The Great Smoke Screen

by Charla Greene, Abolition Road
The death penalty is really just a smoke screen used by politicians to make it appear that they are solving the problems of violence and, by inference, all of the problems we face in today’s world. Candidates for offices like Governor say “Vote for me and I’ll kill more people,” and the public goes along with that mindset. DAs use it to show that they are “solving” whatever crime is making the headlines, a useful tactic in their quest for higher office. If there is a local crime that the media can sensationalize, then the DA really has to go for special circumstances, regardless of what the case actually warrants, otherwise his political career is in danger. I think that must be what happened to Rosie, a Latina who is now on death row at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
Here is a woman who became addicted to drugs when she was just a kid, and whose crime was greatly influenced by that fact. Her case has so many mitigating circumstances that anyone with a conscience could see she was also a victim. But she is a minority, and I doubt she had funds for a private legal team, so she fit into the profile of an easy win for the DA. Of the condemned population in this country, over 50% are minorities and low income. There is a saying that goes “You won’t find a rich person on death row” that pretty much describes the facts behind the great smoke screen.
What about Doris Raven Foster in Maryland, a Native American woman who went drinking one night with a boyfriend and woke up the next morning to find a dead woman in the house and her “friend” insisting that she killed her? Doris doesn’t know; she doesn’t remember. All she knows now is that she got death penalty and he got seven months for turning state’s evidence against her. But what’s the true story?
The disparity in sentencing is no surprise. Articles have appeared in various newspapers for the last six years talking about the increase in death sentences for women, even though there has been no increase in violent crimes done by women. It could reflect less tolerance for women who dare to kill their abusers. In 1993, almost half the women on death row have a history of abuse and most women who are imprisoned for killing an abusive partner are first time offenders. Some don’t even have to kill, they are convicted by association. Faye Copeland in Kansas, at 77 the oldest woman on death row, spent 50 years in a marriage with a man so abusive that all of their six children left home as soon as they could to escape his cruelty. When he was convicted of killing five itinerant workers, she was also convicted and sentenced to death along with him. She was convicted because “she must have known something was going on,” even though she has always claimed innocence. He has since died in prison; she is still living on condemned row, still in an abusive situation.
We’ve got to stop the further abuse of individuals and of our whole society by being subjected to the brutality of the death penalty. We can hope that the recent interest by the U.N. in investigaing the death penalty in the U.S. will bring international pressure on this violation of human rights and force the U.S. to abandon its injustice.

The Kemba Smith Story and the Injustice of Mandatory Minimum Sentences

By Diana Block
Kemba Smith is a young African-American woman serving 24.5 years in prison for playing a small role, under duress, in a drug distribution ring headed by her former boyfriend. When Kemba was a sophomore in college, she became involved with a man who violently abused her. When he saw Kemba talking to another man, he choked her until she thought she was going to die. At other times, he beat her so hard that she had to get medical help. This man was also a cocaine dealer and, under physical threat, Kemba began to carry money and weapons for him.
In 1994, Kemba was indicted as a member of a cocaine distribution conspiracy (her boyfriend was murdered and so was never tried). Kemba was a first-time offender, with no previous record. She was also a battered woman and her attorney was able to demonstrate at her trial that her actions clearly occurred
under coercive threats to her and her family. Many letters were written by community leaders who knew Kemba to plead for leniency. Despite all this, the judge held Kemba responsible for all the drugs covered by the indictment, even though she had never handled or used the crack cocaine involved in the case. She was sentenced to 24.5 years, the mandatory minimum sentence.
Kemba Smith is one of thousands of African-American women and men who are being put in prison for most of their adult lives because of mandatory minimums. Research has shown that Blacks and Latinos receive mandatory minimums at a much greater rate than whites. Her sentence highlights the disparity between the laws regulating crack cocaine and those for powder cocaine. Her case also shows how the judicial system makes victimized women pay for the battering and abuse they suffer.
Kemba has already served thirty-six months in prison. She needs to be home with her two and a half year old son and her family. A major letter writing and petition campaign has been launched to support her release. Send letters to President Clinton, Janet Reno and Federal senators and congresspeople. For more information about Kemba’s case, write Kemba Smith Youth Foundation, POB 2455, Richmond, VA 23218.
Write Kemba at Kemba Smith, #26370-083, Pembroke Station, Danbury, CT 06811.

Mass Punishment Denies Women Basic Needs

by C.F., CCWF
I arrived in Chowchilla, (CCWF), from CIW in October 1990. At that time the staff, COs, sergeants, lieutenants, etc. showed each and every inmate courtesy and respect. After all, they are supposed to be role models. And for the most part the attitude was reciprocated. However, this didn’t last long!
The first of many incidents of neglect was the death of Diana Reyes in July 1991. That was the beginning of the reckless indifference and blatant neglect by the medical staff.
Unfortunately, this was not to be an isolated incident, nor was this “attitude” exclusive to the medical department.
The indifferent attitudes of the medical department at CCWF are commonplace and common knowledge. However, the problems I would like to address at this time, are the behavior and attitudes of the hierarchy in CCWF.
The Administration has demonstrated an attitude of “mass punishment.” For example, in November 1996 the inmates at CCWF were no longer allowed to purchase or posses a cigarette lighter due to an alleged lawsuit. Our lighters were confiscated and possibly sold to the women’s prison across the street, Valley State Prison for Women.
This is not only a “petty policy,” it also promotes “criminal behavior” for inmates and staff alike.
The second recent incident of this type of behavior, mass punishment, was the discontinuance of foods and personal hygiene items in packages. The administration alleges this is due to the introduction of narcotics. CCWF has expensive equipment to specifically detect narcotics that now sits, unused, collecting dust. And all of this because of an occasional incident concerning drugs, approximately 1% of the population.
For those who can’t afford to purchase their hygiene supplies: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, etc., at the sky high prices on CCWF canteen, these packages were their only means to take care of themselves. The hygiene items supplied by the state, only for the indigent, are, at best, inadequate.
Some require alternative diets due to medical restrictions like ulcers, gallstones, liver problems, sickle cell anemia, etc. If they can’t afford to purchase foods on canteen, they either simply do not eat or are forced to eat foods that will further aggravate their illness, only to be told by medical staff that they shouldn’t have eaten that food.
It is obvious to me that CDC is a money-making business, which we are now forced to support if we can afford to. The state of California cannot afford to supply our needs!