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Old 03-31-2005, 08:52 AM
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Default News article of 2000, interesting

March 6, 2000

BY BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot Copyright 2000, Landmark Communications Inc.

For years, politicians of both parties have been promising to sweep the streets of violent criminals and lock them away in Virginia's burgeoning prison system. "Violent thugs are getting the message: Virginia is not the place to earn a living as a criminal predator, preying on innocent, law-abiding citizens," then-Gov. George Allen declared in 1995. But Virginia's prison population has been swollen by people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes-especially drug offenders.

In the early 1980s, about 10 percent of Virginians being put in state prisons were drug offenders. By the 1990s, that figure had climbed to 25 percent. In federal prisons today, drug defendants make up 60 percent of the inmate population. Violent offenders comprise just 12 percent. U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey has called the mushrooming population of imprisoned drug offenders "America's internal gulag."

And there is a high human toll, critics say. "They're tearing families apart with their drug war," said Lennice Werth of Crewe, Va., director of the drug-law reform group Virginians Against Drug Violence. "The war on drugs amounts to a war on families and children." Allen and other Virginia politicians who waged and now defend the drug war say their target is dealers, not users. Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission, declared flatly in an interview: "Nobody goes into our state prison system for possession of drugs. It doesn't happen."

Department of Corrections records tell a different story. Of all the drug offenders admitted to state prisons in fiscal year 1998, two out of three were for possession, or possession with intent to distribute. Under Virginia law, possession with intent to distribute carries the same penalties as actual distribution. More than one in 10 of all those admitted to prison in 1998 -- from burglars to murderers-were locked up for possession of cocaine.

Richard P. Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, said most drug offenders imprisoned for simple possession have prior felony convictions. Allen, the architect of Virginia's latest wave of prison construction, defended the state's tough anti-drug stance in an interview. In fact, he said, "I think we ought to have even harsher penalties for drug dealers." "The problem of drugs is something that I think we have to continue fighting and not just throw up our hands and say, 'Oh, gosh, this is hopeless,' " Allen said. "I think what we're missing is leadership and efforts at a national level, because this is not just a state issue."

Allen's not the only one pushing for harsher drug penalties. His successor, Gov. Jim Gilmore, wants to spend an added $41.5 million to crack down on drug abuse, including tougher sentences for many offenders. "Illegal drugs are penetrating our communities and threatening our children more and more, year after year," Gilmore said in announcing the new initiative last fall. ". . . Illegal drugs today become Public Enemy No. 1."

Prosecution hasn't affected drug use

Drug prosecutions have been underwritten by federal financial incentives. Over the past 10 years, Virginia localities have received more than $100 million in federal drug-control grants. Yet illicit drug use, according to national surveys, has remained more or less constant for a decade. The surveys suggest that the war on drugs, the principal factor behind the prison boom, isn't working. "The Virginia legislature is among the many groups of folks in this country who think that if you punish people enough, they'll stop doing the stuff that you don't want them to do," said June Gertig, a Herndon, Va., lawyer whose son was a teenage drug addict. "But with addiction, it's not like that. Punishment doesn't stop the addiction. You've got to get underneath the addiction and treat it."

In 1998, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse produced annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10.6 percent of Americans reported using an illicit drug in the past year. That number has hovered steadily between 10 and 11 percent since 1991. State-by-state estimates produced by HHS indicate that drug use in Virginia mirrors the national pattern.

The most popular illegal drug, by far, is marijuana. With an estimated annual production value of $197 million, it has surpassed tobacco as Virginia's leading cash crop, according to the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. Yet, few Virginians are imprisoned on marijuana charges today. Ironically, cocaine, the drug for which Virginians are most frequently prosecuted, is used by only a tiny minority of the population -- 1.7 percent, according to the same 1998 survey. Treatment may be more effective route

Whatever the drug, a large body of research indicates that incarceration is a grossly expensive and ineffective method of discouraging use. Research by Rand, a Washington think tank, has found that $1 million spent on drug treatment would reduce serious crime 15 times more than the same amount of money spent on expanding mandatory prison terms. Arizona, the first state to begin treating all its nonviolent drug offenders rather than locking them up, reported last spring that the new approach saved more than $2.5 million in the first year and is likely to reap greater savings in the future. Of 2,622 drug users diverted into probation and treatment, the report said, 77.5 percent subsequently tested free of drugs.

Ron Angelone, Virginia's corrections director, is fond of telling those who advocate rehabilitating inmates: "We can't rehabilitate anybody; they have to rehabilitate themselves." "Of course, we all agree with that," said Jean Auldridge, director of Virginia CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants). "But we believe they should have the tools provided, and the opportunity, so they'll be ready to come out and resume their lives." "We need to do two things," Auldridge said. "One is to have more treatment programs available. And we need post-release assistance for the transition back into society."

There is little emphasis on drug treatment in Virginia prisons

It has been estimated that as many as 80 percent of state prisoners are drug abusers, but only 8 percent of Virginia inmates are in drug treatment programs, according to the 1998 Corrections Yearbook.

Probation, the most common alternative to incarceration, is relatively rare in Virginia. Only five states have lower probation rates. In recent years, the state has begun developing other alternatives to imprisonment such as detention centers, diversion centers and boot camps. But the number of people served is modest: There were 824 offenders enrolled in those three programs statewide as of June 30, 1999, and another 223 on the waiting lists. The Senate Finance Committee staff predicts they will reduce prison-space demand by 1,300 beds-about 4 percent of capacity.

Opportunities for education and vocational training are also skimpy. In a series of recent interviews, inmates told of waiting up to two years just to get into a G.E.D. class. "We're doing little or nothing to rehabilitate these people," said Sen. Richard J. Holland, D-Isle of Wight. "What we're doing is warehousing them."

Prisoners say system ignores them

Stories of Virginia's imprisoned drug offenders are suffused with seething resentment, cynicism and despair. Russell Stone, 37, is serving 15 years for the sale of marijuana and cocaine and possession of LSD in Virginia Beach and Wytheville. He has recently been transferred to Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk from Bland Correctional Center, a complex of three-story, flat-top brick buildings, guard towers and razor-wire fences nestled amid the verdant mountains of Bland County in southwest Virginia. Stone says drugs were an escape from pain. He spent much of his childhood in a series of orphanages and foster homes, a victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. He has been turned down for parole seven times. He will be due for mandatory release in April after having spent more than nine years behind bars. It has been largely wasted time, in Stone's view. He has little to show for it beyond a G.E.D. and a basic life-skills class. He has had virtually no drug treatment. "For somebody who's got a drug problem, locking 'em up and keeping 'em locked up for years and years doesn't help much," he said in an interview. "The system has failed so many. The politicians all say, 'I'm going to lock 'em all up.' They're not telling people about all the guys they're going to let go who will be more hostile, more bitter, more aggressive and will commit more serious crimes when they get out because of the way they were treated in here."

Stone has contracted hepatitis C, a potentially deadly disease that is rampant in the prison system, and has been unable to get treatment for it. Except for a sister in Virginia Beach, all of his close relatives have died since he has been incarcerated. Now that his release date is near, he is frightened of what lies ahead. He'll get $25 and a bus ticket, and he's on his own. The system provides no aftercare-no one to help him find a job or a place to live, no one to turn to when he is overwhelmed by the challenges of readjustment. "It's scary," he said. "Every day I walk around and think: Who will help me lay the right foundation? Who's going to be there when I get off that Greyhound bus in Tidewater? I'll be 38, but I'll be like a kid, coming out with so many needs, so many wants, so many desires."

Drugs sending more women to prison

The drug-war dragnet is sweeping more and more women into prison. The rate of growth in female admissions is twice the rate for males. There were 1,035 women imprisoned in fiscal yea 1998, which was 11.7 percent of admissions-up from 9.2 percent in 1990. Belinda Adams, 35, is at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, a campus-like complex in the rolling hills of Goochland County west of Richmond. She is doing 5 ¾ years for possession of cocaine, forgery and other charges -- all related to a crack cocaine addiction. Like Stone, she came from a dysfunctional family and was bused as a child. By her mid-teens, she said, "I started looking for an external solution to an internal problem." Since she has been locked up, she has lost her mother to suicide. She has a 3-year-old son who is being raised by a family friend. "I feel I have a pretty large sentence for a nonviolent crime," Adams said. "Drug abuse is an illness," she said. "I'm not trying to justify my crimes in any way, but I feel there must be a better way to give people the help they need."

Treatment hard when drugs plentiful

For most drug prisoners, treatment for their addiction remains a distant goal. Terry Swinson, 38, is doing 25 years at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Buchanan County for selling $40 worth of crack cocaine-less than 1 gram. He was convicted in Suffolk in 1994. The only program available to him is a G.E.D. class, and he doesn't need that: He's already a high school graduate. He is on a waiting list for a substance abuse class, but there's no such class offered at Keen Mountain.

Another factor working against rehabilitation of drug offenders, say some inmates, is the prevalence of illegal drugs in prison. "It's kind of hard to tell a man to stop doing drugs when the drug dealer's his next-door neighbor," said Geoff Faulkner, 26, of Hopewell, who is doing 9 ½ years at Nottoway Correctional Center for cocaine possession, forgery and related charges. Drugs are "very common" in prison, said Faulkner, who has been unable to get into a drug treatment program. Joseph Lee Garrett, 29, of Fredericksburg, who is doing 52 years on marijuana and LSD conspiracy charges at Wallens Ridge State Prison, said getting drugs in prison is "as easy as in the free world." Garrett said he has been waiting eight years to get into a drug treatment program.

Creativity pays off

Sometimes, inmates find a way to get what they need in spite of the system. Damian Blakley, 20, is doing 10 years for cocaine possession with intent to distribute. He was convicted in Norfolk at age 16. Once in prison, Blakley established a clean record that earned him a Level 1 security classification, the one reserved for the lowest-risk inmates. That got him sent to the Halifax Correctional Unit, a low-security field unit in Southside Virginia that puts road gangs to work on state highways. But there was a downside. There was no drug treatment, no education, no vocational training. "I wanted to get a trade so I can have a skill to get a job once I re-enter society," Blakley said. But a Halifax, I wasn't going to happen. "I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard spot," Blakley said. "So do you know what I had to do? I had to catch some charges." Blakley deliberately incurred disciplinary charges by refusing to go out on a road crew. As a result, he was transferred to Lawrenceville Correctional Center, a new, privately operated Level 3 facility. The Lawrenceville prison, he said, "is loaded down with trades. Plumbing, interior decorating, a computer course, a greenhouse, carpentry. . . . "Man, it's crazy. It's backwards. You just have to roll with it-or you have to be creative."

Reach Bill Sizemore at 446-2276 or size@pilotonline.com Copyright 2000, Virginian-Pilot Interactive Media http://www.pilotonline.com/
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