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With Historic Release of Drug Offenders & Help for Re-entry, US Takes “First Step” on Prison Crisis

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In the largest one-time release of federal prisoners in U.S. history, more than 6,000 inmates have been freed early under a resentencing effort for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Decisions by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year reduced prison terms for certain drug offenses and applied those changes retroactively. Most have been released to halfway houses and home confinement, while close to one-third—about 1,700 people—are undocumented immigrants who now face immediate deportation. The release comes as President Obama has announced a series of steps to help former prisoners readjust to society, including “banning the box”—barring federal agencies from asking potential employees about their criminal records on job applications. We discuss the Obama administration’s steps and the societal challenges for newly freed prisoners with three guests: Susan Burton, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which provides support to former prisoners after their release; Five Mualimm-ak, a former prisoner and founder of Incarcerated Nation Collective, a collective of previously incarcerated people; Victoria Law, a freelance journalist and author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the largest one-time release of federal prisoners in U.S. history. More than 6,000 inmates have been freed early under a resentencing effort for people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Decisions by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year reduced prison terms for certain drug offenses and applied those changes retroactively. The move came as part of an effort to ease prison overcrowding fueled by the harsh crime laws of the 1980s and 1990s. Prisoners eligible under the new guidelines were allowed to apply before a federal judge. The federal government began releasing those who were approved on Friday. Most of the prisoners have not been let go entirely—the majority are living in halfway houses or under home confinement. Close to one-third—about 1,700 people—are undocumented immigrants who now face immediate deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: More releases are expected in the coming months, with more than 40,000 federal drug prisoners eligible to apply. But even a record-breaking one-time release will barely make a dent in the U.S. mass incarceration crisis. With 2.3 million people behind bars, the U.S. jails nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Sixty percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color. A bipartisan criminal justice reform bill recently introduced in the Senate would shorten mandatory minimums for drug crimes, but advocates want the minimums abolished entirely.

On Monday, the final day of the early releases, President Obama unveiled an effort to help the formerly incarcerated. Speaking in Newark, New Jersey, President Obama announced he’s “banning the box”—barring federal agencies from asking potential employees about their criminal records on job applications.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The federal government, I believe, should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications. We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by three guests. We’re joined by Susan Burton. Susan Burton is joining us from San Francisco, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

And joining us here in New York, Victoria Law, freelance journalist, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Her most recent article for Truthout is headlined “After Spending Years in Prison, 2,000 Federal Drug War Prisoners Will Face Deportation.”

And we’re also joined here in New York by Five Mualimm-ak, a human rights and prison reform advocate, founder of Incarcerated Nation Collective, a collective of previously incarcerated people. He spent 11 years, nearly, in New York’s prison system.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Victoria, let’s begin with you. Just lay out what’s taken place, the historic release, but barely making a dent in the U.S. prison population.

VICTORIA LAW: When we look at this historic release, we have to understand that, as you said earlier, with 2.3 million people behind bars, 6,000 barely makes a dent. And the push has been—the safe push, political push, has been to look at people who are convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, which then leaves out huge categories of people who perhaps have violence in their criminal record. And violence doesn’t necessarily mean egregious violence. It might even just mean I’ve done something to you, which may or may not have a—may or may not have a lasting physical impact, but because it’s done onto a person, it’s considered violent. It also leaves a lot of room for the prosecutor to be able to charge—overcharge people to be able to get them to plead guilty. And what we’ve seen with this 6,000 is, again, if we’re not looking at everybody who’s in prison and we’re only looking at a certain segment of the population, we’re not going to be making any inroads into reducing mass incarceration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But even with these numbers, as we noted, about a third of those being released are going to be deported.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that? Have those folks already been deported or are in the process now?

VICTORIA LAW: So, people are in the process of being deported. So, approximately 2,000 people are foreign-born, so—which means that because they did not have the luck of being born on U.S. soil, or their parents were not able to apply for citizenship for them, they—unlike everybody who supposedly is getting a second chance, the 4,000 U.S.-born federal drug war prisoners—don’t get that second chance. So what happens is they are technically discharged from the federal prison system. They don’t get to walk out the gates to their family or their friends, or even get on a bus and go home and see their children. They are instead picked up by ICE and taken to an immigration detention facility, where they await deportation.

And we see that there’s a twisting, a merger of the criminal justice system and the immigration system dating back to 1996, when Clinton passed the [Antiterrorism and] Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and [Immigrant] Responsibility Act, both of which are mouthfuls, which basically expanded the list of criminal offenses which would subject people to detention and deportation. So, something like a drug crime, which mandates one year in prison, now makes somebody eligible for deportation, whereas in the past it was five years. So—

AMY GOODMAN: So there’s a difference between an undocumented person and a, quote, “foreign citizen”?

VICTORIA LAW: Yes, so even if you have legal permanent residency, you’re still subject to deportation, because—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you appeal this?

VICTORIA LAW: You can, and I am not a lawyer, so I don’t want to comment on how likely it is, but you go before an immigration judge, and the judge has to decide what is and is not possible. But also, if you are perhaps not well versed in the law, not well versed in English, you might have a harder time understanding the process and also knowing what your rights are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask Five Mualimm-ak, your response to this mass release, even though it is such a tiny portion of the total prison population?

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Yes. I think that, first of all, you said it and framed it in the right way, that this is a first step in the right direction, but it is a small dent. I would also like to see more previously incarcerated individual organizations who do re-entry being supported, as well. Yes, we do know that this money and this funding will go to organizations who have a résumé of paying more for salaries than they are for services. So I would like to see the—even though we are a part of that—you know, you have Daryl Atkinson, who is a part of the re-entry formation of these projects. But let’s just see those incarcerated also have an input involved in the re-entry of those coming home.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this re-entry issue? You went through it yourself.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And clearly, the president this week attempted to address that issue by ordering at least federal agencies to ban the box.

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Right. Banning the box will, of course, assist those who are returning citizens to be able to find fair employment. Those things are what he’s supposed to do. These are talking about returning citizens who are returning to our community and should be treated like community members, as well. But we’re not talking about full restoration of disenfranchisement. You know, felony disenfranchisement started here in New York state, sad to say. And it’s still a big part of this. Banning the box for higher education—how are we going to teach people to grow without any change, right? We need to have that. I think that that is a small step forward, but a great step in the right direction. We need to see—

AMY GOODMAN: What about—

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: —reforms like this.

AMY GOODMAN: What about housing?

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Housing is one of the bigger issues, right? And that bill you see today leaves it up to HUD to actually come up with recommendations. Now, this is an organization that has historically banned people previously incarcerated and have difficulties. In New York state, you have chronic homelessness, which doesn’t include incarceration. So if you spent 15 years in a state penitentiary, you come home, you’re considered homeless one day. I lived two blocks from here, right at BRC, for two years, where they couldn’t place me because I’m a felon. And they created special housing for that. That’s what we need. We need housing catered to helping those re-enter society, and help them, assisting them into the community, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Does banning the box apply to housing?

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: No, it doesn’t. The allows for HUD to come up with their own regulations and suggestions for dealing with arrests and how people are banned from housing. And they haven’t been too progressive in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Section 8 housing?

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Yes. I have Section 8 housing. I’m one of the only felons in the project who does. And these type of special projects are small. It’s 26 apartment units in my building. And it needs to be changed. And this is why we will be doing other—INC itself will be moving forward to address the issue of re-entry and show America what re-entry really looks like.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in previous public housing policies, at least here in New York, I know that if—even if you had a convicted felon in your family—

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Yes, exactly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —you had a problem with being able to stay in public housing.

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Yeah, you’re not allowed on federal property. You can’t be on government property, no city property. You can’t get a FHA first-time homebuyers’ loan, nothing. So this leaves thousands of people. We have 600,000, over half a million people, returning citizens from state and federal facilities per year. We need to provide for them and think about where are these people going to live. Are they going to live in three-quarter housing, that’s going to feed the privatization and exploitation of people constantly? Or are we going to provide comprehensive services with honest housing, that people can house their family with, as well?

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burton, you’re joining us from Los Angeles. You are part of A New Way of Life Reentry Project.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own story and what you found were the greatest difficulties to re-enter society after you were imprisoned.

SUSAN BURTON: So, my five-year-old son was killed by a LAPD detective. After that, I used drugs, used alcohol, and was incarcerated. And for the next 15 years, I was in a cycle in and out of prisons, and, leaving prisons, not able to access any help.

In 1997, someone helped me, and I was able to get my life on track. Someone helped me in a higher-income area of Santa Monica, California. And what I found there is people in that community were able to access so many different types of services. And I’m from South L.A., and I couldn’t understand why there was such a buffet of services in Santa Monica and actually none in South L.A., where it was so badly needed.

So I returned, after getting help with my grief and with my addiction, to South L.A. and got a little, small bungalow and began to welcome women leaving prison into that bungalow. So, today, we have over—we’ve helped over 850 women return back from prisons and jails. But the discrimination and the systemic barriers are just a lot to actually have to work through—too much to have to work through. Once you have served your prison sentence, you should not be—we should not be excluding people from basic living needs and services, such as housing, such as jobs, such as family reunification.

So, you know, I wanted to go to school. I was banned from getting aid back in 1998 when I tried to get into a nursing school. They told me I would never be able to be a healthcare provider. And coming back into the community, you want to be able to be an asset, a viable asset to your community.

And what is also so striking to me is that we spend hundreds of thousands a year on a person just warehousing and incarcerating them. In California, it runs out about $67,000 a year, depending on how healthy you are, up into the hundreds of thousands. And when you get back to the community, you can’t get any types of supports or services. It just doesn’t make sense to us—to me. And, you know, my thought is: What are we doing here? Women are the largest-growing segment of the prison system, and California houses the biggest women’s prison in the world. And my thought is: What are we doing here?

And, you know, I agree with the other speakers today: This release is only a start. And we have people who have been prosecuted so many different types of ways to say that they’re violent. And, you know, I believe in rehabilitation, not only for drug addiction, but for other areas. And we cannot continue to warehouse people and not provide levels of rehabilitation, re-entry services, training, jobs, and allow them to be an asset and add to this economy in America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Victoria Law back into this discussion. There was a recent New York Times article talking about the heroin epidemic in various communities around the United States and how suddenly there was this gentler approach to dealing with drug addiction. But what they didn’t say, these are largely white communities, compared to how the government was dealing a few decades ago with the mandatory sentences for drug convictions that mostly affected black and brown communities.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. I mean, so what we’re seeing now is that we’re talking about having a kinder, gentler, more merciful, second-chance approach, because we’re seeing it—we’re seeing white, middle-class, more affluent communities being affected—which is not to say that there weren’t drug addiction problems and substance abuse problems in those communities before. But now we’re seeing this come to the forefront, and people are saying, “I don’t want my child locked up. You know, my child is a good child. So he or she should get a second chance.” Whereas these same people might have looked at this issue 10 years ago and said, “Well, I think this person is a criminal based on all these racist stereotypes I’ve been fed from day one, since I, you know, was learning how to read, write and imbibe media.”

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up, Five, your first day out of prison, describe what happened.

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Dropped off at 42nd Street, Times Square. Spider-Man’s fighting the Statue of Liberty. I’m navigating through that, have to make it to parole. Majority of people don’t make it past that point.

AMY GOODMAN: How much money do you have in your pocket?

FIVE MUALIMM-AK: I have $40 and a bus ticket receipt, right? This is what they give you when you’re released. Thousands of people, roughly 2,000 people, per year is released directly from solitary confinement, like myself, right into the bus station. I had a panic attack that time, ended up going to the hospital that day. Majority of people then have to go from parole, and the majority then are shipped off to Wards Island, where we’re isolating for people previously incarcerated and moving them over to another entire island. And then, from there, I went to Bellevue, and then, from there, to BRC, because of my mental illness. But that was after spending months of cycling in and out of Bellevue, because it’s just an overnight shelter. So that means you’re there for the night, and you have to take everything that you own and make it through the day and find somewhere or whatever you have to do for your appointments.

And this is how it’s unnavigated, unsupported, and we are hopelessly in this country and unequivocally financially addicted to caging our citizens. So we’re going to face this problem every day. And we have—like I said, we over half a million returning citizens. How are we addressing that? You have organizations like INC, myself, JustLeadership, Center for New Leadership, as well, who address these issues from a population directly impacted. Are they being supported? No. We’re one of the most unsupported organizations and underfunded businesses there, because funders don’t direct—don’t fund organizations who do direct service. The catch-22 is that people previously incarcerated are exempt from direct services.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will continue to follow this story, of course. Five Mualimm-ak is the founder of Incarcerated Nation Collective. Victoria Law, we will link to your articles. And thank you very much to Susan Burton, who founded and heads A New Way of Life Reentry Project, speaking to us from Los Angeles.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. We’ll speak with the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Charlie Savage. Stay with us.

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