Out of Control: Chapter 21–The Work Quadruples, 1993

Our committee had grown. By 1993 we had perhaps 15 very active people with scores of supporters who helped out in various ways. Around the time of the Gulf War we were joined by two new members—Fay Dowker and Jerome Gauntlett. Both astrophysicists, she from England and he from Australia, they had come to Chicago together to work at the Fermi Lab. Their friend and colleague David Castor had been an early member of the Committee until he moved east to become part of the faculty at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He continued to contribute from there, along with his wife Jenny Traschen, and set up the first and only website we ever had, back in the internet dark ages of the 1990s. Jenny had a radio show and would frequently interview CEML members on prison issues. When David learned that Fay and Jerome were coming to Chicago, he suggested they check out the work of our committee.

Fay and Jerome had a passion for social justice, joined the Committee to lend a hand, and threw themselves into the work. When she wasn’t giving speeches about black holes and time travel, Fay worked with Glenn Good researching Control Units. They wrote a substantial and important piece that we reproduced—From Alcatraz to Marion to Florence: Control Unit Prisons in the U.S.

By now we were operating on several fronts: to change the water at Marion, to stop Florence from opening, to end the abuses at Westville, and now preventing a new proposed control unit prison in our own backyard. It was like sticking a thumb in a dike, only to see it spring another leak. But that didn’t stop us. We felt like we were fighting an ideological battle, trying to influence people to see things differently and then act on this new vision. Still no funds, staff or office—but persistent passion.

In terms of the water campaign, although the BOP was clearly involved in feet-dragging, it did seem like victory, if way overdue, was at least at hand. On Valentine’s Day, Jerome wrote a letter of inquiry to the warden. A response about three weeks later stated that the construction of the Water Treatment Plant was “substantially completed.” When everything was “100%” they would request approval from the Illinois EPA, with their target date of April 30.

There seemed to be a national conversation generating about imprisonment. The American Friends Service Committee reprinted their 1993 pamphlet “The Lessons of Marion: The Failure of a Maximum Security Prison” with a new introduction by Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. He pointed out that:

Two decades of “get tough” policies have created conditions that make alternative options very difficult to implement. The advent of mandatory sentencing laws, the impact of the “war on drugs,” and the vast increase in prison capacity have put into place policies and constraints that create a momentum for ongoing expansion of the prison system.

In March, I received a form letter from Paul Simon, the liberal U.S. Senator from Illinois announcing that he was joining a conference in April in Nebraska titled “American Prison and Sentencing Policy: Developing a National Agenda.” His letter recognized that the U.S. prison population had increased over 125% between 1980 and 1990 with “corrections” spending almost doubling, and it acknowledged that with more than one million people in jail and prison, the U.S. had the highest number of people in prison in any nation, and an incarceration rate higher than any industrial nation. He did not address any of the racial disparities, but at least he was advocating a change in policy and a search for alternatives. (Two months later the Chicago Defender printed a commentary by Simon, Prison system has failed US, May 10, 1993).

Also in March I received a questionnaire from U.S. Congressman Sidney Yates seeking my opinion about various issues, none of them imprisonment. I took the opportunity nonetheless to share some of my thoughts. Shortly thereafter I received a letter stating that he was:  “unfamiliar with the issue of the federal prison facility in Florence, Colorado. I will, however, pay close attention to any developments which are in any way related to this matter. You can be sure I will remember your thoughts as the House debates these issues further…”

Kastenmeier, who had helped us in the water campaign, lost his re-election bid after about 30 years in office. We decided to contact him, and I volunteered, since I had once campaigned for him as a student in Madison. I reached him easily and he was quite forthcoming in conversation, dispelling my firmly-held notions of politicians. The truth is, he said, that Congress is not interested in prison reform; the Senate not at all, the House from time to time at most. Our best bet, he advised, was to build a coalition of groups and then approach the new Clinton-appointed Attorney General, Janet Reno.

He said that he personally did not support the lockdown, but it had been made clear to him that it was not for his committee to run the prison for the BOP. He could only nudge them to terminate the lockdown, to encourage them not to make it a permanent feature. He had heard about the new prison in Florence and was told it would be different, but he was sure the greatest priority would be supervision and management, not the prisoners’ welfare, so it probably would not be significantly different from Marion.

Kastenmeier also said he did not believe that the lockdown had ended the violence at Marion, rather that there were other unspecified factors. However, he reported that the BOP convinces legislators that prisoners are more violent than in the past, and that in a less restrictive setting they would return to killing and violence. He thought those arguments needed to be confronted in “a civilized debate.”

Finally, in terms of his old committee, he suggested I contact Pat Schroeder, Congresswoman from Colorado. I explained to him that I had already spoken with her, that she was friendly but said, quite frankly, it was not a good political move for her to do anything about prison reform if she wanted to be re-elected. Even suggesting funding for nighttime basketball for teens brought criticism from her constituents. Kastenmeier said he was sorry to hear that, although there was a certain amount of truth in what she said. I quietly wondered if he thought that had something to do with his failure to be re-elected. It reminded me how difficult it is to be a principled human being and a politician.

The bulk of the work around Florence was now being done by the Coalition to Shut Down Control Units, a statewide organization in Colorado, and Edele Corrine kept us apprised of their work. That said, we were still involved and continued to pursue our congressional campaign regarding Florence. Our focus on Congress was never exclusive, because we realized that only through grassroots activism—people in the streets—could we hope to get any action from the politicians on these issues. We had to build a movement of people to challenge the dominant ideology regarding imprisonment.

In any event it was back to Kinko’s. We were taking our copying skills to another level. This time we put together extensive packets of materials for members of Congress that included:

  1. Amnesty International Report on Marion;
  2. United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners;
  3. Our letter to BOP Chief Quinlan requesting answers to our specific questions regarding Florence;
  4. Specific questions posed about Florence;
  5. Fact Sheet on Proposed Prison in Florence;
  6. Flyer on Uranium Contamination in the area of Florence;
  7. Denial of our Freedom of Information Act request regarding Florence;
  8. Response to the Freedom of Information Act denial;
  9. Letter from Mr. Dan Dove of the BOP;
  10. Our response to Mr. Dan Dove’s letter.

We also sent four-page letters regarding Florence to Attorney General Reno, BOP Director Dr. Kathleen Hawk, and a copy to President Bill Clinton—everything by certified mail. I mailed my letters on March 27 and received a reply from an assistant director with the Federal BOP. It was filled with the usual platitudes and the ultimate reference to the alleged constitutionality of it all—blah blah blah. Around the country our friends wrote to their congressional representatives, who then contacted the BOP. The congress members often forwarded the BOP’s response to their constituents, who invariably sent them on to us. These responses had the same uniform arguments. We lived in parallel worlds, as can be seen in our letter to Attorney General Reno and the response of Thomas Kane, a person with the impressive title of “Assistant Director for Information, Policy and Public Affairs.”

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