This issue of Fire Inside is dedicated to women who have been victimized by the so-called drug war and especially those doing incredibly long sentences because of mandatory minimums and Three Strikes.
In particular, we dedicate this issue to Hamedah Hasan who successfully got her life sentence reduced to 12 years. Her new sentence is being appealed by the U.S. attorneys and we all hope for the best. Hamedah writes to Fire Inside: “I feel absolutely great! …God has blessed me with many supportive hard working people throughout this ordeal for whom I am very grateful.”
Hamedah, for your dedication, hard work and perseverance in fighting for your freedom, we dedicate this issue to you.
by Stacey Rena Candler, FCI Dublin
[At age 24 Stacey is serving a 15-year sentence for conspiracy to possess/distribute controlled substance, and aiding and abetting in drug trafficking]
On June 13, 1995 at 7am, the police forced their way into my boyfriend’s and my new apartment. I had just come home from my first job and was getting ready to go to my second job when my life changed forever. I had no knowledge of my boyfriend’s drug trafficking. When the police searched the apartment they found money, drugs, a scale and a firearm. My boyfriend had several past contions and was not working. I had never had any trouble with the law and was working two jobs. Because of my clean record, my boyfriend convinced me to say that the gun was mine. He said they would go easy on me because I was a first time offender. He forgot to mention the mandatory sentence that had to be given when a weapon was involved.
Because I did not report my boyfriends “suspicious activities” the police assumed I knew everything. Claiming the gun made it look like I was covering for my boyfriend, the judge gave me the maximum.
Since coming to prison I have met other women who have similar tales to tell. Many have been given sentences that do not fit the crime and many have been given additional sentences because of their refusal to “cooperate”. I hope that in telling this story I can help bring the attention of women on the outside to our situation. Maybe together we can take steps toward righting the injustice of excessive sentencing.
by Danielle Metz, F.C.I., Dublin, Ca.
When I look in the mirror I do not see a criminal, a murderer, or a threat to society. But when the judge in New Orleans sentenced me five years ago, he said that I had forfeited my right to live in a humane society. Sometimes in the middle of the night I awaken to those very words.
At the age of 26, mother of two small children, I was sentenced along with my husband to three life sentences plus 20 years. It was my first offense and my first involvement with the law.
Our charge was conspiracy to distribute five kilograms of cocaine – cocaine that was never seen, never produced, never confiscated from any of the nine defendants in our case. No substantial evidence was presented at our trial, only hearsay. The government constructed their case on the testimony of people who were already in prison. Each of them received generous reductions in their sentences. Some are now free.
Before our trial, I had no idea what conspiracy was. At the time of my arrest, the agents told me I was not the one they were after. They told me I would go free if I “cooperated.” I just wouldn’t “cooperate” enough. I didn’t know enough to buy my freedom if I had been willing to.
I am now 31 years old, still in prison fighting for my freedom. I was the first woman in New Orleans ever to be sentenced to this type of time for drugs. This used to be shocking, unheard of, but now it’s becoming a fact of everyday life. I am sure almost everyone has heard of the nightmare of Kemba Smith. Well, there are about 15,000 similar nightmares that go unheard of–women locked up for 15, 20, 30 years or life, because of their relationship to a man. Kemba is fortunate because she has parents who are go-getters, dedicated to her freedom. Most of the women in prison don’t have anywhere near that kind of support. Most of us don’t even have any legal help.
The hardest part of all is the separation from my children. We need each other terribly. My heart aches to know that all the love I pour out to them may not be enough to convince them that I haven’t left them out of not caring for them. It’s a tragedy shared by women, children, families and communities across this country. The laws and the “legal” process that took me away from what the judge called “a humane society” are doing lasting damage to the humanity of that society.
by Cynthia Chandler, Director, Women’s PLAN
Patrisia Gutierrez Contreras died of pneumonia on Wednesday, April 28, 10:40 a.m. at White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. Patty was the third life term prisoner to receive a compassionate release from prison in California’s history. She was a true warrior for the rights of women prisoners, and she will be greatly missed.
For those of us who knew Patty, she will be remembered for her unmatchable personal strength and her ability to maintain her dignity when confronted with obstacles and abuses that would have crushed any of our spirits. Patty will also be remembered for her personal sacrifices made to educate people world wide about the abuses of HIV-positive women prisoners. Her fight for compassionate release contributed to a national campaign for the humane treatment of terminally ill prisoners which continues today. While she suffered retribution and a total loss of privacy as a result of her role in publicizing the inhumane treatment of women prisoners with HIV, she remained dedicated to increasing the public’s awareness of the injustices she suffered. She never backed down from doing what she knew was right.
On a personal level, Patty taught me the true value of hope. She reminded me that as painful as it might be to struggle for justice without seeing signs of change, it is far better to die not having one’s hopes realized than to die without knowing hope at all. I will carry this message with me for the rest of my life.
[On April 29, 1999 the State Joint Legislative Committee held a hearing on the effectivness Board of Prison Terms. This is Karen Shain’s testimony at the hearing]
My name is Karen Shain. I am administrative director of Legal Servies for Prisoners with Children. I also work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. We have been working with prisoners in California and their families since 1978.
Every time we visit women at CIW, VSPW or CCWF we meet lifers, most of them doing time as a direct result of being battered. They all express their fear of being forgotten, of losing hope. They talk of their fear of dying like Claudia Reddy who died of cancer shackled to her bed at Madera Community Hospital having been denied compassionate release by the Bureau of Prison Terms (BPT) over and over again. We know that we will be witnessing more deaths like Claudia’s – women and men who are clearly no danger to society dying isolated and alone in California’s human warehouses.
We have read in the newspaper of Gov. Davis’ statement that he will release no one convicted of murder, no matter what the circumstances. We have spoken to lifers, women and men, who see that statement as a slap in the face, as the end of all hope of being released. People have asked me why they are working so hard to rehabilitate themselves if there is absolutely no chance of their being released, and I have no reply.
Many women sentenced to life were convicted before recognition of domestic abuse as a mitigating factor. Many received much longer sentences than their male co-defendants because they refused to cooperate with authorities or had no knowledge to trade for lower sentences. The case of Theresa Cruz exemplifies the problems that battered women face. Although Theresa did not actually shoot her abuser, and although her abuser was not permanently injured, Theresa was sentenced to 25 years-to-life. The sentence was even
reduced to 7 years-to-life. Theresa testified in support of AB 231 (Kuehl) which requires that the BPT take domestic abuse and battered women’s syndrome into account when looking at length of sentence. But the BPT failed to do this in Theresa’s case.
Last night I spoke with my friend Kalima who is doing a life sentence at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. He has been incarcerated for over 30 years, is 63 years old and in failing health. This man has had no disciplinary infractions in over 10 years and I would not hesitate for a second leaving my nine-year-old daughter in his care. He has fulfilled all conditions of parole numerous times and now sits and waits. Yet he has no hope of being released under the present regime. What do I tell him when he asks why he should keep on trying?
The stories of Claudia Reddy at CCWF, of Theresa Cruz at CIW and of Kalima at CMC are repeated over and over again. All over this state there are women and men awaiting release who could be making a postive contribution to society.
This is no longer a question of rehabilitation or punishment. It is a question of humanity. Someone has to take a stand and stop the growth of this dangerous prison industry. Someone has to insist that these prisoners be treated as the human beings that they are and give them some hope for the future. Let’s release those prisoners who are no danger to our society and develop a plan to assure the release of more of them over time.
Prisons bursting at the seams, children torn apart from their mothers, women serving life sentences because they couldn’t or wouldn’t name someone else for their alleged drug offense. These are some of the disastrous consequences of the government’s so-called “war on drugs”. As the stories of so many women in this issue make clear, the “war on drugs” is not only a war against communities and families. It is also a war against the women of these communities. And the women and men who end up paying the price for the drug war are disproportionately people of color. In 1980, 33% of the people in Federal prisons were people of color. By 1993, the proportion had risen to 64% largely because of the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Today in California, people of color make up 73% of the prison population.
In 1986 the US Congress decided to step up its “war on drugs” by drastically increasing the use of mandatory minimums. Poor Black and Latino communities were already ravaged by a crack epidemic promoted by the CIA. The mandatory minimum sentence for 5 ounces of crack cocaine, the form widely used in the Black community, is the same as the sentence for 500 ounces of powdered cocaine. The only way a judge can sentence below a mandatory minimum is if the defendant provides “substantial assistance” or cooperation in the prosecution of someone else. Supposedly these laws were aimed at drug “kingpins”. In reality they have impacted most heavily on small time offenders – those with no information to sell. Although someone in the US is arrested every 30 seconds for drug violations, more illegal drugs of higher quality are entering the US than when the “drug war” began.
All of this has a particular impact on women. Women who have little or nothing to do with their boyfriend’s drug deals are being named as conspirators when the boyfriend tries to get off. Women who are in abusive relationships, like Kemba Smith, and keep quiet about their boyfriends drug dealings because of their fears, are being given 25-year sentences. And since 80% of women prisers are mothers of young children, it’s their children who bear the brunt of the punishment, often losing all connection with their mothers and ending up with distant relatives or foster families.
Mandatory minimums are racist and corrupt and should be overturned. The many efforts challenging them and their impact deserve all our support. FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has been working to repeal mandatory sentences since 1991 and has had substantial impact on public opinion, but there’s still a long way to go. On May 22-23 the Los Angeles Citizens’ Fact Finding Commission on US Drug policy held public hearings on the social impact of this policy. And on still another front, a federal civil rights lawsuit was recently filed against the CIA and Department of Justice by residents in Oakland and Los Angeles, suing the government for economic, physical and emotional injuries brought about by the crack epidemic. This suit places the responsibility for drugs where it ultimately belongs – with the ones who set policies in this country.
For more information write FAMM, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 1400, Washington DC 20006, 202-822-6700 and Famelies to Amend California’s Three Strikes at P. O. Box 21613, San Jose, CA 95151-1613, 415-977-2121.
by Laura Whitehorn, political prisoner, FCI Dublin
The federal prisons are full of young women locked away, on their first offense, for 15, 24, 35 years and more on a drug charge. Most of them were wives or girlfriends, often of older men. Some had no involvement with drugs at all, just failed to turn their man in. Others may have made a phone call, or passed on a message as instructed by their man. Many are victims of domestic abuse, others are merely from naive. A lot of these women are African-American – in numbers way out of proportion to the population, as well as to the profile of actual drug users and dealers in this country. Most of the women have young children at home.
One of my cherished friends here at FCI Dublin has a multiple life sentence plus 20 years. Like many others, not a single piece of hard evidence of drugs was turned up in her case – no actual cocaine, just tales of drug transactions. And like many other cases, the men who got on the stand to tell the tales received extravagant reductions in the sentences they had received for repeated offenses. My friend’s case was her first, she’d never even heard of conspiracy laws before. Another friend, serving upwards of 15 years on her first offense, blew her chances of acquittal by agreeing to take the weight for her previously-twice-convicted boyfriend.
The fact that federal law allows the admission into evidence of uncorroborated testimony, and uses such testimony to convict bit players or suspected bit players in a “conspiracy” and then gives them the same sentence as a “kingpin” – all of this has been exposed, and hopefully is being protested and fought more and more these days. What is less known, less visible, is the particular impact all of this has on women, and therefore on families and communities across the country.
The families and communities bear much of the brunt of the punishment. The removal of the mothers to federal prison exacerbates the problem: many women are hundreds and thousands of miles from their families, since there are only four federal prisons for women. The cost of visiting prohibits many women from ever seeing their children once the prison gates close behind them. African-Amercan, Latino and Native communities are then forced to withstand yet another blow, as disproportionate numbers of their young women are stolen from them and locked away.
I believe it is time for feminists to take up the issue of women locked away for – when you get right down to it – the “crime” of falling in love with the wrong man.
(Excerpted from a column in Prison Legal News)
by Katherine Dillon, CIW
My own sister has been estranged from me for many decades, especially since I came to prison.
However, within this barbed-wire community here at the California Institution for Women (CIW) there exists a sisterhood among many of the women. We together find how the medical staff and staff in general neglect and abuse us. We together find how as children and as young adults we were abused. And we together discover that we all need healing to become whole people again.
This sisterhood is found in our religious activities, in our various special interest groups, in our sports and charitable activities, in our classes and our jobs. This sisterhood is also found in a few close friends, with whom we can feel safe, with
out fear of our real selves being rejected.
I have found a sisterhood that goes beyond biological blood ties. These beautiful women have become my dearest friends, mentors and my sisters in this closed custodial community.
I still love my sister, but I also love those women in prison who, by being there for me, have a “sister” place in my heart that will never be forgotten.
by Urszula Wislanka
San Francisco, Ca. – To celebrate International Women’s Day, California Coalition for Women Prisoners showed a new video, Blind Eye to Justice. It documents the struggle of HIV positive women in prison. It features interviews with women still in prison, ex-prisoners and activists at various demonstrations.
What comes through the many individual stories of women demanding more reasonable care is a demand to be recognized as human. Yvonne Knuckles, for example, told of her experience of being hand-cuffed and humiliated in front of her co-workers in prison when her test came back positive. She had no idea what she did wrong by allowing the test. As soon as the prison found out she was positive, they treated her like a grave security risk. No one explained anything about what it means to be HIV+, no one offered any treatment whatsoever. But she could no longer earn good time by working in prison. The guards’ attitudes generated hysteria around the issue, panicking many.
The women inside responded by demanding and then ordering peer counseling: HIV+ women who would explain what HIV is to women who had just found out they have it and would offer an opportunity to talk about their fears. The video was also an appeal to the outside to not only inform the population about the conditions inside, but to condemn the whole society, which allows this to go on. The women in the video spoke of the need to transform this society.
Some of the women featured in the video were present, and spoke of their dedication to continue organizing around this issue. This organizing takes many forms: some continue to support the efforts inside by sending information and materials to prisoners and publicizing their issues on the outside. Some participate in organizations that help women who are just being released to cope “outside,” like W.O.R.L.D., Women Organized to Respond to Life-threating Diseases. Thais Mazur Dance Company staged their Women in Black piece. Paulette Jones from Medea Project-Theatre for incarcerated women also performed.
Many of the audience of over a hundred were long time activists and many were from a new generation of women who concretize the meaning of International Women’s Day for today by expressing solidarity with women fighting in prison.
My name is Deborah Teczon. My sister, Tina Marie Balagno, was a prisoner at CCWF. She died 2/10/99 of breast cancer, cancer of the bones and neglect. She was HIV positive for the last 11 years.
My sister endured a tremendous amount of pain for which I hold CCWF responsible. She was treated as if her life meant nothing. I’m here today to say her life meant everything to me and my family. No one in this world should have to go through the pain that Tina endured.
Tina never wanted to get sick in jail because she knew the system would do nothing for her. Tina’s fears were confirmed. They waited so long the cancer destroyed her.
I can not understand how the medical staff can live with themselves. They took an oath to save lives. This uncivilized way of acting and thinking is completely unacceptable. Prisoners are not just a number, they are living. breathing people.
Together I know we can change the system, so that the life that was taken from Tina would not be in vain.