Are We Really Innocent Before Proven Guilty?
by Jennifer Price

 personal-narrative  prison-life  prison-industrial-complex

I have spent five of the last seven years incarcerated in Oregon’s jail/prison system. The rest of the time I spent on parole or probation (adult supervision) confines. According to Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, state spending on prisons increased in Oregon by 300%” (451). That makes Oregon one of the top five states in the country for the allocation of state funds to its penal system, and the numbers are still rising. In October 2001, the women’s prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, was opened in Wilsonville, Oregon. This is where I’ve spent most of my time. My conviction was Manufacturing Methamphetamines, a felony drug crime.

To be sentenced to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), you must first be arrested and put into the county jail system. I spent six months in Multnomah County Jail waiting my day in court. Most people think of court as a place with a jury and judge where you go to fight your case. When I say, “day in court”, I mean a courtroom. This is where you decide to accept or decline a plea bargain offered by the District Attorney assigned to your case. Your Public Defender and the District Attorney have already decided you are guilty. All that is left to do is decide on a sentence. If you accept the terms they’ve drawn up, you sign paperwork, and judge comes out of the back room to make it official. Occasionally the judge won’t accept the terms of the plea bargain, and make his own sentencing decisions. However, that happens very rarely. Even more scarce are the decisions made by a jury. It’s no longer a question of will you be convicted, but how long you will serve. Court is not a place to fight for your freedom; it’s a place to accept your destiny.

On my day in court, the D.A. and my Public Defender actually had three options to offer me.

  1. I could testify against my co-defendant (which also happened to be my abuser), plead guilty, and accept a sentence of 20 months.
  2. I could plead guilty, and accept a sentence of 26 months.
  3. I could postpone the proceedings even longer, and take my case to trial. If, however, I decided to “waste everyone’s time” and go to trial, the District Attorney would ask for a sentence of 104 months, if I was found guilty.

My Public Defender advised me to accept one of the plea bargains. I looked at him and said, “But I’m not guilty”. He said that didn’t really matter because I “looked guilty”.

Threatened, scared and intimidated, I plead guilty because I couldn’t risk a 10-year sentence. I didn’t believe in ‘truth and justice will prevail’. That only happened on T.V. I knew form being involved in the correctional system, that truth and justice had absolutely nothing to do with it. The real truth is I survived a very violent sexual assault, lived in a domestically violent relationship, defiantly had a substance abuse problem, lived below the poverty line, and was clinically depressed and homeless. Prison is where they put people like me.

In my experience a Public Defender is more like a ‘figurehead’, appointed to the poor to give the illusion of fair representation, and justice for all. He is paid by the prosecution. Whose interests do you believe he’s really working to protect? With mandatory minimum sentencing, and sentencing according to the crime index grid, it’s the D.A. who has the power of judge and jury. He chooses the amount of time he wants someone to serve, charges them with a crime that matches the desired amount of time on the sentencing grid of mandatory minimum requirements, offers them that time in the form of a plea bargain with the addition of a little incentive-threatening them with a grossly inflated sentence if they decline the offer. He knows if they decline, he will actually have to go to trial and prove someone really did it. He doesn’t’ want to do that. He has his reputation to protect, and shotty police work to cover up.

The Truth (Part Two) Aren’t criminal’s bad people?

Take a good look at the lady behind the counter of your favorite coffee shop, or the graduate student in your class, or the professional-looking women you always seem to find on the same elevator you take each day to get to your office, or that young girl that’s always walking her dogs. Imagine a recovering drug-addict, a beautiful Latina and mother of three, someone suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Depression (P.T.S.D.,) a woman on public assistance, a survivor of domestic violence, the women of color that speaks so eloquently at the A.A. meeting in the church basement, a bulimic, a schizophrenic, homeless woman in the park, or the lady that made our plane reservations for your trip home last Christmas. These are the women that are warehoused in our prison system. According to Kirk and Okazawa-Rey, “During the 1990s the rate of growth in women’s imprisonment far outstripped that of men’s (441). The reason was the “war on drugs”, “get tough no crime” mentality that swept our nation.

According to Criminologist Stephanie Bush-Baksette, “The War on Drugs targeted women intentionally. The sentencing guidelines, mandatory nature of imprisonment laws, focus on first time offenders, and mandatory minimum sentences for person with prior felony convictions all brought more women into the criminal justice system and led to a tremendous increase in the number of incarcerated women” (441-442). These are “normal” women who have probably been sexually assaulted or abused, been a victim of violence or some other traumatic event, have substance abuse issues, have children, may suffer from mental illness, and generally fall below the poverty line. They are in desperate need of treatment, counseling, training and education, all of which has been typically denied by our patriarchal system because they are labeled “evil women” or “bad mothers” (442). They do not fit the mold of acceptable female in our male-dominated culture.

The Truth (Part Three) Isn’t prison just a long vacation for lazy people and junkies?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000, “Incarcerated women use more serious drugs and use them somewhat more frequently than do incarcerated men” (444). At Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, there are approximately 600 women housed in the minimum, and 600 women house in the medium/maximum. Only 108 of the women in the minimum, and none in the medium/maximum, are assigned to a full-time drug and alcohol treatment program at one time. Only 54 of those assigned also get mental health treatment. If you were sentenced to drug and alcohol/mental health treatment while serving your prison sentence, there is no guarantee or assurance the Department of Corrections will actually put you there. They aren’t required, even by the sentencing judge, to do so. It all depends on available space. The truth is that most women in Coffee Creek desire treatment. They want to get well; but are denied because there is no room or resources to accommodate them.

College level education is made available through correspondence courses, but each course I saw costs at least $600, and Internet access is required. Since inmates are not allowed financial aid while incarcerated, they cannot afford to take the classes, and inmates do not have access to the World Wide Web. Those women who do not have their high school diplomas are given an opportunity to take their G.E.D. However, they must have a certain amount of time in their sentence to take advantage of any classes. Coffee Creek has three work/study opportunities: eyeglass repair, barista, and computer (non-internet) programs, but again, they must have sufficient time available time in their sentence in order to apply. And, all these programs have waiting lists.

There are four large dorms that house about 130 women per dorm. The fourth dorm was not scheduled to be completed until 2010, and filled by 2012. Last October 2006, I watched as that fourth dorm was constructed and immediately filled. However, no new treatment facilities were constructed, or programs offered.

Coffee Creek is filled to maximum capacity. During the fall of 2006, the Department of Corrections had to pay county jails in Oregon to house the overflow of state prisoners. The Federal Bureau of Prisons is also well known for housing their overflow of federal inmates in county facilities. However, before Coffee Creek was built in 2001, the overflow of Oregon’s female prison population was shipped to county jails all over the country – anywhere there was space available. When that space ran out, we sent women to Mexico to be housed. The distance between inmates and their families, made it impossible for them to visit.

Where are they going to put the current overflow? Are we going back to Mexico? How about spending that money on drug/alcohol/mental health programs? A recent study found that “participants in this program [drug and alcohol treatment] had lower re-arrest and re-conviction rates” (451). This has been proven over and over again, yet funding is being used to build more prisons, and house more inmates, instead of treating them for their cornucopia of problems.

Who benefit in keeping women locked up? It’s certainly not their children and families. It’s not the women themselves. It’s not the state’s education systems. According to Julia Sudbury “the expansion of the prison industry as a profit making business” (448) and gives companies like Microsoft, Victoria Secret, Boeing and Starbucks an ideal, cheap labor force. “Prisoners don’t have to be paid minimum wage or be covered by workman’s compensation, and they cannot unionize” (Lichtenstein and Kroll 450). Also, if a prisoner refuses to work, they are at risk of being sent to segregation and losing what little privileges they may have like visits, phone calls, yard time and even a decent book to read. They will certainly lose their place on the list to get treatment or an education. Furthermore, these businesses do not have to provide health care or childcare. Criminalization is making a pretty good labor pool for corporate interests. It’s the twenty-first’s century answer to slavery.

Inmates must work. They perform physically-challenging duties like kitchen crew, grounds keepers, park crew clean-up, orderly’s, highway trash removal and ditch diggers etc. If an inmate gets selected for a parks crew job, they must take that job over any other activity, job or program they may already be doing. The reason for this is the Department of Corrections has contracted out a certain number of inmates to do park clean-up. For each inmate, they collect about $11 per/hour. However, they pay the inmate about 51 cents a day in the form of P.R.A.’s points. These points are then calculated at the end of the month, and converted into money that is applied to the inmates account. Inmates have no sick days, or personal days. They only have holidays off if their Department of Corrections foreman takes the day off and can’t find a replacement to supervise the work crews. If someone gets injured on the job, they lose work time with no pay. If they take too long to recover, they will usually lose their position and seniority.

According to the OAR’s the Department of Corrections may charge inmates up to three times that of the suggested retail price for items sold on commissary. The obviously have a monopoly. Inmates can’t just run out to a less expensive sore. It takes one month of P.R.A.’s point to buy a small handheld radio with ear buds and batteries, and at least two months to afford decent tennis shoes.

The Truth (Part Four) How come inmates get free medical care?

HIV and Hepatitis C rates in prison are through the roof. Those infected inmates receive little or no medication to slow the onset of AIDS. They also do not benefit from any new, experimental type drugs that seem to be helping millions of people on the outside. Most inmates with Hepatitis C that need interferon are out of luck. These types of measures have been deemed too expensive to waste on inmates.

If you have to visit the local hospital for any reason, including having a baby, be prepared to do so in chains and shackles. Giving birth while incarcerated is similar to having outpatient surgery – in and out. The inmate is usually returned to the prison the same day to recover whether or not there were any complications, including a cesarean section. Furthermore, incarcerated women immediately lose all parental rights, and the child is put into Child Protective Service’s custody. Pregnant inmates also lose their right to choose. The state will not allow inmates to have abortions while in custody.

MRSA, a drug-resistant strain of staph that eats away at the flesh, is currently running rampant at Coffee Creek. Highly contagious; this infection spread through the overcrowded, tightly packed dormitories like wildfire. A simple, sulfur-based antibiotic is the only medication that can fight this type of infection. Inmates are only given this medication in extreme cases. On the outside, this medication would be prescribed immediately upon diagnosis to prevent infecting others, deep scarring, damage to major organs, amputation, and death. When I left in December 2006, at least half of all inmates I knew had contracted MRSA, but only a handful had been given the antibiotic to cure it, or taken to the hospital for treatment.

Medication lines are three times per day. You must stand in line for about a half an hour with a dixie cup full of water. Once you reach the nurses window, he/she retrieves your medication and puts one does into your water. You drink the water and medication as quickly as possible before the medication starts to dissolve and taste bad. Then you turn towards the officer on duty and show him your mouth, under your tongue, and around our gums. It’s a humiliating experience.

Inmates with pre-existing conditions that would make contracting the flu extremely dangerous are vaccinated. However, the medication I was given was out-of-date, and I had to sign a release form stating I would not sue them if it made me sick, or didn’t work.

Medical attention is routinely denied. I watched three people die during my stay at Coffee Creek. One had a stroke. The week prior to her death she tried to get medical attention three separate times by signing up for triage the night before, then reporting to medical at 6:30 the next morning. When a nurse finally spoke with her, she was not given a doctor’s appointment. Instead, she was told to exercise more often, and drink plenty of water. Two hours before she had the stroke, she was ordered to climb down off her bunk (she as assigned to the top bunk), and take a shower, This direct order was given during a bunk check period when the entire dorm can witness her humiliation. She had been too weak to bathe for a couple of days. She died that evening.

I developed endocarditis during a stay in a county jail. It is a staph infection of the heart. I was spiking fevers of 106 degrees, several times per day. I was never given the blood test to check for the disease, or transported to a local hospital to be treated. The day I was released my mother immediately drove me to a hospital where I was told I had a disease that few recover from, even if detected early. I was put in the intensive care unit for the next six weeks. They sent a priest in to see me the first night to help me “settle up with God”. I wasn’t expected to make it through the night. I believe I survived because I was too angry to die!

The Truth (Part Five) They did the crime, now they must do the time.

Sexual assault/abuse is a common problem for inmates. Not only are they usually victims of sexual violence before incarcerated, they must also face it in a facility where they cannot run away, or hide from their attacker. Most female inmates who are sexually assaulted are done so by a Department of Corrections employee, not another inmate. According to Amnesty International, “Sexual Abuse of women inmates by male staff is common. This includes insults, harassment, rape, voyeurism in showers and during physical exams, and touching women’s breasts and genitals during searches” (443). During my stay at Coffee Creek, I watched a good friend go through a horrible experience of being stalked, watched, and touched by a female officer who threatened to commit suicide if my friend told on her. She developed post-traumatic-stress-depression and lost about 50 lbs. because she stopped going to meals when he officer was working at her assigned post in the dining hall. Another friend was offered cigarettes and McDonald’s food to post nude for cell phone pictures by a grounds crew supervisor. In the 1990’s it was a regular occurrence at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, to have a female inmate get pregnant by a male officer. If you reported any of these incidents, you should be prepared to get in trouble, too. They use to blame any sexual misconduct on both parties, even though the officer was the one with the power to order the inmate to do anything. Finally, in 2003 Oregon offered a prison rape crisis line. You can now report any sexual misconduct, and the officer will be fired, and charged with sexual assault.

There seems to be a link between some correctional employees and prison volunteers, and sexual misconduct. I swear some of these people only take these positions because they have a thing for women in prison that are subservient “bad girls”. That’s just my opinion, but it’s base on up close and personal observation.

Another serious problem is the amount of women who develop eating disorders, such as bulimia, while incarcerated. Another disorder is about trying to gain back personal control in a situation that takes away individual power. Correctional institutions are the perfect breeding ground for this disease. Inmates lose all power and control over their lives. Their basic human rights are taken from them, and most decisions are made by someone else. To add insult to injury, the food served to inmates is high in calories and full of bad carbohydrates and fat. That, combined with limited space to move around in, usually results in weight gain for most women. It’s commonplace to hear women vomiting, 24 hours a day. Of course, there is no treatment available for these people. The Department of Corrections staff just pretends it isn’t really happening. Inmates are allowed to call their families, but only collect. This is the most expensive way to make a telephone call. The phone company that wins the bid to provide this service to institution does so by promising a hefty kickback to the prison. Families that already have financial problems are charged outrageous amounts of money to stay in touch with a loved one. According to Kirk and Okazawa-Rey, a court in New York ruled that “the 60% commission that the New York Department of Corrections gets from M.C.I.’s profits on the inmate phone system is unconstitutional” (450). However, that hasn’t stopped the problem in Oregon.

There is so much more to say, and so much I don’t know. I haven’t begun to touch on inmate racism, class and criminal hierarchies, prison gangs, needs for smooth re-entry into our communities, life-long housing and job discrimination that awaits felons, parole and probation, police accountability, effect on children who have mothers in prison, propaganda the government and media tell voters to get mandatory minimum sentences passed, current legislation, the mental and emotional effects prison life has on women, recovery and treatment, etc… Finally, I’d like to take all the negative experiences I’ve had dealing with the criminal justice system, and somehow find a way to turn into a positive, worthy, important experience, I don’t want to let all those years spent in prison be for nothing. I am not a “throw-away person” living a “throw-away life”. I AM STILL HERE AND I WILL BE HEARD! Who else is going to tell the TRUTH!


Works Cited:

Bloom, Barbara, Kirk, Gwyn, and Okazawa-Rey, Margo, Women in the Criminal Justice System, essays from Women, Crime, and Criminalization. Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspective, Kirk, Gwyn and Okazawa-Rey Margo Fourth