Poignant letters from American jails; America may be a proud and globally dominant nation. But its prisons are crowded, dangerous, often bestial. Convicts are not simply denied personal liberty; they lose self-respect, dignity.


IN MISSOURI, a plea from Pope John Paul II persuades the governor to commute the sentence of a triple-murderer -- from execution to lifelong incarceration.

But an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison writes me to say that even death is preferable to a year's time behind bars.

America may be a proud and globally dominant nation. But its prisons are crowded, dangerous, often bestial. Convicts are not simply denied personal liberty; they lose self-respect, dignity. They must survive in a violent environment. Often their families reject them.

Virtually everyone agrees: We want dangerous murderers, armed robbers, sex offenders incarcerated. Violent offenders have clearly forfeited their right to move freely among us.

But in a column last month I asked whether if lowering our crime rates truly requires we imprison 1.8 million Americans -- the highest incarceration rate for nonpolitical crimes in world history.

Now my desk is awash with letters from inmates in state and federal prisons across the land, and from many of their families. These are the folks caught in the dragnet of inflexible sentences, especially for possessing and/or selling small quantities of drugs.

Their letters seethe with resentment against long mandatory sentences and a system they believe victimizes them. And anger about educational, career classes denied behind bars. Several expressed amazement that a mainline journalist would report their viewpoint at all.

Surely there's more incriminating detail than many told me. But still, hear their cries:

From a Michigan prison, the owner of a small insurance firm tells how police, after an attempted robbery, conducted a search, found illegal drugs on the premises, and convicted him on circumstantial evidence. But this man is 61, with no former criminal record, and is serving a 20- to 30-year sentence.

A young man, first offender, wrote from North Carolina's prison at rural Marion to tell of his 70- to 84-month drug trafficking sentence -- as a first-time offender.

Many of the stories underscore how incarceration simply intensifies a generation-to-generation trail of human carnage.

A tearful grandmother called from Galveston, Texas, for example, to tell how her pregnant 32-year-old daughter had just been sent to prison on a 9-year-old case of possessing $40 worth of drugs.

The daughter's sentence, with no prior criminal record: 25 years. Left at home: an 11-year-old and a child just 2 -- "crying into a toy telephone for her mama."

Literacy and wisdom, profanity and angry accusations, legalisms and deeply human observationsthey all come tumbling out in these letters from these long voiceless, forgotten people.

From Oregon's Washington County Jail, a self-described "arborist" wrote to allege that many of the guards are "truly cruel and sadistic -- they mock, torment, steal (from) and belittle prisoners." It's a nightmarish replay, he suggests, of the cruelty inflicted on unpopular kids "who were constantly tortured through their school years. . . . How easily we forget how mean we were -- and are."

A North Carolina inmate underscored the dangers, made in my earlier column, of alarmingly high proportions of young African Americans doing time. Today's "enterprise of incarceration" will harm all of society in three ways, he noted:

First, computer literacy, a ticket for 21st-century economic success, is already alarmingly low among blacks. Incarceration will keep thousands more away from computers, deny them a chance to earn a decent living after release.

Second, he said, revoking inmates' right to vote constitutes "a continuous conviction."

And third, homosexuality: "This dangerous unsafe sexual behavior is running wild in here. Many of these men will be returned to the community with HIV or AIDS. It's a dehumanizing situation."

We're learning a lot about the prevention side -- early childhood care, after-school programs, drug prevention, community policing. We know those tools work.

But what's our formula for the folks already caught in the web of incarceration? For them, the political system denies most drug and alcohol treatment and mental health care. Up to today, money's been spent almost exclusively for new prisons, more guards, what critics call our "prison-industrial complex."

Aren't we smarter than this?

Could a nation that remade welfare as we knew it, that made its streets safer, that's turning to tougher educational standards, begin to "reinvent" its criminal justice system too?

Could we start saying "no" to the prison cell builders and "yes" to those who believe we can reclaim more of those 1.8 million lives and, by proxy, more lives of the convicts' mates and children?

It's this issue, not just capital punishment, that should move us. Of course sentencing reform and rehabilitation are risky business. Penology has never been simple. But the letters from America's jails say: We have to do better. A lot better.

Neil R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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