Under the federal guidelines, Judge Kopf was required to sentence Hamedah to two life sentences, two 40-year sentences, two 20-year sentences and two more sentences at 5 and 4 years each. He felt awful. "This is the most unfair perversion of justice that I can think of." Pointing out the difference between small time and kingpin drug dealers, he clarifies, "The problem is that we begin to treat the Hamedah Hasans of the world like the Noriegas of the world."
Under new guidelines, he was able to reduce her sentence to 27 years. She appealed for further reduction and Kopf modified her sentence to 12 years. But, zealous prosecutors fought and won a reversal of the 12-year sentence. Now serving in a medium security prison at Victorville (California), Hasan is due to be released in 2016.
A Global Look at Prisons
At 5% of the world's population, the US imprisons a fourth of the 10 million reported prisoners globally. Of 218 nations surveyed by the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), the US ranks No. 1, far and away jailing more of its citizens than China, which ranks 118; Burma-Myanmar, at 117; and Zimbabwe, at 104. The Pew Center on the States shocked the nation early this year with its widely disseminated and devastating report, 1 in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. Not only does the US have the highest incarceration rate in the world, but also the highest number of all prisoners worldwide.
Prison conditions vary widely across nations. The ICPS summarized data from 2003 through 2006 in a report released this year, International Profile of Women's Prisons. In this detailed study of twenty countries, Germany rises as an advocate of one of the most proactive prison systems in the world. It models what an enlightened view of incarceration means:
"The object of imprisonment is to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility without committing criminal offences. This means that life in penal institutions shall be approximated as far as possible to general living conditions outside [and] that detrimental effects of imprisonment shall be counteracted."
Germany's rehabilitation policy goal is backed up by conditions that support family life in their "open" prisons where children up to age six live with their mothers:
"Mothers live with their children in self contained flats which consist of a kitchen, bathroom, one bedroom and a living room. They do not have the appearance of cells but look more like well-equipped family houses. The building also does not look like a prison but more like a student flat from the outside.
"There are no bars at the windows and every flat has its own balcony. Also, mothers can go outside. According to a prison guard, the prison is very open and there are no fences. Staff do not wear uniforms because they do not want to create distance between themselves and the children."
In stark contrast, the US federal prison system does not allow mothers to keep their newborns. Hamedah gave birth to her third daughter while in federal prison. State prisons also generally do not allow mothers to keep their newborns, but some do for up to three months, and in some venues up to 18 months. In separating children from their mothers, the US penal system harms families, a point stressed in Perversion of Justice.
Like the Wall Street Bailout: Taxpayer Costs and Private Profits
The US penal system has grown into a massive prison industrial complex (PIC) in the past three decades. Over 350 prisons have been built since 1980. In addition to the big firms running private prisons (GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation, Cornell Companies, Inc., etc.), a host of industries feed off incarceration. One blogger posted over 100 companies that do business with prisons. In commenting last year on the growth of the U.S. prison industry, Neal Peirce wrote:
"[A]ny governor faces formidable political obstacles trying to pare back America's vast prison-industrial complex. In California, it's the Correctional Peace Officers Association, an astounding 31,000 members strong.... It has more than 2,000 members earning over $100,000 a year; its contract-guaranteed pension benefits are today superior to those of the state university system.... The three-strikes law is its full-employment act."- Advertisement -
The PIC also relies on mass media to promote its growth and expansion. Violent crime has steadily declined over the past 20 years. Yet, cable and network television provide a steady stream of crime and punishment shows, from fiction to infomercials that celebrate the prison industrial complex and a gulag culture. Earlier this month, I received a viral email exemplifying PIC's propaganda, showing several pictures of a modern, shiny new prison and a slate of "facts" comparing prison life to work life. It ends with a wish for imprisonment.
The US prison system is privatized in more than half the states and at the federal level in 14 of its 194 facilities, using cheap prison labor to create products that are sold domestically and overseas. In this comprehensive 1998 article, Eric Schlosser of Justice Policy Institute shows how the PIC creates billions of dollars in profits for private corporations while underwriting the costs with public funds, hiring at non-union wages, and avoiding bureaucratic red tape.
Mummert's film only touches on the social impacts of harsh drug sentencing policies, but the PIC is wide open for reform, if not outright abolishment. Social scientists argue that prisons create far more problems for society than other methods of dealing with crime. Many advocate for full voting rights, ending felon disenfranchisement. Some advocate the abolition of prisons, given abuse of prisoners and political corruption that inevitably occur when humans cage humans.