07/01/09 - Jamie Fellner

Jamie Fellner, senior counsel, US Human Rights Watch + DTN editorial & song "Stash of Bags"

Program: 
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Date: 
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Guest: 
Jamie Fellner
Organization: 
Human Rights Watch
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Cultural Baggage, July 01, 2009

Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

It's not only inhumane it is really fundamentally Un-American... "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR"

My Name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs - legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Hello my friends welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. A bit later we’ll hear some Drug Truth Network editorial and some other celebrations of liberty, if you will. But first up today we have the senior counsel for the US Division of Human Rights Watch and a member of the Nation Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Let us welcome Jamie Fellner. Hello, Jamie.

Jamie Fellner: Thank you for having me join you.

Dean Becker: Well, Jamie, it’s an honor to have you, to speak with such a knowledgeable young lady. I thank you for all your work. I did a little studying and you have been involved in trying to reframe our prisons and our justice system overall for well over a decade, right?

Jamie Fellner: This is true.

Dean Becker: What caught my attention, there was a recent editorial, op-ed, in the Houston Chronicle. It was titled up: Jails Must Take Measures to Stop Prisoner Sex Abuse. Let’s talk about the magnitude of that on a national basis first.

Jamie Fellner: I’d be delighted. You know, prison rape, whether it be committed by staff or by other inmates is an appalling crime and for too long, though, this country has treated it as the subject of jokes or the subject of indifference and you know, the sort of common phrase – well, you know, if can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

Finally, I think, we’ve seen a real change in public attitudes and in the attitudes of correctional officials to realize that when someone is sent to prison, rape shouldn’t be part of their sentence.

Dean Becker: No. I mean, the imprisonment should be the whole sum of the punishment.

Jamie Fellner: Exactly. The loss of liberty is the punishment and nothing further. But too many people have, in fact, been abused. Now, we are still trying to get at the actual numbers.

The Bureau of Justice statistics has done a survey and came up with 60,000. This doesn’t count juveniles who have a higher rate of abuse than adults, but we think even 60,000 in the last year is under-reporting because too many prisoners are still wary of acknowledging that they have been abused. In fact, under-reporting has always been a huge problem.

Dean Becker: Isn’t it also true that in many instances they may feel compelled to report what has happened but through the lack of follow-through by the prison officials – the lack of any reconciliation of the situation – they just remain silent because they know not much will happen.

Jamie Fellner: Well, you are absolutely right. Many prisoners don’t report because they think nothing will happen. But, worse, many prisoners don’t report because they think there will be – you know, really strong problems will follow that reporting.

Either, they will be retaliated against if they have reported a staff member, or let’s say they reported another prisoner who happens to be a gang member; either way the may face retaliation and they don’t believe that the prison officials will protect them.

Or, the protection will amount to being put into isolation, which is the same thing you do when you are punishing somebody in prison. So, you know, here you are the victim and you are being isolated.

Finally, you know nobody wants to be known as a punk in the prison culture and there’s the belief that if you report you will get labeled and officials will not keep your victimization secret and then you have all the consequences of being called a punk, which invites further attacks by – especially if it’s by – inmates.

Dean Becker: You know, I don’t have any reporting by state, I understand that Texas has improved and I want to tell you a quick story. Back about 1972, a couple of my associates were caught up by a snitch for two marijuana cigarettes.

One of them wound up doing sixty days in county, the other did, I think, five years probation and the third one – the gentleman who had purchased the marijuana, 17 years old, weighed about 120 pounds – and he was going to be sentenced. The morning that he was to be sentenced, he knew what he was facing because his lawyer had told him – he went up in his tree house and he put a bullet in his head.

This was back at the time when the bosses of the tank – the BT’s – ran the Texas prisons. He knew what he was in for. I miss him – Ed – but I don’t blame him. It’s another spin off of our – draconian measures we use.

Let me tell you another quick story: There was a young lady about two weeks ago went to the Harris County Jail lock up. She was in there for marijuana. She was sentenced to twelve days and on the third or fourth day there, she died. Thus far, the authorities haven’t told us how or why. But, we are over doing it insofar as how we treat people who do, at least minor amounts of drugs – would you agree with that?

Jamie Fellner: Well, I think you are bringing up two issues which are separate but actually deeply connected in our criminal justice system. The one is who do we send a prisoner – for what reasons do we send people to prison and I absolutely agree with you that in this country…

Well, let me back up. Prison should be a last resort. Prison should be where you send people who have committed such serious crimes that public safety simply cannot be protected and values affirmed by anything less than incarceration.

We have lost sight of that and you see that two-thirds of people sent to prison in this country are sent for non-violent offenses and most of them relatively minor. You mentioned, you know, possession of a small amount of drugs, and I don’t care you know, if it’s a quote hard drug or if it’s marijuana.

The other issue which you have raised is: what are the conditions inside the prison. And the conditions inside US prisons are pretty damn bad quite frankly. Partly because we are sending too many people so they are over crowded. There’s not enough staff. There is not enough treatment.

And, whatever the purpose of prisons is, in theory, has been obliterated in practice because there these swollen, barren warehouses crammed full of people. So, you know, you sort of need to proceed on both fronts at the same time. You can’t really solve the problem of what goes on inside prisons, fundamentally, until you reduce the number of people being sent to prison.

But, that being said, prison officials have an obligation to ensure the protection of those individuals who are committed to their care. That is a fundamental legal, moral, ethical and human rights obligation and too many prisoners in this country are not protected and that is just totally unacceptable.

Dean Becker: Exactly. Friends, we are speaking with Jamie Fellner. She is senior counsel for the US division of Human Rights Watch and Jamie, I want to quote a little bit from your op-ed in the Houston Chronicle:

The commission learned from corrections officials, survivors of rape advocates and academics that prisons become rife with rape only when officials fail to take rape seriously and do not institute sensible measures to prevent and punish it.

That kind of goes back to what you initially opened with: that it is treated so perversely, so lightly - that “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” – et cetera.

Even Frito Lay commercials make fun of that situation with the innuendo that someone is going to get anally raped – it’s just too… it’s just too outrageous; I don’t even know the words.

Jamie Fellner: I do think, I do think there is a change. I think it was 7 Up was going to do a commercial which involved using the sort of anal rape situation in a shower in prison as a premise for it and there was a lot of public protest and they dropped it.

Officials around the country, because of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, are taking it much more seriously. And the good news is the steps that they take to address prison rape – especially if they adopt the commission’s recommendations – our standards – will not only help reduce prison rape, they will help reduce… They will help improve prison management generally and protect prisoners more generally.

That is what I think is tremendously exciting about the standards that the commission came up with: that it offers sort of a toolbox for better run prisons that are run in the sense of being safer, more humane – both for prisoners as well as staff because staff are at risk in a badly run prison, too.

Dean Becker: Once again quoting from your op-ed:

All too often, perpetrators are allowed to simply walk away as in the recent case of a principal at a Texas correctional school who subjected his charges to long term and repeated abuse. He resigned quietly and became principal at a charter school in another part of the state.

Jamie, this is like a mutual absolution society: that these guys can walk away from what out here in the real world would subject them to long prison sentences. How do we go about holding these officials accountable?

Jamie Fellner: Well, part of it is you need to know what they have done. All too often abusive, either outright abusive action by officials or the failure to respond to the abusive action by, let’s say, your subordinates – the public doesn’t know about it.

But, we did eventually find out about what was going on in the Texas youth system and, again – you need more public caring. You know, I have always found hard to understand why people think that a person is their neighbor as long as they live next to them and a member of the community. But when they are sent to prison, suddenly they are not part of the community any more.

They are still part of your community. They are still someone’s brother or mother or daughter or cousin and they still… And so the public that remains outside needs to care about how they are treated.

As long as the public, you know, I am saying, it’s not just the responsibility of the officials and it’s not just the responsibility of inmates and staff to, you know, follow the law and treat each other with respect. It’s also the responsibility of the public to care about what goes on and to insist that those who break fundamental rules are held accountable.

Dean Becker: Here is another article I grabbed off of the Human Rights website: In a 24 page report read under state prison super maximum state confinement in Virginia, you guys documented the unnecessary and abusive use of physical force at the prison and that is all too often forgiven, if you will – that anything is appropriate as along as they maintain order. But, they over do it in too many instances, right?

Jamie Fellner: Well, that report is a number of years old but yes - they are still all too many across the country - not just Virginia. I am sure it’s true in Texas, as it’s true in California, that’s true in Ohio or wherever.

All too often, staff use too much force against an inmate and they are not held accountable because it will always be said that said that was the force that was necessary. It gets in essence, I wouldn’t say covered up, just nothing is done and there is not enough effort to train staff how to talk down, you know, calm down an agitated prisoner, for example.

These cases from Florida, you’ll have prisoners in their cells, they cannot harm anyone, they are in their cells, but they are yelling and they are banging and they are making noise - so, they get tasered. I mean, there is absolutely no excuse for tasering someone in their cell, yet this happens. Or, they get chemicals sprayed on them.

Because staff use force instead of using - you know, how with kids, we tell them, use your words? Use your words; don’t use your fists… Well, I think too many staff aren’t taught how to use their words to manage inmates and they are not taught.

You know – too many prisons aren’t operated on systems of mutual respect meaning that staff have to respect inmates as human beings just they way inmates have to respect staff as human beings. There is kind of this loss of understanding of each others humanity that goes on in all too many prisons.

Dean Becker: When we invaded Iraq and when we filled the prison there and Abu Grave and the abuses that were brought forward by the pictures and we all became aware of the, you know, guard dogs used to intimidate people and parading them naked and stacking them in the hallways and all that. It’s not so distant from what has happened many times before in the United States, right?

Jamie Fellner: Well, you know, I’m not one of those who agrees with that. I think there certainly have been horrors in US prisons and there still are horrors in US prisons but those are for the most part not sanctioned conduct.

It’s not that the head of the prison has said, “Go for it, guys, do this…” What you had in Abu Grave, and I think it’s important to remember this: you had policies, you had a green light from the head of the federal government – and if not Bush, it was Cheney, take your pick as who was the real head of the government…

Dean Becker: Yes, I agree…

Jamie Fellner: And so it’s – you know, we don’t – I don’t think there is – certainly prisoners have dogs attack them and you have had intimidation of prisoners in US prisons with dogs and you have had sexual humiliation but the kind of green light that was given from the highest down that we saw at Abu Grave I have to that is not what happens in US prisons.

Dean Becker: OK and I can agree with that but, then again, at least in part…

Jamie Fellner: And let me add that one of the things that happened when the Abu Grave photos came out, you know they – the government said ‘Oh, these are rogues, you know, and we are going to hold them accountable.’

These weren’t rogues. This was policy. And, you don’t have the policy in US prisons to do this. People may do it and then it may be covered up – but it is not policy and I think that is a hugely important distinction.

Dean Becker: Now, there is – today’s, actually, editorial in the Houston Chronicle, the US Supreme Court had issued a ruling that upholds the right of a criminal defendant during trial to confront the analysts who prepared the forensic report. It’s necessary to open up this whole can worms to expose every aspect of our justice system to scrutiny, isn’t it?

Jamie Fellner: Well, I’m no expert on that – on trials as such, but I think, certainly in Houston, haven’t you had major problems with the crime lab making all kinds of errors with, if I am not mistaken , I think it was Houston…

Dean Becker: Yes.

Jamie Fellner: And people shouldn’t be - given how much importance is placed on DNA evidence in trials, people shouldn’t be convicted on error. I was actually, speaking of DNA evidence, I think it was a poor decision by the US Supreme Court just a few days ago saying that a prisoner does not have the right to get a hold of DNA evidence and have it tested.

And I think that is very troubling because there have been huge advances in DNA testing over what there was even ten years ago and if you are in prison and you are innocent and you think the DNA could prove that for you, you should be able to get it tested. Now, most states have mechanisms to let you get – test your DNA but some states don’t and I think that is very troubling.

Dean Becker: Well, it is. It constrains justice in my opinion.

Jamie Fellner: Absolutely, justice is supposed to be about innocence and guilt and sometimes I think people forget that.

Dean Becker: Yeah, OK, Jamie. We have got just a couple of minutes left, and I want to talk about Human Rights Watch. What’s on your plate now, what is next?

Jamie Fellner: Well, we continue to work on a range… Well, Human Rights Watch as Human Rights Watch works on human rights issues all around the world. I mean, whether it be Nigeria or China or North Korea or, you know, we are every where.

The US program focuses primarily on criminal justice issues and problems with immigration laws in the United States. So, we have done a lot of work on racial disparities in the war on drugs, which we will continue to do.

We have done a lot of work on mental illness and the fact that so many people sent to prison are mentally ill and do not get in prison the treatment – either mental health treatment – or just treatment in its normal sense of the word – that they need and deserve as human beings.

We do work on the death penalty. We cover a range of issues – it’s rather amazing - and I urge all of your listeners to go to our website which is www.hrw.org and move around. You’ll find whatever your concerns are, I think you will find something that we have written or are addressing that responds to them.

Dean Becker: Well, alright. Once again, folks, we have been speaking with Jamie Fellner, senior counsel US Division of Human Rights Watch and a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Jamie, thank you so much for your time and I hope that Human Rights Watch continues to monitor and bring focus to bear on these important issues.

Jamie Fellner: We will and thank you for your kind words and for letting me have a chance to talk with you.

Dean Becker: Alright, Jamie, thank you.

Jamie Fellner: Take care, bye bye.

[PSA]

It's time to play Name That Drug by its Side Effects!

Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, incarceration, erotic lustfulness, loss of motor control, loss of clothing, loss of money, loss of virginity, delusions of grandeur, table dancing, dehydration, dry mouth and a desire to sing karaoke and play all night rounds of strip poker, truth or dare and naked twister. Also may lead to you think you can sing, may lead you to believe ex-lovers are really dying for you to telephone them at four in the morning. It may create the illusion that you are tougher, smarter, faster and better looking than most people and it may lead you to think people are laughing with you. May cause pregnancy and it also may be a major factor in getting your ass kicked. So what are you waiting for? Stop hiding and start living, with Tequila!

[PSA]

This is drug czar John Walters.
Do not listen to the Drug Truth Network.
It’s evil, pure evil.

[PSA]

[cuts to dramatic music]

The wars of eternity must be kept alive at any cost. The war of terror is the war on drugs with afterburners. Untrustworthy snitches lead to chemical weapons and eternal wars causing endless and needless hardship, disease and death. The government attack on the evil ones, mostly people of color, reported to possess these weapons of mass destruction which threaten our very society. Freedoms supposedly fought for are eroded, denied and held in abeyance until that magical day when all druggies, terrorists and evil ones are dead. And nobody will ever again use drugs or make a chemical compound not approved by the president. Then, we will once again ring the bell of liberty for all.

The following is a Drug Truth Network editorial.

I’m pissed off. I used to grow marijuana plants more than twenty feet tall near Hempstead, Texas. I sold a quality product to adults at a very reasonable price.

Giving up the practice was difficult. I enjoyed every aspect – from planting to weeding to culling the males; harvesting and curing the fragrant females. I decided to give up guerilla gardening eight years ago when I started the Drug Truth Network.

I am pissed because whenever I now want to acquire some fragrant buds, I am forced to utilize the black market. The government mandated, criminal empowering, decades old front for greed, corruption, violence and death.

I am pissed because there is nobody in government, science, medicine or the clergy knowledgeable or courageous enough to defend this drug war over the airwaves. The powers that be, cowardly as they are, at least have a motive – billions of dollars that are dispersed each year from cartel fronted corporations to candidate coffers; the billions in bribes that never see the light of day and the power and the glory these pontificating bastards heap on one another for their feeble excuse for success in the drug war.

What I am really pissed off about, though, are the tens of millions of users who remain cloistered in their living rooms or dens smoking reefer, laughing at the overall situation and silent as lambs at the plight of their fellow users whose lives are destroyed each day by the drug war grinder.

So I am asking you to forward your fax, pick up your phone, write that letter, visit your elected officials and embolden your neighbors to do the same. I am sick of that black market schwag. I am tired of funding barbarous cartels.

I am ready to plant some seeds. It’s time for the return of Becker’s Buds. Won’t you please help make that possible? If we can swing this cat, I promise to deliver fat buds for thirty-five dollars an ounce.

Let’s remember that if Thomas Jefferson were alive and growing the thousands of opium poppies beside his Monticello home, as he loved to do, we would be compelled to arrest him and convict him and send him to a federal prison for a minimum of ten years. It’s time to pull our heads out and celebrate freedom right here in America.

Dean Becker, drugtruth.net

This is Gustavo Degrief, former General Attorney of Columbia talking about the drug problem to the Drug Truth Network.

[PSA]

Five times as many people die from alcohol each year than from illicit drugs and the misuse of legal pharmaceuticals. Fifteen times as many people die from poor diets and activity patterns. Twenty times as many people die from tobacco.

Why arrest 1.6 million people each year for drugs? Does jailing drug users make more sense than jailing overweight people and smokers? Let’s keep America’s drug problem in perspective. Common Sense for Drug Policy: csdp.org

[cuts to music]

song "Stash of Bags"

Alright my friends, I hope that you enjoyed this edition of Cultural Baggage and want to once again thank Jamie Fellner, the senior counsel, US Division of Human Rights Watch. We have got just a little bit of time left.

I urge you to do your part, speak up. Continue to challenge these bastards in office: educate them to the fact that we know what they know and always remind you that because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please, be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the Unvarnished Truth.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Tap dancing on the edge on an abyss.