Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) has introduced a bill in Congress that would reinstate parole for federal prisoners. Since federal parole was ended by congressional crime-fighters in 1986, federal prisoners have had to serve 85% of their sentences and the federal prison population has skyrocketed, with drug offenders largely driving the increase. The Mink bill (H.R. 5296 this year) would make federal prisoners "eligible for release on parole after serving one-third of [their sentences] or after serving ten years of a life sentence (other than a life sentence imposed by the court without possibility of parole) or of a sentence of over thirty years, except to the extent otherwise provided by law."
While the bill, which was introduced on July 27, currently lacks cosponsors and is unlikely to move this year, it marks the first significant effort by Congress to undo the damage done by the last fifteen years of harsh mandatory minimum sentences and no parole.
In remarks introducing the bill, Mink told Congress that, "In the rush to close the revolving door for repeat offenders, Congress slammed the door on all nonviolent offenders. Today, individuals in prison have little hope. Many serve 5, 10, 20 and even 30-year sentences without the possibility of parole. They have no encouragement to take classes or any other steps to improve themselves. Congress needs to find a way to help individuals who have paid their debt to society and were given excessive sentences due to mandatory sentencing laws," she said.
In her remarks, Mink cited the case the case of Terri 'Chrissy' Taylor, a Hawaii resident sentenced to a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for her role as bit-player in a methamphetamine case. "Chrissy never dealt, trafficked or manufactured drugs," said Mink. "She was convicted of purchasing legal chemicals with the 'intention' of using them to manufacture methamphetamine. "We need to make sure no one is forced to spend years in prison without any hope."
"Finally, a beginning," said Nora Callahan of the November Coalition (http://www.november.org), a group composed of prisoners, their friends, relatives, and supporters that is working to end drug war injustice. "This is the first legislation introduced that would broadly address the injustice of the drug war, said Callahan. "This bill would give immediate relief to thousands of drug war prisoners," she said.
"Patsy Mink talked about hope," Callahan continued. "The day a prisoner steps foot into prison, he should be able to begin working on the day he comes home. But when it's a 19-year-old staring at 30 years or a middle-aged mother expected to essentially serve the rest of her life in prison, there is no hope."
Currently, nearly 100,000 people are serving lengthy mandatory minimum drug war sentences in the federal prison system. "They have to build a new federal prison every month just to stay at 33% over capacity," said Callahan. "They would need a new prison every two weeks just to end overcrowding."
The bill is already having an impact among prisoners, according to reports from the gulag. Gary Callahan, warehoused for 27 years for a cocaine conspiracy at FCI Seagoville in Texas, reported that, "the Mink bill is the most copied document in Seagoville history." Another prisoner, Mike Montalvo, serving a life sentence for drug conspiracy at USP Pollack in Louisiana, called the bill "the best thing we've seen in the last 15 years."
In some prisons, where they have active Toastmasters Clubs, prisoners are preparing presentations discussing the bill and teaching other prisoners how they can help their family members lobby for support of this bill, the November Coalition reported. Many of its prisoner members are beginning letter writing campaigns to newspapers nationwide. "In a California federal women's prison," said the November Coalition's Chuck Armsbury, "prisoners are passing out the petition, talking about the issues, and doing it through some of their drug treatment or counseling classes."
With the introduction of the Mink bill and an ongoing November Coalition petition drive seeking an end to drug war injustice circulating inside the prisons, the prison rumor mill is going into overtime, according to reports from prisoners. "Rumors about early release are always floating around," said Armsbury. "For years, we've taken calls from prisoners asking about this or that early release rumor. But we decided we should turn rumor into reality. Our petition is an organizing tool designed to show Congress there is public support for redressing this injustice."
The November Coalition has taken criticism from some quarters for giving prisoners false hope, said Nora Callahan. "There is no such thing as false hope," she said. "Hope makes us human, hope give us the energy to do the long, hard work of activism. We are only at the beginning, but without a beginning there can be no end," Callahan added.
Callahan declined to say when the Mink bill might pass. "No one is so naïve to think that this bill will be easy to pass or pass quickly, nor can I predict when it might pass. When it passes depends on us, on how many people will work to build public support," she said. "We think we can get broad support. In our months of gathering signatures, we found that most people are horrified when they find out that there is no parole for federal prisoners."
While the Mink bill is not a comprehensive assault on the injustices of the drug war -- it does not address sentencing, arbitrary prosecutions or the use of informants -- reformers see it as bringing a measure of relief to drug war prisoners. But Armsbury and Callahan also pointed out that something needs to be done to aid the transition of hundreds of thousands of drug war prisoners back to their communities in the next few years. "The first set of 20-year mandatory minimum offenders are nearing their release dates," said Callahan, "and thousands more will follow."
There is currently a bill in Congress, the Public Safety Ex-Offender Self-Sufficiency Act of 2002 (H.R. 3701), which could ease those transitions. Introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and cosponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), among others, the bill would allow for a temporary tax credit for providers of low-income housing for ex-convicts fresh out of prison.
Visit http://thomas.loc.gov for information on H.R. 5296, H.R. 3701 or any other federal bill. Visit http://november.org/projects/relief/relief.html to join the November Coalition's petition drive "to end drug war injustice." Visit http://www.november.org/thewall/cases/taylor-c/taylor-c.html to read more about Chrissy Taylor.