and Starvation

In the muddy, freezing border regions between Greece and Macedonia, in small villages like Idomeni, Greece, women refugees and their children are crying out for help on a daily basis. But most European leaders are unable or unwilling to see the torment in these women’s eyes.

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As Many Governments Flail, Ordinary Europeans Are Making Extraordinary Gestures to Help Refugees

Helsinki, FINLANDThe gestures have been both grand and unexpected.       

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Wrongfully Convicted, Leonard Peltier Is Turning 70 in Prison

This September, Leonard Peltier will spend his 70th birthday in pain and isolation. Prisoner # 89637-132 is exactly where the FBI wants him: locked up in one of America's largest federal supermaximum prisons in Coleman, Florida.

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Women Behind Bars Are Deprived of Their Basic Rights

Three years ago, I journeyed back to Santa Fe to return to a city where I had once lived -- and that always seemed to call me back.

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Drug War Traps Increasing Numbers of Women

Oklahoman Tina Thomas has been caught up in the American war on drugs.

In many respects, she fits the common profile of a woman doing time for a drug-related offense. Her crimes have ranged from possession to check forgery and theft, including an arrest for trying to steal a $64 comforter from Wal-Mart. Eventually sentenced to a two-year state prison term, Thomas admits that she committed her crimes to feed the “800-pound gorilla on my back that I just hadn’t been able to shake.�

Thomas is part of an alarming statistical trend and a modern-day American phenomenon. For starters, she is one of half a million people (roughly one-fourth of the total prison population) locked up on drug-related charges. Thomas is also an inmate in a state that locks up women at one of the highest per capita rates -- 129 per 100,000 residents, a figure that is right behind Texas, the federal system and California. Oklahoma’s imprisonment of women rose a stunning 1,237 percent from 1997 to 2004.

Drug addiction is what led Thomas down the river to prison, she admits freely. What’s a bit more unusual about her is that she holds a medical doctorate from the University of Illinois, and was a practicing neurologist and professor at a teaching hospital. She stood out in her field to such a degree that her colleagues felt uncomfortable around here, particularly after she disclosed she was a lesbian. What Thomas didn’t disclose, however, was an early childhood marred by incest, the lingering pain from which she used cocaine as an escape. Unfortunately, her cocaine use took a painful turn into a full-blown crack addiction.

Thomas and other women have had the misfortune of being sucked into what the federal government calls the “war on drugs.� We have our own “drug czar,� who sits atop the massive Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). President Nixon started this war in 1969, and President Reagan kicked it into high gear. It’s been a full-throttle battle since, even through the Clinton years.

By 1980, the number of drug-related arrests stood at 581,000. Just 10 years later, that number had nearly doubled to 1,090,000.

In 2005, the FBI reported that law enforcement officers made more arrests for drug-abuse violations (1.8 million) than for any other offense.

One of the most surprising facts about these figures, as far as police are concerned, is the drug of choice: marijuana. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it is one of the most dangerous drugs imaginable.

Cocaine, on the other hand, a leading cause of overdose deaths, is classified as a Schedule II. So is PCP. Go figure.

In 2005, nearly 43 percent of all drug arrests were for cannabis possession (37.7 percent) or “sales and manufacture� (4.3 percent). That’s millions of arrests and billions of dollars -- and amounts to a lot of misery and money down the drain.

In 2008, the ONDCP drug-war budget will reach a record $12.9 billion, with $8 billion of this funding being funneled into law enforcement. Bear in mind that these are only the official numbers. Many criminal justice experts point out that the figure doesn’t incorporate the costs of incarcerating people sentenced for drug offenses. The real expenditure, including the costs of imprisonment, comes close to $22 billion, according to an analysis by the drug policy newsletter, Drug War Chronicle.

We’re not getting much of a bang for these big bucks. Unintentional drug overdoses have become the second-most common form of accidental death after car crashes. While the government increases funding for antidrug missions in Colombia and Afghanistan by tens of millions every year, federal allocations to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment are being cut by $32 million in 2008.

A 2006 Government Accountability Office report revealed that our $1.4 billion antidrug media blitz wasn’t working, either. And it wasn’t the first organization to note this. In 2003, the White House Office of Management and Budget disclosed that it found these ads lacking in any demonstrable success.

What’s worse, the people who need help aren’t getting it. In the rest of the Western world, assistance with drug and alcohol problems is widely accessible. They predominantly view heavy drug use or full-blown addiction as public health issues, not behavioral issues subject to prosecution (except in cases involving other criminal activity).

In the United States, however, rehabilitation and counseling are difficult to access without money. The waiting lists for free or subsidized rehabilitation programs can run from a few months to a couple of years -- even in progressive cities like San Francisco or Seattle.

Most American women, as well as men, have used some form of intoxicant (legal or illegal) during their lives, and half of all women ages 15 to 54 admit to having used illegal drugs specifically.

An estimated 22 million Americans are currently dependent on alcohol, drugs or both, although the real number is likely to be much higher, particularly as the figure does not take into account the 71.5 million people age 12 and up who use tobacco -- many of whom are likely addicted to nicotine.

Anyone who has ever smoked cigarettes habitually can relate to what even heroin and other hard-drug users have told me on several occasions -- that nicotine is the most addictive drug they have ever taken, and the hardest substance to quit. (Small wonder that the tobacco ban in many prisons has started a fierce black market, where a single cigarette can cost between $5 and $10.)

Regardless of whether they are caught, more than 9 million women each year use illicit drugs, and another 3.7 million use prescription drugs without medical authorization.

One such woman, Danielle Pascu, 29, got hooked on prescription drugs after the birth of her daughter. At first she was grateful for the prescribed Vicodin that got her though the lingering pain from a caesarean section and untreated postpartum depression.

But it didn’t take Pascu long to develop a full-blown habit, where she was eventually falsifying her prescriptions in order to get more. Pascu had no criminal record, had never used drugs before and was generally unaware of the risks involved. These days, Pascu is serving nearly three years in the sun-baked and dilapidated Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville.

At this point, drug violations and property offenses account for a majority (59 percent) of females in state prison. By comparison, men in both of these offense categories add up to just 39.5 percent. Meanwhile, in federal prison, women and men convicted of drug offenses constitute nearly 60 percent of inmates.

Tina Thomas knows that she has a quadruple strike to overcome. She’s a black female with a former cocaine addiction, in a state that prefers to lock people up for substance abuse and that will deprive her of public assistance when she gets out. She now faces a lifetime ban on federal benefits, including contracts, licenses and grants.

As a drug offender, Thomas won’t be able to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) if she should ever need it. Food assistance, higher-education funding and even income tax deductions for pursuing a college degree are all yanked away from most felony drug offenders.

Yet nearly every other category of ex-offender -- including sex offenders, murderers, arsonists and perpetrators of domestic violence -- is eligible for these benefits. And, as if all this isn’t bad enough, Thomas will find that even getting a job will be difficult, because she must report herself as an ex-felon.

I’m often asked whether African Americans might just be using drugs more than any other group of people. My response is always met with disbelief until I prove it with the government’s own health statistics: African Americans constitute only 15 percent of drug users nationwide.

FBI data, at first glance, appears to show Euro-Americans bearing the brunt of drug-related arrests. Numerically speaking, they do, in that they are still the majority of the U.S. population. But a closer look reveals something else: African Americans are arrested at three times the rate of their demographic representation.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, asks the very pertinent question of whether police are arresting crack and cocaine users in general, or specifically going into communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods, where some people are using drugs and engaging in the street trade.

“Conducting drug arrests in minority neighborhoods does have advantages for law enforcement,� writes Mauer in his 2006 book, Race to Incarcerate. “First, it is far easier to make arrests in such areas, since drug dealing is more likely to take place in open-air drug markets. In contrast, drug dealing is suburban neighborhoods almost invariably takes place behind closed doors and is therefore not readily identifiable to passing police.�

This is a crucial point. Many substance users are men and women with professional careers. People with middle- to upper-class incomes tend to use their drugs behind doors in nice houses, in well-to-do neighborhoods. They slip under the drug war radar, just as college students do.

A quarter of full-time undergraduate students meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence, something the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse calls “wasting the best and brightest.�

Yet none of this is anything that the Office of National Drug Control Policy cares to have mentioned, much less examine. It’s just another one of those inconvenient truths.

When the One You Love Is Behind Bars

A story like this needs to be told, but it's painful in the telling.

I write articles for a living, because I need to tell people's stories. It's a blessing -- and sometimes a painful aspect of my existence -- that people from all walks of life seem to want to tell me their stories, whether I ask to be told or not. Sometimes I seek those stories out to begin with, and sometimes I ask permission to turn their stories into articles that allow others to listen to them. Journalism comes naturally to me. But I think of my profession more as a way of letting the stories be heard and considered than as a "career" that I've chosen for one reason or another -- and wealth or fame are certainly not among them.

I love writing meaningful stories of all kinds, but there's one kind that's my particular passion: "muckraking" journalism. Within that broader field, I've specialized in criminal justice/prison issues for the past decade. Through personal interviews, statistical analysis, research studies -- and a wide variety of visits to jails and prisons nationwide -- I've always sought to uncover what really happens behind imposing, concrete structures, barbed wire and the confines of tiny prison cells which now contain 2.24 million Americans. (The U.S. has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the world.) My work has always been framed in the context of the imperative that our society should provide fundamental civil and human rights for all. As a result, I have a rather obsessive passion for getting to the bottom of things, to understand why people behave the way that they do, and how social trends and public policies evolve (or devolve) in the way that they do.

Again, my journalism been about other people, but this is a different kind of story, about the pain and lasting trauma of experiencing my loved one getting arrested on a nonviolent drug charge. It's about the struggle to keep both of us going both during and after he was thrown into the vortex of the prison system.

It had been an awful, nearly unbelievable coincidence that Tommy* was sentenced shortly after I signed a book contract to write about the plight of women in prison. For the first few months after his arrest and sentencing, I didn't know what to do with myself. I had seen and interviewed so many people moving through the various echelons of the system that I initially reasoned that I could handle it. After all, I thought I knew what to expect. I understood criminal law, and what I knew from prisoners about doing time. But when arrest and imprisonment happens to a loved one, it cuts so deep that you start to feel as if you're serving time along with him. I had to watch Tommy struggle visibly with the untreated mental illness that directly contributed to the behavior that got him arrested in the first place. I watched him get marched into depersonalized jail hearings and treated like trash.

Like most drug-possession-related defendants in this country, Tommy pleaded guilty at the recommendation of just about everyone involved in his case. I didn't disagree, especially if it meant the possibility of a shorter sentence. The hard evidence was overwhelming, obtained through a number of "snitches" and two undercover buy operations. Tommy was selling ecstasy, actually eating most of it himself in an ill-fated attempt to try to stay "happy" after he lost custody of his kids; survived several suicide attempts; and had been living on the streets for several months.

Say what you will, but I had taken Tommy in six months before his arrest. All of this started with a chance meeting at a bus stop downtown. I sat alone, the way that I do almost everywhere I go, holding my own against any kind of chaos that might swirl around me. But Tommy broke through with the look in his eyes: sincere, kind, and a bit of an awkward goofiness that made me smile. After that, I kept running into him all across the city. Tommy's eyes still lit up, and he still had that goofy grin when he saw me, but he seemed worse for the wear. A couple of months later, I saw that the man with the gentle smile was on the verge of giving up altogether. He had nothing left, and I had something to give: a warm home, a couch, and the knowledge that he would not steal from or take advantage of me. People thought me crazy, but I knew that he needed to know, unconditionally, that someone actually gave a damn about whether he lived or died.

No matter what you think of that -- and there are many reading this who find the very idea of taking in a homeless person or his drug use reprehensible -- I saw the remnants of a brilliant, beautiful spirit in Tommy. In a way that was quite familiar to me, I saw that he was self-destructive, trying to stay afloat in the only way that made seemed to make sense to him at the time. I can't explain it, but we fell in love. Tommy moved in, and I set about trying to help him make it through.

But that love wasn't enough to get him the help he needed, fast enough. I had finally gotten Tommy to agree that he was in serious trouble. I was going to accompany him to the Seattle Indian Health Board to get the treatment he desperately needed. That was to be the next morning, the night after the collect call came from the Port Orchard jail. Tommy was in the throes of a full, psychotic break. I knew that the situation had just turned for worse. He could barely talk. Nothing made sense. The only thing I could think was that maybe, just maybe, he would finally get the help he needed.

Seeing clear evidence of the shape he was in, the prosecutors still slapped him with every charge imaginable, including trafficking and manufacturing, something that bumped up his bail to an incredible $50,000, up to ten times as as much as many violent offenders are held on. These charges were patently absurd, and everyone knew it. (In King County, as many criminal defense lawyers have subsequently told me, most of this wouldn't have stuck past the first court hearing.)

But Tommy was busted in Kitsap County, where the resident population is overwhelmingly Euro-American. Everyone in the courtroom involved with his case was white; we decided not to risk a jury trial. So when Tommy was sentenced to two years in state prison by a judge who didn't hear anything about his personal background until the day of his sentencing -- when I was allowed to get up and speak on his behalf -- it was at least it was nowhere near as bad as the staggering 15 years that the prosecutors had originally talked about.

These are the broad strokes of the early challenges that we faced, but the devil is in the details of what was to come. So here's a small snapshot of what it was like when Tommy "fell," as the prison jargon goes, likening the experience to trying to survive on a battlefield.

If Tommy was in the line of fire, then I was in the background, minding the fort. While Tommy dealt with physical attacks by white racists, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of prison guards, illness-inducing food, and terrifying bouts in solitary confinement, I dealt with isolation, depression, an overriding sense of helplessness, and massive collect call phone bills. (Washington's are $4.00 per every monitored and timed 15-minute call.) Most of my friends and even family members dropped off, as though I had gotten leprosy. Shoulder leaning wasn't an opportunity I was afforded except by a small handful of people. I started to become horrified by my own behavior when I began to break down and cry in public, something I had never done before. I drank too much, sat in darkness in my apartment and fell apart far too many times to count.

In the midst of this, I started on the most intensive travel and research portion of my book, heading everywhere from the nation's largest federal prison complex in central Florida to the world's largest women's prison complex in central California. I went to prisons in London, Finland and Canada along the way. As a journalist working on a book about a subject that doesn't usually get covered, I actually got treated relatively well in prisons -- even being allowed to interview inmates in prisons where pre-arranged interviews were verboten. I moved through prison yards with ease, while Tommy considered himself lucky if he got an officer to even look or talk to him as though he were human.

He was a captive. I was a reporter writing about captives. Our roles in society couldn't have been more different.

Each time I schlepped to visit Tommy at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) -- one of a total of six jails, prisons and work release centers to which he was shuffled throughout his prison term -- I had to make a three-and-a-half hour trip from Seattle to Steilacoom, taking four buses to get there. (Oddly enough, the MICC depot is located on the grounds of the Western State public hospital.) It's there that civilians are checked, from head to toe, for anything forbidden by prison code-- no more than one set of earrings, one necklace, open-toed shoes without stockings, skirts that rise more than three inches above the knee, and so forth. Visitors can't carry anything on board the ferry except for vending-machine cards, IDs and locker and/or car keys. Even mothers of infants are limited to the number of diapers and baby food jars they can bring in. (Those rules sometimes changed from week to week.)

From there, visitors pile on to an old, rickety school bus. For 10 minutes, we bounce along toward the ferry dock, walk accompanied by another prison guard and then shuffle toward another waiting room. Over the course of this journey to MICC, family members, wives, girlfriends, children and friends of prisoners must wait a very long time during every step of the way, with nothing to read, nothing to do but fold our hands. Then it's onto the ferry where visitors are told how they can or cannot sit on board. After a 20-minute ride, we arrive at MICC, a lush, state-owned island where deer and squirrels roam free, but men do not. All visitors must wait again until a prison guard shows up to escort us. We walk single-file, across a bridge and down a hill, and then enter MICC through two barbed wire-lined gates to the sterile visiting room.

One of the times that I made this journey in the wintertime, it had been nearly one-third of a year since I had last seen Tommy. Before that, I had seen him just about every other week, after the Washington Department of Corrections handled his request for psychological assistance, while in work release, by throwing him against a wall, shackling him and placing him back in the 23-hour lock-down DOC "reception" facility in Shelton, a place where bewildered, sometimes angry men find themselves face to face with what it feels like to become a number and not a human being. The first day there, Tommy (whose ethnic background is a mix of black, Aleut and Samoan) heard his first command: "Negro," two white guards told him, "get to steppin'." Altogether, Tommy wound up serving almost six months of his sentence in this prison, without access to education, counseling or prison employment, in a three-man cell designed for two. (The third man sleeps on the floor, by the toilet, and is called "the rug.")

After carelessly doled out psychotropics that left Tommy in a zombie-like state, someone finally paid enough attention to get him the medication he needed -- and a psychiatrist who took genuine interest in him while he was still at MICC. (In my experience this is more than most prisoners suffering from mental illness can say.) I wish I could say this story had a happy ending, but it's far from being anywhere near it. Instead, Tommy came out of prison with a whole, new set of traumas.

Men and women come into prison as human beings -- no matter how flawed, troubled, disturbed or angry they might be. If they eventually have the chance to leave prison, as more than 95 percent do, these men and women have to relearn what it is to be treated as a human being without a number attached to every aspect of their existence. Even more importantly, they have to relearn what it is to live without constant commands to do this or that, even to feel what it is to be a human being worthy of any measure of respect and dignity. Small wonder that most former prisoners recidivate, or relapse -- largely for parole violations of one kind of another -- amounting to more than two-thirds of the 700,000 people who are released from captivity each year. While they are still locked up, prisoners' lives are predicated on the fact that they are not respected as such, and correctional employees are in the position of telling them what to do, all day long. The only decision-making power that most prisoners have is whether to obey or disobey even the smallest commands without question. The latter is fraught with all manner of consequences upon re-entry into society.

Prison is supposed to serve a "correctional" purpose in making our society a safer place to be, but the fact remains that genuine rehabilitation is usually the last thing on the agenda. While in prison, employment is scarce and low-paying. (When he was briefly employed as a carpenter at MICC, Tommy made 28 cents an hour.) Prisoners in Washington State are released with $40 in what's called "gate money." There is almost nothing by way of a safety net to help former prisoners, whether in terms of finding a job, securing housing or public assistance, accessing medical or psychiatric care, or obtaining the quality of educational or vocational training that would help these men and women improve their chances at staying out of the criminalized side of the American economy.

After too many baffling and enraging twists and turns during his period of incarceration, Tommy is finally under what's called "community supervision." Regrettably, things are hardly looking good. The list of challenges is a long one and quite familiar to those who have done prison time. Namely, Tommy hasn't been able to find a regular job because of the check box on employment applications that legally mandates him to list any kind of felony conviction -- and the clear discrimination that follows his honest disclosure. All the while, we live on a freelancer's income and so money is hardly flowing our way, something made worse by the fact that I was Tommy's primary financial support while he was incarcerated. To make matters worse, most of our old friends (and some family members) have long since stopped talking to us because of their stated or implied disapproval of Tommy's arrest.

We also live with the knowledge that employees from the Department of Corrections (DOC) can show up unannounced and legally demand to enter or search our domicile, as they already have. Many police officers know he's been in prison, and follow Tommy around when he's downtown, which is one of the many off-limits DOC-designated "drug" zones. These areas encompass not only incredibly huge swath of Seattle's neighborhoods, but actually includes our own street! (To be exact, former drug offenders are technically not allowed to be in these areas unless they're traveling to and from work, or to appointments.) Tommy's no longer eligible for federal education assistance or for most forms of public assistance outside of food stamps -- a small concession thanks to former Gov. Gary Locke's willingness to bypass federal legislation that denies even that to former prisoners sentenced on drug felonies. According to the terms of his parole, Tommy can't even sit at a bar -- although his crime had nothing to do with alcohol. And if he's even "caught" talking to another former prisoner, it can also be a punishable offense.

Yet now that Tommy has come home, we are grateful, every day, for the love that has held us together. But the fact remains that the odds are truly stacked against him and, by extension, the very health of our relationship. There are the incessant DOC obligations that have him bouncing from one Community Corrections Officer to another; the social stigma; the lack of any transitionary assistance around his need for continued medical and psychiatric care -- the latter being something that's now been diagnosed and can be managed well with the right combination of medicine and counseling. Much to his alarm, Tommy will also be denied the right to vote until his legal financial obligations are entirely paid off. In addition to a monthly fee for his DOC community supervision, Tommy must pay off the cost of his own public defense, fees for his own incarceration and "reimbursement" for the trouble that law enforcement went to in order to arrange the sting operation. The last time we received a bill for his LFOs -- three months after Tommy's release -- the amount had already grown to $3,500, including accrued interest of $500.

Still, Tommy and I actually consider ourselves among the very fortunate. We have a safe space in which to live, enough food to eat and plenty of love to keep us moving forward. I have passion for the work that I do and Tommy is there for me, every step of the way. He left prison with all manner of physical and psychological trauma, but those experiences do not define who he is and what he wants to become.

I wish that I could say the same for every other person who walks out of those prison gates with $40 in his or her pocket, with no one waiting to help them survive. The odds are stacked against them to the degree that it's only a surprise that our society even expects them to make it. For most former prisoners released this way, freedom from their captivity quickly begins to feel like a farce.

All of it amounts to little more than a recipe for failure and disgrace. Were that the rest of us would begin to feel that this set-up for their failure amounts to a failure of our own.

* I've assigned a pseudonym to protect "Tommy's" identity while he transitions into the free world and seeks employment.

Tupperware-Style Taser Parties

The SUV-driving, stun-gun-wielding housewife is coming to a suburb near you. In Arizona, Tupperware-style Taser parties have become all the rage, thanks to the enterprising savvy of saleswoman Dana Shafman, founder of Shieldher Inc.

Shafman's little soirees aren't just popular, they're also highly profitable. Over light conversation and snacks, women are invited to handle the palm-sized C2, the latest (and smallest) civilian version of a Taser stun gun. The C2 is also the most affordable Taser to hit the market, starting at $299.99 -- with an option to upgrade the C2 with a $50 laser beam to better the chances of debilitating a human target. Because practice makes perfect, the women in attendance are encouraged to grab a C2 and take turns shooting at a cardboard cutout representing a male attacker.

"I felt that we have Tupperware parties and candle parties to protect our food and house, so why not have a Taser party to learn how to protect our lives and bodies?" Shafman told the the Arizona Republic. Shafman projects that the parties will be held in at least a half-dozen other states by March.

The C2 comes in four iPod-matching metallic colors: "Hot pink" has been the top seller since the weapon hit the consumer market last summer. While the company admits that men, too, might benefit from carrying the mini-stunner, Taser's marketing strategy has been directed at the phobic and fashion-forward female consumer.

Last July, The New York Times previewed the C2's debut with a feature article titled, "Feeling Secure With a Little Shocking Pink." Accompanying the article was a glamour-action photo of Taser International President Kathy Hanrahan with the weapon in hand. Hanrahan made no bones about the C2's direct marketing strategy and conceptual design: "It's a woman's product," she said.

In a number of promotional media appearances and technology conference presentations since that time, Taser officials have even gone so far as to dub the C2 the "Lady Taser."

"When you're going out to a nightclub or you have the device clipped onto your belt at a business meeting, you don't want to look like Dirty Harry," company spokesperson Steve Tuttle told ABC News last summer.

In what could have easily passed as a terribly tacky infomercial, ABC News ran a December 2007 "Money Matters" segment praising the palm-sized stunner as an exciting holiday gift for women, in which anchor Laura Marquez described the C2 as a "Taser with a softened look."

Despite a plethora of headline-making news over the course of the year -- including the notorious "Don't Tase Me, Bro" incident during Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) University of Florida speech in September 2007 -- ABC News showcased Taser's own video montage of alleged male criminals being stunned into submission. For the ABC News segment, the network opted for a large-font text banner to accompany the images: "Tasers Sold to Protect Women."

None of those video snippets actually depicted women being attacked, and the network's Taser-friendly sloganeering (and Marquez's ridiculously soft-balled questions) didn't seem coincidental in the least.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., corporation has spent years honing a relentless public relations campaign -- complete with a Rolodex of at-the-ready medical, legal and law enforcement stun technology "experts" -- that seems to have convinced many news outlets that Taser's word is gospel truth.

The success of Taser's C2 sales over the past several months can largely be attributed to the company's aggressive strategy to play on women's worst fears of assault and rape. While the C2 might look cute, it is utterly debilitating -- a serious step up, as it were, from older self-defense products like mace and pepper spray.

Just as with the "professional" model, a triggered mini stun gun shoots out two, thin nitrogen-fueled wires with dart-like tips that penetrate clothing and embed in the skin. These darts are juiced to deliver an incapacitating 50,000 volts of electricity for 30 uninterrupted seconds -- ostensibly to allow the Taser-wielder to make a quick getaway.

Aside from the various bells and whistles that would appeal to paramilitary-minded weapon owners, the key difference between C2s and the much more costly civilian and "professional" versions of X-26s is that they enable the "stunner" to shock the "stunnee" over and over again.

Whether we're talking about cutesy mini-stunners, or their beefed-up big brothers, Taser has become a household name and a veritable pop culture phenomenon rooted in either opposition or celebration of this futuristic weapon that was once but a gleam in Gene Roddenberry's creative eye. (Unlike the Taser, the sci-fi Star Trek "phaser" could specifically be set to a specific stun level, all the way up to a deadly jolt.)

Devoted Trekkies with "Set Phasers to Stun!" T-shirts were likely never the cool kids on the block, but "Don't Tase Me, Bro" bumper stickers and T-shirts are a different story. Some are wearing the shirts to express their outrage toward the prevalence of Tasers in use by "campus cops" on college, high school, middle school and even elementary school grounds -- as well as in political demonstrations as a terrifying method of crowd control.

But you might be just as likely to spot a clean-cut fraternity member wearing the same shirt -- only to find that he hasn't given a thought as to whether being hit repeatedly with 50,000 volts of electricity should be considered an act of torture.

There's been no shortage in the blogosphere of people poking fun of Andrew Meyer's appeals, moans and screams that accompanied the University of Florida incident. Indeed, sites like are further proof of the ways in which even the most serious issue can be trivialized and depleted of its power. Why pass up a perfect opportunity to make a bit of money ($29.95 per T-shirt, to be exact) on a popular slogan, even if it originated in the pleading moments before the sickening crack-snap-sizzle sound of a Taser shooting electrified darts into a person's skin?

Taking outright pleasure in the pain the weapon can inflict, the popular TV series "24" seems to have developed a love affair with this kind of weaponry. At least two "terrorists" have been stun-gunned thus far, in addition to Abu Ghraib-style electrical torture during interrogations.

Even low-budget Asian martial arts movies shown in the United States feature the occasional stun gun stunt, alongside more familiar, high-flying punches and kicks.

People who have been tased often liken the experience to the sensation of dying -- something that does not seem like an exaggeration in light of at least 250 Taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001, according to Amnesty International. The U.N. Committee Against Torture recently determined that the use of Tasers "causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture."

Until recently, reports of Taser-related incidents and deaths have tended to involve men, typically described by police as having behaved in deranged and/or dangerous ways before being stunned.

But what once amounted to a few reported Taser encounters per month has now taken the shape of daily accounts throughout North America, including several high-profile deaths in Canada.

Last September, the death of a non-English-speaking Polish immigrant at the hands of inexplicably aggressive, Taser-wielding Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Vancouver Airport drew international outrage when a bystander's cell phone footage thwarted initial "official" efforts to downplay what had happened.

Increasingly, people being stunned aren't just people with limited English-speaking skills; they're also children, teenagers, the elderly and the disabled. In fact, with astonishing frequency, police are using Tasers on women and girls.

In November 2007, for instance, Chicago police tased an 82-year-old woman with dementia.

Last June, a homeless woman died outside an Oklahoma City shelter after she was thrown on the ground, handcuffed by police and then tased while incapacitated.

In Green Cove Springs, Fla., the family of an agitated 56-year-old wheelchair-bound woman filed suit last February after watching police shock her 10 times in response to their request for assistance. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Ohio has become an unexpected epicenter of the use of Tasers against women and girls. Last May, Crystalynn Coker, a 17-year-old African-American student was tased in Monroe, Ohio, when she refused to back down from a racist verbal barrage by a fellow student and staged her own form of a one-person, nonviolent sit-in after her teacher ordered her out of the classroom. According to Coker and her family, a police officer was called in without any justifiable cause to physically remove her from the room. Once the officer pulled Coker from her chair, he handcuffed and tased her three times without any explanation before, during or after the attack.

In the town of Warren, Ohio, footage emerged in September 2007 of a policeman shocking 38-year-old Heidi Gill repeatedly. In the video, Gill is shown crawling, moaning and pleading desperately as she tries to get away from the apparently trigger-happy officer. Footage shows Officer Rich Kovach handcuffing and dragging Gill's body around during much of the ordeal, which is now under investigation.

One of the strangest overreactions involving Taser use occurred in, of all places, a Best Buy electronics store in Daytona Beach, Fla. Amid frenetic rush of pre-Christmas shoppers, 35-year-old yoga instructor Elizabeth Beeland had been waiting in line to purchase a CD player with her credit card. When her cell phone rang, Beeland stepped outside the store's noisy environment to have a brief conversation. Although she left both the CD player and credit card with the cashier, the clerk somehow concluded that Beeland might be using a stolen card, and called police officer Claudia Wright over to handle the situation. Beeland took umbrage at the accusation, and raised her voice. Wright threatened to arrest her if she didn't stop yelling. In what has become an increasingly familiar scenario -- the rapid escalation from an initial encounter with a civilian, culminating with the infliction of horrendous pain, sometimes within just a few seconds -- Wright opted to use her X-26 over any number of more logical alternatives. On the surveillance tape, Beeland is seen trying to back away from the Taser-wielding cop, then falling to the floor in obvious pain after the stun gun wires pierced her flesh.

Worse yet, Tasers have already begun to be used in robberies, domestic violence and hostage situations.

Among other disturbing reports, a serial rapist in Modesto, Calif., kidnapped and brutally raped a 27-year-old woman in August 2006 after stunning her with a Taser.

For the sake of those schmooze, stun and sales parties, they might do well to keep this kind of information under a tightly sealed Tupperware lid.

Getting Busted for Pot Can Cost Your Right to Vote

When a person is sent to prison for the first time on a drug-related felony charge, there is little chance that he or she will be told about the "collateral consequences" of their sentence.

The severity of these residual punishments depends on the state. "Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions Associated with Marijuana Offenses," a report released in July by the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), ranks Florida, Delaware, Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah, Arizona and South Carolina as the 10 states with the worst records for continuing the punishments of people who have already served their time.

"Life Sentences" author Richard Boire writes that the long-term sanctions for drug crimes, even for relatively benign drugs like marijuana, can exceed those of violent crimes like premeditated assault, rape and murder. Intense criminalization of drugs began with the Nixon administration, which ignored its own appointed "marihuana" commission's recommendation that legalization for personal use was a logical alternative to costly and ineffective criminalization. The drug war intensified during the Reagan era and has since grown worse: Today, fully 45 percent of 1.5 million annual drug arrests are related to marijuana.

Up until the early '90s, people who smoked pot were rarely arrested in large numbers. If sentenced, most users and small-time dealers did not face long sentences. That has changed. According to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, marijuana-related arrests jumped up by 113 percent from 1990 to 2002, while overall drug arrests only increased by three percent during that time. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has linked smoking weed to everything from teen violence to terrorism.

"ONDCP's crusade seems to get more incoherent and detached from reality every day," says Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "One minute they say marijuana makes you an apathetic slug, the next they say it turns you into a violent gangbanger. Neither has the remotest connection with reality, and these latest claims of a link between marijuana and violence are based on shameless manipulation of statistics taken completely out of context."

Government-funded propaganda has been disseminated everywhere, from ads in some progressive magazines, to press releases regurgitated as "news" on cable stations like FOX News, to websites such as, which recently posted an ONDCP article, "Early Marijuana Use an Early Warning Sign for Gang Involvement." For all of its hoopla about the consequences of drug use, the ONDCP hasn't shown an interest in documenting the problems faced by those convicted of felony drug charges after release.

Job applicants must inform potential employers, upon request, of past felonies, no matter how long ago they happened. The resulting job discrimination pushes many former prisoners back into the underground economy, contributing to the fact that two-thirds of former prisoners recidivate.

Former drug-related offenders have been further punished by stipulations signed into law in 1996, without congressional or public debate, as a part of the Welfare Reform Act. Former convicts can now be denied public housing, food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and scholarships for higher education. Other limits on freedoms include the denial of vocational licensing and certification for some professions, voting rights, suspension of driver's licenses -- regardless of whether the offense had anything to do with an automobile -- and lifetime bans on the adoption of a child.

Equally serious is that incarcerated men and women, especially those who do not have the physical size or prowess to fight off predators, can be extorted, bullied, beaten, molested or raped by guards and fellow inmates. "Stories from Inside: Prison Rape and the War on Drugs," a study released earlier this year by Los Angeles-based Stop Prisoner Rape, estimates that as many as one in four female and one in five male prisoners experience sexual violence while incarcerated. The real numbers are likely to be higher because of underreporting related to fear of repercussion or stigma.

"While anyone can be a victim of prisoner rape," the report states, "inmates convicted of a non-violent drug offense typically possess characteristics that put them at great risk for abuse. They tend to be young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and lacking the street smarts necessary to protect themselves from other detainees."

Our Justice System Has Gone Mad

Every year, American taxpayers fund an estimated $60 billion for our incarceration system. This system staples together a network of public and corporate-run jails, prisons, pre- and post-release centers, juvenile detention centers and boot camps. All together, these facilities hold well over two million human beings, locked away without public oversight or scrutiny.

Yet throwing money at the perceived scourge of criminality in the United States doesn't appear to have had the desired effect: Despite the staggering incarceration statistics, violent crime has actually begun to creep up over the last two years, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.

In the last several years, some signs have emerged of an increasingly organized movement of citizens, family members of the incarcerated, independent-minded judges and correctional or criminal justice experts -- who stand in firm opposition to our punitive, nonrehabilitative incarceration system.

Viewed through an optimistic lens, the United States might genuinely be at the beginning of a trend toward real criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have already paid far too high a price for shortsighted penological policies. Floridian Yraida Guanipa is among them.

Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.

Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before -- and had never been a drug user -- she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.

The story has become sadly familiar to me, particularly as I have spent the last few years corresponding with, meeting and interviewing women like Guanipa in jails and prisons across the country.

In the decade of her imprisonment, Guanipa witnessed two suicides; countless incidents of medical negligence; the brutality of prison retaliation; and the everyday reality of sexual relations between male guards and female inmates.

Guanipa became an outspoken advocate for other prisoners as a self-educated jailhouse lawyer, but most prisoners talk about retreating within themselves to try to survive the ordeal. Concern for collective well-being is difficult, if not impossible, when individual survival is on the line.

"Unfortunately, that's what prison does to us," Guanipa explains. "It takes the human feelings out of our body, and we just try to survive."

Tasteless films like Let's Go to Prison notwithstanding, what really goes on in prisons is still a mystery to most Americans, as are the immeasurable collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. Arrest and incarceration are woven into the fabric of American life: Today, a black man has one chance in three of ending up in prison at some point in his life, and is more likely to go to prison than to graduate from college.

According to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison and jail population hit a new high of 2,193,798 men and women at the end of 2005, representing a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. A record number of more than 200,000 women are now doing time behind bars -- an estimated 80 percent of whom are mothers. Analysis by the Women's Prison Association has shown that female incarceration has jumped 757 percent since 1977.

More than 95,000 juveniles are also in custody, held in the kinds of facilities that only seem to make their lives more troubled than they were to begin with. As one 14-year-old girl put it to me in Seattle's King County Juvenile Detention Center, "This place just teaches us to be better criminals. It's like a criminal training school."

One in thirty-two US adults are now under some form of correctional supervision. Although Americans only constitute 5 percent of the world's population, one-quarter of the entire world's inmates are contained in our jails and prisons, something that baffles other democratic societies that have typically used prisons as a measure of last resort, especially for nonviolent offenders.

But mass incarceration in America remains a nonissue, largely because of a lack of any serious or effective discourse on the part of our political leaders. At most, election season brings out the kinds of get-tough-on-crime platforms that have already given us misguided Three Strikes and mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

But there are now a few signs that today's insatiable carceral state might eventually find it harder to find bodies to fill our already dramatically overcrowded facilities. In December, 2006, a federal judge gave Republican Governor Schwarzenegger until June 2007 to devise a real plan to relieve severe overcrowding in California's thirty-three prisons. Designed to hold no more than 81,000 men and women, California's state prison system is overflowing with more than 173,000 inmates who are often crammed in eight-person cells or can be found sleeping on packed-to-capacity gym floors.

A New Year's weekend riot at a Chino State Prison involved hundreds of inmates and sent more than two dozen to the hospital. Schwarzenegger has already authorized shipment of California inmates to private prisons in other states as well as more money for building new prisons. Thankfully, this approach has failed to pass muster with the federal court that could step in to order early release of prisoners unless more productive solutions are found to further alleviate overcrowding. 

"I think the climate [for reform] has opened up," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "The issue is less emotional and politicized right now. "

Part of the reason for the slight climate shift has to do with the fact that taxpayers are growing increasingly tired of throwing money into fiscal sinkhole of multibillion-dollar corrections budgets. (California's corrections budget is a whopping $8.75 billion, yet two-thirds of prisoners still end up back in prison.) And then there is the fact that adult and juvenile violent crime rates have, until recently, been on an overall decline since 1993, and the hysteria generated by the crack cocaine epidemic has finally died down to a dull ebb.

As the public has slowly gained an understanding of serious drug abuse as a health and addiction issue, millions of American voters have signaled their own dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all-punishment model, voting for treatment diversion programs in a number of states, including the highly successful Proposition 36 in California.

Civil rights/liberties organizations ranging from the ACLU to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (the organization was instrumental in reversing convictions resulting from the Tulia, Texas, drug round-ups of primarily black citizens based on the uncorroborated accusations of one police officer), have made it clear that the grossly disproportionate incarceration of people of color and poor people should be an urgent, front-burner issue for the country as a whole.

In December, 2006, the subject of what it might take to dismantle the American carceral system brought some 500 attendees to New York City. The conference, "Punishment: The U.S. Record," was organized by The New School for Social Research. The event brought together the likes of renowned Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner and Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in a unified call for radical, systemic change in the criminal justice system.

From Judge Gertner's perspective, this change necessitates a "re-education" of the judiciary, reclaiming their independence in a criminal justice system that has favored strict guidelines over judicial discretion -- especially in drug cases -- since the passage of the Reagan-era Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, the law that established the 100-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, a number of pending bills do seek to right some of the legislative wrongs of the past. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has introduced HR 2456, the Crack -Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, introduced in 2005 and still in committee, which would equalize the drug-quantity ratio and eliminate the mandatory minimum for simple possession. Even some conservatives have moved forward on criminal justice reform. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions's S 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, introduced in 2006, would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a twenty-to-one disparity and mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year.

Marie Gottschalk, author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, cautioned progressives to remember that most political leaders have been slow to enact any significant reforms for fear of seeming weak on public safety issues. In some cases, she said, some of the most regressive legislation and leaps in incarceration numbers have actually occurred under Democratic stewardship, as was the case under former California Governor Gray Davis (with his unapologetically strong allegiance to the state's prison guard union, CCPOA) and President Clinton's signing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely limited legal recourse for prisoners to appeal and their ability to plead for relief for abuses suffered while incarcerated.

While many people working in corrections take their jobs seriously, abusive or negligent behavior is a fact of prison life, as are sexual exploitation and violence, the use of restraint chairs, and chemical and electric weapons. Racism and race-based housing has contributed to major prison riots; extended use of supermax-style isolation cells; and shoddy and/or life-threatening medical care are all common problems. Add to this the fact that more than half of all prison and jail inmates report struggling with mild to severe mental-health problems, whose periods of incarceration only tend to exacerbate pre-existing problems.

Back at FCI Coleman in Central Florida, the relief that accompanied Guanipa's move to a halfway house last month -- and her eventual release to the "free world" six months from now -- is tempered by the knowledge of those she's leaving behind to face the day-to-day struggles of prison life.

"The hardships we endure here will be part of our lives when we are released," she says.

In Love With Ourselves

"It seems like just yesterday I was at the White House staying in the Lincoln bedroom, and everything was wonderful."

These were the words of former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland to a group of teenagers in early July. Rowland was trying to explain his downward trajectory from one of the Republican Party's favored political "stars" to standing in line for toilet paper in a federal prison.

He described his "sense of entitlement" as a political persona. "Before you know it, you're doing things you never thought you'd do in the past. ... Then you send that message to others."

The former governor no doubt got the message from those who influenced him in his rise to power, including the president himself. "I can't tell you how important it is to have people who hold office who deliver," President Bush glowed about Rowland during the Connecticut Republican Committee Lunch in April 2002. "[O]ne of the jobs of a governor is to help restore faith in the political process of a particular state. And the best way to defeat cynicism is to accomplish things on behalf of everybody ... to rise above the traditional noise that tends to dominate the political scene and perform."

"Performing" indeed. The governor put on a great act as a public servant -- that is, until he had to resign from office in 2004 amid an embarrassing investigation into rampant corruption and influence peddling.

Rowland's myopic perception of endless omnipotence could be described as wholly narcissistic. But he is not alone. Building a public persona in America often amounts to a narcissistic exercise on the grandest of scales.

Narcissism is clinically defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) as a "pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy." Although just about any person can possess certain narcissistic tendencies, the disorder can't technically be diagnosed until five out of nine criteria are met:

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Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

Racism erodes our very humanity. No one can be truly liberated while living under the weight of oppression, argues Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary in her new book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.

Leary, who teaches social work at Portland State University, traces the way that both overt and subtle forms of racism have damaged the collective African-American psyche -- harm manifested through poor mental and physical health, family and relationship dysfunction, and self-destructive impulses.

Leary adapts our understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to propose that African Americans today suffer from a particular kind of intergenerational trauma: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). The systematic dehumanization of African slaves was the initial trauma, explains Leary, and generations of their descendents have borne the scars. Since that time, Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have been inculcated and immersed in a fabricated (but effective) system of race "hierarchy," where light-skin privilege still dramatically affects the likelihood of succeeding in American society.

Leary suggests that African Americans (and other people of color) can ill afford to wait for the dominant culture to realize the qualitative benefits of undoing racism. The real recovery from the ongoing trauma of slavery and racism has to start from within, she says, beginning with a true acknowledgment of the resilience of African-American culture.

"The nature of this work," Leary writes in her prologue, "is such that each group first must see to their own healing, because no group can do another's work."

Silja J.A. Talvi: What kind of reaction have you received to your book? And has that reaction differed based on who is in the audience?

Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary: Overall, the response has been very positive, although I'm sure the naysayers are out there. The difference in reaction is noticeable when I deal with grassroots folks in the African-American community. With them, the response has been extremely emotional. It's as though I'm speaking people's personal stories, which seems to give them a feeling of hope.

Of course, I'm not the first person to initiate this kind of work into the intergenerational nature of trauma in the African-American community … What I did differently is that I pulled from many different historical sources and scholarly disciplines. In essence, I created a "map" of knowledge so that people could see how African-American self-perception has been shaped.

SJT: Throughout your book, you emphasize that an acute, social denial of both historical and present-day racism has taken on pathological dimensions. You write that this country is "sick with the issue of race."

JDL: The root of this denial for the dominant culture is fear, and fear mutates into all kinds of things: psychological projection, distorted and sensationalized representations in the media, and the manipulation of science to justify the legal rights and treatment of people. That's why it's become so hard to unravel.

Unfortunately, many European Americans have a very hard time even hearing a person of color express their experiences. The prevailing psychological mechanism is the idea, "I've not experienced it, so it cannot be happening for you."

Truly, how can anyone tell me what I have and have not experienced? This is a very paternalistic manifestation of white supremacy, the idea that African Americans and other people of color can be told, with great authority, what their ancestor's lives were like and even what their own, present-day lives are like. The result for those on the receiving end of this kind of distortion is an aspect of PTSS. People begin to doubt themselves, their experiences, and their worth in society because they have been so invalidated their whole lives, in so many ways.

SJT: Attempts to encourage European Americans to join in on a more honest, national dialogue about "race" and racism often results in defensive posturing and positioning. Common responses include "slavery happened a long time ago," or people saying that they're tired of being made to feel guilty about something they didn't do. How do we respond to this detachment from the crucial issues of the legacy of slavery?

JDL: It's irrelevant that you weren't alive during slavery days. I wasn't there either! But what we as a nation face today has been heavily impacted by our history, whether we're talking in the gulf between the haves and have-nots; education gaps between white and black children; or the racial disparities in our prisons.

I don't believe in making people feel "guilty." We have to recognize that remnants of racist oppression continue to impact people in this country. Much of my work really is about black people looking at ourselves and understanding how our lives have been shaped by what we've been dealt. I don't want to wait for permission to examine this or to hear that looking back into our histories is somehow counterproductive.

SJT: An eye-opening experience for you was your first visit to New York's largest and most overpopulated jail facility, Rikers Island. What kinds of insights did you gain about PTSS from talking to imprisoned African-American young men about their lives?

JDL: It was remarkable to see their physical disposition. They walked into the room with their heads held low, shuffled in … for lack of a better word, [they looked like] slaves. They had lost their way, and there was no light in their eyes whatsoever. Young people typically have a high level of energy. While there was a feeling of angry rebelliousness, the prevailing feeling of hopelessness was staggering.

It's also significant that it took about a half-hour for them to realize that I was talking to them, not at them. In that brief moment, I felt as though I gave them hope. Their body language had already changed by the time they were getting ready to leave. They had become students by the end of our time together.

These young people are being raised by these institutions, and then unleashed back into their communities to wreak havoc. Most of these young men grew up in poverty, and they have the experience of being black and poor in a materialistic society that says if you have nothing, you are nothing. In comparison, when I was in Africa I witnessed incredible poverty unlike anything I had ever seen before. I always talk about how tall and proud the people walked. Their greatest shame was their lack of education, not their lack of wealth. But in America, you are what you have, what you wear.

SJT: You write about the fear that many African Americans have of being "exposed" or having family or community "dirty laundry" aired. "Never let them see you sweat," as the expression goes.

JDL: Shame is such a big issue in our society in general. What many African Americans have internalized is a sense of shame about just not being "good enough." That's a horrible thing to be sentenced to for your life.

When a person walks around with that sense of shame and self-hatred, they are likely to function poorly in society, no matter who they are. Add the extra layer of racist socialization, of being devalued, and what it means to be just human in America, and all those things just makes the shame worse. We as African Americans don't get a pass on all the problems that humans have to deal with in life: finances, career choices, personal crises, relationships, and so forth. But when we add that to this intergenerational trauma in the context of a society that is in denial about its racism, people's lives can become overwhelmed, even frozen in place.

I'm saying let's just take a few of those burdens off of people's shoulders. Look at what we, as African Americans, have been able to do even with those burdens on our shoulders. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if some of those burdens were removed?

Why Women Snap

The typical American female TV criminal is nasty, cutthroat, cunning, duplicitous and sexy to boot.

Oxygen, a women-oriented cable channel, hypes its popular "Snapped" series this way: "From millionaire brides with everything to lose, to small-town sweethearts who should simply know better, these shocking but true stories turn common assumptions about crime and criminals upside down."

The show promises to reveal that there is "something far more sinister to the fairer sex than 'sugar and spice and everything nice.'" As proof, "Snapped" offers up Carolyn Warmus, the daughter of a self-made millionaire. "To put it simply," Carolyn, a "young temptress" with "blond hair, a voluptuous figure, and sassy personality, got what Carolyn wanted, including men."

As temptresses do, Carolyn began an affair with a married man. Then "the sexy nymphet … turned her charms on [a] private dick," who eventually provided her with a silencer-enabled gun.

One dead wife-of-her-lover later, Carolyn Warmus finds herself on trial, "dressed to kill … arriving every day in very short, very tight miniskirts and designer clothes. With her striking good looks, expensive outfits, and murderous persona, Warmus was the embodiment of the 'femme fatal': a sexy, dangerous blond bombshell that seemed to step right out of the hardboiled detective films and pulp novels of the '40s."

Words that could have been lifted out those colorful paperbacks -- this is what passes as entertainment for women?

Other outlets have also joined the fun. E! Entertainment Television's series, asks viewers to contemplate: "How does a match made in heaven turn into hell on earth?"

In response, E! offers "True Hollywood Stories: Women Who Kill," in which audiences are introduced to Margaret Rudin, "a gold digger with a dark side," and Kristin Rossum, who is presumed to have killed her mate "because she had a handsome lover on the side."

Deeper motives
Are there cunning, narcissistic women who would kill for thrill or profit? Sure. Why not? Someone's gender doesn't ascribe ethical character traits, no matter how much essentialist thinkers would like to think otherwise. But the fact is that cold-hearted women who are simply out for themselves are a tiny minority of women doing time for murder -- or any other crime.

When women kill their mates, such acts are usually in self-defense -- or as a result of longstanding physical and emotional abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at least half of all women in prison, including those jailed for nonviolent offences, were abused by spouses before their incarceration.

Unfortunately, even strong evidence of being battered doesn't do much to help tip the scales of justice in women's favor. According to Harvard University domestic violence researcher Angela Browne, women who kill men in self-defense -- and where there is evidence of severe assault prior to the killing -- are acquitted only 25 percent of the time.

On top of this, women who are charged with the murder of their partners have the least extensive criminal records of any group of convicted offenders. Yet the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that the average prison sentence of men who kill their female partners ranges from two to six years, while women who kill their partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years. In states ranging from Florida to South Carolina, many are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In 1993 an Ohio-based research team studying the motivations for murder in intimate relationships found that 82 percent of men in custody who killed female partners or wives did so because they were motivated by "possessiveness," whereas 83 percent of women in custody described their motivation for murder as "self-defense."

On programs about women in prison, even the act of self-protection is subject to sensationalizing. Here's how the producers of "Snapped" pretend to confide in their viewers: "Let's be honest, we've all had at least one moment in which we felt as though we could snap. Even if you're in the 'perfect relationship,' chances are, you've probably said (or even just fleetingly thought), 'I'm going to kill my husband!' So what separates those of us who do, from those who don't?"

In one case, "Snapped" did bring viewers a case that reflected the most common reason women kill their partners.

As we learn, Kimberly Kondejewski of Brandon, Manitoba, put up with serious abuse for no less than 17 years from a controlling husband with whom she had two children. When her husband, a military instructor, went so far as to demand that she commit suicide so he could collect the insurance money (with the threat of doing the deed himself and taking out the children in the process), "the meek housewife put a quick and final end to his cruelty."

Kondejewski shot her husband, and then turned the gun on herself. But she didn't die. Charged with murder shortly thereafter, Kondejewski told her story to a jury. That jury, in turn, found that she was not guilty of the charge and sent her home to put her life back together with her children.

Ah, justice.

Ah, Canada.

American justice
It's rare to see this kind of justice in the United States, where women like Flozelle Woodmore still sit in prison.

Woodmore was 13 years old when she began a relationship with a boyfriend who would end up beating, sexually assaulting and stalking her. Impregnated for the first time at 15, Woodmore was an overwhelmed and severely abused minor without the ability to seek a restraining order -- or the know-how to extricate herself from the situation. When she was 18, Woodmore killed her boyfriend, her first and only criminal offense.

Information about the abuse was never admitted into court testimony. Woodmore thought she was doing the right thing when she pled guilty, and received a 15-to-life indeterminate sentence. While in prison, Woodmore has become a 'model prisoner,' staying clear of infractions, becoming president of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and earning her G.E.D.

Although Woodmore is supported in her plea for parole by the victim's family, the sentencing judge, and every member of the California Legislative Women's Caucus, her recommended parole has been denied by a California governor no less than four times. This past August, California's Governor Schwarzenegger denied Woodmore parole, reversing the Board of Parole Hearings' earlier decision to set her free.

Shows like "Snapped" don't only misrepresent the lives of women like Woodmore, they distort the realities of rising female incarceration. Most women aren't behind bars because they committed murder. In the United States, the dramatic increase in the female prison population has much to do with decades of ever-more draconian drug laws. (According to the latest findings from the BJS, women were more likely to be in a state prison for a drug offense in 2004, at 32 percent of inmates, than men were, at the rate of 21 percent.)

Nationally, some 200,000 women are now sitting in jails or prisons -- more than eight times as many incarcerated women as in 1980. At least 75 percent of these women are mothers. Out of the 7 million Americans under some form of correctional supervision, 1 million are women.

Two eye-opening new books, Nell Bernstein's All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated and Renny Golden's War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind, highlight another byproduct of women's mass incarceration that has, thus far, been overlooked. As Bernstein and Golden discuss, one in 10 American children have a parent ensnared in the criminal justice system, while one in 33 will go to sleep tonight without being able to see a parent because she or he is behind bars.

Not only do the vast majority of these women in jail or prison leave at least one child behind when they get locked up, they also are more likely than male prisoners to arrive there with serious histories of emotional, sexual and physical abuse at the hands of family members, partners or strangers. Many are already mentally ill, sick, or both, with chronic diseases, including cancer, hepatitis C and HIV, diseases that end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars, and which often result in the end of a prisoner's life while still incarcerated.

But stereotyping women in prison as "victims" is no more accurate than buying into the "Snapped" line of heartless, conniving, and (literally) back-stabbing vixens who have more than earned their lengthy stays behind bars.

In truth, many imprisoned women are survivors of the most awesome kind, who should be seen for the individuals they are. These women have carved out their own lives, identities and realities for themselves despite tremendous odds. Are these women complicated, and do they suffer just like you and I? Of course. Are they fierce enough to hurt anyone who bares his or her teeth in their general direction? On occasion. But does any of that make for good television?

Actually, it can.

In November, the cable channel BBC America began to broadcast one of Western Europe's most popular dramas, "Bad Girls," about the day-to-day life of inmates in a women's prison.

Now in its seventh season, "Bad Girls" is the brainchild of three women who have been frank about the fact that the show gives them an opportunity to highlight many of the injustices of female incarceration.

"Eighty percent of women in prison are there for nonviolent crimes," co-producer Eileen Gallagher recently told the New York Times> "[It is] basically our political philosophy that it's a complete waste of money to lock them up."

"Bad Girls" has its over-the-top, soap-opera aspects, to be sure. But the rotating cast of characters come into prison as three-dimensional human beings. These fictionalized characters are ethnically diverse, speaking a variety of different regional dialects. Some are lesbians (yes, real same-sex, non-noir love in prison exists), and many are women in their 40s or 50s. One woman battles breast cancer with the support of her fellow prisoners, and most struggle to keep up some kind of relationship with their family and children on the outside.

The more vulnerable women in prison have to fend off attacks from aggressive alpha-female prisoners and/or male correctional officers, sometimes unsuccessfully. These women often use drugs -- in and out of prison -- and many speak openly of having prostituted themselves in very unglamorous ways. As their stories unfold, so do the complex circumstances that lead real-life women to the prison cell they occupy today.

I'll take "Bad Girls" over "Snapped" any day. Better still, give us an injection of truth-telling about women in prison, in all of its compelling and riveting reality. Television really could be that powerful, if we weren't so afraid of what it might unleash.

Smoked Out

In a November 2002 letter to the nation's prosecutors, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) didn't bother beating around the proverbial bush. "No drug matches the threat posed by marijuana," began the letter from Scott Burns, deputy director for state and local affairs.

The truth of the matter, as reiterated throughout that letter in terse language, was that marijuana was an addictive and dangerous drug linked to violent behavior on the part of users. To make matters worse, a subtle but powerful threat was identified as exacerbating the problem: well-financed and deceptive campaigns to normalize and ultimately legalize the use of marijuana.

Prosecutors were instructed to keep in mind the crucial importance of their role in fighting this threat of normalization in going after traffickers and dealers, and to tell the truth about marijuana to their communities: "The truth is that marijuana legalization would be a nightmare in America."

Yet these truths about marijuana hearken back to the absurdity of the Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, when marijuana use was linked to sexual promiscuity and violence, to say nothing of the imagined hordes of Mexicans and Blacks waiting to lure white women into pot-induced sinful acts.

Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug since 1970, which means that for 35 long years, pot has been viewed by the federal government as a substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse, more so than cocaine, for instance, which is a Schedule II drug. In many ways, modern-day government hysteria about the dangers of marijuana is far more distorted and far-fetched than the scare tactics that were employed under Harry J. Anslinger's reign at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

That's because we know a great deal more about marijuana today than we did in the '30s, particularly in the form of medical studies about the very real existence of cannabinoid receptors in human brains and the benefits of THC to chronic pain sufferers, as well as the fact that urban decriminalization results in neither more common nor more chronic use of marijuana.*

As far as we've been able to trace it back, cannabis has been used by humans for at least 4,500 years. There has never been a single documented overdose from any form of consumption of the plant. (It's actually not technically possible for a human being to die from smoking marijuana, as Eric Schlosser points out in his book, Reefer Madness: a user would have to smoke 100 pounds a minute for 15 minutes to take a fatal dose.) On the other hand, people can and do die from drinking too much, smoking too much crack, shooting up unexpectedly pure heroin, and snorting or popping too much OxyContin.

With all of this knowledge available to the federal government, the extremist position of the ONDCP isn't just nonsensical, it actually sounds more and more like the product of truly paranoid, delusional thinking.

Whatever the reasons behind this kind of thinking, we do know that the ONDCP and successive presidential administrations since Nixon's reign have been deadly serious about supporting this agenda, leaving no room for debate, much less any form of dissent. The extreme extent to which pot (and pot smokers) have been criminalized over the last few decades has had the effect of skewing what marijuana really is and isn't capable of doing to a person.

That's something that any of the roughly 30,000 prisoners doing time for marijuana-related charges can surely attest to, as documented by the report, Efficacy and Impact: The Criminal Justice Response to Marijuana Policy in the U.S., released last month from the Justice Policy Institute. Thirty thousand may not seem like a hell of a lot when we've got 2.1 million folks behind bars from coast to coast, but that's 10,000 more people than the far more pot-friendly Netherlands has in its entire prison system.

According to that report, the U.S. drug control budget grew from $65 million in 1969 to nearly $19.2 billion in 2003, and we are now spending nearly 300 times more on drug control than just 35 years ago. Much of that money has been poured into law enforcement and incarceration, but a significant chunk of the ONDCP's funding has also gone toward media advertising, to the tune of $4.2 billion since 1997. According to research cited in the JPI report, most of those advertising dollars went toward anti-marijuana advertisements.

Marijuana, it would seem, is simply one of the greatest threats facing our nation.

Not so, says an increasingly vocal movement of marijuana and drug law reformists hailing from all over the political spectrum. Although there will always be the kinds of pot-worshipers who maintain that the Green Goddess can do no wrong, the message of this movement isn't that smoking cannabis is entirely without potential health risks. Moderate to heavy smokers do, in fact, run the risk of lung cancer or aggravating existing problems with depression or anxiety, among other potential problems. And absolutely no one is saying that marijuana is good for kids. Most parents would rather that their children stayed free and clear of (legal and illegal) drugs in general.

The thing is that the marijuana war doesn't seem to be doing a thing for keeping kids from smoking pot. In their Efficacy and Impact report, the JPI cites the Monitoring the Future Survey, an annual survey of 50,000 students from grades 8, 10 and 12. The recent survey actually found a 90 percent increase in the number of 8th graders who had tried pot, a 66 percent increase for 10th graders, and a 44 percent increase for seniors in high school. Thirteen years of increased marijuana arrests actually correspond to increased pot smoking by kids.

In other words, thousands of pot arrests and scare tactic messaging isn't doing anything to keep these kids from trying marijuana. It can be argued, on the contrary, that this drug war strategy is having an entirely detrimental effect.

Several research studies published in recent months have highlighted this and the many other highly flawed aspects of the war on marijuana. One of these, released in May 2005 by The Sentencing Project, is about the 1990s transformation of the drug war into a war on marijuana.

Pointing to the fact that marijuana-related arrests added up to nearly half of 1.5 million drug-related arrests annually, the authors of this report noted that marijuana arrests actually increased by 113 percent between 1990 and 2002, while overall arrests in the nation decreased by 3 percent.

By way of spin control, the ONDCP has gone out of its way to say that the people being locked up are the real criminals: the money-making dealers and traffickers who operate in one of the nation's biggest and most lucrative underground economies.

The Sentencing Project's research refuted this easily. Of the marijuana arrests in 2002, nearly 9 in 10 were for possession, not dealing or trafficking. In addition, traffickers and dealers were actually getting shorter prison terms than those sentenced on possession charges: People sentenced for trafficking received a median of 9 months in prison, while those sentenced for possession received a median of 16 months in prison.

How's that for a head-scratcher?

From a fiscal standpoint, the bottom line has long since ceased making sense, as highlighted in Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron's academic paper in June 2005, Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition.

Through his research, Miron concluded that the annual cost of marijuana criminalization came in at a shocking $5.1 billion in 2000. Replacing the current criminalization model with one of taxation and regulation (not unlike that used for alcohol), he projected, would produce combined savings and tax revenues of $10-14 billion per year. The report, in turn, led more than 500 economists (led by Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman) to sign their names to an open letter to President Bush calling for "an open and honest debate about marijuana prohibition that, would likely end up favoring a system where marijuana is legal but taxed and regulated like other goods."

Studies like Miron's aren't romanticizing or glamorizing cannabis consumption, and they're certainly not spurred on by hemp-and-pot-loving hippies pushing for world peace through THC.

Miron, Friedman and the other 500 economists were not taking a stand for pot, but rather against criminalization. This is a wholly different and more informed kind of public opposition than we've seen in recent decades. According to these studies, the War on Marijuana amounts to nothing more than an escalation of the fiscally irresponsible War on Drugs that bleeds state and federal coffers dry while ruining the lives of individuals and families in the process.

But this isn't the kind of truth that the ONDCP is interested in hearing -- it''s both inconvenient and embarrassing. Better just to ignore it altogether, right?

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable, drug squad officer and chief British Columbia coroner who witnessed the height of mid-1990s drug overdose deaths (from heroin in particular), has himself become a proponent of both the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana. Campbell resides across the border from one the U.S. counties that has seen the greatest increase in pot-related arrests. (King County, which includes the Greater Seattle Area, experienced a 418 percent growth rate in marijuana arrests from 1990 to 2002.)

In an interview with Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly, Mayor Campbell put it as matter-of-frankly as possible: Drug czars are the most ill-informed people in government ... [John Walters] is pushing an agenda that doesn't fit in the real world. He's in denial."

He's right, and the U.S. war on marijuana (and on illicit substances in general) is an abject failure. The emperor is wearing no clothes whatsoever; we should be willing to call his bluff.

* In May 2004, the first rigorous study comparing pot use in the Netherlands and the U.S. was published in the American Journal of Public Health. The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Dutch Ministry of Health, compared San Francisco and Amsterdam to find that about 75% of the respective populations had used cannabis less than once per week or not at all in the year before their interviews with researchers. The study further revealed no indication that the decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands led to earlier use or more consumption. There was also no evidence in either city to back the common refrain that marijuana serves as a gateway drug. Other Dutch studies have shown that the percentage of people who regularly use either cannabis or other drugs is actually lower in the Netherlands than in most other EU countries. In Amsterdam alone, the Center for Drug Research found that 55% of people who admitted to having tried marijuana ended up only using it a few dozen times or less.

Beyond the God Pod

"Don't forget that Jesus Christ himself was a prisoner" – New Mexico Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, at the American Correctional Conference in Phoenix, Ariz., January 2005.

"Strongly guarded ... is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States" – James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Betty Ramirez is a career correctional officer who actually loves her job. She believes in the power of rehabilitation and redemption for the women she is responsible for guarding and protecting. More than anything, Ramirez believes they deserve a second chance.

Or a third, a fourth or a fifth, as the case may be. New Mexico's recidivism rate is the nation's third-highest and, by some estimates, up to 85 percent of women who are incarcerated and released within this state will end up back in prison.

Ramirez, nonetheless, believes in the potential for rehabilitation of even the most hardened inmates. "Most of these women are sorry for what they have done," she says, "But have run into bad luck and bad situations."

A petite woman with a powerful presence, Ramirez is one of the few Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) employees who have been at the New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility (NMWCF) in Grants, N.M. from the very beginning when the facility became the first privately run women's prison in the nation in 1989. The move signaled what later became a full-blown trend toward the privatization of incarceration statewide – and nationwide.

In the ensuing 16 years, Ramirez watched the population in this facility increase dramatically as increasing numbers of non-violent and addicted offenders were sentenced to longer and longer sentences under more punitive drug war laws. From 149 state prisoners in 1989 to nearly 600 women today, the majority of these women have had one or more children by the time they get locked up. Most come from backgrounds filled with abuse, neglect, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and limited educational and vocational opportunities.

Ramirez greets fellow correctional officers and inmates alike as she walks in and out of classes, workshops and prison pods. An early stop includes a visit to two segregation pods where a few dozen women are locked down 23 hours a day in small, dark solitary confinement cells. Ramirez, who used to work in the segregation pods, acknowledges that segregation "can be very stressful" for the inmates who do not have contact with the outside world – let alone other inmates – for months or even years on end.

But there is one area of the prison that stands in particularly sharp contrast to the bleak desperation of the segregation pods: the God pod.

Officially this is the Life Principles Community/Crossings Program. It's a program officials consider the real "success story" within the confines of NMWCF. As a housing pod, Crossings has been around for four years with the enthusiastic support of the prison administration and Chaplain Shirley Compton. More recently, CCA picked Crossings as one of eight sites nationwide to pioneer a new partnership with a fundamentalist Christian ministry named the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).

Although it is not the only religious activity at the prison it is, by far, the most institutionalized and structured. In many ways, it also is the most problematic from a First Amendment point of view. It is in this unit that the blurring of the line between church and state is most evident, harkening a new turn in corrections toward Christian-based programming that has begun to truly influence (or, depending on one's perspective, to infiltrate) the nation's prisons.

Religious programming for prisoners has been around for years. At NMWCF, volunteers from churches of various denominations come in to lead Catholic mass, baptisms, Bible studies and other activities, and an Albuquerque-based ministry named Wings has gained particular preference to conduct its large-scale, Christian-based family reunification program/pizza party events inside Grants (and, soon, many other prisons across the state). The Kairos Prison Ministry, the mission of which is to "bring Christ's love and forgiveness to all incarcerated individuals" also has a presence.

But an increased emphasis on religion from the federal government has impacted the scope – and amount of money – available for such programs.

In fact, two adult prisons in the Florida corrections system are now entirely faith-based, while Florida's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has launched the nation's first Faith and Community Based Delinquency Treatment Initiative. (Funding from the federal government has placed such an emphasis on the faith element of juvenile programming that many previously secular treatment and residential facilities for youth have made the decision in the past year to center their programs on "faith" in order to keep receiving money.)

Since its inception in 1998, President Bush's emphasis on his administration's National Faith-Based Initiative has risen to $1.33 billion, or nearly 10 percent of available funding from five federal agencies (Education, Labor, Justice, Health and Human Services and Housing), with marked increases every year. (Fully 25 percent of HUD's funding in fiscal year 2003, for instance, went to faith-based organizations.)

"Government has got to find ways to empower those whose mission is based upon love, in order to help those who need to find love in society," President Bush said last week, while calling for Congress and state governors to remove remaining "roadblocks" to funding faith-based initiatives.

In New Mexico, the National Faith-Based Initiative has not specifically provided money for the Crossings program, which is funded out of New Mexico's general fund (through the CCA), as well as through seasonal in-prison sales of food and other popular prison items to inmates. But the president's emphasis on the faith needs of people returning to the community from prison has channeled millions of dollars in the direction of ex-offender transition programs involving churches and, in doing so, providing an overt justification for "volunteer" in-prison faith-based programs.

"Voluntary" is a key word with these programs and institutions, and the White House has gone to great lengths to say these kinds of programs are not intended to convert people to any particular religion or sect of Christianity.

But the voluntary nature of these programs has become the looming question for organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which has filed two lawsuits challenging religious prison programs in Iowa and Pennsylvania. In the Pennsylvania case, filed in mid-February 2005, both the state chapter of the ACLU and Americans United are challenging the right of a county jail to use tax dollars to fund a Christian-centered job-training program. That program is the only vocational program in the county jail, and hires only Christians to work within the program. (Federal legislation is pending to allow such programs to discriminate in hiring based on religious background.)

"You have to be willing to convert to [Christian] fundamentalism, or put up with attempts to convert you," says Robert Boston, a spokesperson for Americans United. "These programs have come in and offered something of a substitute for the real educational and vocational programs that have disappeared."

According to John Lanz, CCA's national director of Industry and Special Programs, the Life Principles/Crossings program has benefited greatly from the recent decision to partner with IBLP because that relationship cements a "franchise-like approach ... which helps maintain the integrity of the [Crossings] program."

"Inmates are understanding that they don't have to convert from one religion to another," Lanz adds.

That's a theme echoed by Chaplain Compton, the New Mexico Department of Corrections and NMWCF Warden Bill Snodgrass. Snodgrass did not make himself available for an interview either in person or by telephone, but was quoted last month in the Albuquerque Journal as supporting the program and saying that inmates who follow the program are 90 to 95 percent less likely to end up back in prison.

Both CCA's corporate headquarters as well as the NMWCF staff stress, repeatedly, that everyone is welcome to learn from what the program has to offer, that everything is on a volunteer basis and that religious conversion is not a prerequisite or end goal of the program. One inmate in the program insists: "It's multi-faith. Yes, we're Christian, but we would not turn anyone away."

This insistence is harder to believe once one examines the materials used in the program and learns who is behind them.

"Have you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?," asks one of the sections of the various IBLP workbooks given to prisoners. "The first function of faith is to believe in Christ for salvation," reads another section. "The Holy Spirit then takes up residence in your spirit and confirms that you are a Christian ... Disobeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit will cause Him to be grieved and will quench His power in your life."

The text is, despite what CCA's officials say, clearly intended to convert people to a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity that revolves around a man named Bill Gothard.

Bill Gothard, the 71-year-old unmarried real estate mogul at the head of the Illinois-based IBLP, has been in the business of American evangelism since 1964. Originally named the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, IBLP officially changed its name in 1990. All totaled, IBLP boasts that at least 2.5 million people have attended IBLP's seminars and ministries in the U.S. and many other countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Romania and Taiwan.

Gothard has not only gained success both through his religious education programs and training centers, but also through a secular instruction program, Character First, that is in wide use in public schools across the U.S. but does not publicize its origins.

The IBLP, on the other hand, makes no claims whatsoever of secularism, or even respect for other world religions or worldviews. Officially established "for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ," IBLP announces that it does so by providing "training on how to find success by following God's principles found in Scripture."

That is to say Gothard's own interpretation of Scripture, which represents a very literal, overtly patriarchal and highly authoritarian take on what Jesus Christ was all about.

To take but one example, Gothard's workbook materials distributed to the women in the Grants Crossings program includes a breakdown of "basic life principles" including "Moral Purity," "Yielding Rights" and "Proper Submission."

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord," reads one of the biblical selections scattered throughout the IBLP workbooks. Emphasis is placed on "courting" rather than "dating;" on women obeying their husbands; preserving marriage at all costs (to the point of rejecting divorce as a possible resolution to a soured relationship); and on the need for Christians to respect, obey and submit to church and government. These institutions and their rulers, as the workbooks explain, exist because of God's will.

"Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?" reads one question in a section of an IBLP workbook. "YES" comes the answer from Gothard's reading of I Samuel 24:10. "When David had an opportunity to destroy Saul, who was trying to kill him, he said: I will not put forth mine hand against the Lord: for he is the Lord's anointed."

The partnership with the Chicago-based IBLP was made official one year ago, but this isn't the first time CCA has partnered with a Christian evangelical group. Since its first such arrangement with a Christian-based ministry in 1991, CCA has taken a self-described leadership role in its mission to bring faith-based programs to prisons. In recent years, CCA has partnered with groups such as Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, School of Christ International and Child Evangelism Fellowship, the latter of which already operates in NMWCF to provide weekly devotional lessons to both parents in prison and to their children on the outside.

CCA has become so convinced of the power of the IBLP residential program that the company now plans to institute similar pods in every one of its owned prisons. (As the nation's biggest private prison corporation, CCA now represents the fifth-biggest prison system in the U.S., with 65,000 prisoner beds in 64 facilities – 38 of which are company-owned.)

Legally, CCA is obligated to provide access to multi-faith services where they are requested. But in selecting their religious "partners," CCA has opted exclusively for arrangements with Christian evangelical and fundamentalist groups. The vast majority of chaplains in CCA prisons are indeed Christian. "It's difficult to find an imam or a rabbi for these positions," Lanz says, "although we have a few that come into our facilities to conduct their services in our programs."

The newest faith-based ventures – above and beyond the expansion of the IBLP program into all CCA-owned facilities – will likely be a partnership with Rick Warren, the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Saddleback brags that it has baptized more than 9,200 "new believers," and sent over 4,000 of its members on worldwide Christian missions. Lanz says he plans to work with Warren to bring his Purpose Driven Life Curriculum to the company's prisons.

Other planned events include weekend-long Christian celebrations with Champions of Life at selected CCA prisons, as well as the possibility of bringing in Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship to work on re-entry programs with its prisoners.

Colson, a Christian conservative who served time for Nixon-era Watergate offenses, has sprung to the forefront of the revived trend in faith-based rehabilitation in prisons, having found a strong ally in George W. Bush. In 1997, then-Gov. Bush allowed Prison Fellowship to run a 24-hour religious program in the Texas state prison system. Today, the Fellowship publishes the bimonthly Inside Journal geared toward spreading Christianity to prisoners, and operates the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) for 140 men in a medium-security prison in Kansas, among other programs.

Crowing about the success of the IFI immersion programs, President Bush has said he would like to bring that program to federal prisons, referencing a University of Pennsylvania study that received favorable attention from national news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. The White House and Christian conservatives were aglow over the study's findings that InnerChange Freedom Initiative graduates from the Texas program were two times less likely to be rearrested than a matched comparison group.

But the data on those successes was distorted, as Mark Kleiman from Slate magazine later pointed out in a August 2003 exposé, "Faith-Based Fudging." In point of fact, when the total number of prisoners in the program was counted (including those who dropped out of the program, were expelled or received early parole), IFI participants were actually more likely to be rearrested and reincarcerated than their non-IFI counterparts.

This correction has been largely ignored by the White House, Colson's Prison Fellowship and, most certainly, by CCA. No other studies exist in the US proving the success of religious immersion prison programs.

NMWCF maintains that the Crossings program has, in fact, reduced recidivism dramatically.

"What is happening is amazing," says Lanz. "These are turning out to be the cleanest and best pods in our facilities."

Known as the "God pod" by some of the prisoners at Grants, the Life Principles Community/Crossings unit is clean, orderly and decorated with handmade declarations of Christian love and obeisance. Scripture-based books and movies pack the shelves of a small library in the pod; prisoner cubicles are neat and colorful; and an invitingly intimate living room area offers prisoners the comfort of couches, a microwave and a decidedly peaceful ambiance.

As far as prison facilities go, this kind of environment is truly a rarity. Other pods in this prison are not as nicely furnished and are far more noisy and hectic. Some pods house nearly 45 women, with one correctional officer on the floor trying to keep track of the women's movements. (Still and all, the relative comfort and privacy in the housing pods are far better than dismal women's prison conditions in neighboring states like Texas and Arizona, to say nothing of California's eight-women-to-a-cell solution to overcrowding.)

With 30 women in residence and another 35 on a waiting list, the Crossings pod is explicitly religious – and rigorously so. The program involves engaging in spiritual counseling and religious meetings, prayer walks, meditation, memorization of the New Testament and 732 hours of activities ostensibly geared toward helping a woman succeed after her release from prison – with a mandate that the woman stays involved in a "faith community."

There is no regular television for the Crossings women, and no hip-hop or rock music to speak of. Even Christian rock music is explicitly frowned upon, in accordance with IBLP instructions.

In one workbook, devotees are told that listening to rock music will lead to an addiction to it. "As in the case of a drug addict, a 'rock addict' will sacrifice God-given relationships with his parents and will neglect fellowship with Godly Christians in his compulsion to listen to his music ... Only God can free a 'rock addict' from the bondage of Satan's strongholds."

When the Crossings women join together to sing and dance to music, then, it is only to devotional music deemed appropriate. During a visit, several of the women perform expressive dances to "I Can Only Imagine" and "Psalms Three" and to hear a vocal performance of "City Called Glory" by the head of the choir. The emotional intensity of these performances is clear; several women are, in fact, moved to tears. "It instills character in all of us," one inmate says. "It betters our lives through belief in God."

As for NMWCF's claim that the program is reducing recidivism, it is true that only a few women who graduated from that program have returned to prison. It also is true that those numbers are based on "graduates," not on the total number of women who have enrolled in the program and dropped out, or been removed for drug sales or using the program as a cover for other illicit activities.

But NMWCF Chaplain Compton is confident that the people who stay in the program will have a better shot at reintegrating into their communities. "There is a change in self-esteem," she says. "We see a change in their behavior and the way that they handle things."

The reason for the dramatic change, adds Compton, has everything to do with the transformative belief in a higher power. "They realize that there is a God. They are helpless, and God is in control if they allow him to be."

As for Betty Ramirez, she too is proud of the changes that she has seen in the women in the Crossings program. She is also a Christian who believes strongly in the transformative power that faith can have on prisoners. She raises no questions or objections about the religious texts used. Her job is to keep things running smoothly. "I have a good working relationship on both sides of the fence," she says. "I know what to look for and what to expect. With so many women, you aren't running anything, you're just trying to control things. For the [male guards] it's sometimes hard to adjust. The women are very vocal and very opinionated."

At least for now.

Cashing in on Cons

In 1971, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford attended the 101st Congress of the American Correctional Association (ACA) in Miami Beach. The ACA was founded in 1870 as the National Prison Association by reform-minded wardens who saw promise in the rehabilitation, religious redemption and humane treatment of prisoners. By 1971 they had developed a substantial membership, attracting 2,000 attendees to that year's congress.

In her seminal 1973 book, Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business, Mitford reported that the organization had shifted its focus from reforming and rehabilitating prisoners to reaping profit from incarceration. Exhibitors, she wrote, sold everything from tear gas grenades to stun gun prototypes. And with prisons facing costly lawsuits instigated by prisoners, litigation, Mitford wrote, was "very much on everybody's mind."

Thirty years later, how much has changed?

The 2005 winter conference in Phoenix – attended by an estimted 4,000 – found the ACA still touting its principles: "Humanity, Justice, Protection, Opportunity, Knowledge, Competence and Accountability." The organization stresses that it brings together individuals and groups "that share a common goal of improving the justice system." But with the prison industry now bringing in annual revenue of $50 billion, the ACA seems most intent on "improving" profits.

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Go Directly to Jail

According to two recent research studies, the path that awaits young, undereducated African-American men is more likely to lead them to prison than anywhere else.

In fact, with the expansion of the nation�s sprawling prison industrial complex since the 1980s, things have gotten far, far worse for black men everywhere.

Consider that in 1954�the year that the Supreme Court weighed in favor of desegregation with their Brown v. Board of Education decision�an estimated 98,000 African-Americans sat behind bars. Today, that figure stands at 884,500, or nine times the number of black men and women incarcerated at the advent of the Civil Rights movement.

Given current trends, one of every three African-American men born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. According to the authors of The Sentencing Project�s recent report, �Schools and Prisons: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education,� the situation is largely attributable to the War on Drugs, particularly the grossly disparate crack and powder cocaine federal sentencing guidelines. Despite a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to fully eliminate such sentencing differentials, these guidelines have been supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Imprisonment is now so common for young men of color that it serves as a veritable rite of passage. And no community has been as badly impacted as African-American inner city neighborhoods, leading to a phenomenon that many sociologists have begun to call the �mass incarceration� of young, low-income black men.

�American society loses the contribution of those men going to prison, in their roles as parents, workers, and citizens,� says Professor Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Princeton University.

Along with University of Washington sociology professor Becky Pettit, Western recently co-authored an extensive research study, �Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,� which was first published in the American Sociological Review. Their study, conducted over a period of several years, demonstrates conclusively that African-American men are now more likely to end up in prison than to earn a bachelor�s degree or even serve in the military.

�I think the findings also indicate an institutional failure,� says Western. �The idea of universal rights of citizenship, social membership, is a central part of American political culture, yet mass incarceration has systematically limited the full participation of low-education black men in American society. Democracy and civil society are diminished and that is a collective loss.�

Pettit and Western�s dramatic findings further demonstrate that fully 60 percent of African-American male high-school dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 ended up doing time in prison by 1999.

These statistics cannot simply be reduced to notions of overt or subtle racial prejudice in arrest, sentencing and incarceration rates, says Western. Access to opportunities plays a key role.

In fact, when Pettit and Western analyzed Census 2000 data, they found that while racial inequalities in imprisonment rates continued at exactly the same exorbitant rate, class and education inequality had become the more significant marker of the American mass incarceration trend. Based on Pettit and Western�s analysis, the lifetime risks of imprisonment for all men roughly doubled from 1979 to 1999, but nearly all of this increased risk was experienced by those who never make it to college.

�Virtually the whole burden of the prison boom has fallen on those with just a high school education,� Western notes.

The Bush Administration has taken a do-nothing approach to the fact that the imprisonment of underprivileged African-Americans has reached epidemic proportions.

On July 23, President Bush stood before the Urban League�s National Convention in Detroit and lauded the diversion of additional funding to federal prosecutors, before asserting that �progress for African-Americans ... depends on safe streets.�

The only mention of prisoners during the President�s speech related to the fate of the more than 600,000 men and women who are released from prison each year. �Let�s make sure we�re the country of the second chance,� President Bush told the crowd, without mentioning how his administration would rectify the federally-instituted denial of student loans, public housing, or welfare to any person convicted of a drug crime. (Most states still have such bans in effect, although some legislatures have taken minimal steps to ease the plight of ex-offenders.)

The White House spin, in this regard, seems to be working. Even in this crowd of seasoned civil rights supporters, President Bush�s comments were met with a strong round of applause.

The New Plantation

I am not a black man.

But these days, I can't imagine a riskier thing to be.

Keep reading. This isn't about to become a competition of ranking oppressions, or an indictment of white people everywhere. People have it hard in this country, period. Poor people, Indian Nations, immigrants, and women of all backgrounds. It's a long list, and it's a damn shame. It is, in fact, an embarrassment of suffering in a nation with an embarrassment of riches.

But speaking in purely statistical terms, this isn't a good time to be a low-income African American in the U.S. (when was it ever, you may rightly ask?), but especially if you're one of the nearly 900,000 African Americans sitting behind bars at this very moment.

Already, the U.S. Justice Department itself projects that 32% of African-American men born in 2001 will spend time in prison. That's one in three black men, folks. One in three.

And nearly every month, I come across another shocking new study, another class action lawsuit, or a straight-ahead government report that confirms another escalation in what amounts to a national phenomenon of mass incarceration. Nearly every month, I'm left staring at another staggering finding about the disproportionate impact of imprisonment on people whose skin tones largely range from brown to black. And every month, I'm left wondering what to do with the information at my fingertips. What new twist, what new angle on the facts will finally push the issue to the forefront?

And, more to the point, who cares?

Last month, a team of highly respected sociologists, Becky Pettit of the University of Washington and Bruce Western of Princeton University, published a new report in the American Sociological Review. The study, "Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration," reported that African American men are more likely to end up in prison than to earn a bachelor's degree or even serve in the military.

Pettit and Western, who have tackled related topics for many years now, sounded another alarm that should have made front-page news: Fully 60 percent of African-American male high-school dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 had been incarcerated by the time they reached their early 30s.

Could the link between ethnicity, income, education and incarceration in the U.S. be any clearer?

Fifty years ago, the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision resulted in the (gradual and hardly complete) desegregation of schools. The Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project set out to find out how much things had changed since then, where African Americans in the prison system were concerned.

Here's what they found. In 1954, there were 98,000 African Americans in prison or jail. By 1974, that number had crept up to 153,500. By 1994, it had grown fourfold to 635,000. And in 2002, it had risen to a record high of 884,500.

What's going on here? No one's denying that crimes are being committed. But the real, underlying questions are how we define criminal behavior; how we decide to punish that behavior; and why, in the face of declining crime rates, are prison numbers – especially for people of color – climbing year by year?

Take California's ten-year anniversary of the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law earlier this year. The law was supposed to take care of the "worst of the worst," but it has been bad news all the way around. Men and women have gotten life sentences for shoplifting, for repeat petty offenses, and out of the very nature of their persistent and untreated drug habits. By the end of 2003, it had cost the cash-strapped state about $8.1 billion in incarceration costs.

When the Justice Policy Institute decided to take an even closer look at the situation in a March 2004 report, Still Striking Out, they found something that made my head reel. The African American incarceration rate for Three Strikes was no less than 12 times higherthan that of European Americans.

This is the kind of thing we need to be looking at. We need to look so hard into this that we actually figure out that there's a serious problem at hand. That we're playing with people's lives, breaking apart families (did you know that there are at least 1.5 million kids out there with parents in prison?), and, in essence, guaranteeing intergenerational cycles of crime and imprisonment. There's nothing like serious family instability to guarantee a kid's likelihood of ending up in trouble. Anyone who works in the "system" will tell you that, regardless of where they stand on the issue of prison expansion.

But by their own admission, many of the editors I work with say that while the over-incarceration of African Americans is something they genuinely care about, they're having to push these kinds of "social issues" to the backburner. After all, we've got body bags coming back from Iraq, a November election to see if Bush can actually win (not steal) the presidency, and a budgetary deficit that has entered the realm of the surreal. All true, I know.

But while we wait to see how the elections shake out, another few thousand African-American men get thrown behind bars. Another few thousand get released with a few dollars and a whole heap of shame, anger and alienation trailing behind them (if you're still under the impression that prison generally rehabilitates the people who get sentenced, I'd encourage you to spend just an hour talking with a former prisoner about what they really "learned" under lock-and-key).

There's an inherent challenge in writing about these realities. People assume that I'm a bleeding-heart liberal who romanticizes the plight of prisoners. As someone who has sat face-to-face with child molesters, murderers and rapists – and as someone who has been victimized herself – I can tell you that is not the case. The thing is that I can see people as more than the nature of their crime, which is what gives me the ability to do this work in the first place.

But why, people frequently ask about my work, do you focus on people of color in prison so much? White people go to prison too, you know!

And these people are right about one thing: European Americans do go to prison. In many states, they're actually still the majority of people in prison. The fact is that many European-American men and women are unjustly imprisoned and harshly sentenced, and suffer degradations and cruelties that most Americans would be shocked to learn about (if only the mainstream press paid as much attention to them as to Abu Ghraib). Consequently, I write about them with as much passion as I write about anyone else who suffers an injustice in the criminal justice system, whether that's an European-American prison guard, a Native American chaplain, or a gay prisoner sold into sexual slavery.

For me, it's a question of numbers and probability. And when the probability of a black man going to prison looks the way it looks right now, it's something that I'm more than likely to pay a hell of a lot of attention to, regardless of what news magazines or newspapers are interested in printing.

This is a crisis, people. An absolute crisis on a national scale that deserves every bit as much attention as the war we're fighting overseas. Because this is a war, of sorts, of our own. It's a drug war; a war on crime gone awry; a twisted war on poverty that targets the poor for their choice to survive by the means that they have at their disposal. We don't need to make excuses. We don't need to look the other way when real crimes are committed. We don't need to romanticize the plight of prisoners to get it through our heads that the prison industrial complex has absolutely spiraled out of control.

We're blind if we don't see what all of this is adding up to: Prisons are the new plantation.

And this is a kind of bondage we've never seen before, with repercussions we're only beginning to grasp.

The New Blue Gold

There are untold profits to be made from controlling the simplest and most vital ingredient of our survival: water.

The only question, from a profit standpoint, is why it has taken this long.

"You can't do anything without water," says Alan Snitow, co-producer and co-director of Thirst, a groundbreaking and provocative new film about the rush to privatize what the filmmakers rightly define as the very "essence of life."

In their third collaborative documentary film after the successes of Blacks and Jews (1997) and Secrets of Silicon Valley (2001), Bay Area-based filmmaking duo Deborah Kaufman and Snitow take an unflinching and multifaceted look at water privatization in Bolivia, India, Japan and the U.S.

What Kaufman and Snitow find is that the "water rush" is likely to turn into one of the most volatile and potentially galvanizing issues of the 21st century.

"This is an incredible struggle, and yet it's still so far below the radar that we're trying to give it a voice," Kaufman says. "People are already willing to die for [water], but it's something that many of us still take for granted."

The grab for corporate control of water is indeed already here in our own backyards. But the conflict over water supplies perhaps most familiar to news-savvy audiences is the place where Thirst goes first: to Cochabamba, Bolivia. After the country auctions off the water system of its third-largest city to U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation in 1999, residents experience water price hikes of 30-300%, and the situation eventually erupts in a cross-class protest that makes headline news worldwide.

By April 2000, the government responds to civil unrest by declaring martial law. Shortly thereafter, Victor Hugo Daza, a 17-year-old peaceful protester, is shot dead in the streets by a government sniper.

Daza's death doesn't quell dissent the way it was intended to. In fact, protests heat up to the point that water consortium execs beat a hasty retreat, and Cochabamba's water system gets handed over to a community-run utility. In an unlikely turn of events, the citizens actually get what they want; water gets treated like a human right, not as the last frontier of the commercialization and privatization of earth's natural resources.

"They're on the defensive in the global South," Kaufman explains. "In many ways, they're ahead of us responding to what's in the near future for all of us."

In point of fact, American cities and towns are the new staging ground for rapid and strategic power plays over who controls water supply. In 2004, 85% of U.S. municipal water systems are publicly owned, with a shocking 15% already in the hands of corporations. Unbeknownst to most residents, municipal governments are being heavily courted in the here and now to turn over control of their water supply to multinational companies like Suez Water, whose U.S. subsidiary took control of Atlanta's water in 1999.

The incentive for local governments is hard to miss; with an estimated cost of a trillion dollars, the prospect of replacing aging pipes and improving the condition of public water plants is increasingly seen by city leaders as a budgetary drain best dealt with through privatization.

To exemplify the point, Kaufman and Snitow turn their camera to Stockton, California, where a well-run locally controlled water purification and distribution system is about to be offered to the highest bidder. (Notably, the public utility itself isn't allowed to be one of the bidders.)

The transfer of power over the water supply is intended to take the form of a "public-private partnership," and Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto is a firm supporter.

"This can be done for less dollars," as Mayor Podesto says.

A subsequent, well-orchestrated grassroots mobilization by city residents -- baristas, orthodontists, environmentalists, utility employees and union members among other unlikely allies -- fails to capture any attention from the national media. But Kaufman and Snitow have the instinct to jump into the heart of the conflict, meeting and talking with all sides of the privatization debate.

But there is no storybook ending in Thirst where Stockton's citizenry are concerned. By February 2003, in fact, the Mayor and a severely divided City Council hand over the $600 million, 20-year contract to a two-company consortium of corporate water giants: OMI and Thames.

All along, Stockton residents who did their research were emphatic that corporate claims of cost effectiveness, quality and safety had not been realized elsewhere.

In Atlanta's case, for instance, the city's $428 million, 20-year contract with Suez-subsidiary United Water Services was cancelled after a series of citywide EPA alerts advising residents to boil their tap water because of toxic contaminants. Finally, after five such "boil-alerts," staff cutbacks, leaking water mains, and rising sewer bill costs, city administrators yanked back control of the utility.

Little victories aside, corporate water grab is still fully underway, working in collusion with governments and international financial agencies, wreaking environmental havoc and inflating water prices all the while. In the final analysis, the battle over water, says Kaufman, has more to do with democracy than what's coming out of your tap. And it's toward this end, say the filmmakers, that they fully intend their documentary to spur further activism and to educate audiences about the extent to which water has already been commodified.

As captured in Thirst, John Briscoe, the Senior Water Advisor to The World Bank, puts it this way to an assembly at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

"What does it mean to say that water is a human right?" he asks." Those who proclaim it so would say that it is the obligation of [governments] to provide free water to everybody. Well, that's a fantasy."

In touring the U.S. with their film, Kaufman and Snitow have already become cautiously optimistic that the tide of privatization can be turned. A model ordinance to safeguard water as a public trust has already been drafted in concert with Madison, Wisconsin Mayor David Cieslewicz, and will be presented at the upcoming 72nd U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston, which runs from June 25-29th. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, the conference's website is being sponsored by Veolia Water, which has become North America's leading private "service provider" for local government water and wastewater supplies.)

"It's a festival of privatization," as Snitow says. "But what they don't yet fully realize is that for many people, water is the final boundary that can't be crossed."

Check local listings for screenings of 'Thirst.' To coincide with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 'Thirst' will show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on June 26th. It will have its national P.O.V. broadcast premiere on PBS stations on Tuesday, July 13th at 10 p.m.

To learn more about related issues -- and a growing campaign to boycott bottled water -- visit

Criminalizing Motherhood

Regina McKnight is doing twelve years in prison for a stillbirth, carving out a dangerous intersection between the drug war and the antichoice movement. In the eyes of the South Carolina Attorney General's office, McKnight committed murder.

Her crime? Giving birth to a five-pound, stillborn baby. As McKnight grieved and held her third daughter Mercedes's lifeless body, she could never have imagined that she was about to become the first woman in America convicted for murder by using cocaine while pregnant.

The absence of any scientific research linking cocaine use to stillbirth didn't matter. Nor did it matter that the state couldn't conclusively prove that McKnight's cocaine use actually caused Mercedes's stillbirth. What mattered was that South Carolina prosecutors were hellbent on using McKnight as an example.

Thanks largely to the efforts of the former Republican Attorney General, Charlie Condon, now running for US Senate, South Carolina is the only state in the nation with a child-abuse law that can be applied to "viable fetuses." At least 100 women have subsequently faced criminal charges in the past fifteen years for using drugs while pregnant in that state, according to the Post and Courier (Charleston). South Carolina was also the first and only state to test pregnant women for drug use and report the findings to police without the woman's consent--or a warrant--until the US Supreme Court struck down this bill as a violation of the Fourth Ammendement.

But McKnight, now 26, was the first to be imprisoned on a murder conviction under the "viable fetuses" law. In October McKnight lost her best shot at release when the Supreme Court decided not to review the case, allowing the conviction to stand by default.

"What South Carolina has done, in effect, is made pregnancy a crime waiting to happen," says Lynn Paltrow, an attorney and the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York.

Paltrow served as one of the attorneys who took the appeal to the nation's highest court. In so doing, she joined twenty-seven other medical and drug policy groups that sought to overturn the conviction, including the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. These mainstream health organizations saw the situation exactly for what it was: an extreme manifestation of an increasingly successful antichoice agenda wrapped in the cloak of the War on Drugs.

"The prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of Ms. McKnight for her stillbirth not only distorts the law, but contradicts the clear weight of available medical evidence, violates fundamental notions of public health, and undermines the physician-patient relationship," as the organizations put it in their amicus brief to the Court.

Approximately 275 women nationwide have already faced charges relating to drug use during their pregnancies, says Paltrow. In a country where a pregnant woman has no legal right to safe housing, daycare, nutritious food, medical care or mental health services, it's horrifying to witness the development of a law that allows for women's bodies to be treated as if they were mere vessels.

A pregnant woman who has used drugs doesn't easily win public sympathy, and the prosecutors knew exactly how to demonize a "drug mom." But, as Judy Appel of the Drug Policy Alliance points out, women who are in serious need of prenatal healthcare--and at most risk of having medical problems--are even more reluctanct to turn to a system that might press charges if something goes wrong with their pregnancies.

McKnight was a seasonal tobacco farm worker with a tenth-grade education who was living homeless, drug-addicted and trying to cope with the recent loss of her mother, who was run over by a truck. McKnight never received help for her drug problems. (South Carolina, it's worth noting, ranks lowest in the nation for spending on drug and alcohol treatment programs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.)

The legal precedent set in the McKnight case is far graver than it might seem at first glance. As the laws have been written in South Carolina, child abuse charges could as easily be applied to pregnant women who smoke, drink even a moderate amount of alcohol, work around certain kinds of chemicals or even change cat litter--in essence, any activity that is "within the realm of public knowledge" of causing potential harm to a fetus.

Appel, who worked extensively on the amicus brief to both the South Carolina and US Supreme Courts, notes that McKnight's case has since emboldened South Carolina to go after other women, even retroactively. In early January South Carolina prosecutors are scheduled to go after their second murder conviction against a mother. In this case, it's another African-American woman, by the name of Angelia Kennedy, who allegedly smoked cocaine during her pregnancy, which resulted in a stillbirth five years ago.

This kind of persecution hasn't stopped at the state line. Right after the Supreme Court decided not to review McKnight's conviction, Honolulu city prosecutors went after a 31-year-old native Hawaiian, Tayshea Aiwohi for the death of her two-day-old son. The prosecutor's office has charged Aiwohi with manslaughter for using crystal methamphetamine during her pregnancy. Although Honolulu prosecutors denied any connection to the McKnight case, they went further to say that they would now consider prosecutions of "meth moms" and alcohol abusers, even when those babies survive.

Women like McKnight and Aiwohi are the victims of prosecutors who have decided that they have the right to judge and punish women for what happens to their bodies. It is a definitive step toward a government that would have the power to tell us what constitutes acceptable pregnancy and motherhood.

The Truth About the Green River Killer

In a calm voice and with an expressionless gaze, a bespectacled 54-year-old Washington State resident by the name of Gary Ridgway confessed to killing 48 women.

To be accurate, Ridgway raped, choked, killed and discarded 48 women, including many teenagers as young as 15 years of age.

Ridgway was a married man and a father, a white guy from Auburn, Washington who held the same job for 30 years--and who got away with killing one female after another for over 20 years.

When the nation's worst captured serial killer finally began cooperating with authorities to reveal the locations of his victims, people in the Pacific Northwest breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, the notorious Green River Killer had been caught. And finally, the family members of the deceased could have some peace of mind, knowing that the nightmare, at least in one sense, was over.

Detective work, diligence, and a decision on the part of the King County Prosecutor to spare Ridgway the death sentence in exchange for information are all being hailed as a job well done. Ridgway will never kill again.

But the question remains: Why was he allowed to kill, again and again, when so much evidence had already pointed in his direction two decades ago?

The answer, in great part, lies in Ridgway's own admission of who he preyed upon.

"I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex," Ridgway said in his confessional statement. "I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

At least one-third of Ridgway's female victims were girls and women of color, and the vast majority were under the age of 22. Ridgway, an extreme incarnation of a brutal misogynist, considered killing female prostitutes a "career." He felt proud of what he did, and thought he was damn good at it.

In Ridgway's mind, he even believed that he was helping the police out, as he admitted in one interview with investigators.

"I thought I was doing you guys a favor, killing prostitutes," he said. "Here you guys can't control them, but I can."

Prostitutes were an infestation, a sickly disease to which Ridgway thought he had the cure. So he "cured" young women of what he saw as their pathetic and undeserving lives. Not everyone he killed was a prostitute, but in his mind, they all deserved what they got.

But like most street prostitutes, these were girls and young women with families. Some had drug and alcohol problems and yet stayed close to their parents, who tried to help them through. Some had boyfriends or even husbands who knew what they did for a living because of the dire economic circumstances of their lives.

Street prostitution is one of the most dangerous ways for a woman to make a living, and it is also the method of making income that is the most judged and moralized against. Nevada's legalized brothels and emerging progressive feminist attitudes toward sex work aside, prostitutes continue be reviled.

Attitudes toward prostitutes -- their very dehumanization -- underlies the Green River Killer case, and yet prostitutes are the aspect of this story that has been least discussed.

Would Ridgway have been stopped in his tracks 20 or fifteen years ago if his female victims had had different class backgrounds, had not participated in the street economy, been more "innocent" in the eyes of the law?

In April 1983, the boyfriend of 16-year-old Kimi-Kai Pitsor told police that she had gotten into an older green Ford pickup truck, and he described the driver. Ridgway's girlfriend at the time owned an older, light-green Ford. (Four years later, Pitsor's boyfriend picked Ridgway's photo out of a montage.)

Then, in May 1983, Marie Malvar, 18, disappeared after getting in Ridgway's truck. Malvar's boyfriend actually took police to Ridgway's house four days later, and then identified the pickup he saw Malvar get into. When two detectives questioned Ridgway, he actually admitted to picking up prostitutes, but denied any contact with Malvar. Despite the eyewitness identification, the neighborly, upstanding Ridgway was left alone.

Ridgway continued to have many close calls with police, evading and fooling officers and detectives all the while. Would Ridgway have been let go, time after time, had he been anything other than an "ordinary" looking middle-class white man who preyed on the vulnerable, the poor, and the powerless?

In 1984, Rebecca Garde Guay actually came forward to police to say that she had been assaulted two years prior by a man who tried to kill her with a chokehold. Not only did Guay know Ridgway's place of employment (he had shown her an identification card), but she also picked him out of a book of photos. What's worse, Ridgway had the sheer gall to admit having "dated" Guay and even choking her.

But by then, Guay no longer wanted to pursue charges. She became the only known survivor of the Green River Killer. Perhaps she was afraid of being hunted down, or perhaps she just knew that she wouldn't be believed. And in this way, Ridgway was allowed to return to his life, killing many dozens more young women along the way.

Although Ridgway copped to 48 murders, he says it's possible he killed as many as 60 women and girls.

"In most cases when I killed these women I did not know their names," Ridgway stated. "Most of the time I killed them the first time I met them and I do not have a good memory of their faces. I killed so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight."

To Ridgway, they were faceless, nameless females who wouldn't be missed.

And in some ways, he was right. The victimization of prostitutes--a rampant phenomenon across the nation--occurs as frequently as it does because so few people do care, and because prostitutes themselves are so afraid to report the abuse.

A 2001 report by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women found that nearly 90 percent of prostitutes in the U.S. reported being physically abused by pimps and traffickers. And one-half of women in this study described frequent, sometimes daily assaults.

To progressives, prostitutes are alternately viewed as victims in need of rescue and rehabilitation, or else as sex workers who have the right to decide their form of livelihood. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle--in allowing women to pursue their occupation of choice but recognizing that many prostitutes (especially street workers) have faced terrible abuse as children and teens, and need a hand to help them out of a life they've become trapped in.

The decriminalization of prostitution would go a long way toward giving women more incentive to report suspicious behavior and violence by lessening their fear of arrest or poor treatment by police.

But in our perversely moralistic nation--where skin and sexuality sell product, but skin and sex themselves cannot be for sale--prostitution is still the dark secret in our midst.

And prostitution, in turn, has become a lightning rod for society's collective hatred of women who "abandon" their families and their children; who fall from grace and descend into "degrading" behavior. Women who consciously choose to sell sex -- to get by, to get a fix, to pay rent, to feed a kid, or to even to go to school--are human beings whose existences we'd rather not deal with or see walking down our streets.

As a society, we still see prostitution as an infestation to be kept under control. Words like "eradication" used in tandem with street prostitution are not uncommon in law enforcement lingo, as if the women selling their bodies are no better than vermin.

Ridgway saw these women and wanted them dead.

If we are not willing to consider how and why a man like Ridgway can come to exist and commit his crimes for years on end, we haven't even begun to dig deeply enough into the dark core at the root of this kind of hatred.

Perhaps Nancy Gabbert, the mother of 17-year-old Ridgway victim Sandra, said it best.

"Fifty years ago, Gary Ridgway was a little baby," Gabbert told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer while explaining her opposition to the death penalty for her daughter's killer. "He's not some monster who was dropped down from another planet. He was created right here in our society."

"How did we do this?" she asked.

She deserves a real answer.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She writes for AlterNet, In These Times, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the new anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).

The State Of Drug Reform

The Drug Czar is not a man given to particularly inspiring speeches, but on the topic of marijuana, John Walters gets downright fired up. On a nationwide tour to promote the Office of National Drug Control Policy's new 25-Cities Initiative, Director Walters says he's on a mission to combat the national disease of addiction.

That disease, as he believes fervently, is bred by non-addictive use of drugs. And the carriers of the disease are those peers who spread what Walters calls "The Lie": "That drug use is fun, that you can handle it, and everybody does it. The friend of those people don't realize what The Lie is until is until it's too late."

In Seattle recently to promote the latest effort in the War on Drugs, Walters was able to lock onto his target during his September 10th press conference. In the multipurpose room of a neighborhood detox center, the Drug Czar placed particular emphasis on Seattle City Initiative 75. The citizen initiative demands that local police and prosecutors lay off pot smokers by making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority. Walters alternately called the initiative "a con" and "phony."

"I think Seattle is as responsible and sensible place as any other city, and I believe the voters will make the right decision [on I-75] if they have the right information."

The Sensible Seattle Coalition -- an ad-hoc group of drug reform advocates backed by the ACLU of Washington, the League of Women Voters of Seattle and the King County Bar Association -- had thought the exact same thing. In this case, it seems the voters had a bit more faith in their homegrown initiative than in Walters' dire warnings: With nearly all of the votes counted, I-75 passed handily with a 59 to 41 percent majority in the Sept. 16 elections.

"[This was] a grassroots statement from the people to their employees -- the police -- that they're no longer buying the Nixon-era rhetoric that marijuana poses an overwhelming threat to public health and safety," explained attorney and I-75 supporter Alison Chinn Holcomb, whose clients have included many college students facing denial of financial aid for marijuana use.

When viewed in context, the success of this carefully worded initiative -- which only applies to possession, and not to selling or trafficking -- extends far beyond Seattle City limits, and helps to explain why Director Walters would spend as much time as he did lambasting this "silly and irresponsible" effort.

According to a "State of the States" report released this week by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the vast majority of state legislatures passed significant drug policy reforms between 1996-2002.

The report details more than 150 changes in 46 states on a wide range of drug-related issues, including medical marijuana, needle exchange and possession, alternatives to incarceration, bans on racial profiling, and the restoration of benefits and voting rights to ex-offenders. As the authors of the report found, reforms were initiated, sponsored and supported by progressive to ultraconservative Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens and Independents.

Seattle's passage of I-75, said DPA Director of State Affairs Katherine Huffman, is a "continuation of a national trend."

"More and more people want to look at drug issues in terms of health and human rights rather than in the [realm] of the criminal justice system," said Huffman.

Statewide drug policy reforms have been gaining momentum since Arizona voters passed Proposition 200 in 1996, which mandated treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time offenders. California's Proposition 36, passed by 61 percent of voters, followed along similar lines. Stark fiscal realities for cash-strapped states seem to have contributed to the wave of policy reforms. With costs of incarceration reaching an average of $30,000 per year (and more for seriously ill and elderly inmates), taxpayers in states ranging from Hawaii to Indiana have concluded that spending as little as $4,000 annually on treatment per person simply made more sense.

But this shift in drug policy hasn't been entirely focused on the fiscal bottom line. The wave of reform-minded bills seem to have also used compassion and civil rights as guiding concerns, as evidenced by medical marijuana laws passed in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Those laws have withstood concerted federal efforts and Drug Enforcement Agency raids intended to disrupt the operations of medical marijuana clubs -- and to arrest those who use marijuana to alleviate symptoms of chronic illnesses.

President Clinton's 1996 federal welfare reform bill resulted in the permanent denial of welfare benefits or food stamps to anyone ever convicted of a drug offense. In response, citizens and legislators in states including Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington passed laws that allowed them to partially opt out of the ban because it was perceived as being unnecessarily harsh and too broadly applied. If people who had raped and murdered could be eligible for public benefits, as the logic went, why should drug users be demonized and punished to an even greater extent?

According to the DPA, ten states (and the federal government itself) have also moved to enact asset forfeiture reforms, usually by putting the burden on law enforcement to prove the necessity of property confiscation. And of particular significance to the almost 1.4 million disenfranchised African American -- 14 percent of the entire Black male population -- states including Connecticut and New Mexico (and, most recently, Florida), have enacted laws to return voting rights after incarceration.

Of all the states in the union, New Mexico and Washington State have led the pack in drug policy reforms, according to DPA's Huffman. With a record 11 changes or additions to state law, New Mexico saw the start of its reform during the tenure of Republican Governor Gary Johnson and his Democratically-controlled state legislature, much to the chagrin of his conservative allies. Current Democratic Governor Bill Richardson has eschewed an aggressive drug policy reform approach, although he has expressed support of sentencing reform. Under Richardson, the New Mexico state legislature shot down two reform bills -- including a revived medical marijuana bill -- earlier this year.

In Washington State, the legislature enacted six drug policy reforms between 1996-2002, including a recent law cutting sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The state expects to save an estimated $50 million and plans to divert the funding into drug treatment.

Significant national changes on drug and criminal justice policy notwithstanding, advocates of reform still have their work cut out for them. For one, progressive voters and legislators in California have been up against Democratic Governor Gray Davis' record-breaking vetoes of drug policy reforms. (Gov. Davis has issued more such vetoes than any other governor in U.S. history, including bills on overdose prevention, restoration of public benefits, asset forfeiture and racial profiling.)

Nationwide, with 450,000 people in jail or prison for nonviolent drug offenses, and a grand total that exceeds 2.1 million, the U.S. continues to arrest and incarcerate its residents at a stupendous rate.

Without doubt, thousands of middle-class recreational users and sellers have been sucked into the vortex of the Drug War. But none have been more impacted than Americans struggling to get by on marginal incomes and low education levels.

New analysis from the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) points out that by 1999, one in 10 European American male high school dropouts -- and fully half of African American male dropouts -- had prison records by their early thirties. Nearly 70 percent of the nation's prisoners do not have a high school diploma.

"If we want to create a more effective response to crime, we should divert people from prison into treatment, and provide educational opportunities to those currently incarcerated," said JPI Director of Policy and Research Jason Ziedenberg. Ziedenberg co-authored the report, "Education and Incarceration," with Princeton sociology professor Bruce Western.

Their research also found that African American men in their early 30s are now nearly twice as likely to have prison records than undergraduate degrees.

The incarceration phenomenon has gotten to such a point that even Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently felt compelled to speak out on the issue.

Justice Kennedy, a moderate conservative Reagan-appointee to the Supreme Court, used his appearance at the annual American Bar Association conference in August to call on the association to lobby Congress for a repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing.

"I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences," he told the attendees, according to the Associated Press.

"It is no defense if our current system is more the product of neglect than of purpose," Justice Kennedy said, noting the fact that roughly 40 percent of the prison population is African American.

Gross racial and class disparities in incarceration rates didn't fit into the scope of the Drug Czar's pre-election visit to Seattle.

Instead, Walters devoted most of his energy to explaining how "big money" had tried to influence Americans into believing that marijuana is a soft, harmless drug. Walters also remarked that drug policy reform efforts like I-75 represented a thinly veiled effort to legalize marijuana and other drugs.

In his remarks, Walters zeroed in on three well-known philanthropists who have backed many of the city and statewide drug reform initiatives in recent years: billionaire banker George Soros, University of Arizona owner John Sperling, and Peter Lewis, head of Ohio-based Progressive Auto Insurance. Lewis helped to fund pro-I-75 outreach efforts along with the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

"A fair debate [should not be] silenced by big money," Walters said.

Bruce Mirken, Director of Communications for MPP, responded that charges of undue influence by "big money" in drug policy reform are ludicrous. "ONDCP spends more on advertising in one week than the Marijuana Policy Project spends on its entire operating budget for a full year," Mirken said. "And we're the 'big money' outsiders?"

Walters still strongly criticized the involvement of the three men for engaging in "experiments on public policy."

"Children here will be the payers of the price," he charged, in reference to the suggestion made by both him and Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr that I-75 would eventually result in children accepting and partaking in marijuana use.

Walters also publicly challenged the three men to a national debate about marijuana and drug use, alleging that he had made such efforts in the past and been ignored or turned down.

"When you have truth on your side, speak the truth," Walters declared to assembled reporters. He added that journalists had the responsibility to do their due diligence to help prevent a phony picture of drug use from reaching the people.

In a move that Walters may not have expected, the MPP took him up on the challenge this week, sending Walters an invitation to participate in a nationally televised debate on drug policy.

There's no word yet on whether Walters will accept.

"We'll soon know if he's serious," said Mirken.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a staff writer for the Seattle-based ColorsNW Magazine, a regional monthly focused on ethnic communities. Her articles on prison, criminal justice and drug policy issues have appeared in publications ranging from The Nation to In These Times.

Women on the Edge

In the early part of the 21st century, American women find themselves at a powerful, transitional place in the history of gender and sexual identity.

The third wave of feminism is already here, as the brave offspring of the women's liberation struggle of the '60s and '70s. In each permutation, feminism has more broadly represented American women's concerns, with the third wave speaking out most strongly about the inextricable intersections of racism, classism, homophobia and sexism.

It's no exaggeration to say that we've come a long way. The first wave was centered completely around the educational, employment, property and voting rights of Euro-American middle-class women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While Sojourner Truth's outrage at the exclusivity of the suffrage movement, her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech from 1851, still resonates for many women of color, the movement continues to evolve, a dynamic collective effort toward the complete political, social and economic equality of all women in society.

As feminism reshapes itself to meet the needs of the women who lay claim to it, increasing numbers of girls and women find themselves exploring their own boundaries -- whether by intent, accident, or circumstance.

These are the women "on the edge," pushing and pulling at the inner and outermost definitions of femininity, feminism and womanhood. In doing so, they are rebelling not just against the dominant culture, but against a feminist culture that can be just as proscriptive in defining what is "normal."

Women exploring their external edges include those who pursue tattooing and body modification, those who embrace sexually "deviant" practices and those who altogether reject mainstream concepts of beauty, behavior and desirable body size. Women grappling with their internal edges, on the other hand, include those women who are coping creatively with mental illnesses ranging from depression to bipolar disorders.

Rivka Solomon is the editor of "That Takes Ovaries! Bold Females and Their Brazen Acts." Published in 2002, Solomon's book has generated more than 70 open mics, dramatizations and readings, around the country. Held by local women, these performances are often fundraisers for local girls' groups and organizations working to end abuses against women.

"Once again, we're surging up to demand change," says Solomon. "But this time [much of] the change is happening on a personal level."

And the personal, to revisit the second wave feminist phrase, is still political. Like many who tell their bold stories in Solomon's "That Takes Ovaries," these are young women who refuse to allow anything (or anyone) to dictate to them how they should look, act, or think. They are not dropping out from society or tuning out the concept of feminism, but instead continuing to engage with their communities on their own terms.

In recent years, several books have helped to posit new possibilities for what constitutes a "normal" woman's appearance, sexual expression, body size and even her sanity.

Those works have included Paula Kamen's "Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution", in which the author delves deeply into women's sexual agency and diverging and evolving concepts of sexual satisfaction and Caroline Knapp's "Appetites: Why Women Want", which explores tensions between feminism and anorexia. Margot Mifflin's "Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo" and Ophira Edut's "Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity both posit women's bodies as instruments of rebellion and resistance, whether through skin and body modification, color or hair texture, or the proportions of noses, butts and bodies.

In the realm of mental illness, it was Phyllis Chesler's "Women and Madness in 1972 that broke fresh ground by introducing a new lens through which to view women and insanity. Chesler's work introduced the idea that the psychology of women -- from varied class and ethnic backgrounds -- had been strongly shaped by patriarchal culture and consciousness. Mental illness, as Chesler argued convincingly (albeit to the outrage of many of her professional peers), could be seen as a manifestation of resistance.

Since "Women and Madness," books like Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind," Susanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted," Lizzie Simon's "Detour" and Caroline Kettlewell's "Skin Game" have illuminated the inner realities of women dealing with bipolar disorders, depression and self-mutilation. Although nearly all of these works have revolved around middle- to upper-class Euro-American women, they have nonetheless helped to remove some of the stigma and explain the survival instincts actively underlie self-destructive acts like the cutting of one's own skin.

But since the publication of Chesler's pivotal work, few works authored by psychiatric professionals (with the notable exception of Bruce Levine's "Commonsense Rebellion") have framed mental illness in the context of resistance and power.

For women like the Seattle-based 34-year-old Maya Hurston*, rebellion is what it's all about.

Chemical imbalances and biological predisposition to mental illness are real, but so is the power of suggestion, Hurston says. Tell a girl or a woman that she's crazy or mentally ill enough times, she adds, and she'll eventually start to let the concept define who she is.

Sexually molested from birth by multiple abusers, Hurston began to hear voices as a child. As she explains it, her mind became like "Swiss cheese," with lots of holes into which she could compartmentalize her many life experiences. When she was eventually diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder, Hurston's family finally had something to hold onto: She was "crazy."

Hurston ended up a teen mom and drug dealer in a near-decade-long abusive relationship. Like her mother had once done (albeit with different intentions), her husband also told her she was crazy, all the while beating her black and blue.

It took years of therapy -- and, in particular, one female therapist telling her that the disassociation had been a way of surviving extreme circumstances -- for things to click into place.

"I got strong and I got tired of being a victim," says Hurston, who now works as a university fellow, racial justice activist, wife and mother. On the side, Hurston is also a marijuana dealer. Most of her buyers are other professional women. That's the "edge" that she wants in her life and she'll be damned if anyone calls her crazy for it. It's Hurston's way of staying real and thumbing her nose at the war on drugs.

For 26-year-old freelance writer Beth Grier*, living with her bipolar disorder has also meant defying the odds to make a successful career for herself. For Grier, a very low therapeutic dose of Lithium has prevented her from severe manic episodes (two previous ones landed her in the hospital), but not from wiping out her creativity. "I think there's a reason why so many artists and thinkers throughout history were bipolar," says Grier from her home in Charlotte, North Carolina. "There's a certain intensity and vividness to living with it. Although being bipolar has caused me a lot of hardship, I wouldn't choose not to be bipolar."

Still, edgy women face challenges and obstacles at every turn. Grier, who prefers to dress in funky vintage clothing and allies herself politically with progressive and feminist movements, feels the "pressure to conform" on a daily basis for fear of being stigmatized as "completely crazy."

No such fears resonate for Renee Klorman, a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident with a master's degree in women's history -- and an open fondness for bondage and sexual submission.

Klorman attended an all-women's college and worked for the radical lesbian feminist publication Off Our Backs as well as for SEICUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "My entire resume is feminist," she says. A series of loving, supportive relationships with women confirmed Klorman's lesbianism, but she initially pushed down her interest in bondage/domination/sadomachism (BDSM) because of widespread disapproval in lesbian and feminist circles.

"I finally realized that being submissive in this one aspect of my life is a total turn-on for me. In my role as a submissive, I define exactly what I'm interested in and articulate that. The privilege that I now have of feeling comfortable engaging in BDSM and not feeling ashamed about it is an amazing thing," says Klorman, who manages the woman-owned sex toy store Toys in Babeland in New York City. "I give major 'props' to the feminists and advocates of gay rights who have fought for every ounce of change we've gotten."

Klorman's particular edge isn't just enjoying BDSM; it's that she wants to be "dominated" by one specific man. "I only date women, sleep with women," she says. "But I consider it subversive that I'm queer and I do this with a guy."

BDSM practitioners play -- emotionally and physically -- with boundaries of gender, power and dominance. These are, perhaps not so coincidentally, the kinds of concepts that feminists have been analyzing and dissecting for decades. But within the more mainstream feminist movement, BDSM and particularly sexual submission, is often thought of as a regrettable byproduct of internalized sexism -- even as a manifestation of self-hatred.

Why should gay men have a culture that supports access to these kinds of sex play, asks Klorman, while lesbians and feminists are more likely to frown on such expression than to support the pursuit of a woman's sexual satisfaction in whatever form it might arrive?

She finds immense power in submission and the level of trust necessary to make a "scene" safe and mutually pleasurable. The experience is as empowering as it is for her precisely because she has the ability to bend, exaggerate, or trespass existing gender/sex role boundaries.

The intersections of feminism and BDSM are not isolated to such personal epiphanies. In Seattle, for instance, The Stranger's popular dominatrix-feminist columnist, "Mistress Matisse," is organizing an all-female BDSM convention for the fall entitled "Wicked Womyn," and last year's woman-authored film, "Secretary," brought an intelligent treatment of the complex dynamics of female sexual submission to the screen.

The "edginess" of women has simultaneously generated strong interest in big-budget Hollywood. Just take a look at the plethora of female-empowered television shows in recent years -- Xena, Buffy, Dark Angel and Alias -- and blockbuster movies like "Charlie's Angels" and "Tomb Raider."

"[T]hese women are all ass-kicking," says author Paula Kamen. "But there are limits to this 'movement,' often taking place within a narrow set of boundaries."

Those limits have almost everything to do with appearance and calculated omission of socially progressive themes. To put it another way, small waists, light skin, silky hair, cleavage and breathy one-liners dripping with sexuality are an easy sell. When today's studios can produce women doing aerial kick flips and utilize scripts and screenplays that skirt any real political implications, they have no problems packaging femme fatales or busty superheroes.

Kamen says that while mainstream acceptance of edgy women may be slow in coming, she still sees young women making a difference with an "audacious sense of entitlement."

Consider the advent of the new publication Fierce Magazine, whose targeted readers are "women who are too bold for boundaries."

"Fierce is for all the tattooed and pierced rebels who are unafraid to throw the rules back in the world's face, just as we're for the quiet agitators who fit right in and urge for change with the softness of your voice," reads the magazine's Web site. "Fierce is feminist, it's womanist and it's beyond these words. Fierce stands for all women everywhere defining themselves, coming up with new language that moves beyond politics, beyond color, beyond class."

And in this sense, women exploring their internal and external edges constitute a social force to be reckoned with -- a nascent cultural and political phenomenon of women who refuse to dull down, suppress, or even medicate themselves into normalcy. "What's the link between the woman who boldly fights for social justice and one who boldly has fun?" asks Solomon. "Both are acting powerfully, because each is rejecting preconceived notions of how females should behave. Each [woman] is irreverently saying, 'No way I'm accepting limits placed on me.'"

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The Incarceration Craze

The girth of the American prison system continues to expand, with no end in sight.

Last week the Justice Department reported that by the end of 2001, one in every 37 adults in the U.S. had either done prison time in their lives or were currently incarcerated in a state or federal prison. After two years of sluggish prison growth figures, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported in late July that the inmate population jumped up by 2.6 percent, for a total of 2,166,260 prisoners in 2002. Many state budgets have been bled dry by the rapid expansion of the prison industry, with an attendant negative impact on the communities hit hardest by budget cuts and the imprisonment of their residents.

This year, more than 625,000 men and women will be released from jail or prison this year with a dearth of resources to help them transition back to their communities. Herein lies the real danger. Incarceration can seriously exacerbate mental illnesses, worsen or create drug and alcohol problems, and contribute to the spread of serious infectious diseases like hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis.

There's also an ugly racial dimension to our incarceration craze. Prison yards from coast to coast look like a sea of black and brown skin, and the new BJS statistics bear this out. As of Dec. 31, 2002, 10.4 percent of African American men between the ages of 25 to 29 were in prison, compared with just 1.2 percent of white men in the same age group. Rounding out that mix are the poor, the illiterate, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and immigrants.

Ex-offenders often return to their communities to find that their criminal records severely hamper efforts to reintegrate into society. In addition to social stigma and shame associated with incarceration, ex-offenders with drug convictions quickly find out about federal bans on eligibility for welfare, food stamps and public housing.

Small wonder that 67 percent of former inmates across the nation are rearrested for serious new crimes within three years after their release. In California alone, 56 percent of felons paroled in 2000 were recommitted within two years of their release.

Crime-equals-incarceration is a simple equation, and political rhetoric had Americans believing in this equation for a good portion of the '80s and '90s. But that argument is increasingly difficult to make. From 1995-2001, for instance, the federal prison population jumped up by 69 percent while the nation's overall crime rates declined by 14.5 percent. Today, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is larger than any state prison system, operating 33 percent over capacity.

Look to the war on drugs for the underlying cause. Today, many dozens of non-violent marijuana offenders are serving life sentences in federal and state penitentiaries with no hope of parole. Tens of thousands more are doing decades behind bars for small possession and dealing charges, while child molesters, rapists and repeat violent offenders can easily end up serving only four- eight- and 15-year sentences.

With drastic changes to federal and state sentencing guidelines instituted over the past 15 years, judges have had their hands tied. Thanks to the triple-whammy of the Crime Control Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act of 1988, mandatory minimum sentencing became the operative concept, stripping power from judges and handing a veritable carte blanche to local, state and federal prosecutors.

Thankfully, increasing numbers of judges and state legislators (including many conservatives) are now recognizing the drug war for the senseless and costly crusade that it is.

Mindful of shifting public opinion and record-breaking budgetary deficits, many states including Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Washington and Texas have taken steps to reduce prison populations by pursuing parole and incarceration reforms, and even by abolishing mandatory sentences for some drug offenders. The savings have been quantifiable in every state. California's own Prop. 36, for instance, saved at least $275 million in taxpayer money during its first year of enforcement.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) conducted its annual convention in San Francisco recently, over a dozen states announced that they had made cuts to corrections to balance their budgets. But upon closer examination, many of the states had done so by cutting food, health, educational and vocational services to inmates. Worse yet, the NCSL reported that average state spending on corrections would be expected to grow 1.1 percent in FY 2004, while state expenditure on higher education is projected to decrease by another 2.3 percent.

California is no stranger to this kind of logic. Since 1985, general fund expenditure on education has dropped by about $1 billion, while corrections allocations have increased by roughly $3 billion. As Governor Davis signed the most recent $100 billion budget, prisons were spared any heavy cuts ($223 million), while K-12 took another heavy blow: a cut of $2 billion, leading to an estimated loss of 3,000 teacher positions.

Mass incarceration represents a historical and political crisis of the highest order. No amount of tough-on-crime rhetoric should gloss over the reality that crime control and rehabilitation has little, if anything, to do with prison expansion from coast to coast. What mass incarceration has more to do with is profit, in the context of a phenomenon that social historian Mike Davis aptly termed the "prison industrial complex" nearly a decade ago. That industry now generates at least $30 billion annually.

It's time that we admit a distressingly high level of comfort with locking the nation's "undesirables" out of sight and out of mind. Our abilities to think critically and constructively about how easily we allow our government to strip fellow human beings of their rights and liberties has the potential to turn this destructive imprisonment trend around.

There are no easy answers for how to deal with perpetrators who actually do threaten the safety of our communities. Violent criminals and sexual predators do exist in our midst, but they do not represent the reason our incarceration figures have reached sky-high proportions. Humane, enlightened approaches to punishment and rehabilitation have a place in a functioning democracy, but our incarceration craze should end for the sake of our society, our safety and our collective sanity.

Silja J.A. Talvi is a journalist and essayist whose work appears in Prison Nation (Routledge: 2003).

Son of the Rosenbergs

History will record that we were victims of the most monstrous frame-up of our country.
--Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, June 1953.

My parents were executed because they resisted. We choose to celebrate and honor that resistance at a time when resistance has never been more important.
--Robert Meeropol (nèe Rosenberg), June 2003.

On June 19, 1953, despite international outcry and urgent pleas for an 11th-hour reprieve, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were put to death by means of electrocution in New York's Sing Sing prison.

The Rosenbergs left behind two young children, Michael and Robert, who were respectively 10 and 6 years of age when their parents were executed.

Robert Meeropol was young enough that the graphic details of his parents' execution eluded him, even as his sense of the emotions swirling around told him that something was indeed very wrong. In 1950, Julius was arrested in the family's modest Lower East Side apartment; Ethel was next. Soon after, the two were sentenced to death for "conspiracy to commit espionage" the following year, during the height of the red-baiting McCarthy era.

In the 18 months between their arrest and execution, the Rosenberg's sons visited their parents numerous times in prison. The visits, as Meeropol recalls in his newly released autobiography, "An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey" (St. Martin's Press, 2003), were as comforting and loving as the circumstances could allow. For all of the publicized insinuations that the Rosenbergs cared more for communism than for their own children, Meeropol says, nothing could have been further from the truth.

"We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives with you," Ethel and Julius wrote to their children on the eve of their execution. "We press you close and kiss you with all our strength."

To the moment they drew their final breaths, the couple maintained their innocence and pointed to a government frame-up. And then, in a blaze of electricity and agony, the Rosenbergs were gone. Small wonder that the state-sanctioned execution of his parents has been with Meeropol ever since. The nightmare start to his young life could have marred him irreparably. To be sure, there were emotional hardships, countless struggles, and even a nervous breakdown along the way.

But in the final analysis, Meeropol's sense of responsibility for humanity -- and toward the pursuit of justice for all -- has triumphed over the pain. Vengeful fantasies of ordering his parent's executioners to their own deaths eventually gave way to something that Meeropol refers to as "constructive revenge," focused on positive aims. For Meeropol, it represents a non-partisan agenda of proactive social change best articulated through his stewardship of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC).

Government 'Obedience Model'

Since founding the RFC in 1990, Meeropol has overseen the distribution of $1.1 million in grant monies to help the children of activist parents who have suffered consequences of their actions. The RFC, which also supports "targeted" activist youth, does not always agree with the activism of their grantees. The point, says Meeropol, is recognizing that dissent is the very kernel of a functioning democracy. Censorship, harassment, incarceration and capital punishment are tools at the government's disposal, but that does not make the use of those tools right, righteous, or even rightfully granted to an entity charged with constitutional, representative governance over our lives.

"Dissent is not a right, it's an obligation," says Meeropol. "It is a part of citizenship to actively engage the world, to critique it, to try to solve problems, and to heal it."

The primary mechanism of dissent -- the dissemination of information -- is now under constant attack, charges Meeropol. Unquestioning approval and hurrah-style patriotism fit neatly in the folds of a governmental "obedience model" to which Meeropol refers. Anything outside the model is a threat and an occasion for fear.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the fear has become acute. The Bush administration has worked overtime to try to frighten the populace into submission; interrogating and detaining immigrants and creating and passing one repressive and unconstitutional piece of legislation after another.

On June 5, just days after the release of a scalding internal report rebuking the Department of Justice for their handling of nearly 800 detainees in the aftermath of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft stood before the House Judiciary Committee to seek an expansion of his powers. Among other requests, Ashcroft sought more power to deny bail to suspected terrorists, and to increase the number of federal terror-related crimes subject to the death penalty.

"Surely, no modern prosecutor has been granted as much power as you now hold," Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) told Ashcroft during the hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times. "You said in your statement we must not forget that our enemies are ruthless fanatics. But the solution is not for us to become zealots ourselves."

The Fear Conspiracy

Viewed side by side, do 1953 and 2003 really look so different from one another? Isn't dissent, in essence, being criminalized in much the same way? From where Meeropol sits, there is no doubt as to the veracity of this comparison.

"In the McCarthy period, the perception was that we would be destroyed by an international communist conspiracy. If we had to sacrifice the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in the process, so be it," he says. "Three thousand killed [on 9/11] was a genuine tragedy. But the idea that Al Qaeda truly presents a threat to the American way of life is absurd. Today, we are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and the Bush administration is still basing its entire policy on fear -- allowing the Constitution and, yes, the American way of life to be threatened."

The administration's grab for unprecedented prosecutorial and extrajudicial power was cemented with the rushed passage of the PATRIOT Act less than 10 weeks after 9/11, notes Meeropol.

"You look at this document and realize that it was a wishlist from before 9/11," he says. "If you look at the language, you see that the authors took [elements of] the Smith Act, the McCarran Act,* read them, and revised them. Where you would have seen 'communist' or 'subversive' in these [older] acts, [the present-day authors] substituted 'terrorist' in the Patriot Act."

In a letter to his sons in October 1952 from his prison cell, Julius Rosenberg wrote the following: "One thing must be crystal clear and that is that our case is an integral part of the conspiracy to establish fear in our land."

The fear conspiracy of which Julius wrote over 50 years ago still has as one of its chief goals the de facto (and now, de jure) criminalization of dissent.

The criminalization of dissent, says Meeropol, is occurring beneath our very noses, creeping closer to its goal day by precious day. Silence, complicity and obeisance; this is the America that our administration would seem to prefer that we embrace.

"We're getting closer to labeling dissenters as terrorists and creating a situation where the price would be so high for dissent that people would be fearful of doing it," Meeropol explains.

The essential ingredient in all of this, Meeropol reminds us, is a wartime setting. The Korean War, as he notes, bracketed the arrest and execution of his parents. Today, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bracket the heavy-handed crackdown on law-abiding immigrants and peaceful dissenters from coast to coast.

"The Bush administration has learned that a state of war is a wonderful cover for domestic repression," Meeropol says. "With the military adventures of our government and the attacks on civil liberties at home, resistance has never been more important."

A Mild-Mannered Liberal

These are remarkably strong words from a man who spent much of his young life hiding his parentage and disguising himself as a "mild-mannered liberal."

That façade only lasted so long, before both Robert and Michael Meeropol stepped into the spotlight in the 1970s. Together, the two mounted a Freedom of Information Act campaign for the release of 300,000 pages of documents about their parents. While at least 100,000 pages still remain classified and unreleased, the brothers experienced a series of victories beginning in 1975, when they obtained copies of documents relating to trial judge Irving R. Kaufman.

"The Kaufman Papers," as they were called, proved that the trial judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death had lied from the bench and stated that he had made his decision independently. But, as Meeropol writes in his book, Kaufman had in fact consulted with prosecuting attorneys about sentencing, and had indicated to the Justice Department that he would impose the death sentence -- while the trial was still in progress. Other documents showed that Judge Kaufman had used the Justice Department and the FBI to interfere with the appellate process to ensure a speedy execution.

Perhaps the biggest triumph of all arrived in August 1978, in the form of a government check for $195,802.50. The check was payable to the Meeropol brothers for their attorneys' fees in the FOIA suit, after the federal court found that Robert and Michael had "substantially prevailed" in their lawsuit to get defiant government agencies to open their Rosenberg files.

What's little remembered today is that although accusations of treason were bandied about and sensationalized in the press, the Rosenbergs were actually executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. No concrete proof of espionage or treason, as such, was necessary. (Meeropol observes that Zacharias Moussaoui is the first person since his parents to face the death penalty for a conspiracy charge. "The government is not seeking to have him killed for what he did, but for what he would have done," he says.)

Speculation and the dubious testimony of Ethel's own brother were all woven together to insinuate that this working-class, communist Jewish couple had managed to pass on the secret of the A-bomb to the Soviet Union, despite the fact that there was no single "secret" to speak of.

Over the decades, the trickle of interviews, confessions, documents and transcripts have established neither the Rosenbergs' absolute guilt or innocence. If anything, the "Venona transcripts" (decrypted KGB transmissions released by the NSA and CIA in 1995) indicated that Julius may have committed non-atomic industrial espionage with the intent of helping the Soviets defeat the Nazis, while Ethel was not involved in any capacity.

While he once championed his parents' innocence, Meeropol, who is a lawyer by training, says that the guilty-or-innocent debate is beside the point. Instead, the real question should be whether his parents were guilty of the charge for which they were executed. And in this regard, says Meeropol, they were absolutely innocent.

"My parents were framed, based on evidence that was concocted at an essentially unfair trial in which the judge acted as a member of the prosecution team," Meeropol says. "They did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb."

Another left wing, secular Jewish couple, Abel and Anne Meeropol later adopted the two children. (Abel, a songwriter, was the author of "Strange Fruit," a song about the lynching of blacks in the South later popularized by Billie Holliday). The boys took their adoptive parents' surnames, allowing them to live in relative obscurity.

Today Robert Meeropol neither seeks nor shies away from the limelight. The upcoming 50th anniversary of his parents' execution, he says, is a unique occasion and provides a valuable comparison of the times that we find ourselves living in now. It does not take a radical political orientation or a selfless activist lifestyle to be where Meeropol is today, as he is quick to point out.

"I can sum up my politics in a very short sentence," he says. "To paraphrase Tom Paine, I'm a citizen of the world, and my religion is to do good."

* The Smith Act, passed by Congress as the Alien Registration Act of 1940, made it an offense to advocate or belong to a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. It was promptly used to prosecute members of the Communist and Socialist Workers parties. The McCarran Act, or Internal Security Act of 1950, ushered in a host of repressive measures against "enemies of the government," including the authorization of concentration camps "for emergency situations."

Harry Belafonte, Susan Sarandon, Martin Espada, Holly Near, Tovah Feldshuh and many others will join Robert Meeropol at the City Center in NYC on June 19. "Celebrate the Children of Resistance" will begin at 8:00 p.m., exactly at the moment Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed 50 years ago. Proceeds benefit the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Visit or for more information.

Silja J.A. Talvi writes for In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the new anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).

Held in Contempt

Since 1887, the U.S. government has been entitled to lease Indian lands and utilize their natural resources for everything from logging and mining to grazing cattle to pumping oil.
Today, the government does a brisk business in leasing, as royalties from the use of the land add up to more than $1 billion annually.

According to the Interior Department's own figures, 56 million acres of Indian land are now held in "trust" by the U.S. government, which is charged with redistributing most of those royalties to the individuals and tribes whose lands are being leased. Altogether, the Department of the Interior manages over 100,000 leases for approximately 236,000 Individual Indian Money (IIM) account holders--in addition to 1,400 tribal accounts.

Individuals and tribes alike depend on these trust fund disbursements for rent, food, and the basic operation of social services in Indian Country.

The problem: Sometimes those checks arrive, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the checks might arrive for hundreds or thousands of dollars, and sometimes those checks might only amount to pennies on the dollar. On Indian reservations, the problem has reached crisis levels; a check written out for a smaller amount than expected--or no check at all--can mean the difference between housing and homelessness.

All the while, the Interior Department's officials have made it clear that they're not sure how to fix a broken trust disbursement system, much less how much money is missing, or where the missing funds have gone. For their part, lawyers representing hundreds of thousands of Indians in the largest-ever class-action lawsuit against the government have put the cumulative total at $137.2 billion owed.

No matter what the final figure, there's no doubt that the nation's single most impoverished ethnic group could use a bit of that cash.

It's for this reason that a group representing 300,000 Indian plaintiffs have spent the last six years trying to get the Interior Department to account for all the money that they are owed. The plaintiffs, led by Elouise Cobell, an outspoken female banker and member of the Blackfoot Nation, insist that the Interior Department's officials and employees have broken the "trust" relationship between Indian people and the Federal Government, and are therefore neither fit nor equipped to continue overseeing the vast sums.

Even the federal judge overseeing this landmark case, Cobell v. Norton, has called the BIA the most "historically mismanaged federal program" in the U.S. In February 2002, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth had these, sharp words for the Interior Department and Secretary Gale Norton: "[T]he department has now undeniably shown that it can no longer be trusted to state accurately the status of its trust reform efforts. In short, there is no longer any doubt that the secretary of the Interior has been and continues to be an unfit trustee-delegate for the United States."

In November 2001, when Gale Norton became the second consecutive Interior Secretary to face contempt charges in a federal court for failing to provide an accounting of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) management of IIM accounts, its unlikely she or her co-defendant, former BIA director Neal McCaleb, a Chickasaw Indian, anticipated the emotional force and organizational unity of her detractors.

Both Norton and McCaleb were held in contempt in September 2002 for failing to heed the court's orders to fix trust oversight problems. (McCaleb, the nation's highest-ranking American Indian, resigned three months later, citing the "contentious and litigious environment" ahead of him.)

Norton and McCaleb were not the first government officials to be held in contempt for the handling of Indian trust monies: President Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin had his turn at this dubious honor as well. Government officials who let down their constituencies and mismanage millions should be held accountable.

For the Interior Department, the accounting and management of the IIM trust fund has been an exercise in acronyms.

From the perspective of the department, Secretaries Babbitt and Norton have legitimately tried a variety of approaches to reconcile and improve a broken system as quickly as possible .

On January 6, 2003, the Interior Department met a court-imposed "compliance plan" deadline, assuring the court that it took the responsibility of meeting the conditions of the 1994 American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act (ITRA) seriously.

The 16-page document (intended to demonstrate to the court what kind of progress the Interior had made in meeting its fiduciary trust obligations) announced a reorganization within the BIA and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. According to the document, the Interior was also undergoing a "reengineering of Interior's trust business processes" and the implementation of a strategic plan formerly known as the Indian Trust Business Plan, and now entitled the Comprehensive Trust Management Plan (CTMP).

The CTMP, in turn, would be administered under the "leadership of the Office of Indian Trust Transition (OITT)."

After a while, the Interior's proclivity for the use of acronyms, appointed offices and grand restructuring plans begins to jumble together into a steaming, swirling bowl of alphabet soup.

In 2001, Norton had already proposed the creation of a new agency, the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM), to manage IIM accounts. Tribal leaders chafed at not being consulted about her plans, but BITAM remained the Interior's buzzword will into 2002.

In the spring of 2001, Norton proclaimed the staffing of a new division, the Office of Historical Trust Accounting (OHTA), which was supposed to perform a limited accounting of owed trust monies. But in a July 2002 Report to Congress on the Historical Accounting of Individual Indian Money Accounts, the dozens of employees and contract workers hired to work in the office concluded that it would take them 10 years and $2.5 billion to actually do that job. And even then, they admitted, such research and accounting would not necessarily produce usable results.

Similar examples of expenditure without result riddle the Interior's recent history. Thirty million dollars spent on data cleanup, for instance, resulted in a computer specialist's admission, in court, that he could not certify that a single account had been cleaned up despite the fact that tens of millions had already been spent.

In their own "Compliance Action Plan" submitted to Judge Lamberth on January 6, 2003, Cobell and her peers point out that the government now has a genuine opportunity to redeem itself to Indian trust beneficiaries by taking quick and decisive action.

In doing so, plaintiffs took the opportunity to excoriate the Interior Department's tactics: "[The] defendants are forever reorganizing themselves, moving organizational boxes around on a chart, devising new acronyms, and renaming tasks and entities in deeper and deeper bureaucratic jargon in a pathetic effort to create the phony impression of, if not progress, at least movement."

Unwilling to wait for the Interior to make real progress, the plaintiffs asked Judge Lamberth to consider their own proposal: Take trust management out of the hands of the Interior altogether. Key to the proposal is the idea that the IIM trust accounts should immediately be taken over by an "unconflicted" trust administration solely devoted to fixing and administering the trust debacle.

Cobell and lead attorneys from the Native American Rights Fund have emphasized that such an administration, made up of non-governmental employees, and funded with permanent appropriations, could hire the competent staff and supervisors necessary to ensure the proper management of trust money.

As Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians told the New York Times in early January, "This isn't taxpayer money. This is our money that the government took, and they have to give it back."

Moving Forward

Because of their statistically small numbers, the majority of congressional representatives outside of states like South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona can safely ignore all but the most cursory issues pertaining to the modern struggles of American Indians. For U.S. politicians, the benefits of pushing for meaningful reform of federal Indian policy are negligible.

Between American politicians whose interest in Indians is tangential and inconsistent, and a majority non-Indian citizenry whose awareness of Indian realities is minimal, at best, the categorical failings of the BIA and Interior Department are simply allowed to pile up, year by year.

"Where has Congress been while this mugging has gone on for nearly six years?," asked Cobell of the House Resources Committee in 2002.

One saving grace has been increased attention from Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Tom Daschle (D-SD), and Tim Johnson (D-SD), who introduced S. 2212, the "Indian Trust Asset and Trust Fund Management and Reform Act" in April 2002.

The "discussion" bill--so entitled to encourage comment and modification, as warranted--focuses on the creation of a Deputy Secretary for Trust Management and Reform, and specific provisions for tribal participation and self-determination in the trust reform process.

"There is no more important challenge facing the tribes and their representatives in Congress than that of restoring accountability and efficiency to trust management," said Sen. Daschle when the bill was introduced.

Added Sen. Johnson, "Of all the extraordinary circumstances we find in Indian Country ... I do not think there is any more complex, more difficult and more shocking than the circumstances we have surrounding trust fund mismanagement."

But what happens from here, of course, is anybody's guess.

Will the Interior Department continue to invent an endless stream of new proposals and official acronyms to conveniently skirt their fiduciary obligations? At least in the near future, such a strategy seems likely, even predictable.

Will Cobell and her fellow plaintiffs eventually wear the government down? Anything is possible. Even now, signs are emerging that the White House itself wants to push the Interior Department to settle to prevent the additional costs of further litigation, as noted in a June 2001 letter from the Office of Management and Budget to the Interior Secretary.

But such settlement seems furthest from the Interior's agenda. J. Steven Griles, Deputy Interior Secretary, had this to say to the New York Times: "I am not settling a case with taxpayer money for billions of dollars when there is no supporting evidence that the money they say they lost ever existed."

In fact, a critical June 2002 report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) seemed to point toward the Department's "bunker mentality" where trust reform is concerned. "The Cobell litigation has so embroiled and angered those involved that they cannot see or think clearly in order to make a correct decision," as the OIG reported. "Every effort is thwarted by internal discord, distrust and a dysfunctional reluctance to assume ownership."

And so while a legitimate accounting of monies owed by the Interior becomes less and less likely, hundreds of thousands of Indians continue to go without what they're owed.

From the standpoint of Indian trust account holders, the trust debacle is but the latest insult in what amounts to a historical miscarriage of decency and justice toward the descendants of America's first inhabitants.

"Many of the intractable problems the tribes and federal policy makers wrestle with today stem from the wreckage caused by these misguided policies of the past," Senator John McCain noted while introducing S. 2212 last year.

"It took over 100 years to create the problems we now confront with the Indian trust funds and assets," he added. "The Indian people did not create these problems. The Federal Government did."

Silja Talvi and Brian Awehali are the editors of LiP Magazine.

It Takes A Nation of Detention Centers to Hold Us Back

It was with an 'insiders' perspective that Professor Michael Welch began to study what he calls an "undeniable reality" about the American prison system: color and class. Before joining the faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Welch's experience on the 'inside' included employment in county jails, state prisons and even the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Fort Worth, Texas. The experiences gave him invaluable, firsthand insight into the real lives of prisoners and correctional officers alike. Other insights were soon to follow.

"One of the things that is just difficult to overlook as a criminologist ... is that criminal justice policy in the U.S. is about race," says Welch. "Most anyone who has really examined the situation has reached that conclusion."

An author of several books addressing issues of social control and the criminalization of protest, Welch began to take an interest in a growing trend: the detention of undocumented immigrants in the early 1990s.

In 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spent roughly $900 million on costs related to the detention of immigrants. And those figures are only likely to grow in the aftermath of 9-11, particularly as the widespread arrests and detentions of immigrants have saddled the agency with additional responsibilities it seems ill-equipped to handle.

In this exclusive interview, Silja Talvi talks with Professor Welch about his new book, Detained: Immigration Laws and the Expanding I.N.S. Complex, and explores how anti-immigrant sentiment--and crisis legislation--feeds off ethnic stereotyping, notions of cultural supremacy, and moral panic.

LiP: Criminal justice and corrections have been your areas of expertise for some time now. Given the plethora of criminal justice issues in the U.S., why did you decide to focus on immigrants?

MW: As an expert in incarceration, I was puzzled that other criminologists were not taking a look at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), since they were really running their own incarceration project ... it's an incarceration phenomenon that should be taken seriously. The INS is not even conforming to the Bureau of Prisons in terms of their standards of confinement. So I approached the study of the detention of immigrants from the point of view of a criminalization campaign, that being an immigrant or an undocumented foreigner in the U.S. is one that's been framed along the lines of criminal justice. It has criminalized these people and their situations, and by incarcerating them they're reinforcing the notion that these people belong behind bars.

In a nutshell, my approach to this is two-fold: It's an examination of the criminalization process and it's also an examination of how this process is racialized.

LiP: Are certain groups of immigrants treated differently by the INS?

MW: What is going on in the INS--which parallels other forms of racial profiling--is that [they are relying on] constructs that are based on stereotypes.

Back in the 1920s, Walter Lippman and said that stereotypes are pictures in our heads, and those pictures in our head correspond to profiling ... These are constructs developed to suggest that these people are menacing and can be easily generalized because they're reinforced by old, tired stereotypes ...

So when you ask people about illegal immigrants, they think primarily of Central Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Chinese, but they don't often think of Irish, Canadians, Austrians, or the English. These are constructs being based on stereotypes of what the problem is ... and the problem has a face, and the face is that of a non-white immigrant. There's enormous uneven treatment of the "illegal alien." There's greater public concern over "non-whites" than there are of "white" immigrants.

I draw a lot of parallels to the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is putting more cops in bad neighborhoods, focusing on guys selling $3 rocks. They're not busting in the doors of wealthy, middle-income residents who are engaged in the recreational use of cocaine.

LiP: How do the conditions of confinement differ in INS facilities from those of prisons?

MW: Overall, the conditions of confinement are not great, and in some cases, they are abysmal. It's inherent in the problem of farming out detainees. The INS only has so much room or capacity to house their detainees, so they've embarked on this huge, complex system of utilizing as many as 900 county jails, state prisons, and private facilities. [Detainees are welcomed] because the INS pays twice the rate.

They're being detained while their hearings are being processed. By and large, they're not being detained for reasons of flight, because the INS knows that these people are not going to flee. These people want their day in court. Secondarily, the INS knows that these immigrants are not a threat to the community, because if they had committed a criminal offense, they would be processed through the criminal justice system.

The housing of them in county jails and other prison facilities only reinforces the criminalization process. Because once they're in the county jail, those who work in the jail don't know who their [captives] are. Prisoners have to obey the rules, regardless of their circumstances.

So on the one hand, you have conditions that aren't great, but anyone who has been locked up knows that being confined is really next to torture and death. Locking someone up is arguably one of the worst things a human being can do to another.

We're locking up people who don't need to be locked up ... we have a culture that has a very cavalier attitude toward locking people up ... in an effort to avoid complex issues. This is particularly atrocious when you consider that we do the same for asylum seekers. I refer to a couple of cases in my book about the survivors of torture who are detained in county jails, and who don't understand the language, or the nature of the situation. You can imagine the terror that these people experience.

Overall, things aren't great. And especially in light of the alternatives, which are to release them into the community, allowing them to continue to work, support their families and relatives, and reduce the financial burden on the INS and the taxpayers.

LiP: In conducting your research into the treatment of immigrants and the implementation of immigration laws for this book, what findings or themes surprised you the most?

MW: Nothing really surprised me as much as confirmed a lot of my suspicions ... The situation for the INS detainees is in large part because the INS really doesn't know what's happening to their [detainees]. And I don't think they really care ... they seem to have the approach that if there's a problem, there will eventually be a criminal investigation, and then they'll look into it.

[My research also] confirmed the central component of race. Racializing the phenomenon also makes it a little bit easier to live with the situation facing immigrants if you're a mainstream white American. If we were mistreating middle income white people the same way in immigrant detention or in the criminal justice system ... there would be moral outrage.

I think we still live in a racial hierarchy and non-whites are criminalized very easily if they have a minor brush with the criminal justice system. Individual acts are very easily seen as emblematic of that person and their [ethnicity] ... And the more the INS looks like a criminal justice system, the more socially acceptable it is for the agency to continue to rely on incarceration and detention.

LiP: On any given day, how many people are being held in INS detention?

MW: In my book, I offer the estimates from a couple of agencies, including the INS. And the ballpark figure is roughly 24,000 people, including juveniles.

LiP: In the past, the anti-immigration movement has easily been categorized as a partisan issue spearheaded by political conservatives. But you make the case that the growing national trend of detaining and deporting "undesirable" immigrants has drawn supporters from both parties, from conservatives and self-described liberals alike. What's given rise to this kind of bipartisan anti-immigrant sentiment?

MW: The debate over immigration is a very complex one.

You will have, on the one hand, some political leaders who talk the talk that we're a nation of immigrants and we should adhere to the principles of accommodating new arrivals. Once you see who they favor in terms of restrictions and enforcement--I'm speaking in general terms--it's often that they change their tune. Then instead of immigration, it's a criminal justice or a national security issue.

LiP: And were those some of the arguments that were being made in 1996 when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) were signed into law during Clinton's presidency?

MW: Yes. There were rumblings years before that, when the World Trade Center was first bombed in 1993. That contributed to the stereotype that immigrants--especially from the Middle East--were terrorists. And that was a slow burning issue that then escalated with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

LiP: Even though that had nothing to do with immigrants whatsoever ...

MW: Right.

LiP: As I recall, within minutes, reporters and commentators on television news were speculating that Middle Eastern Muslims were involved ...

MW: Absolutely. In fact after McVeigh was apprehended, there were many journalists who were still writing that we had the wrong guy; that a white guy who served in the Persian Gulf War could not be responsible for this, and that it had to be a [foreign] terror network.

LiP: You write in Detained about the "moral panic" that has contributed to a "disaster mentality" about immigration, including refugees and asylum-seekers who now seem to elicit little sympathy compared with decades past.

Could you expand on the concept of America's "moral panic" where immigrants are concerned? If there's no real threat to our societal values and interests, why the hysteria?

MW: Moral panic is a sociological theory that I borrow from British criminology in the 1960s. Moral panic refers to a turbulent and exaggerated response to a social problem. The disaster mentality component of moral panic draws attention to a sense of urgency, and that's why moral panic or hysteria over any given issue explains why it so easily and quickly manifests in legislation and social policy. It's easy to pass legislation when people are worried sick ...

Moral panic is a construct that helps us understand how that anxiety is experienced at the collective level. The disaster mentality is easily seen in the rhetoric used by politicians ... and they contribute to a sense of urgency that something has to be done now.

LiP: And where immigrants are concerned, how is that sense of urgency or disaster mentality being manipulated?

MW: Let's go back to the internment of Japanese Americans. You probably couldn't find a more docile group than Japanese Americans in the 1940s. They cooperated with the internment, they lost their homes and businesses, and they were still demonized by American citizens and political and military leaders.

Nowadays, with the roundup of Arabs and Muslims, the experience very closely parallels the interment of Japanese Americans. They are people who are easy to identify, and easy to dislike. They're non-white non-Christians in a prevailing American culture that places great emphasis on whiteness and Christianity ...

Along with the racial component, the religious component is very difficult to overlook. They're not rounding up Presbyterians.

LiP: You've stated that mass arrests and the continued practice of detention of immigrants actually erodes the efforts to try to track down terrorists hiding out in the U.S. How so?

MW: The government inadvertently defeats its own policies and practices by resorting to tactics that erode public trust.

The INS is an agency that has two mandates: on the one hand it has to coercively control people and on the other, it has to control people in less coercive manners--providing services and helping them pursue naturalization and so on.

In the specific case of the "war against terror," those policymakers continue to make public announcements that citizens should be mindful of suspicious activity. Now the only people who can really detect suspicious activity by other immigrants are people who live in those communities.

And so that's one of the great ironies of this kind of social control; it erodes the cooperation of these immigrant communities. Those who have access to attorneys are unwilling to cooperate with the government without their attorneys present. This turns the whole process into an adversarial relationship.

When a government sets out to interview thousands of young Arab Muslim men, I think that they're publicly announcing that they don't have a lot to go on and that they're embarking on a fishing expedition ... we don't have a lot of clues, so let's go after everybody. And that exhausts resources.

When you tell law enforcement agencies that they have to round up this many people rather than honing their investigation, they're going to spend a lot of time dealing with people with minor visa violations who are not a threat to the community. Those cases still have to be investigated, reported, written up, and [that's less] time to pursue concrete clues. It strikes me as a very large, very poorly guided fishing expedition.

LiP: In the December 2001 Los Angeles mass detention, the INS apparently rounded up at least a few Iraqi and Iranian Jews ...

MW: The code word is "Middle Easterner," for sure.

I think that's a dark side of American culture. America is really globally isolated by two oceans--and really doesn't care what happens to the south or north of us. We're really culturally disinterested in other people and other languages and other religions and philosophies.

Anything that is different than us is experienced as something bad. That's a concept that sociologists use called ethnocentrism: looking at our culture from a point of view of superiority.

LiP: Some European legislators have made the case that although a kind of moral panic may exist--whether about terrorism or some other form of crime--that their legislation does not move as quickly through their parliaments as our legislation can move through Congress--and therefore the issues involved receive far more consideration.

MW: The response to September 11th is found in European legislation as well. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have followed such legislation very closely--those laws that have made it easier for the authorities to detain foreign nationals. In many ways, these laws resemble the USA PATRIOT Act. The United States is not alone in this regard.

Moral panic is a phenomenon that can and does take place in other countries and societies. But back to your point about European politics ... What you do find in Western Europe is that the parliamentary system is one that has many divergent voices of labor, conservatives, the Greens, and they have to work together as a coalition.

The European Union as well as the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany have passed legislation similar to the USA PATRIOT Act, but generally, their laws are developed with a little bit more consideration because you have so many different voices that must be heard. I think that if we had more political choice in the U.S., we wouldn't have such bad legislation ...

LiP: In August 2001 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report about the treatment of immigrants since 9/11, noting that the Justice Dept. "flouted regular procedures" to keep non-citizens in the custody of the INS on the off-chance that they would be linked to terrorist activities.

These practices are considered a form of "preventative detention", according to HRW. In your opinion, is this an accurate assessment of what's going on?

MW: The work of Human Rights Watch is profoundly important. They do really terrific work ... They know what they're doing and they don't back down. They are one of many human rights groups that have added significantly to a larger resistance against these policies.

In terms of preventative detention, I'm don't think that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sees it as a form of preventative detention. My sense is that this is such a large dragnet that I find it hard to believe that the DOJ believes that everyone they detain is a potential risk. I think that they've dragged the net so broadly that they know that they're picking up people that don't belong in that net. That's their own flawed program for law enforcement.

What I see going on is the INS and law enforcement agencies just rounding people up. They don't know who they're picking up. It could be a Christian from India, or a Sikh. They don't care. They're not providing evidence to justify these detentions.

The DOJ has taken a very strong stand on protecting its secrecy. This is the most secretive administration in recent memory ...

While there are some people who are being individually targeted, on the whole, I think that they're just rounding people up. For instance, inviting all those eligible to adjust their status at an INS office, and then handcuffing them and carting them off.

I'm not critical of the use of the term "preventative detention," but I see it more as a roundup than a selective process. It's a roundup that is driven by race and perceptions of religion.

LiP: What about "indefinite" and "secret" detention? Before 9-11, hadn't the Supreme Court ruled that indefinite detentions were, in fact, unconstitutional?

Are substantial numbers of immigrants being treated this way in the U.S.? And if so, how is this legal?

MW: You're absolutely right ... The "Ma decision" (ed: a Supreme Court ruling on two related cases, Zadvydas v. Davis and Ashcroft v. Ma), applied to Vietnamese, Cubans, Palestinians, Cambodians and others who were considered undeportable "lifers" in the INS detention facilities because their countries of origin would not take them back.

In the Ma decision, the Supreme Court ... ruled that the INS could no longer hold these men indefinitely, and that they must be released. Here we are, a year and a half later, and most of them are still behind bars. So, even though the highest court in the land has ruled against the executive branch, those who are locked up are at the mercy of the government. The judiciary has a difficult time getting immigrants released, and has cited the Ashcroft administration's failure to comply with court orders. So, the law of the land has been changed in terms of indefinite detention but these guys are still locked up.

That's one of the dangers of bad legislation. Very often, Americans have a cavalier attitude toward legislation, thinking that if it really becomes bad enough, we can change it by taking it to the courts. But federal and state legislatures do not have good records of changing their own bad policies ... and in the meantime, what do you tell people who are sitting in [indefinite detention]?

LiP: Did the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act make the use of secret evidence and indefinite detentions even easier for Ashcroft and law enforcement officials?

MW: Yes. We can expect a Supreme Court decision this term, maybe as early as May, on an attempt to settle on the use of secret evidence.

A Cincinnati Court ruled against the Ashcroft policy, starting that [the DOJ] didn't have the authority to engage in secret hearings. The Philadelphia decision said that, for the most part, the US Attorney General should not engage in secret evidence and hearings, but under certain circumstances, he could.

LiP: You've argued that the incarceration of immigrants is the next, highly profitable frontier for private corrections companies like Wackenhut and CCA, among others.

Advocates of privatization would argue that privately-run facilities save taxpayers money while abiding by INS regulations about the treatment of immigrants. Why should Americans be concerned if private companies are getting into the business of detaining refugees and immigrants?

MW: First of all, we should confront the myth that privatization saves money. The books of these private correctional facilities have been examined by the General Accounting Office and other agencies, and there is not a savings passed onto taxpayers.

This goes back to government accountability. We're allowing government to abdicate its responsibility to care for and house people that the government detains, and passing it onto the lowest bidder. We're passing this problem into an economic framework that is driven by revenue and maximizing profits.

The detainees are raw materials, and correctional companies have to cut operational costs, and cutting operational costs is a code word for reducing labor costs. So they hire the fewest number of corrections officers and they compete against the fast food industry for workers. These are not professionally trained corrections officers who see themselves as career officersincluding the many whom I've known at correctional facilities around the country. These are people who have a job for $5.50-$7.00 an hour. They think, "My job is to make sure that these guys don't leave and are kept in line." That's the economic environment in which these detainees are being placed.

Cutting corners, in some cases that I documented in my book, are even done in terms of food. Detainees left to fight for food. Or, in some cases, cutting corners means reducing clothing. One of the institutions that I discuss in my book ... in there, during the cold weather, they decided that the detainees are not allowed to go outside because company would have to purchase coats.

It contributes to the dehumanizing process of being detained. They're being criminalized and treated as lawbreakers. Compounding matters, they're treated as raw material there to generate revenue.

LiP: What hopes do you have, if any, of the restructuring of the INS under the new Department of Homeland Security? Are you optimistic about the upcoming split of enforcement and service responsibilities where immigrants are concerned?

MW: One bright spot--and I'm very cautious in my optimism--is the plan to move juveniles into another agency, the Office of Refugee Settlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. That's one positive thing. The other split between enforcement and service, we'll have to see how that unfolds.

The whole dual mandate has been a problem from the beginning. The lion's share of resources and interests go into law enforcement, in effect compromising services to immigrants who are entitled to them.

Still, it's a step in the right direction. I don't think that necessarily means that life is going to be easier for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. I think things will remain difficult for these populations ... There have been some steps in right direction, but I think that until we really democratize our government, poor people, racial and ethnic minorities will be discriminated against. The problems that we see in the INS are reflective of larger social problems.

Democracy is a rough-and-tumble form of social and human organization. It's not for the squeamish. And that's the brilliance of democracy, that is has diversity. It has divergent points of view. I quote Nat Hentoff in my work--he's a great constitutional journalist--and he says that the First Amendment gives you the right to tell people what they don't want to hear, and that's the nature of democracy.

Imposing secret hearings and secret detentions is undemocratic. We should demand that the government be accountable and tell us who they've locked up. Where are they and what are the circumstances?

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist and winner of the first-place magazine feature writing award from the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Refusing to Hate

Asha Mohammad, a 36-year-old mother of three, has lived in West Seattle for a decade. It was here, after all, that Mohammad and her family had found a community of their own, living amongst other Somali Muslim immigrants who relied on each other for support, news and updates from Somalia, and help in adjusting to their newly adopted country. America had promised freedom of religion and freedom of speech--and an opportunity to start again, to heal from still-vivid memories of war and repression.

Things had never been easy. Like so many immigrant communities, the Somali community in Seattle struggled to make ends meet, to try to fit in, to learn the language, and to navigate the bureaucracies of government agencies. But no amount of acculturation could have prepared Mohammad and her family--or the extended Somali community--for the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

A few days after the violent terrorist attacks on U.S soil, a 16-year-old Somali girl was attacked and stabbed at a gas station in West Seattle. Four days later, six Somali women were fired from their jobs for wearing the hijab. And then, came the raids. INS raids, FBI raids, U.S. Treasury raids, USDA raids. In Seattle, Somali men were dragged into detention, where many still sit and wonder if they'll ever be reunited with their families. Small Somali grocery stores were ransacked, emptied, and shut down on suspicion of money laundering and food stamp mis-handling, only to be reopened months later after successful legal challenges.

The community didn't know what had hit them, or why the attention seemed to have been turned on them. Feeling estranged and frightened from the community around them, Somalis huddled together to try to understand what was happening, feeling more isolated with each passing day.

Unbeknownst to them, their experience was mirrored in immigrant communities across the Puget Sound--and across the nation. Sikhs were assaulted and terrorized. Recent Middle Eastern immigrants had their houses searched in the middle of the night and their family members interrogated and secretly detained.

But for her part, Mohammad got used to being stared at and called names when she walked down the street wearing her traditional hijab. Her attempt to give blood after September 11th was denied after the volunteer looked at her last name. She was sent home feeling waves of shame and confusion. But even this, she thought, she could handle. And then her eight-year-old daughter, riding her bike in West Seattle, was accosted by a 19-year-old man.

"Go back to where you came from," the man yelled at her daughter, after pushing her off her bike.

"Why do you want me to go back to California?," her U.S.-born daughter said in response.

The cruelty of the incident, which left her daughter with a large scar on her face, was almost too much for Mohammad to bear: "My heart just sank," she explains.

Testifying before a commission of elected officials, FBI and INS representatives, and over a thousand attendees at a groundbreaking forum in Seattle this fall, "Justice for All: The Aftermath of September 11th," Mohammad braved her trepidations to explain why she, her family, and all immigrant residents, deserved better.

"We are here in America, our new home," testified Mohammad in front of more than 1,200 attendees. "[S]peeches from a lot of leaders [say] that America is for everybody, that America is for all. But, this is now what we feel. We feel rejected, we experience hatred and violence. [Our] community is desperately seeking peace and safety ... Today, we are here to say, as a community, enough is enough."

From Hate to Hope

The Hate Free Zone (HFZ) Campaign of Washington, brainchild of longtime activist and author Pramila Jayapal, came into being out of the crisis that Seattle's immigrants and refugees found themselves in after 9/11.

As hate crimes and incidents of overt discrimination began to pile up all around the Pacific Northwest, Jayapal turned to other activist, civil liberties, and civil rights organizations to win support for a draft statement that would declare Seattle a "hate-free zone." City council members responded affirmatively, and quickly signed a proclamation condemning racial or religious harassment.

But proclamations, as Jayapal knew, wouldn't be enough to stem the tide of hate crimes and the impact of federal edicts geared toward the new "aliens" in our midst. In quick succession, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Congress passed laws and regulations ostensibly designed to reign in terrorism. The net effect of all the legislation and assorted DOJ edicts--ranging from the USA Patriot Act and the airport-focused "Operation Tarmac" to the INS/DOJ "Alien Absconder Apprehension Initiative"--was the interrogation, secret detention, or deportation of thousands of people, mostly Arab American or Muslim men.

Unifying Washington residents unfairly and disproportionately targeted by government agencies and individual hate-mongers alike seemed to be the most important--and most daunting--task.

But bit by bit, the task was accomplished.

Beginning in November 2001, the HFZ Campaign had already joined forces with dozens of Seattle and Washington-area groups, ranging from the ACLU and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. After securing non-profit status, the HFZ pursued--and received--substantial foundation support, and then set about implementing a multi-pronged strategy to address the wide range of injustices being committed against Washington's ethnic communities.

Jayapal, along with her staff of six and over 75 volunteers, began running a helpline to log calls related to hate crimes, FBI interrogations and detentions, and incidents of discrimination at workplaces. They arranged informational "know your rights" sessions within immigrant communities so that a Somali woman, for instance, would know to ask for a lawyer before being interrogated. They worked hard--often successfully--to mediate in employment discrimination cases and detention cases alike, sometimes helping to win the freedom of innocent men locked up for two, four, even six months.

But most importantly, explains Jayapal, the HFZ Campaign brought immigrants and communities of color together in an unprecedented showing of mutual support and respect. Men and women who had previously felt as if their voices counted for little, if anything, in a 'democratic' society that seemed to prefer their invisibility, were finally speaking out.

"From the beginning, HFZ has been committed to creating opportunities for people to speak about their experiences," says Jayapal. "It is so much more powerful coming from them directly, and they feel so much more powerful for having [spoken]. We want to mobilize communities to realize how much power they have."

"If I was not active and speaking out," Mohammad says of her involvement with the HFZ Campaign, "I would be depressed or hospitalized ... I'm keeping my sanity this way."

Ibrahim al-Husseini, an advisory board member of the HFZ Campaign, echoes the sentiment that the "post-9/11 civil rights" organization has provided a unique and unparalleled opportunity for marginalized communities to come together and build alliances.

"When each community was trying to fend for itself," he says, "the Hate Free Zone Campaign brought them together to understand that they were not experiencing things in isolation."

Immigrants Testify

In the most visible and momentous effort to bring immigrants and people of color together to discuss their experiences, the HFZ Campaign hosted the nation's first public hearing on September 21, 2002, on the post-9/11 backlash.

For over three hours on September 21, 2002, a bipartisan commission of high-ranking officials and a standing-room-only crowd sat and listened to nearly 30 adults and children who were willing to come forward with their stories. The event was hosted along with nearly 100 faith-based, peace and justice, labor, and community groups, and was simultaneously translated into Punjabi, Somali, and Cambodian to accommodate the large number of immigrants in attendance.

Jaspreet, a five-year-old Sikh, told his story this way: "One day, I am going to school, walking on my street and one guy said, 'What is on your head?' I said, 'This is my big hair, and I want to keep my hair on my head.' Then he was walking at me again and he said, 'what are you doing again, I can't hear you!,' then he ride my bike ... Then I was walking to the park and this boy told me, you can't come on our bus ... I wish people would never talk about my hair. I never say bad words to anybody.'"

Sikhs across the nation were heavily targeted in the weeks and months after 9/11, leading to numerous serious assaults and murders. In the first three months, the Sikh Coalition received close to 400 reports of bias incidents. The experience of Sikhs in Washington and in the greater Seattle area, says Sikh Coalition and HFZ Campaign organizer Jasmit Singh, initially left the community feeling traumatized.

"Before September 11th, I was having my own existence," explains Singh. "I was very occupied with my family, and I had no experience in activism. But after September 11th, everything changed. The Sikh community found that we were being targeted. I realized I could actually something about it, or just worry about it. I chose to join the ranks of people trying to do something about it."

The formation of the Sikh Coalition was the first step. Soon, the Coalition went from tracking hate incidents in a database to developing an action plan. Education about who--and what--the Sikh culture and religion stood for was of paramount concern. Before long, the Sikh Coalition had joined the HFZ Campaign, and began--for the first time--to get acquainted with other immigrant communities whose very lives and livelihoods were being jeopardized by the post-9/11 backlash.

The "Justice For All" public hearing, says Singh, was a phenomenal coming together of communities--unlike any other that he's witnessed.

"Listening to the experiences of the Somali community or the Arab American community--or even relating to what happened to Japanese Americans--you realize that you need to get involved and do something to change the way that things are."

But for every person able and willing to testify, note both Singh and Jayapal, many more were too afraid to do so. Others, they add, were locked away in detention, including a 13-year-old Sikh who had finally lashed out against aggressors at his school in Kent, Washington.

The boy, who had been subjected to taunts and physical assaults for months on end, had asked school authorities to intervene. Their response was to remove him from his classroom and place him with a different set of peers. But the harassment continued, explains Singh, until one day, the boy snapped. After warning the teens taunting and throwing things at him, the boy punched one of his aggressors so severely that he fractured his face.

The Sikh child was arrested, charged with felonious assault, and sent to juvenile jail. Under lock and key, he was unable to testify at the public hearing.

"It makes me very mad because the schools should provide a safe environment," says Singh. "We have our work cut out for us."

Arab Americans who came forward to testify at the hearing told equally harrowing tales of harassment.

Samer Hamouni, who escaped to the U.S. in 1992 and received asylum along with his Syrian family, recounted the story of an FBI/INS raid in February this year. At 5 a.m., as Hamouni explained, seven agents stormed into the Hamouni house, detaining both elderly parents and Hamouni's 20-year-old sister.

The experience left the family shattered; seven months after the incident, as Hamouni explained, his mother, father and sister were still in detention. The three have apparently been held under highly questionable charges that the father, who had been a pilot in Syria, is somehow involved in terrorist activities. Hamouni's mother, who suffers from Crohn's disease, had additionally developed a lump in her breast and, according to Hamouni, her health was deteriorating rapidly.

"I condemn and hold the INS responsible for exceeding the bounds of human dignity and justice with the unlawful and callous detention of my family," testified Hamouni at the hearing. "[P]lease, help me save my family and our dream."

According to Jayapal, testimonies like these clearly indicate the degree to which the post-9/11 backlash has only intensified in the past year. To look at violent hate crimes as the sole indicator of how immigrant communities are faring is a mistake, she adds.

"What you have to look at now, a year later, is this coordinated strategy of the government to erode the constitutional and civil rights that belong to the people of this country," says Jayapal. "It is impossible to see it as anything but a coordinated strategy to take power from these communities."

A climate of fear in East African, Arab American, Muslim, Sikh, and other South Asian communities abounds. And while the HFZ Campaign has already made a tremendous difference in empowering the members of those communities to assert their legal and civil rights, Jayapal says, there is a long road ahead to unravel the "systemic causes of hate and discrimination."

"The problem didn't start or end with September 11th," says Jayapal firmly. "But I don't feel overwhelmed by the prospect of how much work we still have in front of us. On the contrary, I feel encouraged and inspired by what we've already accomplished."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist and winner of the first-place magazine feature writing award from the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Women of the Promised Land

"A climate of fear and an obsession with reprisal now grip our two peoples. We women refuse to be paralyzed or polarized by such fear."
--Statement from The Jerusalem Center for Women and Bat Shalom, April 15, 2002

"We cannot afford to waste any more time, or any more lives. We need to think of a new approach. We as women want to bring a new understanding to the situation in the Middle East."
--Palestinian feminist Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, in a speech before the UN Security Council, May 7, 2002

"Where are you men of Ramallah?!"

Such were the cries of Palestinian women who took to the streets, en masse, in the nascent stages of the first Intifada.

Today, the televised battles between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians have largely been framed as an ongoing battle of angry men locked in a deadly and senseless spiral of armed conflict.

But in the beginning, it was women who were the first to take to the streets. All throughout the West Bank, they demonstrated loudly and non-violently for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the members of Palestinian women's and neighborhood committees devoted their lives to building a comprehensive and concrete resistance movement -- effectively carrying the Palestinian revolution to a point where the world sat up and was forced to take notice. By March 1988, in fact, there were an average of 115 women's marches in the Occupied Territories per week, many of them in protest over miscarriages suffered from tear gas, as well as in grief over the injuries and deaths of children, parents, friends, and husbands.

The demonstrations themselves thrust Palestinian women into a new role in their society, sparking debate over difficult gender issues including "honor killings," bride prices, spousal abuse, occupational status, and equal payment, as well as the physical safety of women who rejected the rules and constraints of Islamic shari'a dress, including the wearing of the hijab.

Yet then, as now, the televised images broadcast into homes across the world were of rock-throwing Palestinian boys and men, engaged in David and Goliath-styled skirmishes with the heavily armed young male soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Lesser known -- and rarely reported on -- has been the remarkable extent to which Palestinian and Israeli women have worked together and organized for a peaceful end to the 35-year occupation.

Away from the public spotlight, Palestinian and Israeli female dissidents and journalists have endured torture in Israeli prisons, while dedicated Orthodox Jewish women have objected loudly, on religious principles, to the Occupation. Feminist Jewish lesbians have joined the likes of the internationally-recognized Women in Black in organizing protests and vigils. Palestinian and Israeli women academics have written declarations, essays, articles and books about their opposition to the Israeli government's brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and have issued stinging criticisms of the Palestinian Authority's summary executions, jailings and squelching of dissenting viewpoints.

More so than any other Palestinian woman, the high-profile negotiating skills of the articulate and analytical Hanan Ashrawi defied gender lines and societal expectations. Replying to a 1992 question about how it felt to be the only woman in the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams, Ashrawi told a Ms. interviewer the following:
"It is a tremendous responsibility, a great challenge. It is also a great victory for women in general, and in particular for Arab and Palestinian women. Because this didn't come out of a vacuum but as a result of a long history of women's struggle in the Occupied Territories, Palestine. I came buttressed by a clear feminist vision and agenda and a new definition of value ... My role legitimizes women's struggles; I can speak out on behalf of all the women whose voices have not been heard. This is collective work, not tokenism."
Pushed Out of the Spotlight

In 2002, the feminist peace movement continues to try to advance a shared vision similar to Ashrawi's, but women's voices now barely register in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except in the roles of vitriolic settlers, terrorized mothers, shellshocked refugees, and bloodied, frantic shoppers rushing to get away from a suicide bombing.

"Those of us who remain committed to the joint work and have sustainable relationships are continuing to meet when possible, but the closures and curfews mean that scheduling is improvisational and crazy-making," explains Terry Greenblatt, the director of one of Israel's more prominent feminist peace organizations, Bat Shalom.

Bat Shalom and the Palestinian women's peace organization, The Jerusalem Center for Women, comprise what's known as The Jerusalem Link -- a group that works together toward "a real peace -- not merely a treaty of mutual deterrence, but a culture of peace and cooperation between our peoples."

Women's organizations like these have made a difference, in keeping the prospect of peace and cooperation alive and visible in the face long odds. But, as Greenblatt explains, "We are [still] struggling against chauvinism, misogyny, stereotypes, and the fact that in Israel most of our political leaders are catapulted from distinguished army careers right into the Knesset."

Sexism is hardly unique to Israel, where women have worked hard to attain proportionate representation and leadership positions in the political system, in labor unions, and in the workplace. But misogyny in the Holy Land wears a particular face. Jewish and Arab Israeli feminists openly talk about problematic gender relations when the predominant construction of masculinity is that of a sabra (native-born) strong Jewish man, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and raised with the intertwined narratives of Arab anti-Semitism and anti-Arab Zionism.

A different reality looked possible for Israel from the early 1910s through the 1950s when the anarchistic kibbutzim -- the largely self-sufficient communal farms and settlements that became the backbone of Israel's early agricultural success -- promised the idea of a new, egalitarian future for Jewish men and women alike.

In the wake of the 1967 and 1973 Israeli-Arab wars, a markedly more militaristic, male-dominated Israeli identity began to emerge. The creation of the new, macho Israeli identity existed alongside other troubling developments: increasingly influential and right-wing ultra-Orthodox Jews and a growth in the number of fanatical settlers in the Occupied Territories. In this context, the prospects for Israeli women's true equality dimmed immeasurably.

Such losses, of course, have not taken away from the fact that Israeli women, Jewish and Arab alike, are still free to pursue nearly any occupation or lifestyle that they choose, and are among the most well-educated, politically-informed and independent women in the Middle East. Despite this, women's peace activism has not yet been accorded the legitimacy and import that it deserves.

Today, in the midst of the second (and more deadly) al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinian women are no longer playing a central a role in organizing, whether in street demonstrations, campaigning, or the writing of the bayanat leaflet communiques which circulated widely among Palestinians in the first Intifada. In a Jerusalem Post inteview, Professor Eileen Kuttab, the director of the Women's Studies Institute at Bir Zeit University, explained that Palestinian women have struggled to find a constructive, nonviolent role in the latest uprising, which has created widespread hunger, poverty and suffering.

"Oslo came, and it didn't deliver for women," she told the Post in February 2002. "We weren't really included in the negotiations. When the political structures were established in the Palestinian Authority, women were not given the opportunity to become more involved."

Today, only five members of the Palestinian Legislative Council are women. Hanan Ashrawi herself moved on from Arafat's cabinet in 1998 to found the East Jerusalem-based Miftah (the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy). And earlier this year, Ashrawi agreed to become an information attaché for the Arab League, something which has been interpreted as a "defection" from a Palestinian establishment that did not seem to take kindly to her ardent support of women's and Palestinian civil rights -- despite her pivotal and longstanding role in fighting for Palestinian independence.

In an address before the U.N. Security Council in May 2002, Palestinian feminist and Director of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas explained the situation facing Palestinian women this way:

"The Palestinian women's movement has succeeded in making inroads in addressing cultural values and attitudes particular to the Arab world that handicap the healthy development of girls and women. We Palestinian women were in the process of engaging ourselves in legislative development at the local as well as the international levels ... We were witnessing the development of a budding but vibrant young feminist movement, an essential sector for democratic development within the Palestinian society. However, the last so-called Israeli re-occupation of Palestinian-controlled areas has manifested itself in the systematic destruction of all that we have been able to achieve in the last ten years."

As it currently stands, the political future of these two peoples -- Semitic cousins to one another in religious and ethnic heritage, cuisine and culture -- has been left in the hands of the corrupt, male-dominated Palestinian Authority on one side, and the warmongering Sharon and his fractious Knesset on the other.

Upcoming Israeli elections may indeed help to bring down Sharon's scarred and violence-riddled term as prime minister, but they are hardly likely to bring about true gender parity -- or a peaceful solution to the ever-deepening political crisis -- as long as Israeli-styled military bravado remains the order of the day.

"Is it not preposterous that not a single Israeli woman, and only one Palestinian woman, have held leadership roles at a Middle East peace summit?" asks Gila Svirsky, who has been a key figure in both Women in Black and the Coalition of Women for Peace. "Instead, the negotiators have been men with portfolios of brutal crimes against each other -- military men who have honed the art of war and who measure their success by the unconditional surrender of the other. Is it any wonder that we are still locked in combat?"

Women's Proposals for Peace

Suicide bombers, who could fairly be characterized as the most visible and barbaric consequence of a conflict gone mad, are openly criticized by Israeli and Palestinian feminists alike for their murderous actions. But for all of the Israeli government's demands for an end to such violence, peace activists insist that Israel will not see an end to the mounting death toll until it is willing to withdraw, unilaterally, from the Occupied Territories and dismantle Jewish settlements.

Toward that end, Israel's Coalition of Women for a Just Peace -- consisting of nine different women's peace organizations -- has made these five demands its platform:

  1. The Occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip must end.

  2. The Occupation must end with a sovereign, independent and secure Palestinian state.

  3. Jerusalem must be the capital for both Israel and Palestine.

  4. Israel must acknowledge its responsibility for the refugees and negotiate a just solution.

  5. There must be a shared cooperative destiny between Israel and Palestine which removes the enormous present economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians.

"There is one future for us both," read an April 15, 2002 peace declaration by The Jerusalem Center and Bat Shalom. "We believe that women can develop an alternative voice promoting sound approaches and effective peace initiatives between our two nations and peoples."

And it is toward this overreaching goal that women's groups from Israel and Palestine have continued to devote themselves to the prospect of a peaceful and equitable solution to over thirty years of conflict.

Earlier this year, both Bat Shalom's Greenblatt and Abu-Dayyeh Shamas took precisely this message to the U.N. Security Council with the support of the U.S.-based feminist organization, Equality Now. The women asked member nations to recognize "the vital role of women in the resolution of the current conflict in the Middle East," and to create a means "through which women can contribute ... to conflict resolution efforts."

Greenblatt, Abu-Dayyeh Shamas and other organizers have called for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325, particularly where Israeli and Palestinian women are concerned. SCR 1325, adopted in October 2000, affirms the importance of equal participation and the full involvement of women in all efforts toward the maintenance of peace.

"A process that should lead to a political solution ... should not be left to the confines of the generals, and should be transparent to the relevant societies," said Abu-Sayyeh Shamas in her presentation to the Security Council.

"We have to address and understand each other's history with an open mind," she added. "If we leave it only to men we get Israeli generals and Palestinians who will not be defeated and there is no room to negotiate ... The participation of women in any future peace process is essential to maintain connection to the realities of the relevant societies and their yearnings for peace and security."

Thus far, the request has received an encouraging response. The next step, says Greenblatt, is to ask U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to convene a special commission of women peace activists through the office of the U.N. Special Advisor on Gender Issues.

Such progress and cause for optimism notwithstanding, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "going to get much worse, and it is going to be bad for a very long time," admits Greenblatt. "The price of peace is going to be expensive and painful -- for both sides."

Greenblatt adds that the impending war against Iraq has Israelis and Palestinians worried about another counter-attack on Israel, which not only poses danger for innocent civilians, but also gives the Israeli government further justification for land expropriations and crackdowns against Palestinians.

"As an Israeli woman," Greenblatt says, "I know that if war is the answer, we are still not asking the right question."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and co- editor of LiP Magazine.

The Color of the Drug War

"The drug war is a proxy for racism," says Andy Ko, Project Director of ACLU-Washington's Drug Policy Reform Project. "Most modern politicians wouldn't dream of explicitly advocating that society persecute or enslave poor people or members of minority communities. But that is exactly what is happening as a result of the 'get-tough-on-crime' drug war policies of the past few decades."

Ten years ago, perspectives such as these might still have been viewed as exaggerated rhetorical stabs at trying to reverse the trend of skyrocketing U.S. incarceration rates.

But today, civil liberties attorneys like Ko are being joined by what amounts to a nationwide chorus of drug war dissenters.

"It's impossible, in the [sociohistorical] context that we're living in now, to think about civil and human rights without looking at the impact of the War on Drugs," says Sharda Sekaran, Associate Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York. "We now have the vantage point from which to examine the impact of decades of failed drug policies on the nation's most vulnerable communities."

A Growing Movement

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the War on Drugs, recently held a national conference focusing on the impact of punitive drug policies on communities of color.

"Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" brought hundreds of religious leaders, civil rights advocates, addiction treatment specialists, musicians and elected officials to downtown Los Angeles last month to discuss what the organization has unabashedly referred to as America's "apartheid-like" criminal justice system.

The conference built on the momentum generated in August 2001, when an ad-hoc group of more than 100 celebrities, politicians, religious leaders and drug policy reform activists (including Danny Glover, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, NAACP Chair Julian Bond and former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders) sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urging recognition of the War on Drugs as a "de facto form of racism." Representatives of the group then took their message to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, to generate discussion and awareness about the disproportionate arrest and sentencing of low-income minorities on drug-related charges in the U.S.

The time was right for the Los Angeles conference, says DPA's Sekaran, because the inequities are now "glaringly obvious." Citizen-supported initiatives favoring treatment over incarceration in states including New Mexico, Arizona, California and Washington have convinced some politicians that a shift away from incarceration toward the treatment of drug addiction as a public health concern, is no longer a "third rail issue."

But the shift is slow in coming, largely because the national criminal justice trend over the past two decades has overwhelmingly favored long, punitive prison sentences over comprehensive strategies toward addressing drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty and mental illness. Beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the modern era of the War on Drugs was ratcheted up by the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, which imposed harsh sentences for the possession of crack cocaine. Parole was essentially abolished for drug offenders in federal prisons and then made difficult (if not impossible) for many state prisoners. In the years to follow, many states followed suit with intensified mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and the jingoistic "three-strikes-you're-out" legislation, sealing the fate of hundreds of thousands of men and women behind bars.

The results of this intensification of the drug war have been dramatic and devastating. With two million Americans doing time behind bars, our country now imprisons roughly 500,000 men and women on drug-related charges, at an annual cost of $9.4 billion.

Undeniable Disparities

Of the men and women serving more than one year in state prisons for drug-related offenses in 2001, over three-quarters were people of color. Regardless of the fact that, numerically speaking, five times as many Euro-Americans use drugs in the U.S. as African Americans (for more on this subject, see Tim Wise's article in this issue, "Affirmative Inaction"), a host of practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system have led to glaring disparities in incarceration rates.

Indeed, racial profiling, buy-and-bust undercover operations, and specially-funded gang task forces have all but guaranteed higher arrest rates within communities of color. These policies and procedures have then, in turn, been exacerbated by overzealous city prosecutors and judges who have little or no wiggle room in meting out mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.

African Americans are by far the most overrepresented ethnic group in the prison system: At just 12.3 percent of the national population, African Americans made up 58 percent of the state prison population in 2000 doing time for drug-related offenses. Euro-Americans, by comparison, constitute 75 percent of the national population, but make up 23 percent of men and women doing time for drug-related crimes in state prisons. "For young black men born in 1966, they are more likely to have gone to prison than to have graduated from a four-year college," says Professor Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Princeton University. "Prison is now as common as any other life event."

The government's own Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that fully ten percent of African American men nationwide between the ages of 25-29 were in prison in 2001. And although men still far outnumber women in state and federal prisons (at 93.4 percent versus 6.6 percent), African American women now represent the single fastest growing segment of the prison population.

According to Human Rights Watch's Punishment and Prejudice: "Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs," African Americans in seven states actually account for between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges. The extreme end of the racial disparity continuum is represented by states like Illinois, where African American men are sent to prison on drug charges at 57 times the rate of Euro-American men.

The extent to which African Americans are incarcerated has led to a political disenfranchisement unparalleled since the Jim Crow era: Today, almost 1.4 million African American men have been temporarily or permanently stripped of the right to vote because of a felony conviction.

Latinos are similarly over-represented behind bars, particularly in the federal prison system. In 1999, almost half of men and women charged with a federal drug offense were Latino, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly 30 percent were African American, while 25 percent were Euro-American. From 1985 to 1995, the presence of Latinos in prisons in the U.S. grew faster than any other ethnic group by 219 percent.

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not track the proportions of Native Americans in prison, the rise in these populations has been documented by correctional departments in such states as New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington and California. Notably, the percentage of Asian-Americans in the federal prison population increased fourfold from 1980 to 1999.

"The 'drug warriors' know perfectly well who they're after: African Americans, Latinos, Asian 'gang members,' and, increasingly, poor European Americans," says Ko.

Ruined Lives

The drug war arrest and sentencing trends in communities of color have not been limited to adults. Youth of color convicted of drug-related offenses are being sent to juvenile detention centers and even to adult prisons in states like New Mexico and Arizona at rates that far surpass those of their Euro-American counterparts.

A report released this past July by Building Blocks for Youth, for instance, revealed that the average incarceration rate for Latino youth is now 13 times the rate of Euro-American youth. Between 1983 and 1991, the percentage of Latino youth in public detention facilities increased by 84 percent, compared with an 8 percent increase for Euro-American youth.

Because most juvenile detention facilities are geared toward the notion of punishment rather than rehabilitation, youth emerge from the system undereducated and emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the pressures and economic demands of life in the free world. In this sense, many youth of color make a quick transition from juvenile detention facilities to adult prisons, where their age, size and inexperience often make them the target of physical and sexual abuse.

Tellingly, two-thirds of state prisoners have less than a high school education and one-third were unemployed at the time of their arrest.

Professor Western, who has studied the impact and cycle of joblessness and incarceration on the lives of African American men, notes that ex-offenders tend to do "poorly on the outside."

Employers, he points out, are very reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds. And the ex-offender pool among African American men, adds Western, is "is enormous and will only continue to exacerbate wage inequality."

In 2001, roughly 400,000 men and women, most of who were people of color, were released from prison or jail. And year after year, the same recidivism trends play out. With limited employment and housing resources, roughly two-thirds of people released from incarceration nationwide are rearrested within three years. Most of the arrests take place within the first six months after release.

The reason for high recidivism rates among all former prisoners and particularly drug offenders has everything to do with the host of problems that they face in trying to reintegrate into society. Once released, prisoners are often sicker, angrier, and more alienated from their communities. Outside of 12-step peer groups, drug treatment services and programs are increasingly scarce in most prisons in the U.S. Under the best of circumstances, ex-offenders are often confronted with the reality that their old habits, coping mechanisms and temptations hold an enormous amount of power over their lives, particularly when even the lowest-paying jobs prove difficult to obtain with a prison record.

Ex-felons convicted of drug offenses also promptly lose their eligibility for federal assistance for both higher education and public housing. (To worsen matters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that even innocent family members of people who used drugs can be evicted from public housing, regardless of whether they had knowledge of such drug use.)

And because of a hastily tacked-on amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, both food stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are now denied to most men and women convicted of drug felonies in the U.S.

"The War on Drugs has really been a war on the poor. Rather than supporting those who are vulnerable, we are punishing them and making it even more difficult for them to participate in a very competitive society," says Dan Merkle, co-chair of the Race and Class Disparity Task Force for the Seattle/King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project.

Nothing about the nation's drug war strategy, adds Ko, indicates a genuine desire to help people battle serious drug problems, particularly in light of consistent cuts in state and federal funding for drug treatment.

"Treatment, harm reduction, education, and regulation are the answers to self-destructive drug use and the drug market," Ko says emphatically. "But our current drug policy depends on prison, deprivation of voting rights, ineligibility for subsistence level food and housing assistance, and loss of eligibility for educational loans, which only compound the misery that often is at the root of compulsive drug use."

Challenging the War on Drugs

A unique coalition of religious leaders, politicians, former inmates and addiction specialists gathered at a Los Angeles conference the weekend of Sept. 27-29 to discuss the impact of the "war on drugs," which has led to the incarceration of more than half a million Americans. While highlighting the disproportionate impact of the drug war on ethnic minorities, organizers and attendees of the conference -- called Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs -- sharply criticized the failure of incarceration as a strategy for controlling drug abuse.

Today, African Americans and Latinos make up over three-fourths of prisoners doing time in state prisons for drug-related offenses, despite the fact that the majority of drug users in the United States are white, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Virtually every drug war policy -- from racial profiling to length of sentencing -- is disproportionately carried out against minorities," said Deborah Small, director of public policy and community outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which organized the event.

In addition to nearly 600 attendees who traveled from across the U.S. and Europe to sit in on dozens of sessions and workshops, politicians including California Rep. Maxine Waters, Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and others weighed in to support efforts to end what many participants referred to as the nation's "failed, prohibitionist" drug policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes-you're-out legislation.

In 2002, federal and state governments will spend more than $40 billion in their battle against illegal drugs, compared with just $1 billion spent in 1980. Critics of the drug war point out that, despite this dramatic increase in drug war funding, neither street-level dealing nor drug trafficking has been reduced, and illicit drugs are now cheaper, purer and more readily available than they were decades ago.

"The least successful policy we have is the war on drugs," said Rep. Frank in a video presentation during the opening session.

Others in attendance included the three-term mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, who spearheaded one of the nation's first needle exchange programs. AIDS is now the leading cause of death among both African American and Latino men between the ages of 25 and 44. Among African Americans, more than 60 percent of these deaths are associated with injection drug use resulting from contaminated needles.

During his tenure from 1987 to 1999, said Schmoke, he worked hard to get his constituents and Congress to understand that "there is no simple solution to these problems, but we should consider [addiction] to be a public health problem, not a criminal one."

Schmoke was joined by Antonio Gonzalez, President of the William C. Velasquez Institute in Los Angeles, who stressed the pressing need for movement-building across ethnic lines to address the "incarceration crisis" afflicting communities of color.

Religious and faith-based leaders issued some of the conference's strongest statements in favor of abandoning moralistic, punitive and ineffective drug policies. The task is as important for religious organizations and ethnic communities as it is for the government, said Ana Garcia-Ashley, Senior Staff Organizer for the Gamaliel Foundation in Wisconsin.

With regard to the drug war in America, "The church needs to become a spiritual body that cares about human beings and stands up for what's right when nobody else is doing it," said Garcia-Ashley, an outspoken Catholic activist and immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Garcia-Ashley explained that she has two brothers who struggle with addiction.

"One brother is an alcoholic. One is dependent on illegal substances. [But] for me," she said. "These are good people. I don't have an evil brother and a Christian brother ... I have two good brothers."

Garcia-Ashley was one of several panelists in a workshop addressing issues of faith, morality and drug use. The workshop, moderated by Antionette Tellez-Humble, director for the New Mexico Drug Policy Project, also explored the unique impact of the drug war on Native Americans. Because Native Americans who live on tribal lands are subject to the mandates of federal -- not state -- law, those who are arrested for drug-related crimes are processed through the federal court system. Indians now comprise almost two-thirds of those prosecuted for criminal offenses in federal courts.

But the answer to addressing alcohol and substance abuse issues in Indian communities, said Gayle Zepeda, a community organizer with the Northern Circle Indian Housing Authority in Ukiah, Calif., is not prison. "Our communities must do that healing ourselves. We can't enact a law that we won't put something in our bodies or shoot something into our arms. For us, it's a healing issue and connecting with our own spiritual power so that we can arrive at a place of balance again."

Better, more effective and less expensive models for addressing both recreational and habitual drug use might lie in studying approaches of other countries, suggested several conference participants, including David McFarlane, a Scotland Yard detective and coordinator for the National Black Police Association of London.

McFarlane noted that police officers in the UK have begun to take a more relaxed approach toward "soft" drug use, including the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

James A. Pitts, a conference panelist and public health expert based in Sydney, noted that Australia, which now has the lowest HIV infection rate in the western world, has had considerable success with its treatment-oriented approach toward drug addiction.

"People are going to continue to use drugs, but you can do something to prevent the health consequences," he said.

Brian Awehali and Silja J.A. Talvi are co-editors of the online magazine, LiP.

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