Archive for January, 2014

ideaSome readers of this blog have submitted interesting ideas for your consideration. The first is about drug reform.

Drug Reform Stalls on California Governor’s Veto

Longstanding debate swirls around the nation’s drug policies, especially those related to simple possession.  Under current sentencing laws, certain drug charges classified as felonies carry sentences that don’t seem to match the crimes.  As a result, there has been a steady push to reclassify certain drug crimes as misdemeanors.

In the fall, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have done exactly that in the State, correcting disparities between offenses and punishments, once and for all.

Greater Flexibility for Prosecutors and Judges

Essentially, the California initiative would have given judges and prosecutors more leeway interpreting charges, allowing them to classify certain offenses as misdemeanors, which carry felony charges today.  Instead of lengthy prison sentences, offenders convicted under the new guidelines would be sent to treatment facilities to address drug dependency issues.  Probation and community service would also be applied to sentences in some cases, adding punitive elements as well as rehabilitation requirements.

The law was seen by some as an appropriate measure to alleviate the prison overcrowding problem in California.  Under current statutes, certain recreational drugs like LSD and Meth fall in an intermediate legal area, which may be charged as felonies or misdemeanors.  Drugs like heroin and cocaine, on the other hand, are always subject to felony charges.  The proposed law extended the flexibility to charge these drugs in the same way others are handled, giving judges and prosecutors discretion to issue misdemeanor charges when warranted.

Compelling Arguments from Both Sides

Opponents of the measure pointed to public safety concerns stemming from relaxed drug penalties, leaning on the long held position that prison is an effective deterrent for drug users.  On the other hand, supporters see two major benefits from relaxed sentencing guidelines for simple drug possession.

Felony charges stay with offenders, blocking access to jobs, housing and education required to get them back on their feet.  Supporters of Bill 649 saw less chance for convicts to return to jail if felony records were not imposed for drug offenses.  Instead, misdemeanor charges could be addressed without creating criminal records preventing personal advancement among those charged.

According to proponents, saving valuable resources and directing law enforcement efforts to more pressing areas are additional benefits of relaxing drug possession sentencing standards.

While federal sentencing trends are themselves moving toward greater flexibility for drug possession charges, Brown defended his veto, stating broader reform was on the way for California’s penal system anyway, so changing this single aspect of the system independently does not make sense at this time.

Author Byline:

This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for She welcomes your comments at her email id:


Krista Coleman sends along an interesting infographic, “What Makes a Killer?” Here’s the link: .


In Canada people are meeting the need for those who have a loved one in the criminal justice system. Based on first nations healing ideas, people share their experiences and find strength and hope in the process. See

And you?  How about a blog from you? Nameless if you want. (No names of inmates or prison names may be used without written permission.)

Image courtesy of:

Let’s assume for a moment that prison staff are there to rehabilitate people. And assume that a staff goal is to prepare inmates to lead normal lives in society.

Currently there are several steps in the right direction. However, my experience over twenty years is that the small steps forward don’t seem to last long.

One prison had some sympathy for lifers, mainly those with a life sentence for murder. Off the main hallway, a ten by twenty room sat abandoned except for a sink, an old stove, and a freezer. The lifers’ group asked admin if they could buy their own food and have a meal there once a week.

The warden approved, and soon the freezer was filled with steaks, roasts and ribs.

I watched the men prepare for this…it could only be called a banquet, a royal banquet. Guys who gave the finger to jailhouse jobs worked hard testing recipes and finding real silverware (or making it).

The meal went off without a hitch, that meal and others for over a year. The room got to be called, “The Lifer’s Kitchen.” People tried to up their crime classification so they could join the group.

Of course, like most good things prison does, it died a year later. “What will people think, the convicts are eating T bone steaks?”

In Canada, to give the system credit, minimum security prisoners live in four to six man cottages, and each man gets $35 a week to buy his own groceries.

Several other great self-management programs had similar histories – inmates beg for permission, finally get it, the program is very successful and helps people rehabilitate, and then admin kills it because some in the public object.

Some cases are:

The men developed an empty field into a small golf course for their own use. “Those damn convicts are hanging around playing golf. And we pay for it.” Now community people use the golf course, but inmates can’t.

A tattoo parlor. Inmates decorate an old room in the prison with tattoo posters, and they get an old record player to play anything but elevator music. The warden likes this idea, because only clean needles will be used. Hep C and HIV are practically eliminated. Then, “those damn convicts are getting free tattoos.”

Men and women prisoners ask to grow their own veggies. (Somebody send me a recent example of this in an American prison, but I lost it). Everything is fine – prisons include a lot of land. Then a new security chief is hired and he thinks the garden is a security leak.

Inmates cannot have the internet. But the security chief could set up an “Internal Net” where the prison would put ‘on line’ several informative pages about a whole variety of subjects. This gave the inmates a feel for what the real Internet was like.

Good idea, don’t you think? The idea was vetoed before it got off the ground. Prison officials are deathly afraid of the computers and the Internet.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a story like this – an idea that almost got off the ground, but died at the beginning?


Each of my students in prison affected me in a certain way. I called one man, My Mirror Image.

Davi was about my age, 58 back then. We were similar in artificial ways, about the same weight, the same height etc. But one day he mentioned a word that caught my attention, “Selma.”  He too had been in Selma, marching for the rights of black Americans.

I was a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, he was an American who had entered Canada in a very wrong way. The FBI and the drug squad were literally on his heels, so he took over a rural border crossing with a gun.

As we talked, we discovered that we shared a lot of beliefs, from picketing for the grape boycott to what America should look like.

There were also many differences between us. I went home at night and he didn’t. He was raised by a series of foster homes and I was raised by a loving Irish Catholic family. I did not believe in violence and apparently he did. But the more I talked to him, I knew he could change. It would take time and long discussions about change and freedom and respect. I also knew that nothing in prison was going to help him.

He was an excellent poet, who could put so much in a few lines of poetry, ideas that would take me an essay each to convey.

Canada turned him over to the US, who offered him a deal – give them a list of all his drug connections and he’d get a lighter sentence. He refused and he’s now in his seventies in a federal prison in Oregon. If he’s anything like me in his seventies, doing crime does not seem like a good idea. The cops are not his enemies anymore, type 2 diabetes is.

Crime is individual and prison should be also.

What is your opinion? Should he have given the authorities a list of his drug connections? Could a prison help him?