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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

By Laura Whitehorn

I had thought I'd be gone to a halfway house by now, since I'm only five months from my mandatory release date. But it seems the decision on releasing me has been relegated to "a higher authority." This reminds us, once again, that the u.s. "doesn't have any political prisoners" until it comes time to release one of us, or sentence us, or make any other decision regarding us.

When I finally walk out of prison, I will leave behind six other women political prisoners here at FCI Dublin: Puerto Rican independentistas Dylicia Pagan, Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez and Carmen Valentin, and Northamerican anti imperialists Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans. Each of us has years of stories of the particularized treatment political prisoners receive.

One example of such treatment has become generalized to all prisoners in the years since our arrests in 1980 and 1985. When we were sentenced, we were all given extraordinarily long terms, especially for first time defendants. Now, of course, long sentences for first offenders are the rule rather than the exception.

Women prisoners in the federal system are a group especially hard hit by this aspect of the new sentencing structures. Most readers of PLN probably watched the film Snitch on PBS. It was an excellent expose. It touched on the situation of many women who were swept up in bogus "conspiracies" in order to satisfy the feeding frenzy of law and order sharks. But there's much more to be said and done about these women and their cases.

The federal prisons are full of young women locked away, on their first offense, for 15, 24, 35 years and more. Most of them were wives or girlfriends, often of older men. Some had no involvement at all, just failed to turn their man in. Others may have made a phone call, or passed on a message as instructed by their man. Many suffer from "battered wife syndrome;" others, merely from naivete. A lot of these women are African- American in numbers way out of proportion to the population, as well as to the profile of actual drug users and dealers in this country. Most of the women have young children at home.

One of my cherished friends here has a multiple life sentence plus twenty years. Like many others, not a single piece of hard evidence of drugs was turned up in her case no actual cocaine, just tales of drug transactions. And, like many other cases, the men who got on the stand to tell the tales received extravagant reductions in the sentences they had received for repeated offenses. my friend's case was her first; she'd never even heard of conspiracy laws before.

What I'm describing is not new to any reader of PLN . The fact that federal law allows the admission into evidence of uncorroborated testimony, and uses such testimony to convict bit players or suspected bit players in a "conspiracy" to the same sentence as a "kingpin" all of this has been exposed, and hopefully, is being protested and fought more and more these days. What is less known, less visible, is the particular impact all of this has on women, and therefore on families and communities across the country.

The families and communities bear much of the brunt of the punishment. The removal of the mothers to federal prison exacerbates the problem: many women are hundreds and thousands of miles from their families, since there are only four federal prisons for women. The cost of visiting prohibits many women from ever seeing their children once the prison gates close behind the women. African- American, Latino and Native American communities are forced to withstand yet another blow, as disproportionate numbers of their young women are stolen from them and locked away.

Some years ago, feminists in Massachusetts and elsewhere took up the issue of battered wives imprisoned for attacking their batterers. I believe it is time for feminists to take up the issue of women locked up for when you get right down to it the "crime" of falling in love with the wrong man. One friend of mine, serving upwards of fifteen years on her first offense, blew her chances of acquittal by agreeing to take the weight for her previously-twice-convicted boyfriend. Feminists need to look at how painfully these imprisoned women bear the weight of women's oppression. Feminists need to fight for justice for these sisters, to bring them back to their children and their communities.

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