[Hpn] Holiday Greetings from a Political Prisoner -- PLEASE FORWARD WIDELY

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Wed, 11 Dec 2002 11:02:25 -0800

Holiday Greetings from a Political Prisoner
A STREET SHEET exclusive by Father Louis Vitale

Greetings from the Nellis Federal Prison Camp in North Las Vegas, Nevada. I
am spending three months here for protesting at Fort Benning, Georgia last
year. The protest was to bring a closing to the School of the Americas
located there. The graduates of that school are notorious for torture and
assassination of thousands of people in Latin America. These include such
notables as: Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador; four American nuns who
were raped and killed; seven Jesuits and their female associates from the
University of El Salvador; numerous other bishops, clergy and religious
leaders; and union and social workers in Latin American countries.

My short sentence of three months is almost a joke within the federal prison
system. Most of the 600 men here are here for many years. Federal mandatory
sentencing guidelines have given most of these inmates as many as ten years
or more for non-violent crimes -- mostly drug activity and some business
crimes. There is also no parole from the federal prison system.

Most of the men here are young, typically in their twenties. Most are also
fathers. Thus, this system robs young men of a great part of their young
manhood. It also robs children of their fathers during childhood and teenage

Further, there are almost no vocational or educational programs here. What
future will these men have when they leave this system? A recent article in
the (November 26th) Los Angeles Times about homelessness pointed to the very
large numbers of those released from prison who end up on skid row in Los
Angeles. Surely this is true in every city. What other options are there?

One might not dispute that there are criminal laws for drug dealing. But
when one hears of these very long sentences -- basically taking the best
years of someone's life and the years needed by their children, for activity
that might in other places or times be legal, something seems out of kilter.
As I first heard of some of the sentences here in Las Vegas they were
holding elections, and one of the ballot issues was legalizing possession of
marijuana. It didn't pass, but might next time. What impact would that have
on the man with a ten-year sentence for growing marijuana in Humboldt
County? Someone will be creating the supply. These are some of the questions
I ponder.

The camp here is located on Nellis Air Force Base. Each day we see planes --
B-2 bombers, Stealths -- preparing for war in Iraq. The cost of these
weapons and the military runs into the many billions. The prison system is
also a billion dollar industry. I think of our homeless in Las Vegas and
elsewhere. The numbers are becoming astronomical.

The major problem is a lack of housing. If only we could put the money used
for military and prisons into housing, what a difference it would make. We
could be saving lives instead of destroying or wasting them. Surely that
should be in our thoughts as we celebrate the Christmas season and begin a
New Year.

I miss very much being in San Francisco and the Tenderloin. I miss the
people at Saint Boniface and in our shelter. I miss being with the many
activists who are trying to make a better community and world.

My fellow inmates ask me if I'll be back. That is... back in the criminal
system. They look at me and say, "I don't think you are going to give up on
the causes about which you are so concerned." I don't know how to answer
that question. I know I will not quit speaking and acting for justice, in
San Francisco and other places. Hopefully we will have more opportunities to
have a voice. But if it is necessary for me to risk prison again, then we
will have to consider that.

For now I look forward to my return. Some ask me if I'll be going to a
halfway house first (the usual end of a federal prison sentence). Actually,
there is one at 111 Taylor Street, right around the corner from Saint
Boniface. But my sentence is too short for that. Besides, I already have a
place to live and work after prison.

On January 12th I will be released and will work my way back to San
Francisco, the Tenderloin and all the people I miss so much. I do give
thanks for the numberless people who have supported me in so many ways.
Especially I am grateful to continue to work for justice and compassion for
those in need. 

I know I will be adding to my list more activity for prison reform, joining
with such groups as Families Against Mandatory Minimums -- the mandatory
minimums that force judges to give such very long sentences. We also need to
find the way to reinstate parole at the federal level. Perhaps Congresswoman
Nancy Pelosi can help to reintroduce that at the next congress. These
actions can come to the rescue of so many spending much of their lives in
prison and away from their families. I am reluctant to leave Nellis Prison
Camp, and leave so many of my new friends behind, without doing something to
help them return to normal and productive life.

Originally Published in STREET SHEET
A Publication of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
468 Turk Street, San Francisco, CA  94102
415 / 346.3740-voice o 415 / 775.5639-fax