Throw away the key

For the first time in history, the American prison population is about to hit two million. Among the murderers, rapists and drug dealers, there is another type of convict. Sasha Abramsky reports on how, since the introduction of the `three strikes and you're out' law in 1993, life sentences have been handed out to people with offences ranging from possessing marijuana to stealing toilet paper
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teven White had been firing at the police from out of the window of his run-down Las Vegas motel room for three and a half hours. He was out on $10,000 bail, posted by his father, from jail in outhern California, and he'd used his temporary freedom to drive across the hot, scrubby, Mojave desert to Vegas. He was trying, without success, to provoke the police into killing him. It was 6 April 1995, and White had decided that it was time to die. The alternative, according to the three suicide notes that he'd hurriedly scrawled during lulls in the shooting, was too awful to contemplate: life in prison following certain conviction for the crime of walking into an electronics store with an old receipt for a VCR and walking out with a new video player, worth $146, that he hadn't paid for. When he'd shown

the receipt to the security guard, the man had immediately called the police. Now, one year after California had passed a "three strikes and you're out" law (the term is derived from baseball), throwing away the key on thousands of repeat offenders, White was about to become a statistic.

The 32-year-old had grown up in the conservative outhern Californian city of an Diego. He had been a drug addict for years, since he was a teenager, hooked on coke and amphetamines. In the early Eighties he'd picked up two convictions for burglary. He had no history of violence. He did, however, have HIV. White didn't want to slide into his grave deep within the Californian penal system.

Now, on the shabby outskirts of the great gambling mecca, as the police lobbed tear gas canisters into his room, the video thief picked up his shotgun and emptied a load into himself. When the cops entered the room, they found his bloodied body. "orry I did this," the note addressed to the police said. "It was because of three strikes."

Over the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened in the United tates. A combination of popular fear about crime, fuelled by an increasingly sensationalist media, and a "tough on crime" rhetoric spouted by a generation of opportunistic political leaders, have come together to create the democratic world's only true gulag.

In 1980, approximately 300,000 people were imprisoned in America. Today, nearly two million are behind bars - in county jails (generally for sentences of under one year), state prisons and federal correctional centres - and, despite far lower crime levels, the number is still rising.

The change results from a two-fold shift in policy: first there were the initial "War on Drug" laws and mandatory minimum sentences passed in the eventies in New York and then nationally in the Eighties (the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the 1988 Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act). These only permitted sentence reductions if those arrested on drugs charges co-operated with the police by naming names and then delivering the suspects up to undercover agents through entrapment and sting operations. As a result, a huge system of informants grew up. Then, in the early Nineties, politicians latched on to crime in general as a potent electoral weapon, and vied with each other to create ever tougher sentencing laws. In a short burst of legislative "reform", from 1993 to 1995, several states enacted three strikes laws - Washington, California, Oregon, and Georgia among others - parole was abolished in places such as Texas, truth-in-sentencing, which made prisoners serve 85 per cent of their sentences before being eligible for parole, was made a part of Clinton's federal Omnibus Crime Bill, many cities moved towards zero-tolerance laws for drugs, and an increasing number began to aggressively prosecute the urban poor: vagrants, beggars, teenage troublemakers, small-time con artists.

As a result, America's vast prison network has increasingly come to serve as a dumping ground for the country's drug addicts, its de-institutionalised mentally ill, its homeless and urban unemployed: men such as Donald Clark (27 years in Coleman Federal Correctional Facility, Florida, on a marijuana dealing conviction), and the homeless man in Miami with a string of petty offences behind him, finally sent to prison for 40 years for stealing 22 rolls of toilet paper from a supermarket.

eeing what the prison system is doing to the American soul brings to mind Russian novelist Alexander olzhenitsyn's classic novel, Gulag Archipelago. In a foreword to the abridged edition, the author wrote that "There always is this fallacious belief: `It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.' Alas all the evil of the 20th century is possible everywhere on earth." He wrote of an "archipelago" [of prisons and camps] that "crisscrossed and patterned that other country within which it was located, like a gigantic patchwork, cutting into its cities, hovering over its streets."

Today, California alone, with a population of 37m, has 160,000 people in prison, 20,000 of whom are lifers, costing the Golden tate over 4bn dollars per year; Texas, in second place, has close to 150,000. By contrast the entire British prison population is under 61,000.

In 1994, voters in California passed a three strikes law that condemns those with three felonies to an automatic 25 years-to-life sentence. A reaction against a clutch of horror stories such as released rapists striking again, and a convicted paedophile who murdered a 12-year-old girl, the law was so clumsily worded it ended up snaring shoplifters in the same trap as murderers. Throughout ex-governor Pete Wilson's last term in office he successfully blocked all attempts to rework this law, labelling opponents as "soft on crime". According to cott Baugh, a conservative Republican assemblyman from Orange County who is one of the few Republicans to voice reservations about three strikes, "the law is so popular that it's very difficult to make any changes whatsoever. That's very unfortunate."

Leaving the judge with no discretion as to sentencing, three strikes trials in California are, says Peter Liss, the then deputy public defender who represented teven White, "like show trials. They're slam dunk. There's nothing you can do." If a prosecutor decides to go after a non-violent offender with a third strike charge, that person is a goner. As of December 1998, 4,884 Californians had "struck out" - less than 2,000 for violent crimes. Car thieves accounted for 156, 25 were marijuana pushers, and just over 800 were cocaine dealers or manufacturers. Their pasts are, like White's, generally pathetic. Russell Benson, for example, had dabbled with drugs since he was a teenager. trung out when he was 18, he attempted to rob and murder a friend. He picked up two felony convictions for this crime, served five and a half years in prison, was paroled and made a career for himself as a tow-truck driver. For ten years he stayed out of trouble.

In 1994, while living in Palmdale, 50 miles east of Los Angeles, with his girlfriend and her three children, Benson was laid off. Now 37, Benson wrote to me from the California Men's Colony, near the college town of an Luis Obispo, in a childish scrawl, on yellow legal-paper, that "The day I was arrested I was not out to steal. I needed to get back to an Fernando Valley for an opportunity at a good job. The ride I had set up for fell through and I couldn't get a hold of anyone who could make a 100-mile round trip to come and get me. The little money I had left wasn't enough to pay for a train ride. I was on the phone which was inside a Target tore and walked out of the store with a carton of cigarettes."

When the security guard tackled him, Benson struggled. When the police arrived, they told him he would be charged with shoplifting - which is a misdemeanor, not a felony. But when they did a background check and found out that Benson was a two striker, they jacked up the charge to robbery. Benson is now serving 25 years to life in a state prison for his ill-timed crime of frustration, a situation that even one senior prison official says "doesn't make a lot of sense; doesn't really serve society".

There is a prevalent image in America of a violent lumpen underclass, what the Victorian journalist Thomas Wright, describing London's slum- dwellers, termed "the great unwashed", controllable only by punishment. And, to a degree that's true: the country has a phenomenal number of murders and murderers, gangsters, mercenary drug pushers, kidnappers, rapists and armed robbers. Like all things American, violence happens on an epic scale. At the height of the crack-wars of the Eighties, over 25,000 people were being killed annually. Parts of inner-city Los Angeles, Washington, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, and several other cities, are war zones. There are a lot of angry, brutal and trigger-happy people in America. And there are an awful lot of weapons available to these people to carve out their twisted realities on the American landscape.

uper-maximum security prisons such as the notorious Pelican Bay - nestled in the coastal Redwood forests of California's northernmost county, surrounded by two high razor-wire fences and a lethal electronic barrier and more escape-proof than the island of Alcatraz in the an Francisco Bay - house thousands of men, many of them mass murderers, rapists, kidnappers and other seriously disturbed individuals.

But despite the hysteria, there aren't nearly enough American psychopaths, enough real-life Hannibal Lecters, to justify a prison population that is fast approaching two million, incarcerated in hundreds of state and federal facilities across the 50 states of America.

In fact, for the first time in history, most U prisoners - over one million people - have been convicted of non-violent, often victimless crimes. Hundreds of thousands are now serving 10-, 15- and 20-year terms for crimes that in Europe would result in non-custodial sentences and commitment into drug-rehab programmes. Meanwhile, in many cases, the big- time criminals go free: trading information, snitching on subordinates, hiring million-dollar attorneys who will do anything possible to limit the years their clients have to spend in jail. As a new millennium dawns, this grubby reality is the coda to the grandly named American Century. The Land of the Free has become a place where rural backwaters bid for the privilege of building new hi-tech prisons to incarcerate the urban unemployed, people like Lillie Blevins.

Blevins is a 51-year-old diabetic. he has chronic high blood pressure and back and knee problems. Her appendix recently ruptured. he is scheduled to spend the rest of her life in Carswell Federal Medical Center, just outside Dallas, Texas.

Lillie's crime: conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, allegedly head of a family operation involving three of her sons and her brother. The evidence against her: the word of a snitch who was friends with her drug-dealing sons, along with three grammes of crack cocaine found in her Mobile, Alabama, house by federal agents. Her status: non-violent, minimum-security inmate, no prior time served in prison, no money and hence no lawyer working on her case, husband in jail on an unrelated charge, mother - whom she hasn't seen in nine years - getting old and likely to die soon.

A black woman born in the deepest of the Deep outh, in the town of elma, Alabama, Blevins was pulled out of school in the third grade to look after her seven brothers and sisters. Her father had just died. Her mother, Pearlie, was in the fields all day, picking cotton. Lillie had her first child, a boy, when she was 14, and moved south to Mobile, on the hot, sultry, Gulf Coast, shortly after. Over the next decade and a half, six more sons followed. Lillie was an active member of the hallow Baptist Church. But in a world of grinding poverty and limited horizons, no amount of religion could prevent some of her boys, and at times herself, from being tempted by drugs. In the early Eighties, she'd been arrested for growing a "reefer bush" in her garden. Later on, she was arrested for possession of crack. Neither arrest resulted in prison time.

Then, in 1990, three of the Blevins boys, now living in an apartment away from Lillie, were caught up in a federal drug-sweep, turned in by a friend who bartered 28 names to federal agents in exchange for probation. The friend, who had once lived down the road from Lillie, added her name to the list. One morning Lillie was at home. The agents knocked on her front door. he opened it, and they stormed into her house. They found three grammes of crack - she claimed they planted it, they said it was already in the house - and carted the 42-year-old woman off to jail. The snitch said she was in charge of the family operation. Her sons denied that she had any knowledge of their actions.

As of last year, 117,828 people were serving time in federal prisons - convicted in the federal courts for crimes ranging from the murder of a federal employee to drug trafficking across state lines to simple drug dealing in a place where the state police passed the arrest on to federal agents. ix in ten of these inmates are serving sentences for drug crimes. Fully 43,175 are African-American. The sentences are staggering: 28,293 have bought five-to-ten; 18,994 are serving 10 to 15; 8,365 are doing 15 to 20; and 9,493 are locked up for over 20 years. According to the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, these sentences "reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer dollars spent than spending the same amount on enforcement under the previous sentencing regime. And either enforcement approach reduces drug consumption less than putting heavy users through treatment programmes."

They remain in place for political reasons.

It hasn't always been this way. In 1970 the total federal prison population was a mere 21,266, and only 3,384 were in for drugs. As late as 1982, only 5,518 were serving federal prison time for drugs. And then, as Reagan's social policy took root, the numbers began to soar.

The majority of prisoners are poor, black or Latino - although a sizable minority of those serving time in federal prisons on drug charges are middle class, often college graduates (see sidebar on page 17). Between 1986 and 1991 the number of African-American women in state prisons on drug-related charges rose 826 per cent; and by the end of 1999 over one million black men, fully 10 per cent of the African-American male population, will be behind bars. One in four black men in their 20s are in prison, on parole or probation, or awaiting trial. Estimates are that by the year 2020, about one in three black men of all ages will have had some prison experience. ince 1980, according to Human Rights Watch, a staggering 250,000 to 300,000 people have served time in New York state's burgeoning prison system. Last year, according to figures compiled by the organisation, nearly half of new admissions were for drug crimes. The vast majority of prisoners are from New York City. Ninety four per cent of inmates sentenced for drugs in New York are black and Latino, although surveys indicate a similar percentage of whites as blacks are involved with narcotics.

Up until she was sentenced, Blevins didn't believe it could happen to her. "My lawyer said they were talking about a life sentence. But he said I wasn't going to get it. He said there wasn't enough evidence to get me no time," Lillie remembers. "My lawyer didn't represent me good. We paid him about $6,000. My husband gave it to me, and my sister and my mother. Everybody was trying to help out, to give me what they have. I sold my car for $3,000 and gave him that." None of the money helped.

The lawyer put in a cursory defence, and Lillie Blevins suddenly found herself with a life sentence. Prisoner number 04204-003. "I'd never been out of Alabama before I went to prison," she says. "I was sent to a prison in Kentucky, then I got transferred to Texas." Another lawyer put in an appeal. "But I losed it. I losed that about a year after I been in prison. ince then I haven't had anything else. Nobody else been working on it."

Now, the diabetic prisoner spends her days dressed in a khaki uniform, sometimes working as a cleaner in the prison for $5 to $10 a month, sometimes just sitting in her three-person cell. "I still pray," she avers. "Read my bible. Go to the chapel. It's the only thing I can depend on. The only help I got. I pray to get out and see my mother alive. I pray God to get me out of here alive because I don't want to die in prison. I pray to see the 14 grandkids I've never seen. I don't know if I'll get out. I'm just prayin'."

he isn't the only one.

Close to 1,000 miles east of Carswell, the other side of Louisiana and Mississippi, lies the small, rural town of pringville, in northern Alabama, in the heart of Dixie. It is a run-down, cracked-paint-and-trailers community, home to two little meat-and-potatoes restaurants, a gas station, a couple of grocers, a high school and several fundamentalist churches. And it is only three miles, through the woods, from the maximum security prison of t Clair.

In late February the First Baptist Church had a sign up proclaiming "Jesus paid the full penalty for you". Apparently, however, for some Jesus didn't pay enough. And so they are paying the penalty themselves, doing hard time until the end of their days behind the barbed-wire fences and bulletproof glass doors of the large prison.

The visitors' centre at t Clair is up two flights of stairs and behind two sets of computer-operated doors. Unlike in the newer prisons, where visitors and prisoners are seated in tiny cubicles and separated by glass partitions, it is an old-fashioned space, a little like a high-school cafeteria, the kind of place where lovers can pass drugs to their imprisoned mates under the table, where money can change hands, where - despite the signs warning against such things - occasional kisses can be stolen. Visiting hours are unday afternoons, and it is on a unday, after all the other visitors and all the other prisoners have been cleared out, that I am perfunctorily patted down, my briefcase searched and I am ushered through the security doors and into the room.

It is William teve Bonner's birthday. The prisoner, who weighs close to 300lbs and has arms a butcher would be proud of, is 46 years old. His friends Vernon McElroy (prisoner number 102606) and Rex David Norris (143647) are slightly older. All three, plus two others in the prison, are serving life without parole for marijuana dealing. Bonner and Norris were nabbed after "confidential informants" brought large quantities of drugs, from state stashes, to them; McElroy, a good old boy who refers to many of his fellow prison inmates as "niggers", was arrested for possession of a bag of wild hemp, which he claimed didn't contain enough THC to produce a high.

Bonner, the birthday boy, was arrested under a highly dubious "anticipatory warrant". Agents didn't tell the magistrate who issued it that they suspected drugs were already in Bonner's possession; instead they asked for the warrant on the understanding that drugs would be present at Bonner's house at the time of the search - brought into his house by the informant at a pre-arranged time. Previously convicted of motorcycle theft and marijuana possession, Bonner was sentenced, as a habitual offender, to life in prison without parole. (He went from being a well-paid, tax-paying, heavy machinery operator with a three-bedroom house in Tuscaloosa, three children, a wife and hopes for the future, to being prisoner number 112711X in a maximum security facility of t Clair.)

"When I heard the sentence," Bonner's 66-year-old mother, Helen recalls, "I died. I could not believe it. teve is my first-born. It's the hardest thing to visit him and then leave him locked up in an iron cage. It's horrible." A fundamentalist Christian, Helen calls down fire and damnation, plagues and car accidents on those who are responsible for her son's sentence. "When you send a man to prison, you send his family as well," she explains in self- justification. "The sentence isn't just to the one being tried. It's to the whole family as well. We all feel the pain, the torment."

In Mobile, Alabama, Thomas Haas, a long-serving criminal defence attorney, says that he knows "at least 15 people who have got life without parole down here in the last year or two - including one juvenile". Bordering on despair, the sardonic old lawyer says he will no longer represent drug cases such as Blevins or Bonner. "I can't help them," he explains.

Warehousing millions of people for petty crimes has become America's number one public works programme, what the radical sociologist Mike Davis calls "Carceral Keynesianism".

Half a continent away from t Clair, California's incarceration industry is big business. uper-hi-tech prisons are sprouting across the state, no money spared. (Take a drive down any rural highway in the state, whether it be in the mountains of the ierra Madre - the spectacular coastal route of Highway One - or the concrete roads through the inland desert, and you will pass a new prison. Each prison costs hundreds of millions of dollars to build, and guards, represented by the politically powerful Peace Officers Union, are attracted by the relatively high salaries. ays Bruce Gomez, the community resource manager at the 1.7m sq ft super-maximum security Corcoran prison (home to, among others, Charles Manson, and Bobby Kennedy's assassin, irhan irhan) "with a high-school education a correctional officer's starting salary is $2,500 a month. Their counterparts round here make $1,200 to $1,600 a month outside. o it's a real sought-after job."

Behind the razor-wire fences, the deadly electronic barrier (covered with netting to stop the birds from flying into a nasty surprise) the computer-operated gates and the watchtowers, a vast complex is laid out, low-lying under the immense, blue, California sky; concrete blocks - each one housing hundreds of prisoners either confined to a private cell or double-bunked with another inmate - lead on to large exercise yards, watched over by gunners ready, at the first hint of trouble, to set the red alarms off. Deep inside the complex, a series of "pods" contain the "secure housing unit" inmates, men, like Charles Manson, who are segregated and kept in conditions of near-isolation. Even deeper inside are the workshops - a dairy, a metal-working unit, a furniture shop. There is a medical facility and a mental unit, tuck shops and a gym - currently being used to house overflow prisoners. In a real sense this is a town, albeit a highly autocratic and violent town.

California's Department of Corrections estimates the state's prison numbers may hit 300,000 in the not-too-distant future, although recently the state's prison population has shown some signs of stabilising. ince it costs over $20,000 a year to incarcerate one person ($35,000 to incarcerate them in solitary confinement), and over $60,000 to incarcerate and provide medical care for elderly inmates, the Rand Corporation and other researchers have concluded that over the next 20 years, California's investment in its once-vaunted public universities will almost entirely wither away as the state struggles to find money to pay for new prisons and to staff existing ones. And yet, according to prison bureaucrats like Corcoran prison's balding, deputy warden Mike Keller, spending billions on incarceration is a necessary control mechanism.

"Given the state of scientific knowledge right now, it's the best response we could come up with," he says. "Rehabilitation has always been the Holy Grail of corrections. And we haven't found the way to do this, either chemically or through psychoanalysis." As for those caught up in three strikes for minor crimes, Keller has little sympathy. "The guy who stole pizza," he says sarcastically, "if you look at his record he's probably got two violent felonies. It's like the insurance company: they say if you got a speeding ticket, you probably deserve 650 speeding tickets. If he's convicted of three robberies, he's probably done a lot more."

In recent years, California's Department of Corrections, along with those of Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, a handful of other states and the federal prison system's facility at Florence, Colorado, have perfected the panopticon, a control mechanism dreamt up by the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

The panopticon was a space in which a person in a central room could see into every nook and cranny of the institution. California's computerised prisons, built as a series of bleak concrete cell "pods" radiating out from central control rooms, watched over by gunners, surrounded by razor-wire fences and lethal electric barriers, offer little chance of escape. New "level four" institutions at Corcoran, Pelican Bay and High Desert - a prison deep within the mountainous landscape north of Lake Tahoe - have been built specifically to house the worst of the worst, according to Pelican Bay's deputy warden Joe McGrath, to isolate predatory, dangerous prisoners, people who "preyed upon other prisoners and were assaultive". ince the new prisons were created 10 years ago, violence within the prison system has indeed declined.

In Pelican Bay, 40 per cent of the 3,242 inmates are lifers. At any one time, between 1,300 and 1,500 - those deemed a threat to other inmates, those with known gang affiliations - are housed in a secure housing unit. There, behind perforated orange metal doors, they remain isolated in their cells, 8ft by 10ft, for approximately 23 hours a day. When they receive visits - which is rare, since Los Angeles, where most of the prisoners are from, is a 16-hour drive to the south - they meet visitors through a bulletproof glass window. Most are there for an "indeterminate sentence", often for years on end. They eat and defecate in their cells. They exercise, alone, in barren concrete yards, 10ft by 20ft. This is, says Lieutenant Ben Grundy, an African-American and ex-marine, "no picnic. We don't want to make this a fun place for them."

But, fin de siecle America is showing no signs of a new War on Poverty. And so the prison numbers continue to rise. Just how many prisoners is too many in what is a supposedly free society? "I guess I'd have to ask the question: what is the alternative?" McGrath answers slowly. "I'd weigh the cost and I'd weigh the benefit. I'm a civil servant and I'm here to serve the state. If that's what the people want, I'm here to implement that" Above: the multi-tiered cells inside an Quentin Prison, California. Below, left to right: prisoners Vernon McElroy, William teve Bonner and Rex David Norris, all of whom are serving life for marijuana offences Above: the chain gang at Limestone Correctional, Limestone County, Alabama.

Below: queueing up for food in Brocton, an institution for first-time offenders in New York Within these walls

Recent human rights abuses in U prisons

When Pelican Bay was a new prison in the early Nineties, a mentally ill African-American inmate in solitary confinement covered himself in shit and refused to wash. He was "extracted" from his cell by several officers. The prisoner was taken to a room with a bathtub, and he was dumped in. Unfortunately for him, the water was scalding hot. As the officers scrubbed, several of them uttering racial epithets, the skin on his legs began to burn off.

By the time they were finished, the lower half of his body was burnt to the third degree. The inmate sued the prison, and the Department of Corrections was forced to settle up a multimillion dollar lawsuit. Although conditions at the prison have improved, Pelican Bay has also been sued by prisoners in a class-action lawsuit against the use of solitary confinement. Psychiatrists testified it was a form of mental torture. Recently, however, a judge ruled that this was not cruel and unusual punishment, and allowed the practice to continue. Amnesty International has denounced this form of imprisonment.

At Corcoran Prison, guards are alleged, in the early-to-mid Nineties, to have organised gladiatorial combats between rival gang members in the small communal exercise yards of their secure housing unit facility. They then shot the fighters apart. Nine men died and over 50 were injured. Although the new administration denies organised wrong-doing, the statistics suggest otherwise: in 1990, guards fired 306 rounds inside the prison. As late as 1996, they fired 302 rounds. Last year, under the new administration, only 65 rounds were fired.

Last year, guards at a privately run facility in Texas were filmed beating inmates for sport. In the aftermath of the scandal, states that had sent some of their overflow prisoners to the facility brought them home.

Increasingly, private industries are leasing out prisoners for cheap labour. Although inmates have often had to work in prison, the use of this labour for private profit is relatively new and has angered both human rights groups and trade unions leery of being undercut. TWA is just one of the companies involved: over-the-phone air ticket sales are now handled by prisoners. Clothing companies and computer manufacturers have also leaped at the chance to employ, at third-world wages, this captive pool of workers. Bulletproof doors, razor wire and gun towers make modern prisons more secure than Alcatraz