All posts by Sonny Zarit

Doomed to Die A Correctional Slave

CORCORAN STATE PRISON – 1996

It’s another hot sweltering August afternoon at California State Prison Corcoran. A few hundred prisoners mill around the yard, some exercising, while others hang in small groups talking about family, wives, lovers and just about anything else that will take their minds off their confinement.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, a loud intrusive alarm sounds. Over the prison intercom system a booming voice announces, “CODE-3, ALL INNMATES LAY FACE DOWN UPON THE GROUND!” Most have already hit the dirt. Others dive for it.

A gray haired black man in his sixties and two younger companions near the basketball court are late responding; they stand out like wall flowers at a high school dance. A flock of pigeons roosting on a nearby rooftop, startled by the commotion, takes pandemonious flight.

Guards with guns appear in the surrounding gun towers. Except for the sound of running feet and jiggling keys, the yard becomes ghostly quiet. Prison Guards (who prefer to be called Correctional Officers, but whom prisoners refer to as “Bulls”, “Hacks”, “Screws” and “Turn Keys”) dressed in tan and green uniforms come running from every direction, looking for the source of the alarm.

Overhead, guards in the gun towers watch their every move, scanning for potential targets. Adrenaline surges. The tension is as thick as tree sap, as both prisoners and guards wait to see if this is the real deal or just another false alarm.

While everyone waits, a handful of officers head for the three wall flowers. A few nerve racking minutes later, the intercom announces, “CODE-4 FALSE ALARM, RETURN TO NORMAL PROGRAM.” Prisoners start getting up, dusting off their blue denim pants and chambray shirts. That is, all except for the wall flowers. The rest of the prisoners return to their previous activities as if nothing happened, while slyly eyeing the officers surrounding the remaining three. The three are told to stand and are warned about not responding more quickly to alarms. Emphasizing their displeasure, the surrounding guards strip search the three in full view of the rest of the prisoners and guards.

Although the strip searching guards are male, female guards are scattered about the yard. They, like the other prisoners and guards, witness the trio’s humiliation as they are forced to get naked and endure the dreaded strip search. Even from the distance, I can hear the words: “Put out your arms; turn over your hands; raise your arms above your head; open your mouth and stick out your tongue; now pull down your bottom lip and show me your gums; now your top lip -open wider and roll your tongue around in your mouth; now run your hands through your hair (even though the three are black men with closely cropped hair); skin back your foreskin; lift your balls; turn around and bend over and spread your cheeks; keep them spread and cough three times; now let me see the bottom of your feet.”

While the three endure this humiliation, I notice their nervous, fearful glances at the nearest gun tower. They know, as I do, the tower guard’s gun sights were trained on them, just in case they make the wrong move. Knowing Corcoran the way I do, it wouldn’t take much to start guns blasting. When the strip search is over, the men still aren’t allowed to get dressed or put on their underwear (which is usually the case). The three are lectured several more minutes before they’re told to get dressed. Finally, the three deflated men are allowed to join the rest of the prisoners and things returned to normal, or as normal as they could be inside a maximum security prison. One of the three, a friend of mine walks over to me and says, “Did you see that, man? Did you see that? They treated us like slaves at an auction. All ’cause we hit the ground a little late. I told ‘em we was looking out for Mr. Green, he being an older brother. But they wasn’t giv’en a damn. They wasn’t hearing anything we had to say. You know man, it’s bad enough for us younger brothers to go through this shit. But it gotta be a bitch, to be in your sixties and have men and women the age of your grandchildren telling you to bend over and crack a smile. That’s cold shit man; doing us like that. Like we ain’t shit. Stripping us in front of those females, just like they did those brothers back in the slave days. It ain’t right I tell you. It ain’t right. We is slaves.”

“You’re right,” I respond earnestly, “We are nothing but slaves, California Correctional Slaves.”

THE CASE FOR CORRECTIONAL SLAVERY

For most Americans, the word slavery invokes dark and evil images of by-gone eras; disturbing images, of millions of chained Africans taken from their native lands and sold into brutal lifetime bondage. However, if I were to suggest that in year 2000 slavery was still present and institutionalized in the United States of America, few would take me seriously. In fact, most would openly laugh at the idea. Despite this knee jerk reaction, I predict that after reading my article, any laughter will quickly disappear and I seriously doubt if those people will ever again find the idea of “Correctional Slavery” the least bit amusing! At any rate, a powerful argument can be made that slavery does indeed exist in America, and I believe there is considerable empirical evidence to support this conclusion.

A perfect historical analogy of a similar type of enslavement were the debtor prisons of Europe. Laws were written that created criminal conduct where there should not have been. Under such laws, tens of thousands were imprisoned for economic crimes; crimes such as failing to pay debts or bills. The law of the day required the imprisoned to work off their debt. Most, however found this an impossibility, because their daily incarceration costs, their room and board, was taken out of any money they earned. These costs far exceeded the amounts paid for their labors while imprisoned. As a result, imprisonment became life time bondage. Whole families were imprisoned and labored under these draconian laws. The only beneficiaries of such cruel laws were those who used this cheap labor to enrich themselves. Eventually, these debtors were used to colonize the New World under indentured servant laws.

Just as debt in Europe became a criminal offense, drugs have become America’s entrapment tool to enslave hundreds of thousands. Just like imprisoned debtors, American prisoners are finding these modern laws are leading to long periods of imprisonment, if not a lifetime. This bondage for profit, is hidden under the guise of CRIMINAL JUSTICE.

Correctional Slavery is probably the most insidious and cleverly disguised form of slavery ever visited upon a human population. Not because it’s the most physically brutal form of slavery to ever exist, but rather because it masks itself under the guise of justice.

Before continuing, it may be helpful to first define the term “Correctional Slavery” and explain why I equate this form of incarceration with slavery. Correctional Slavery as defined here, is processing people into a criminal justice system for the express purpose of economic gain. This “gain” is derived from the pockets of hard working taxpayers who are manipulated into believing that incarceration is the only thing that separates them from the violent criminal hordes. These beliefs are reinforced by the media and popular culture.

Currently our Criminal System is using its citizens’ “criminal behavior” as reason to enslave them. Not just enslave them, but using sentencing-enhancement schemes, to enslave for increasingly longer periods of time.

The problem I address is basic and fundamental: at what point does the legitimate function of the Criminal Justice System end? And, at what point does the system begin to manufacture criminals for profit? For example, intentional acts that directly harm people or their property are clearly criminal acts. However conduct that does not directly harm people or property is not true criminal conduct. That is, conduct that offends moral values, even the majority’s, should not be considered a crime. It’s because our system has not made that distinction that it must be labeled a Correctional Slave System.

To be more precise, the drug laws, which are discriminatory by their very nature, allow some to be enslaved for engaging in the same conduct that others engage in legally. All drugs, whether licit or illicit are ingested by the user to obtain some feeling of euphoria. However, our society has chosen, for some insane reason, to make some drugs legal and others not. I call this policy insane because in many cases the licit drugs are far more dangerous and harmful then the illicit ones. For example, alcohol and tobacco are legal drugs that kill far more people, than all the illicit drugs combined, yet they are legal. Marijuana, heroin and cocaine are illicit not because they are more dangerous, but based on custom and religiously based moral objections. In other words, if you use the legal drugs, you can do so with impunity; regardless of the physical harm those drugs do to the body, and regardless of the social cost to families and society. The only exception to this rule is, if while intoxicated, you harm someone or their property. If, however, you are allergic to the legal drugs (for example alcohol or tobacco), or have some other aversion, to these drugs- yet you still crave to alter your state of consciousness and take an illicit drug, you face criminal liability. Why? Because you failed to use society’s drugs of choice.

It has been estimated that in California, 60% to 75% of the prison population have drug related crime. In the Federal Prison System it is estimated that 60% of its population have been imprisoned for mere possession of drugs under mandatory sentencing laws — without intent to sell. These drug laws are inherently discriminatory and make no practical sense, that is, unless you factor in the proposition that these laws create criminal activity where there otherwise would be none. In so doing, the laws create a criminal class as human fodder for the Criminal Justice System. This enriches the system, fueling its expansion.

This, I call SLAVERY!

According to a RAND study, entitled “Investing in Prisons or Prevention … The State Policy Maker’s Dilemma” (1998), statistical data shows that even though the crime rates have declined from their peak level in the 1 980s and early 1 990s, there are still continuing demands for harsher sentences and less reduction of time for good behavior. These demands, along with the stricter handling of parole violators, insure that prison populations will continue to grow. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) figures, the number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased another 5% (BJS), while the reported violent crime rate declined nationwide by 8%. Peter W. Greenwood, the author of that study, has determined that twenty years ago prison costs represented only 1% or 2% of most state budgets. Now it is in the range of 8% to 10% and for the past five years represents the fastest-growing budget category.

It would be interesting to know the exact amount of money California spends on its entire “Criminal Justice System,” including all criminal courts, all law enforcement agencies, jails, prisons, parole and probation departments. These numbers would also include all auxiliary costs, for example, the Department of Justice and Attorney General’s Office budgets dealing with criminal matters; all salaries, equipment, training, construction and any other costs of all the above. The media will not publish this complete economic picture and I suspect the reason is that, if known, the public would find the cost prohibitive and rebel. If correctly tallied, the total cost of the criminal justice system would be closer to 1/4 to 1/3 of the entire state budget. I suspect that Media will not fully investigate and report on the true economic impact of California’s or this country’s war on crime, because crime is the media’s cash cow. It would be no exaggeration to say television is the greatest promotional tool for the new slave system. If you doubt this, consider how many television shows there are about law enforcement, the courts and lawyers. Watching these shows will give the definite impression that it’s the “good guys” versus the “bad guys”. This non-subtle propaganda is mind manipulation. Such shows have skyrocketed in numbers, even though crime has plummeted over the past decade.

In discussing Correctional Slavery, it is necessary to examine the so called “Criminal Justice System” (which should be simply called the Criminal System), and examine its three major components: (1) Law Enforcement: (2) The Judicial System: and (3) the Prison and Correctional System, along with its recycling arms- the Parole and Probation Departments. I prefer to call these three components the: (1) “Entrapment and Capturing System,” (2) the “Processing and Justification System,” and (3) the “Bondage and Warehousing System.”

Examining how these three system’s work will demonstrate why I have come to the conclusions I have. This examination will revolve around the California Correctional System, which I refer to as a “World Class Slave System” and is probably the most insidious in the United States. Remember, each state has its own penal system, as does the federal government; all share the same basic goals and many of the same components. Therefore, a careful look at California’s Criminal Justice System will serve as a general review of them all.

THE PRISON AND CORRECTIONAL SYSTEMS: BONDAGE AND WAREHOUSING

Even though the national crime rate and rate of violent crime have declined since 1991, there is still the cry for more and longer incarceration,despite clear evidence that prisons do not work. Studies show the states with the highest budgets for law enforcement, courts, prisons, parole and probation departments also have the highest crime rates. It is clear, if you increasingly create criminal statutes, and build more prisons, you will inevitably find bodies to fill them. Christopher Stone, the head of New York’s Vera Institute of Justice, believes that prisons can be “factories of crime”.

The 1998 RAND study cited earlier, concluded that in 1985, the number of inmates held in state and federal prisons was less than 750, 000. By 1995, that number had risen above 1.5 million (BJS 1996). Those numbers appear even more ominous when you consider that it took from this country’s inception until 1990 to incarcerate a million people; however, ten years later, in the year 2000, the United States prison population had ballooned to over 2 million. It took only ten years to double a prison population that had taken over 200 years to accumulate.

In 1977 the inmate population of California prisons was 19,600. Today it’s over 180,000 and rising, even though crime in California, like the nation’s, has declined since the early 90′s. The state has spent over 5.2 billion dollars in prison construction in the past fifteen years, making California not only the largest, but the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has estimated it will need at least 6.1 billion dollars over the next decade to just maintain the current level of overcrowding. California’s jails are just as overcrowded. (“The Prison Industrial Complex” by Schiossier, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1988) According to that 1988 study, roughly two thirds of the prison inmates are parole violators. Of those 80,000 returning parole violators, 60,000 committed only technical violations not involving new crimes. For example, violations like failing to notify one’s parole officer of a change of job or address.

I don’t believe that everyone involved with the Criminal System either thinks in terms of enslaving people for profit or incarcerating for maximum terms, though some clearly do. I said at the beginning of this article, the slave system is deviously and cleverly disguised within the legitimate System. Not surprisingly, many of the Correctional Slaves would be just as surprised by this description of their plight, as are those who incarcerate and maintain them, so thorough and effective is the propaganda machine.

Despite the victims’, perpetrators’ and unwitting employees’ lack of knowledge, the fact remains, the System itself has taken on the mantle of “Evil”. Ignorance, like ignorance of the law, is no excuse, nor does ignorance absolve the guilty of crimes against humanity.

REALISTIC SOLUTION #1: AMNESTY AND DRUG DECRIMINALIZATION

AMNESTY: Fully 60 to 75 percent of both state and federal prison populations can be rehabilitated and rehoused at half to one-third of the present cost. This can be done by creating community based programs in which many prisoners are returned home and placed in work, education and vocational programs. Prisoners would be enrolled in an eight hour a day program in which they are required to work four hours a day, and attend either education, vocational or a combination of both the other four hours. The ex-offender would receive minimum wages for the work program and a modest grant for educational and vocational programs.

For offenders who need closer supervision, instead of direct release, there would be two year community based halfway houses. The offender would live in these halfway houses and required to attend the same type of programs. Income from their work would go to housing and expenses. They would also be required to save a portion of income for their eventual release.

Both categories of prisoners would sign Anmesty Contracts. This would allow them to avoid serving the balance of their sentences upon successful completion of this program. If they fail, they would be returned to prison. If they commit new crimes while in the program, their full sentence would be reinstated, plus time for the new offense; Such prisoners would be ineligible for the Anmesty program in the future.

To avoid labor complaints, the ex-offenders would work on community based projects and environmental cleanups.

REALISTIC SOLUTION #2 DRUG DECRIMINALIZATION:

Along with instituting the Amnesty program, both state and federal governments should eliminate criminal drug laws. Churches and all God fearing people should rise up and demand our government get out of the business of enslaving people based on what drug they use. It is a national disgrace that our society enslaves some for doing the same thing that others do legally with a different, but often, more dangerous drugs. Decriminalization will allow us to move toward treatment. The most important thing that decriminalization will do however, is remove the profit equation and thereby removing 99% of all the drug related violence. This will also go a long way toward reducing all the other negative aspects of an illegal drug lifestyle. This will save Americans billions of dollars and untold lives. Most of all, it will take us out the slave business and return morality and true justice to the criminal system.

On November 7, 2000, the citizens of California passed Proposition 36, allowing first and second time minor drug offenders to receive drug treatment rather than jail or prison. Don Novey of CCPOA had fought to defeat Proposition 36, hoping to keep this class of drug offenders within the California Department of Corrections. Their defeat bodes well for those enslaved because of their drug preference. It is to be hoped, that America is waking up to the reality of the Government’s failed “War on Drugs”; as well as its barbaric practice of enslaving its citizens for drug use. Proposition 36 holds out a tiny glimmer of hope that California Correctional Slavery, in it’s present form, may be ending, or reducing the massive prison population.

CORRECTIONAL TRAINING FACILITY- NORTH (SOLEDAD) — 2000

It’s December, midday and unseasonably warm, despite the start of winter. The CTFNorth “A” Yard is teaming with inmates taking advantage of the summer like weather.

CTF-North consist of two almost identical yards. Each has two three tiered, rectangular buildings. Cell windows look out over the yards like hundreds of small eyes. Across from these buildings are huge dorms. Behind each dorm looms cyclone fences and a manned gun tower. Another gun tower is located between the yards. Others are spaced along the perimeter. Surrounding CTF-North are several tall fences crowned with spiraling razor wire: razor wire, whose spiked edges sparkle like glittering flesh eaters.

Small clumps of inmates circle the yard, while others sit or lay on the grass. Other inmates work out on pull-up bars. Across from the pull-up bars 18 yard phones are in use. A long line of inmates patiently await their turn.

A group of lifers sits on the worn wooden bleachers over looking the baseball diamond. They are discussing recent court cases involving lifers and the Governor’s no parole policy.

Despite the Sun’s warmth, I feel a sudden chill as the discussion turns bitter.

“I was sentenced to 7 years to life,” says one man. “Yet, I’ve been down 30 years. I had a date and they took it for no reason. I should’ve paroled 15 years ago.”

“What about me,” says another. “I got 15 years to life, and was eligible for parole after ten years. I’ve served 23 years.”

“What do you think the courts will do,” someone asked?

“The same thing they always do,” came a voice from the back of the bleachers. “Nothing!”

“What do you think they will do Sonny?”

Everyone knew I had a paralegal degree and knew I had a reputation as a pretty good jail house lawyer. Therefore, when it came to the law, my words carried weight.

Expectant eyes turned to me. These were eyes looking for reassurance. Perhaps, they wanted to hear a comfortable lie: the comfortable, feel better- even though it’s a lie- kind.

I wish I could have obliged them, but I couldn’t. I thought of the past two, and now the current Governor. All, who briefly flirted with presidential and national aspirations. All, who collectively whittled lifers’ parole down to a mockery. Current Governor Gray Davis, despite protests, refused to parole any lifers during his first year in office. Only grudgingly did he release a few in his second year. These releases came only after a constant bombardment of bad press.

I took a deep breath and looked into all those soul weary eyes, and said, “We’re slaves, California Correctional Slaves. They’re not going to give up their slaves easily.”

I turned away from disappointed eyes, lowered heads and drooping shoulders. I turned from eyes, sinking into oceans of misery and self pity; eyes, caught in nightmarish Correctional Quicksand.

I looked toward the distant mountains and the descending Sun. I could no longer feel its warmth. My soul felt cold, my heart heavy — weary. Not even thoughts of Christmas, which was only a few days away, could lift my spirits.

I wondered (like all the others) was I doomed to die a Correctional Slave?