Posts Tagged ‘drugs’

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

Are you experienced?

Posted: February 20, 2013 in Justice
Tags: , , , , , , ,

From 1985 till his death in 1997, my self-appointed “mission” was to save my brother from a life of drugs and crime.

Before then, I had never seen the inside of a prison, never stepped inside a courtroom, and  my only face-to-face experiences with police consisted of talking to them through the rolled-down window of my car, when they pulled me over for speeding.

Well, okay, I take that back – I had been inside a police station once,  thanks to a boy I’ll call “Alex” that I dated for a short time in my senior year of high school.  It was 1971, and I had a job as a clerk at Dressler’s Drugstore, a Mom and Pop establishment located in the midst of the main strip mall in downtown Fox Lake, Illinois.  Alex surprised me one evening by showing up at the checkout counter and offering me a ride home from work.  His timing was perfect, since he arrived about 9:50 pm and I was done at 10:00.  What I failed to notice, in my teenage hormone haze of excitement, was that Alex was drunk.  Drunk, underage and transporting open liquor to boot.  He wasted no time making that obvious, traveling only about 100 feet out of the parking lot of the strip mall before he swerved across the center line, in full view of an alert Fox Lake squad car.

I had zero prior experience dealing with the police, so when they pulled us over, and Alex started to panic over the booze on the floor of the car, I felt sorry for him but wasn’t worried about myself.  I hadn’t committed a crime, and how was I to know about the liquor in the car?  After all, he had just picked me up.  Facts are facts, right?

Not exactly.

When the officer said we had to get into his car and go down to the station, I tried to set him straight, explaining that I just got off work.  Couldn’t he just drive me back to the strip mall and I’d call my stepfather for a ride home?

No.

Before they decided to drag me down to the police station, I might have been grateful.  Grateful that they’d saved me from a possible drunk-driving accident on the way home with my inebriated date.  Instead, I felt frustration and disappointment at their immediate assumption that I was guilty simply by virtue of being in the car.

At the Fox Lake police station, they put us in separate rooms and “grilled” us, treating me as if I were an accomplice to a bank robbery.  They used that word a lot, too – “accomplice”.   I found the whole experience ludicrous and laughable, though I wasn’t dumb enough to laugh.  I mean, c’mon–the only way I could have been my date’s accomplice was if I had popped open the beer cans and poured each one down his throat while he held his mouth open…all in a matter of seconds.  Still, I refused to let the officer intimidate me.  I knew, in my heart, that he would have to make up a charge, because he certainly didn’t have anything to charge me with, and I told him just that.

As I expected, the police let me go, but not without a warning that “next time, I wouldn’t be so lucky”.   Lucky?  I sure didn’t feel lucky as I listened to my stepfather read me the riot act on the way home.  He and the policeman who’d “grilled” me had a lot in common when it came to justice.  They both seemed to suffer from justice dyslexia, managing to twist  “innocent until proven guilty” into “guilty because we said so”.

That was my first taste of police and the sort of “gestapo power” they can wield, and I didn’t like it at all.  I suppose that for a teenager, that could be a good thing – I certainly didn’t want to repeat the experience.  In fact, from that point on, I simply wanted to avoid the police and police stations like the plague.

Little did I know that my brother Frank would introduce me to them all over again.

Are You Experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have

(excerpted lyrics from the song ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? by Jimi Hendrix)