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tv   Fault Lines  Al Jazeera  September 28, 2013 12:30am-1:01am EDT

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>> in 1996, sonja marcus was sentenced to a maximum of life in california prison. >> i couldn't believe it. it did not compute, they're taking your life. i was 46 years old. >> her crime: possession of less than a gram of heroine. >> how do you call yourself a judge with the interest of justice and look at somebody and... tell somebody i'm going to take your life because you have an abuse problem against yourself? >> 18 years later, sonja is out because californians amended the state's notorious three strikes law. >> this was how much room there was between my bunk and my locker in prison.
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that's why i never walked in there. you have the physical freedom, but after so much time, it's almost like a burden. you have no idea how to function because you've been locked in a box. >> the us incarceration system has swept up hundreds of thousands of women like sonja. many of them spend years locked up for non-violent offenses. >>women are the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system. >> it's like a maze with tons of mice in it that's being feed poison. >> in this episode of faultlines, we go inside california's jails and prisons and ask what keeps so many women behind bars. >> you just try to make it through each day the best wayt that you can. >> we're heading to the largest
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women's prison in the world. >> the facility was designed to have 4 people in a room, and it now has 8 people in each room. there is no men's prison that has as many people in one cell. >> this is the central california women's facility or ccwf. cameras are rarely allowed in. >> faultlines has been given access to film here - but only what the prison authorities want us to see. >> 32 out of almost 3500 prisoners at ccwf get to work in this program - building electric components. >> how long have you been here? >> i've been here since 2002. >> i've been down 14.5 years so far. >> how old are you? >> 38. >> how many days do you work a week?
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>> i work 5 days a week, eight hours a day. >> in california, inmates have to pay for many basic supplies. most prison jobs pay less than a dollar an hour. the women here count themselves lucky - they earn minimum wage. >> i don't have family out there on the street that support me, so for me, its an advantage. i'm just trying to get out of here. >> the prison had given us strict guidelines about what questions we could ask the inmates. >> it's work but it's educational training. >> but the pr officer couldn't control what happened once we entered the main yard. >> there's no water! people are dying? >> when our cameras entered, the inmates were called back inside. >> "ladies get inside!". >> "i'm trying to tell them there's rats in our rooms!".
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tension here is high. last year ccwf had to take in close to 1000 more inmates - when a nearby prison converted to a men's facility. it is now one of the most overcrowded prisons in california. tracy jones was one of the women forced to move. >> they combined two prisons into one and we were kicked out for male genders. so we're over here. >> many inmates told us off camera that the medical care was worse than before, and the conditions of their cells were appalling. >> it's not just fifteen minutes in confinement. it's day after day, year after year, decade after decade. people cannot comprehend that. we've always known the time entire i was there, we always talked about if there was ever a fire or an emergency how many of us would die because you couldn't actually evacuate the
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place safely because of the population total. >> two years ago, a federal panel ruled that the california prison system was dangerously overcrowded. the state was ordered to reduce its prison population by at least 30,000 inmates. >> they are horribly, horribly overcrowded to the extent that people were literally dying in our prisons from simple medical conditions simply because they didn't get access to the medicines they needed or doctor's treatment. >> the federal mandate was unprecedented and called the overcrowding a form of cruel and unusual punishment. california upheld the conversion of valley state to a men's prison as one way to relieve overcrowding. >> a lot of the reforms that have been, they put pressure on and a lot of changes are all around the men. even relieving the overcrowding push the women into a more crowded situations. >> misty rojo spent 10 years in ccwf. >> so the women get left behind because they can.
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we're no longer housing inmates in gyms and day rooms and putting them in every nook and cranny in the prison. which has been the case before. the reaction from state prison officials was consistent - denial. >> there is no overcrowding at ccwf. >> normal to have 6-8 beds? >> yes. >> why so many came to talk to us? >> i can't answer on their behalf but i know we are not overcrowded. >> i've been working with people around health care advocacy for approximately 20 years now, and the conditions are markedly worse. you have even more overcrowding, you have a reduction in the medical staff in the women's prisons. >> i feel like if these conditions were as prevalent as some of the advocates or the inmates themselves try to portray, these are things that would have been seen and would
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have been reported in independent reports. >> we will start seeing higher elevated levels of premature death because we know that incredibly densely crowding of people makes people die. >>the road to california's prison crisis was paved by three decades of the so-called war on drugs. >> taken as a whole, these proposals will toughen our laws against drug criminals. >> during this time the state passed some of the toughest sentencing measures in the us. >> we all had to be afraid that some horrific violent crime was going to occur and the way to protect ourselves was through harsher and harsher penalties, sentences, more jails and more prisons and just lock people up who don't look like us, who don't think like us and who don't talk like us and just get them out of our neighborhoods and someplace where we will be safe from them. >> the so-called "war on drugs" comes down to where money has been poured into the enforcement of drug laws in
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communities of color. >> in roughly 20 years, california built twenty-one new prisons and the inmate population increased by 400%. meanwhile budgets for healthcare and education were slashed. >> the prison construction filled a void and a vacuum both in terms of keeping the economy going just with the construction and the jobs and with also people who were unemployed because of the economy who get caught in crimes of poverty, so you scoop them up and figure out excuses to put those people in cages. >> when you start having essentially a drain of all other basic services because you're over incarcerating people, you've got a problem. and in california we have a problem. [[voiceover]] every day, events sweep across our country. and with them, a storm of views.
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how can you fully understand the impact unless you've heard angles you hadn't considered? antonio mora brings you smart conversation that challenges the status quo with unexpected opinions and a fresh outlook. including yours.
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>> by 2010, california's prisons held close to 160,000 inmates - almost double the state's capacity.
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>> governor brown's response: something he called "realignment" - the transfer of low-level offenders to county jails. >> that's the whole point of realignment. it's not just the shift of money but of activities - probation will be handled... well not all... but to a significant degree by judges and probation departments and by district attorneys. >> and so what criminal justice realignment set out to do was to change the way that we sentenced some of the lowest level, nonviolent, non-serious offenses so that people who would have previously gone to state prison for the offenses now will be dealt with at the county level with the county correctional justice systems. >> i'm going into a typical jail cell here. this one hold two people. it's pretty tight in here. not much privacy. there's about 80 of these, in this unit. and there's a guard cell in the middle.
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we're not allowed to film that. none of the women on this floor are actually coming out of the cells. but the women downstairs are free to roam around it looks like. >> county jail system because now there is a person who might have been sentenced to five years or ten years in state prison, who serves that sentence in the county jail. and the county jails were not constructed or designed to hold people for that length of time. one of the biggest things is there's no oversight at all, no one's really aware of who's in them, how many people statewide. nobody knows. i have so much to do when i get out. if i literally spent two months, every day from 8 until 6 o'clock doing what i had to do because i've lost my house. i've lost my belongings. for seven months just leaving everything, you lose things. >> what's the longest you've know people to stay in jail?
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>> eight years fighting their case. in the county jail. >> i've heard of six years. i've heard of six years. >> i stayed two years and i'm still coming back. >> this group called fired up holds weekly meetings in the women's section of the san francisco county jail. on any given day it may hold almost 200 women. >> whats going on out there that's bringing the same people back in? or this person made it two weeks out, this person made it that. and i'm like well am i going to be another statistic? am i going to leave here and then pop back? >> in the last 3 decades the us female prison population has grown by about 800% - almost double the rate of men. >> before there was prison, there was jail, before there was jail, there was juvenile hall, group homes. i've been through it all. >> low-level drug crimes swept in thousands of women. but alongside that were crimes linked to what some call the war on poverty. >> i have worked with numerous women who are doing six years in
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prison for stealing pantyhose to go to a job interview or stealing hot dogs to feed their kids. and that's what has sucked up so many women into the system and their children are lost to the wind, really. >> of the women who are in jails and in prison, two thirds are there for non-violent non serious offenses. >> why when it comes to women, are we over incarcerating women but also prosecuting and convicting women of really what amounts to low level crimes? >> realignment was supposed to change that. governor brown boasted that counties could focus on rehabilitation rather than continuing to put people behind bars. and many believed women would be the first to benefit. >> over a million women are under the corrections system today - either in jail or prison or probation or parole... journey starts here in the
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county courts. >> michelle tong is a san francisco county public defender. she's spent several months representing elsie hodge who was at one point facing 23 years in prison for a drug offense. >> elsie's been in and out of jail and prison for the last decade of her life - all for minor drug related crimes. this time she was arrested for allegedly selling prescription pills. >> when i asked, what why did you let the buyer of these pills, supposedly, this white male in his 50s, go and let you arrested miss hodge, who was actually around the corner. and he said it's under it's to the officer's individual discretion and judgment. >> every time he sees me he wants to bother me. and i don't have to be doing anything. the justification has always been well she is a, she is a nuisance to the community. and in fact the district
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attorney said that. that, the tenderloin neighborhood, san francisco doesn't need miss hodge on the street. i have seen people commit crimes of plead or get convicted of crimes of violence who do way less time than her. >> elsie's path to drug abuse is depressingly familiar to many inside women's jails and prisons. she had been in an abusive relationship while struggling to support her two kids. >> and through that i been raped, i had somebody threaten...the same person that raped me threatened my kids if i tell. there's a lot of stuff that i've been through that i didn't...that i don't even tell people because it's so much. i don't even want to remember it. >> under realignment, elsie's sentence was to be carried out in the county jail. since realignment took effect some 30,000 offenders have entered the county systems. >> i brought shame to my family and everything else. and i don't want my kids to come
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and see my incarcerated. and touch them like barbie was saying, can hold them, can do nothing. and i have little kids. >> the question that is not being asked is what happens to her children? what happens to those two kids who grow up without a mother? my kids didn't really wanna get to know me which was really hard. i mean i spent 10 yrs dreaming about getting home to them and then to get home and be like, no, we don't even know you lady. we traditionally have taken families and separated them. they will sentence a person to a jail or prison that is hundreds of hundreds of miles away. sometimes even in other states. without regard to the break up of the family unit. and then there's surprise when the person gets out and they re offend. >> ultimately, many argue realignment has done little to
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shift the underlying culture of punishment - or its devastating impacts on communities. >> i don't have a address. so i go to the streets. you know i don't want to sleep on the ground so i use. you know i'm not making excuses, but i use to stay up and i stay up until i pass out. i don't make court dates. i don't make visiting dates, i don't visit my kids. it completely destroys a family, it completely destroyed mine. i'm sure my children have suffered affects maybe they can't really talk about yet. >> how it is affecting my kids? well my son can't read. my son - he doesn't want to go to school. oh you can't even mention tameka to him because tameka who? it hurst me. oh yeah, it hurts me because, it's just a cycle that continues. [[voiceover]] every day, events sweep across our country.
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and with them, a storm of views. how can you fully understand the impact unless you've heard angles you hadn't considered? antonio mora brings you smart conversation that challenges the status quo with unexpected opinions and a fresh outlook. including yours. ç]
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>> kimberly jeffrey has spent almost 2 decades on the streets or behind bars for petty theft. during that time, she lost her children one by one. >> i went into a walgreen's, and my son was crying, my infant son was crying.
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i took a pacifier, took it out of the package and put it in his mouth so he could stop crying, and they arrested me and i never saw that baby again. >> the last time she was in prison, kim went into labor with her son, noelle. it didn't go as she expected. >> after the epidural and the anesthesia, dr nassar asked me or made a statement about the tubal ligation. >> a tubal ligation procedure is a form of sterilization. >> i freaked out. i'm like, are we doing what? i'm like, no doctor please don't give me any outside procedure outside of this c-section. i haven't agreed on anything else. so he brought in a form for me to sign, declining the tuberlagation while i was strapped down on the table. you know not in my right mind. >> kim's story is not unique. according to a recent report by
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the center for investigative reporting, california women's prisons conducted at least 148 sterilizations between 2006 and 2010 without the state's approval. and possibly a 100 more dating back to the 1990s. >> it was just shocking to us, that this was being done by medical professionals across the state through these people. >> doctors cited in the report argued that sterilizing poor women would save the state welfare money in the future. they also said inmates were given a choice and not coerced. >> federal law is very clear that any entity that gets federal monies cannot sterilize people in prison for the purpose of birth control, period. it's a carte blanche ban. >> you know, all they had to do is tell you that you have the condition that's life threatening. you know, if you don't get sterilized within a week you may
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die. and that's something they'd tell the inmate, put that fear in them. so it's hard not to know who to trust, it's scary, it's really scary. in that environment, it's too coercive to push or manipulate someone into consenting to sterilization because the consent can't actually be trusted. >> cynthia says prisoner advocates had been told in 2008 that sterilizations were taking place. that confirmation came from the federal receivership - the authority in charge of prison medical care in california. >> did the receiver not know it was illegal? >> the letter didn't ask whether or not procedures were illegal or not, just asked if they were taking place. >> the law clearly states no one is to be pressured into sterilization. >> our regulations are clear.
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a medically unnecessary procedure, such as a tubal ligation is not to be performed. when we were made aware, we took immediate steps to ensure that these procedures needed to stop. >> oh the patients they claim to have tuba ligation. it says it right there. >> wow. >> it says you're report i think from your c-section. >> mm mmm. >> january 29th? >> uh huh. >> let's keep that aside. >> to have a baby should be a wonderful, joyous experience, something that you just cherish all your life. to me, it was a nightmare. i was humiliated, i was treated so badly i just couldn't believe that i live in a society like animals. you know, i don't if it's my situation because i'm incarcerated, i don't know if
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it's the complexion of my skin that, i couldn't believe, you know. it's not a shock, it shows deeper and deeper systemic problems especially in terms of medical care and how people are seen in prison and how we are not even seen as people. >> california legislators have called for an in-depth investigation into the sterilizations and other medical practices in prisons. but for people who know what life is like behind bars, promises of reform aren't going to make a real difference. >> the system to do exactly what it' doing. to break people and to keep them broken and to keep them coming back. >> the federal government continues to pressure governor brown to reduce his prison population. meanwhile, new jails and prisons are slated to be built around california. >> i think it is true that
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imprisonment is this anchor of the economy in california, so there's this sense, this political sense that you can't just pull it out. >> we have politicians in sacramento who listen to law enforcement, who listen to the district attorneys, who listen to the police chiefs, who are afraid of being labeled soft on crime. >> and while the political debate continues in sacramento, thousands of people are cycled in and out of the criminal justice system every day. today it is elsie. michelle had won the case and elsie was released. but elsie has been here before. and she knows that the realities on the outside could lead her right back. >> you wear a scarlet letter everywhere you go when you go apply for a job, they ask. so even though you've done your time and you've been told that you're forgiven, you get out and you're just another criminal to
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most people. and they don't even wanna be bothered with you. people are unwilling to really have conversations about whether or not we really need to use imprisonment that much at all. is it really necessary, could we find other ways to invest in communities, and put the money into communities so people could really thrive. unless you have that fundamental conversation, and this is going to involve completely revamping our laws, our penal system, we're not going to be able to solve this problem. >> they tell you you're gonna go and do some time and get out and go on with your life. that doesn't quite happen that way. i don't think you get through it a whole. i don't think i'll ever be whole again to this day. there are funny things about me that are always gonna be, for lack of a better word (bleep)ed up.
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gls welcome to al jazeera america. i'm stephanie sy. here are our top stories. chemical weapons to be destroyed by middle of next year. the u.n. general assembly voted on this friday night. a historic memo as president obama and iranian president hassan rouhani--moment. as president obama and iraan