Perversion of Justice: Gulag America

by Rady Ananda

opednews.com

In 1925, the US jailed 1 in 100,000 women.  In 2006, it jailed 1 in 746.  The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act and mandatory minimum sentence laws need to be repealed for the protection of families, communities and society as a whole. The film, Perversion of Justice, highlights the experiences of one family victimized by these laws.

A film by the Reverend Melissa Mummert
Border Walk Productions
Changemaker Award at the 2008 Media That Matters Festival
Run time: 30 minutes
Website: www.PerversionOfJustice.com

In Perversion of Justice, filmmaker Melissa Mummert potently calls for prison sentencing reform.  She highlights the victimization of one family caused by extreme penalties imposed for peripheral support of small time drug dealers.  Examining the social costs, Mummert exposes the rank injustice and provides action links for battling outrageous terms meted for nonviolent crimes.

The story of Hamedah Hasan and her three children exemplify the need to repeal the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, and the mandatory minimum laws.  Legal commentators bolster the argument, including the trial judge.  The film asserts that the public cost for warehousing nonviolent prisoners is $30,000 a year.  A review of legal documents reveals that over a four-year period, the drug selling operation earned $180,000.  Divided among the three defendants, that’s $15,000 a year in earnings.  Society deserves a more judicially and fiscally sane policy in dealing with drug offenders.

Perversion of Justice is perfectly adapted for showing at faith-based and social justice meetings, allowing time for Q&A within a one-hour format.  This 8-minute teaser should provoke interest in the 30-minute version that won the Changemaker Award at the 2008 Media That Matters Festival:

No stranger to the US penal system, Mummert watched her father’s peace advocacy land him a six-month prison stay.  In 1992, he organized a protest of the missile silo sites in Missouri.  His crime: planting a white pansy on Air Force soil.  With her father’s activist background, it is not surprising that Mummert chose to intern at a prison while a student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley.

While working as a prison chaplain, Mummert learned of harsh sentences imposed on drug users and small time dealers, and began to research the topic.  She pored through several case studies provided by Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  Hamedah made the best case for public review: she had no prior run-ins with the law, her actions only peripherally supported small time drug deals, and she is a single parent who was pregnant at the time of sentencing.  No better case for leniency could be made.

Mass Incarceration

But compassion is not a hallmark of the US justice system, where female incarceration rates jumped 64% from 1995 to 2006.  For a longer view showing a cultural shift toward imprisonment, the US jailed one in 746 women in 2006, up fromone in 100,000 back in 1925.  Compared to other nations, the female portion of the prison population is highest in the US – at 9%.  In 2006, two-thirds of incarcerated women in the US were mothers; and three-fourths had symptoms or a clinical diagnosis of mental illness, and/or received treatment from a mental health professional in 2005. (WAP)

Hat tip to Rob Ellman

Worse, Hamedah Hasan is black in a nation that universally convicts people of color at rates far above those for whites, and for longer terms.  In 2006, the incarceration rate per 100,000 for whites was 409, and 2,468 for blacks.  That’s an imprisonment rate of nearly 3 in 100 for blacks, or six times higher than for whites.  The film mentions Hasan’s “Do Not Snitch” value; given these statistics, that value better serves human rights than cooperating with authorities.

Even the form of cocaine most readily available to poor blacks – crack cocaine – receives far harsher sentences than does the powdered form.  Hamedah Hasan’s case is featured in the most recent issue of Crack the Disparity, which also reports that the Obama-Biden Transition Team “has made elimination of the federal sentencing disparity for crack cocaine offense a key goal on its Agenda for Change” under its Civil Rights agenda.

The Sentencing Project reports that “The rapid growth of women’s incarceration – at nearly double the rate for men over the past two decades – is disproportionately due to the war on drugs.”  The federal Bureau of Prisons generally agrees: “As a result of Federal law enforcement and new legislation that dramatically altered sentencing in the Federal criminal justice system, the 1980s brought a significant increase in the number of Federal inmates.  In fact, most of the Bureau’s growth from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s was the result of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (which established determinate sentencing, abolished parole, and reduced good time) and mandatory minimum sentences enacted in 1986, 1988, and 1990.”  This chart graphically shows the marked increase for all inmates (prison and jails) for the past 100 years:


Sources: Justice Policy Institute and PEW Center on the States

Featured in Perversion of Justice, the trial judge in Hamedah’s case is no stranger to balking at sentencing guidelines.  Richard George Kopf was appointed to the federal bench by George the Elder in 1992.  Early this year, he published his Top 10 List of sentencing debacles.  Here’s one:

“9. You don’t need experience in actually sentencing people in order to totally screw up the law of sentencing.  It is telling and painfully obvious that not a single Justice ever had to look a federal defendant in the eye while not knowing what law to apply.”

Under the federal guidelines, Judge Kopf was required to sentence Hamedah to two life sentences, two 40-year sentences, two 20-year sentences and two more sentences at 5 and 4 years each.  He felt awful.  “This is the most unfair perversion of justice that I can think of.”  Pointing out the difference between small time and kingpin drug dealers, he clarifies, “The problem is that we begin to treat the Hamedah Hasans of the world like the Noriegas of the world.”

Under new guidelines, he was able to reduce her sentence to 27 years.  She appealed for further reduction and Kopf modified her sentence to 12 years.  But, zealous prosecutors fought and won a reversal of the 12-year sentence.  Now serving in a medium security prison at Victorville (California), Hasan is due to be released in 2016.

A Global Look at Prisons

At 5% of the world’s population, the US imprisons a fourth of the 10 million reported prisoners globally.  Of 218 nations surveyed by the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), the US ranks No. 1, far and away jailing more of its citizens than China, which ranks 118; Burma-Myanmar, at 117; and Zimbabwe, at 104.  The Pew Center on the States shocked the nation early this year with its widely disseminated and devastating report, 1 in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008.  Not only does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world, but also the highest number of all prisoners worldwide.

Prison conditions vary widely across nations.  The ICPS summarized data from 2003 through 2006 in a report released this year, International Profile of Women’s Prisons.  In this detailed study of twenty countries, Germany rises as an advocate of one of the most proactive prison systems in the world.  It models what an enlightened view of incarceration means:

“The object of imprisonment is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility without committing criminal offences. This means that life in penal institutions shall be approximated as far as possible to general living conditions outside [and] that detrimental effects of imprisonment shall be counteracted.”

Germany’s rehabilitation policy goal is backed up by conditions that support family life in their “open” prisons where children up to age six live with their mothers:

“Mothers live with their children in self contained flats which consist of a kitchen, bathroom, one bedroom and a living room. They do not have the appearance of cells but look more like well-equipped family houses.  The building also does not look like a prison but more like a student flat from the outside.

“There are no bars at the windows and every flat has its own balcony.  Also, mothers can go outside.  According to a prison guard, the prison is very open and there are no fences.  Staff do not wear uniforms because they do not want to create distance between themselves and the children.”

In stark contrast, the US federal prison system does not allow mothers to keep their newborns.  Hamedah gave birth to her third daughter while in federal prison.  State prisons also generally do not allow mothers to keep their newborns, but some do for up to three months, and in some venues up to 18 months.  In separating children from their mothers, the US penal system harms families, a point stressed in Perversion of Justice.

Like the Wall Street Bailout: Taxpayer Costs and Private Profits

The US penal system has grown into a massive prison industrial complex (PIC) in the past three decades.  Over 350 prisons have been built since 1980.  In addition to the big firms running private prisons (GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation, Cornell Companies, Inc., etc.), a host of industries feed off incarceration.  One blogger posted over 100 companies that do business with prisons.  In commenting last year on the growth of the U.S. prison industry, Neal Peirce wrote:

“[A]ny governor faces formidable political obstacles trying to pare back America’s vast prison-industrial complex.  In California, it’s the Correctional Peace Officers Association, an astounding 31,000 members strong…. It has more than 2,000 members earning over $100,000 a year; its contract-guaranteed pension benefits are today superior to those of the state university system….  The three-strikes law is its full-employment act.”

The PIC also relies on mass media to promote its growth and expansion.  Violent crime has steadily declined over the past 20 years.  Yet, cable and network television provide a steady stream of crime and punishment shows, from fiction to infomercials that celebrate the prison industrial complex and a gulag culture.  Earlier this month, I received a viral email exemplifying PIC’s propaganda, showing several pictures of a modern, shiny new prison and a slate of “facts” comparing prison life to work life.  It ends with a wish for imprisonment.

The US prison system is privatized in more than half the states and at the federal level in 14 of its 194 facilities, using cheap prison labor to create products that are sold domestically and overseas.  In this comprehensive 1998 article, Eric Schlosser shows how the PIC creates billions of dollars in profits for private corporations while underwriting the costs with public funds, hiring at non-union wages, and avoiding bureaucratic red tape.

Mummert’s film only touches on the social impacts of harsh drug sentencing policies, but the PIC is wide open for reform, if not outright abolishment.  Social scientists argue that prisons create far more problems for society than other methods of dealing with crime.  Many advocate for full voting rights, ending felon disenfranchisement.  Some advocate the abolition of prisons, given abuse of prisoners and political corruption that inevitably occur when humans cage humans.

About Media That Matters

If you feel inspired to take action in your community, Media That Matters sells DVD collections for showing films, as well as providing nuts and bolts advice on how to organize screenings.  They’ll even help publicize your event.  Launched in 2001 by Arts Engine and one of the oldest and largest online film festivals, the MTM Film Festival is an annual global showcase of short films with “insight, humor and creativity that make audiences think, laugh and take action on today’s most pressing social issues.”  Each short screened in the festival is accompanied by “Take Action Links,” interactive tools that empower audiences to become activists at the click of a button.

“Media That Matters stands apart from other film festivals in that it really engages audiences and makes them feel part of something bigger, whether you’re participating at home or at a screening,” said Katy Chevigny, co-founder and executive director of Arts Engine. “These are films that not only entertain, but also inspire and motivate.”

The eighth annual Media That Matters Film Festival launched on May 28th and is currently touring the world.  Shorts for a dozen films can be viewed online, covering topics ranging from post-Katrina New Orleans to Argentina workers, to African Hip-Hop, to the disappearance of honey bees, to e-waste, and more.

Buy and show Perversion of Justice to support Mummert’s work, and visit her website to support Hamedah Hasan’s clemency appeal.

Hamedah Hasan and filmmaker Melissa Mummert

A Few Action Centers and Sources for Further Reading (of many) Action links recommended by Mummert are bolded:

Center for Community Transitions, www.centerforcommunitytransitions.org
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, www.cjpf.org
Critical Resistance, www.criticalresistance.org
Drug Policy Alliance, www.drugpolicy.org
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, www.famm.org
Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org
Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, www.idpi.us
International Centre for Prison Studies, www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/law/research/icps
Justice Policy Institute, www.justicepolicy.org/index.php
Marijuana Policy Project, www.mpp.org
Perversion of Justice, www.perversionofjustice.com
The Pew Center on the States, see Corrections and Public Safety
Prison Activist Resource Center, www.prisonactivist.org
Prison Policy Initiative, www.prisonpolicy.org
Prisoner Solidarity, www.prisonersolidarity.org
The Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org
Urban Institute, www.urban.org/justice/index.cfm
Women and Prison, www.womenandprison.org
The Women’s Prison Association, www.wpaonline.org

For a more comprehensive list, see these annotated Prison Resources.

Special thanks to Roy Walmsley of the International Centre for Prison Studies for his help in clarifying calculation methodology of incarcerated foreigners, and for his incredible work in this field.

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