Archive for November, 2013

We in the United States like to boast that we are the greatest country in the world.   That may be true, though I’m not sure what statistic(s) bears out that boast.

True or not, when it comes to crime and our prison system, I beg to differ:  we suck.

A few important statistics:

  1. Incarceration rate (United States):  700+ per 100,000 people
  2. Incarceration rate (Norway):  65-75 per 100,000 people
  3. Recidivism rate (United States):  estimates range from 50% to 60+%
  4. Recidivism rate (Norway):  approx. 20%

Commit a crime in Norway, and you will lose your freedom, but you will be treated humanely, with a focus on transforming you into a law-abiding citizen, through education, mental health and substance abuse programs, and a job to do. Commit a crime in the United States, and you will lose your freedom, be treated like a wild animal in a zoo, deal with persistent danger from other inmates and abuse from guards, and eventually return to society no better and likely worse than when you went in.

I wish I could say that I had no personal knowledge about this sort of thing, but I do.  Twelve years of trying to help my brother Frank, who suffered from addiction while bouncing in and out of the prison system, was a painful lesson in what we do wrong in this country.

My first experience with “justice” happened about 6 months after Frank moved out on his own, with a job and a place to live.  He hurt his back on the job and could no longer work; he then fell off the abstinence wagon with his habit of shooting cocaine; and finally, resorted to stealing a toolbox from Sears (in order to fence it for money), a toolbox that was expensive enough to qualify the crime as felony retail theft.  Did he deserve to be arrested?  Of course he did.

The crime happened in Cook County, Illinois, so he was thrown in Cook County jail, and was basically scared shitless.  Cook County jail is not a nice place.  Frank called me, begging for bail money, but I was divorced with two small children and barely made it from paycheck to paycheck, so I had to say “no”.  He did manage to get himself segregated from the more dangerous characters by requesting to be housed in the drug treatment area (he was likely going through withdrawal), so for now he was a little safer as he awaited his court date.  In the meantime, I served as his “voice” with the public defender he was assigned, and quickly found that public defenders often have too many clients to do a good job.  His first public defender called me at work one day, all worried and urging me to go to court on Frank’s behalf because of an outstanding speeding ticket.  He thought this was important, because he had never read my brother’s record – had he done so, he would know that a speeding ticket was the least of his problems.  I relayed to his public defender that Frank needed drug abuse help, and wanted to be considered for the TASC program (a non-profit group that offers drug rehabilitation).

Frank’s request for help was denied.

At Frank’s first court date, his public defender did not show up, and I met another PD who seemed to be more caring and knowledgeable, so we switched to the new guy.  I explained to him that Frank needed help for substance abuse more than anything else, but had been denied.  The PD informed me that unfortunately, there were few slots open in that program, which is probably why he didn’t get in.  He suggested I try again to get Frank in the program, and told me to write a  letter to the judge on Frank’s behalf, explaining his severe cocaine addiction, his non-violent character, and his need for a chance to get “clean”.

In the meantime, my friend Natalie and I attended another court date for Frank. This time, we were at least able to see him in the courtroom. It was not what I expected. My heart sunk as they brought Frank into the courtroom, shoeless, with his hands and feet in shackles. The harsh reality of jail was never more clear to me than in that moment. I couldn’t fathom how stealing a toolbox deserved this sort of treatment. Did he really need to be brought into the courtroom in chains, no shoes, and zero dignity?

Our final visit to court for this case was the day of Frank’s sentencing:  June 10, 1987.  Again, he was paraded past us in bare feet and shackles, and it hurt me just as much to see him this time as it had before.  Natalie and I held tightly to each other’s hand as Frank stood before the judge with his attorney. We felt certain it had to go in his favor. It just had to.

Well, nothing is certain but death and taxes. The judge didn’t grant the request for rehabilitation and, while he mentioned that Frank was lucky to have Natalie and me to support him, he still went ahead and sentenced him to two years in prison, or eight months with good behavior.

We were informed by his PD that only one of us would be allowed to see him, in a conference room in the courthouse, before they took him away and off to prison. Natalie immediately suggested that it should be me, since I was his sister.  I was instructed to stand across the table from him, in that small conference room.  No hugging, no touching, no privacy.  I suppose this was necessary, in case he was hiding a toolbox in his underwear that he was going to hit us with.

“I’m sorry, Sis,” said Frank.   He looked ashamed.

“Me, too, Frank.  I tried.  I don’t want you to go back to prison.”

“It’s okay, I’ll be fine.  It ain’t your fault.  I screwed up.  Don’t worry about me.”

My heart was breaking.  “I can’t help worrying about you.  You’re my brother.  I love you, you big dummy.”

“I love you, too, Sis.”

We said our good-byes, and then Natalie and I walked outside and waited to wave to him again, as they loaded him into the prison van.

Just like that, Frank was back to where he started. Nowhere.  In eight months, he was released with no money, no new skills, and his addiction intact.  It was a scene that played out in his life over and over again, until he died of an overdose in 1997.

I can’t help but think that in Norway, Frank would still be here.

C’mon, America – we can do better.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read more about these issues:

http://www.dropoutprevention.org/engage/incarceration-within-american-and-nordic-prisons/

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/

http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/pdfs/factsheets/9-Fact%20Sheet%20-%20US%20vs%20World.pdf

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/07/25/277771/norway-is-safe/

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html?xid=huffpo-direct

“Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” ~ Adam Michnik