¡Ya Basta!

- February 24, 2014

On the Abuse of Women in NM Prisons

Not one but two impressive Navajo activists came to our Stop the Abuse of Women in New Mexico's Prisons meeting Wednesday night, and what they articulated in terms of values—sharing resources, inclusion, interconnectedness, patience, generosity of heart—and style—gentleness, peacefulness, patience, open-heartedness, deep sharing and song—was enormously valuable. Their reflections, suggestions and musings helped provide a positive and grounding stability to what was at odd moments an almost raucous meeting...yes, a voice or two got raised a time or two.

“What a meeting! That's the kind of passion that gets things done when directed,” Janiece Jonsin of NOW-NM wrote me later that evening, sending along a sketch of what the structures might look like to accomplish the multiple goals that organically emerged bubbling up from our wet and wild circle.

With participants representing or associated with Esperanza Women's Shelter, Amnesty International, NOW-New Mexico, Global Zero, NM Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, One Billion Rising, New Mexico Health Equity Partnership, New Mexico Women's Coalition, St. Elizabeth's Shelter, New Mexico Women's Justice Project, joined with ex-cons, family members of prisoners, college professors, anarchists, former prosecutors, therapists, recovering addicts, brothers in struggle, feminist artists, comic novelists, and a few requisite pains in the ass, we're going to take on the prison-industrial complex here in New Mexico, something that we could never dare do individually.

The song our Navajo abuela spontaneously sang to us was a children's song, the Goat Song. It could not have been more sublime especially given our sense that the Department of Corrections was willing to sacrifice hundreds more scapegoated women to senseless incarceration, rather than use its powers of persuasion, its bully pulpit, its mandate, to address the warehousing of the mentally ill in the prison system and to make crystal clear the need for substance abuse treatment, rather than this insane, shameful and out-of-control caging of people—in New Mexico we have the highest rate of incarceration of women in the nation!
In addition, we have 50 women in what's called “in-house parole,” who are eligible for release but have no place to which to parole, so they languish in prison. According to the June 2013 New Mexico Sentencing Commission Report on Prison Population Forecast, “The number of women serving some portion of their sentence as in-house parolees has increased over time.” Over time? How much time? With all the brilliant and skilled people in this state, why isn't additional staff hired to solve this problem instead of pretending it doesn't exist? If I sound a little strident, well....Why should we have to do this heavy lifting for the lethargic bureaucracy that is the Department of Corrections? Last time I checked my Del Norte Credit Union account, I wasn't receiving a paycheck and pension from the State of New Mexico. 
But whatever the sacrifices, not only are we not going to allow them to snatch hundreds more women and imprison them for shareholder profit, but their blazing cowardice in even suggesting such a shitty outcome has propelled us into conceptualizing and organizing a whole host of planned actions.
Here's just some of what we're going to get done:
  • We're putting together a presentation on the cost-foolishness of the scandalous status quo, and in a few masterful strokes and pie-graphs will demonstrate the economic and moral absurdity of what is being proposed.
  • We're going to blitz the state with this information, if necessary sending carloads of advocates to all 33 counties in the state to awaken the conscience of the people, and if possible, the press and electeds.
  • We're going to be all over the Legislature's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Reform when it resumes meeting in April to support and help guide them as they re-think what constitutes criminality in this state. 75% of the prisoners in Grants are there for non-violent drug offenses.
  • We're going to raise funds to establish a bus service to Grants—we're going to end the geographic isolation of the women locked up there. Perhaps with more traffic coming through, more caring eyes on the prisoners, more questions being asked, abuses such as the ones outlined in Fallen Women and Inside the Box will be more difficult to perpetrate. We're committed to easing the suffering of the women locked away in Grants, even as we work to reduce their number.

Our industry benefits from significant economies of scale, resulting in lower operating costs per inmate as occupancy rates increase. We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue. Our competitive cost structure offers prospective customers a compelling option for incarceration. ~ CCA 2010 ANNUAL REPORT

And near the top of my personal hit parade is kicking Corrections Corp.of America out of Grants and ultimately New Mexico entirely. CCA employs a single lobbyist on its behalf in New Mexico: one Edwin T. Mahr, who according to his Linked-In account long ago parlayed a two-year stint as former Secretary of the Department of Corrections back in the seventies into a career as a “Contract lobbyist for past 33 years, specializing in statutes related to commercial airline industry, privatization of corrections, alcoholic beverages, cell phones and all matters related to business taxes.”

The quirks in the NM lobbying law make it difficult to see what he's doing solely on behalf of CCA, but according to the Justice Policy Institute's June 2011 report, Mahr's been busily wining and dining our electeds (if somewhat on the cheap compared to largesse lavished elsewhere).

To show the challenges facing those trying to “follow the money,” below is one example of one lobbyist in New Mexico, the state with the highest percentage (43.3 percent) of people in prison being held in private facilities. ... In his May 1, 2010 report, Mahr indicated spending on meals and beverages in January and February of $1,938.22, including four dinners with named elected officials and $1,123.01 in undisclosed “lump sum expenditures under $75;” there were also expenditures for an “HB100 Party” and the “Senate Demo Caucus.” In 2011, Mahr reported 10 dinners in January and February with individual legislators or committees totaling $2,033. In these reports, Mahr was not required to report what legislation he was lobbying for, or the cost of his services. Additionally, Mahr represented several other clients, and was not required to identify which client's account paid for each dinner.
New Mexico also requires lobbyists to disclose their political contributions; Mahr made a $200 donation to the re-election campaign of Sen. Tim Eichenberg (D) on 4/25/2011, whose website reads, “A healthy, robust democracy is one in which legislators listen to and are beholden solely to the voters in their districts --not big campaign donors and lobbyists.” Sen. Eichenberg is a member of theJudiciary Committee; two bills he sponsored but which died in committee, S.B. 453 and S.B. 519, would likely have resulted in longer sentences of incarceration and greater costs. Mahr's January 15, 2011 report of political contributions showed 68 donations totaling $20,700, all made either before May 15th or after October 1st; $6,500 of these were noted as being “CCA” donations.

According to Yahoo Finance, the 52-week range of CCA's stock price is 30.37 – 41.40. Today it closed at 32.89, and has been trending downward the past month. Its performance will probably not be aided by Investment Manager Ben Strubel's inclusion of CCA in his feature: Dumb Investment of the Week. Strubel writes:
[CCA] rode the dual wave of the war on drugs and deregulation/privatization (a better term might be "confiscation") of public property and resources in the 1980s into a prominent political and financial force in the prison industry. A wave of overbuilding and lawsuits threatened the industry in the late 1990s, but the terrorist attacks of September 11 and a new focus on locating and detaining so called "illegal" immigrants have vaulted the private for-profit industry to record profits.
We believe the combination of a flawed business model and rampant abuse in the private prison industry will eventually outweigh the lobbying savvy of the companies and lead to the decline of the industry.”

I would let this Wall Street tycoon have the last word if there weren't someone far more deserving—the author of Fallen Women, Silja Talvi, whose in-depth article on the Grants prison concluded with these words:

 “I am tired of being in a cage and being treated like an animal,” is how one Native American prisoner at the Grants women’s prison explained her existence to me. What she described, in that one sentence, sums up the common experiences of people locked away in places where we can’t see or hear what’s going on, even though our hard-earned dollars pay for each and every day they spend behind bars.
What she described, as well, is what happens when criminal “justice” is implemented as retributive punishment versus the ideal of rehabilitation and restoration. Unfortunately, this approach just generates the same old results: more money spent, more jails built, more bodies locked behind bars. New Mexico has already seen enough of this to know it’s not working. The criminal justice system can be reconceptualized and restructured to address more of the underlying reasons why people engage in self- and/or socially-destructive behaviors.
For New Mexico, this isn’t just a timely opportunity to earn national distinction of an entirely different kind, it’s also an opportunity to map out a safer, saner and more stable future for the people who live in and who love this land.

Originally publish on Frances Madeson's blog, "Written Word, Spoken Word"