In an open letter to supporters from the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, where she is serving a five-month sentence for lying to federal investigators in an inside trading investigation, home decorating diva Martha Stewart has called for sentencing reform -- especially for nonviolent and drug offenders. In a Wednesday Christmas message on her web site, Martha Talks (http://www.marthatalks.com), Stewart spoke of the women she was imprisoned with and urged her readers to aid those women by working for sentence reductions.
"I beseech you all to think about these women -- to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking," wrote Stewart. "They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life 'out there' where each person will ultimately find herself, many with no skills and no preparation for living. "
Many of her fellow prisoners had done years behind bars "devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family," she wrote. More than 12,000 women are serving federal prison sentences, the majority of them for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Stewart added that she is surviving her confinement, noting that it gave her time to think, write, exercise, and "not eat the bad food." Welcome to the gulag, Martha.
Stewart's epiphany may be rare but is not unknown among "celebrity" prisoners, although most other converts to prison reform have been political celebrities. The most famous instance is that of former Nixon bag-man Charles Colson, who, after doing time for Watergate-related felonies has devoted his life to his Prison Ministries. Although primarily religiously-based, Colson's group also stakes out a strong stand on sentencing reform.
Former Clinton administration official Webster Hubbell also had a road-to-Damascus experience while sitting in federal prison. At a 1998 conference organized by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (http://www.famm.org), whose theme, appropriately enough, was "Metamorphosis," Hubbell spoke of how, as he sat in his cell like a caged rat, he remembered a day when he had breezily signed an order locking down thousands of prisoners. That, said Hubbell, was the moment he became an agent of change.
Another Democratic politician who belatedly saw the light was former Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who did a short amount of federal time on corruption charges. In an interview with Iowa Public Television conducted after his 1998 release, he pled guilty to helping create a monstrous imprisonment binge. "We don't seem to be winning the war against drugs, but we've put a lot of young people behind bars," he said, adding it was partly his fault for supporting harsh drug laws. "I voted for them when I was in Congress," he said. "I was swept along with the rhetoric on getting tough on crime."