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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

Jill "J.R." Labbe

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Consumer Reports


Female inmate illustrates folly of drug policy

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "IT'S a prison, Linda," I whispered to my colleague after she expressed surprise at a barred doorway in the Federal Medical Center Carswell.

My friend could be excused for forgetting at times where we were. The spotless surroundings, hallways that resembled those on a high school campus, tasteful prints lining the walls - all masquerading, if only for moments, the true purpose of the facility.

But then we would have to wait for someone with a set of keys attached to her waist by a heavy chain belt to unlock a door. A sign would warn people that the area beyond this point was restricted. Turn a corner, and a group of women dressed in drab-colored, baggy pants and T-shirts would politely (if reservedly) say, "Good afternoon."

The seven members of the Women's Policy Forum of Tarrant County, Texas, who toured the federal prison for women came away with mixed emotions - surprised at how cordial the inmates were toward us, impressed at the relative amount of freedom that prisoners were afforded inside the facility, depressed at the thought that so many of the women were there because of bad choices made after coercion by spouses, boyfriends or men whom they thought they needed in their lives.

But the most significant revelation came in the form of a petite 31-year-old who put a face on the utter failure of this country's "war on drugs."

"Sherri" was selected to speak with the group because of her experience working in the prison's youth outreach. She readily admits that she can serve as a bad example to young women. She is living proof of how self-destructive choices can change a life forever.

Sherri (not her real name; federal guidelines prohibit the use of prisoners' real names without permission from their attorneys) was joined by two other inmates who are active in the hospice program. Half of the prison's 1,370 population is there because of medical conditions. The inmate volunteers provide comfort and attention to the more critically ill patients, many of whom end up dying in prison without family or friends by their sides.

The women spoke candidly about their crimes, and each was willing to take responsibility for her illegal actions. One was serving nine years as an accessory to murder, committed by her boyfriend during a robbery at her workplace - a robbery she helped set up. The other was incarcerated on drug charges, as is Sherri.

The women weren't users of illegal drugs. They had the misfortune of falling in love with men who were doing the buying and selling. Their worst choice was not leaving when the truth became clear.

When the warden asked Sherri to tell us how much time she would have to spend at FMC before her release, tears spilled from blue eyes that moments before had been animated as she spoke of reaching out to young people in the Fort Worth community.

Because of federal sentencing guidelines that allowed the judge in Sherri's case to stack on years for probable drug activity that might have taken place where she lived -- drug activity alluded to by a co-defendant who cut a deal with the prosecution in an effort to get a lighter sentence for himself -- Sherri will be locked away until she is 56.

Ahh, the benefits of a "drug-free America" --- warehousing so many nonviolent drug offenders that we have to build more and more prisons for violent criminals.

In 1986, when Congress passed the majority of the drug mandatory minimums, 38 percent of the federal prison population consisted of drug offenders. By December 1998, the number was 60 percent. Of those, 57 percent were first-time offenders; 88 percent of them had no weapons.

As Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, wrote in a paper delivered at a 1999 drug conference sponsored by the Cato Institute, America isn't locking up the drug kingpins.

"We are catching the little guys, the girlfriends, the mules, and we are sending them to prison for five years, 10 years, and often much longer," Stewart wrote. "And politicians largely don't give a damn."

Politicians may not give a damn, but if recent votes in a number of states to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana are an indication, more and more Americans are fed up with the nation's failed war on drugs.

Timothy Lynch, editor of Beyond Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century, said: "The time has come to put an end to this tragic revisit of Prohibition. ... The issue is not whether drug use is a problem. The issue to how to deal with that problem. ... Education, moral suasion and social pressure are the only appropriate ways to discourage adult drug use in a free and civil society."


JWR contributor Jill "J.R." Labbe is senior editorial writer and columnist for the Star-Telegram . Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Jill "J.R." Labbe