Editorial: The War Against Communities, Families, and Women

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.

Impact of the Drug War

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)

Sisters and Sisterhood: Tearing Down Walls Behind Walls

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.

International Women’s Day

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 sister, Tina Balagno

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.