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October Federal Prison "Disturbances" Blamed on Crack Law Unfairness


January 1996

"Are we to witness future uprisings on a larger scale than we've yet seen -- or perhaps more passive resistance, civil disobedience like work stoppages and strikes?" asks Diana Gordon in a new article for The Nation (Diana Gordon, "Crack in the Penal System," The Nation, December 4, 1995, p. 704).

Reporting on riots that the Federal Bureau of Prisons called "disturbances," Gordon, professor at City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center, notes that usually the press ignores prison violence. But "precautionary lockdown" at 70 federal prisons, and later reduced to 28, were an expression of widespread discontent, and "may simply be recorded as the early tremors of a volcanic eruption."

Gordon points to the U.S. House of Representatives disapproval of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's crack cocaine guideline reform proposals on October 18 as the spark lighting a tinder of discontent that grew out of overcrowding, excessively long sentences, and efforts to strip inmates of educational opportunities, exercise and recreation, and access to the courts (see "Clinton Signs Bill To Disapprove of Equalizing Crack-Powder Cocaine Sentences," NewsBriefs, December 1995, p. 3). "Congress is saying to prisoners, 'Not only do you get long sentences, but you will have no rights while you're there," said Scott Wallace, special counsel to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and charter member of the National Drug Strategy Network.

Alvin Bronstein, executive director of the National Prison Project of the ACLU, made a dire warning: "Passage of the STOP legislation can only ... guarantee that the Attica uprising [the rebellion in a New York state prison in which 43 people were killed] will be a thing of the future as well as the past." STOP, or the Stop Turning Out Prisoners Act, is currently pending in Congress. STOP is S. 400, which has not been voted on, and title III of H.R. 667, which passed the House on February 10, 1995 by a vote of 265-156. It has also been attached as a rider to the Department of Justice Appropriations bill for FY 1996, which has been vetoed by the President. STOP has been marketed by its proponents as a necessary measure to stop frivolous lawsuits complaining of such ails as lack of roast beef and ice cream on prison menus. Opponents of STOP argue that courts can now easily dismiss bogus suits, but STOP will strip the courts of the ability to hear legitimate complaints. In addition, STOP will put an end to consent decrees, the agreements between prison authorities and the inmates and their attorneys, which have the effect of a court order. Terminating consent decrees might backfire, sending these suits back to the courts for relitigation.