Dispatches from the Field: Women in Prison - An American Growth Industry
Who says “American Exceptionalism” is dead? Not when it comes to incarceration. Nowhere on Earth -- except the USA -- does a country put more of its citizens in prison. And, increasingly, those citizens are female.
In 1980, before the War on Drugs became big business and prison corporations were allowed to regain a toehold, there were 12,300 women incarcerated in the United States. By 2008, that number had grown to 207,700. The rate of increase between 1995 and 2008 alone was a staggering 203%. The $9 million dollars it cost to incarcerate female offenders in 1980 has now ballooned to over $68.7 billion.
Who are these women, and how did they come to be caught in the web of the prison-growth industry?
By and large, these are young women who have less than a high-school education, have a history of being battered and/or sexually abused, and, with that, a resultant history of drug abuse. They are more likely to be HIV positive or infected with Hepatitis C, have either symptoms or a diagnosis of mental illness, and prior to incarceration were unemployed. While young African American women are the fastest growing incarcerated population, roughly 49% of women in prison are white, 28% are African American, and almost 17% are Latina. More than two-thirds are incarcerated for drug, property, or public order offenses. And the vast majority are mothers of minor children.
Here’s one such story.
Oklahoma, Not OK
On New Year’s Eve 2009, in rural Kingfisher County, Oklahoma, Patricia Spottedcrow, a 24-year-old Cheyenne mother of four, and her mother, Delita Starr, sold a “dime bag” of marijuana out of Starr’s house for eleven dollars. Two weeks later, the person who sought them out for the first buy came back for a twenty-dollar bag. The buyer turned out to be a police informant.
Spottedcrow and Starr were charged with distribution and possession of a dangerous controlled substance in the presence of a minor, and were offered a plea deal of two years in prison. Having no priors, meaning they’d never been in trouble with the law, and having been busted for such a small amount, they turned the deal down. Both women pled guilty, thinking they’d get “community service and a slap on the wrist.”
Unfortunately, as is too often the case, it didn’t play out that way. Though it was a piddling amount of money and a first offense, in the eyes of Kingfisher County Judge Susie Pritchett, because Spottedcrow’s mother made the actual sale of the “dime bag,” and Spottedcrow’s nine-year-old son made change, Spottedcrow had involved three generations in a “criminal enterprise.” Seeking to teach her a lesson for selling thirty-one dollars’ worth of marijuana (and showing up for sentencing with traces of marijuana in a coat pocket), Judge Pritchett gave the young mother twelve years in prison -- ten years for distribution and two years for possession -- to run concurrently, with no probation. In addition, she fined Spottedcrow $4,077.89.
Starr was given a thirty-year sentence, suspended so she could care for her grandchildren. She was also saddled with five years of drug and alcohol “assessments,” plus $8,591.91 in court fees and fines. At $50 a month, she’s now paid off $600 of it. Her monthly income is $800.
Believing she would be released on probation, Spottedcrow made no preparations for her incarceration. When her sentence was handed down, she was taken into custody without having a chance to say goodbye to her children, shackled, and transported three hours away to Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, where she became a minimum security prisoner at a cost to Oklahoma taxpayers of $40.43 a day -- ten dollars more per day than the total cost of marijuana sold in two separate incidents combined, and $25 more per day than it would have cost the state to provide drug treatment, were that available in Kingfisher County.
Eddie Warrior, a state-run facility that opened its doors in 1989, was built to house fifty women to a dorm, one or two to a cubicle. Just six years later it was at capacity. In the four-part documentary, Women in Prison, Eddie Warrior case manager Teri Davis states that shortly thereafter, with the facility already full, “they started hauling people in.” Now there are a hundred-and-twenty inmates to a dorm, some with serious communicable diseases, living in rows of bunks four feet apart.
“The inmates don’t like it,” says Davis. “And who would? Crammed up with another inmate in your face, coughing because she’s sick, coughing all over you . . . packed in like sardines in a can, with no amenities.”
Perhaps most disturbing about conditions at Eddie Warrior is that they are not unusual. Lurking behind the injustice of Spottedcrow’s harsh sentence is a darker story of human rights violations in America’s female prisons. In Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, compiled and edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, female inmates speak of atrocities “ranging from forced sterilization and shackling during childbirth, to physical and sexual abuse by prison staff.” Describing their lives as harrowing and rife with misogyny, author Peggy Orenstein declares their treatment “utterly unacceptable in a country that values human rights.”
For the privilege of living in these deplorable conditions, Spottedcrow’s sentence means a burden to taxpayers of nearly $150,000 in incarceration costs alone. This is the price to an already strapped society for a person’s having sold 0.105821 ounces of an herb that is considered harmless on the one hand, and highly beneficial on the other. Multiply that by the thousands incarcerated in Oklahoma, and then multiply that by the other forty-nine states. In fact, Oklahoma attorney Josh Welch, who is working for Spottedcrow’s release, predicts that if Oklahoma continues its current practice of incarcerating “anybody who comes before a judge” for drug-related offenses, even for a first offense, “it will bankrupt the state.”
However high the cost of justice, the cost of injustice is greater still.
A Clear Case of Civil Rights Violations
A growing civil rights movement in Oklahoma is demanding Spottedcrow’s release.
The Society to Preserve Indigenous Rights and Indigenous Treaties (SPIRIT) got involved in Spottedcrow’s case “because she is Native American, poor, and a minority,” says Brenda Golden, of SPIRIT. “We are not pro-marijuana and do not advocate breaking the law. But we do believe Patricia's sentence is way too harsh for the crime she committed and is indicative of the treatment we receive in Oklahoma…. We are committed to continuing the fight to get this sentence reduced so Ms. Spottedcrow can be reunited with her four small children.”
Trial Attorney Josh Welch took her case pro bono. Calling it an “abuse of judicial authority,” he filed a motion in Kingfisher County to modify her sentence, saying, “A judge’s responsibility is to help people, not just punish them.” On Monday, October 3, Mr. Welch received an Order from Associate District Judge Robert Davis modifying Spottedcrow's sentence from the original twelve years to eight years in prison with four years’ probation. Welch says he’s happy the sentence was modified, but not happy that only four years were removed. "The new judge didn’t back off the first sentence. He said the reduction was because she had done well while incarcerated. We disagree with the sentence. She shouldn’t even be in jail.”
“This may not be easy,” Welch told SPIRIT’s Brenda Golden in an email, “but we will not stop until she's released.” Welch plans to file an Application for Post-Conviction Relief. Change.org, has created a petition to the Governor of Oklahoma requesting a pardon for Spottedcrow. As of this writing, they’ve gathered almost 35,000 of the 50,000 signatures needed.
A Trail of Tears
In the Women in Prison documentary, Judge Susie Pritchett, who imposed the original sentence, states that Spottedcrow “needed to learn that there were consequences to this lifestyle she had chosen.” Tragically, and in direct opposition to the sort of outcome the judge would seem to favor, Spottedcrow’s lifestyle was indeed forever changed. Because of her conviction, she can never again pursue her chosen field. Her “chosen lifestyle” was that of a certified medical assistant employed by a nursing home. When the economy tanked, not because of any choice Spottedcrow ever made, she lost her job. In fact, almost half of all incarcerated women were unemployed in the month before their arrest. Spottedcrow was not the first to look for a way to make some “easy money” when things got tight. But as she conceded in an interview with Ali Meyer of Oklahoma News Channel 4, “It was a stupid mistake that I paid an awful lot for.”
Speaking of consequences, however, what about the consequences of Judge Pritchett’s actions? Seventy-five percent of incarcerated women are mothers, most of them parents of children under age eighteen. What happens when the state takes a mother away from her children for an entire decade?
Children of female inmates are at enormous risk to continue the cycle and end up in prison themselves, according to another Women in Prison participant, Dr. Laura Pitman, Deputy Director of Female Offender Operations for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, who adds that thirty percent of the female prison population had at least one incarcerated parent themselves. African-American children are nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison and Hispanic children are three times more likely than white kids to have an incarcerated parent. All told, a million and a half children in America have a parent in state or federal prison, which, according to theFamily and Corrections Network, “means a crisis for that child.”
The effect on Spottedcrow’s children has been devastating. Aged 1, 2, 4, and 9 at the time of her arrest, all but the eldest are unable to comprehend her disappearance. And because Spottedcrow is housed a full three-hours’ drive from her mother’s home, her family is unable to visit. As the youngest learns to talk, she knows her mother only as a voice on the phone. Meanwhile, Starr tries to explain to her grandkids. “It’s hard. The little girls do not understand why their mom’s gone…. The baby had a real hard time. We’ve spent nights crying. . . . She goes to the bedroom door and knocks: ‘Mama! Mama!’ And we cry.”
In Long Beach, California, when members of The Human Solution learned of Spottedcrow’s plight, they took up a collection and arranged for her children to receive new clothes to wear on a trip to visit their mom. In return, the Oklahoma woman who helped arrange the clothing donation made a cash contribution to The Human Solution so people would have gas money for court support. Thus, the movement to free prisoners of the drug war grows bigger and stronger.
“We’ll Do This My Way”
It also grows louder. On Wednesday, November 2, 2011, angry protesters screamed in frustration outside the Long Beach courthouse where former medical marijuana dispensary owners Joe Grumbine and Joe Byron were quickly losing ground. In preparing for their upcoming trial, Judge Charles D. Sheldon had eliminated as “irrelevant” all medical evidence and witnesses. “We’ll do this my way,” he said, ruling out the two doctors who were prepared to testify that the Joes were, at the very least, qualified medical-marijuana patients. Having already been denied the right to defend themselves as legally compliant dispensary owners, the Joes had retreated to their fall-back position -- that of being patients first. But with his latest decision, Judge Sheldon had taken that away, too.
Protesters claimed the judge had denied the Joes their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. In two previous California medical-marijuana cases, defendants had been allowed an affirmative defense, meaning they were able to tell the jury they were legally compliant dispensary owners, as well as qualified medical-marijuana patients. In one such case, the defendant was found not guilty. In the other, the case was dismissed in the interest of justice. Not so for the Joes.
Like Patricia Spottedcrow, Grumbine and Byron have turned down plea deals, choosing instead to exercise their right to a jury trial. Motivated by the same do-good instincts that led them to create a medical-marijuana collective in the first place, they put their fate in the hands of a jury for the sake of all medical-marijuana patients and caregivers. They hoped to solidify the legal standing of their fellow patients and dispensary owners, along with their own, in a precedent-setting case. They thought the jury would hear all the facts. They were wrong. Instead, says Grumbine, it’s “a steamroller to conviction.”
At a November 9 hearing -- their twenty-second court appearance -- the Two Joes suffered yet another defeat. Having filed a motion to quash the warrant that triggered a massive tri-county raid and turned their lives upside down, Grumbine and Byron had to appear before Judge Judith L. Meyer, who signed the original warrant. She denied the motion. After opining that the medical-marijuana-dispensary thing “is all a sham,” Judge Meyer reminded the defendants that their next court date with Judge Sheldon was on November 23 "in Department K, as in Kangaroo.” To quote Dr. Hunter S. Thompson out of context once again, “Jesus! How much more of this cheap-jack bullshit can we be expected to take?” Kangaroo court, indeed.
Don’t get out of jury duty, get into it!
Grumbine and Byron have only one defense left: the defense of last resort – Jury Nullification. Simply put, Jury Nullification (or “Juror Nullification”) means a juror has the power – nay, the awesome responsibility – to refuse to convict if they believe the law is corrupt or the proceedings have been compromised. The Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) was created to inform American citizens that “juror veto – juror nullification – is a peaceful way to protect human rights against corrupt politicians and government tyranny.” With thousands of people in the street, and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators getting arrested in droves for rising up against government tyranny and abuse of power, the time for J-Null may have come.
Jurors Can Stop Government Tyranny by Refusing to Convict
As a juror, your first and greatest duty is to your fellow citizen. While jury duty may sometimes require you to punish a fellow citizen for breaking the law, it may also, at times, require you to protect your fellow citizen from tyrannical abuses of power by government officials.
Jury convictions, right or wrong, just or unjust, are almost never overturned. In a recent case in Texas, Troy Davis was executed even after many jurors, upon hearing new evidence, tried to take back their guilty verdict. Imagine having to live with the knowledge that you sent a man to his death, based on insufficient or false evidence. In the case of Grumbine and Byron, there was no victim. Both defendants were motivated by a desire to help end suffering by providing patients legal access to a plant that helps and heals. For this, each now faces up to seven years in the slammer.
“Jurors cannot be required to check their conscience at the courthouse door,” says FIJA. Rather, they are empowered to use it in court, with absolutely no fear of retribution. So in the future, don’t get out of jury duty, get into it. The life you save could be Joe Grumbine’s.
We’ll take a closer look at Jury Nullification in an upcoming post. In the meantime, FIJA has created a Juror’s Handbook to help inform potential jurors of their legal authority to refuse to enforce corrupt laws. “Short of being elected to office yourself,” says FIJA, “you may never otherwise have a more powerful impact on the rules we live by than you will as a trial juror.”