Visit to a Federal Prison

by Laura Green

I have just returned from visiting a close friend who was sentenced to a Women's Federal Prison Camp for growing marijuana. Anyone who believes that our current drug laws are working, I invite to join me on a visit to a Federal Prison.

Pekin Illinois is a few miles south of Peoria on the Illinois River. There are two federal prisons in Pekin, side by side -- a men's maximum security prison, and a women's camp. The architecture is pleasant and vaguely industrial, with a low green metal roof over cream and mauve brick. In the town, the banks, the supermarkets, and other buildings are all the same style.

There are 300 women in FPC Pekin. The place was built for 150. They have taken all the recreation rooms and put beds inside. My friend is in one of these rooms with 12 women -- it is 20 X 20. She is waiting for a 'cube,' which is a partitioned area, meant for one, now holding two, in a space 8 x 6. The walls of the cubes are 4 feet high so the guards can look in. More women come in each day and there is now talk that the TV rooms will be made into cells.

They eat cabbage at least once a day, and little or no meat. The portions are so small that my friend, who was never a big eater at home, is now hungry all the time. There is no disinfectant to clean with. They use the product 'Simply Green,' which contains no bacteria killing agents. The guards claim they have no money, yet, it costs 38,000 per year to house someone in FPC Pekin.

I met a woman 3 months pregnant with a history of diabetes who hadn't seen a doctor since she discovered she was pregnant.There is a woman there who is 8 months pregnant who hasn't seen a doctor since April. There are women with abscessed teeth, and other medical conditions who haven't seen doctors or dentists. The guards say they will take them, they just haven't the staff to drive them into town.

They have one teacher, to help the women get a GED. There is no post-secondary education available. There is no counseling, there are no drug rehab programs, there is no drug education.

The real tragedy of Pekin is not the living conditions, however. The horror is the people. Most women are Black or Hispanic, and have children they haven't seen since they went 'down.' They are there for two reasons -- possession of crack, or conspiracy. Most are doing mandatory minimums. No one comes to visit them, no one sends them clothes. I met a white woman with shoes that had been glued and re-glued who was sentenced to 7 years for each gram of cocaine on her -- she had three. I saw women with bright eyes and eager minds who were to spend the next 10 years of their lives in that place, all because someone decided that we should throw these people away. I heard a woman say to another, 'I was just a user, no one's gonna help me.' I met a woman who was convicted of conspiracy to grow marijuana and got 10 years -- her husband was next door doing 34. Neither of them ever saw any marijuana. (See the Atlantic Monthly, Sept. and Oct. '94, for more details.)

The 'Drug War' hysteria has put these people in an overcrowded prison without hope, and they don't belong there. These women need help to get their lives together, not enforced hopelessness at the taxpayers expense. We must urge our congresspeople to visit a prison. Meet the people who are in prison, see where all these tax dollars are going. Because all the while we are filling up places like Pekin, our children have sub-standard education, our elderly are living in poverty, our highways and bridges are unsafe, and prohibition fueled gangs are ruling our neighborhoods.

(Laura Green is a lecturer and documentation specialist for Academic Computing Services at the University of Kansas, and is an active participant in DRCNet Online. She can be reached via e-mail at the address [email protected].)

From The Activist Guide, Issue #7, October '95, DRCNet Publications section, A Guided Tour of the War on Drugs home page.

The next article is: Walter Cronkite on the "Drug War".