Jailhouse Shock

With a higher percentage of our citizens behind bars than any other nation in the world, now is the time for some American soul searching. What has happened here? A growing chorus of voices are questioning the prison-industrial complex, including some unlikely dissenters. Ironically, sentencing a Republican to prison may be one of the most effective ways to draw attention to the crisis, as this article about former Pennsylvania attorney general and ex-con Ernie Preate makes clear.

But the African American community-faced with one in three twentysomething young men in prison, awaiting trial, or on probation-can’t wait for the rest of the nation to mull over the issue. It needs immediate alternatives such as restorative justice programs, described in the NAACP magazine The Crisis, which offer a hopeful and less punitive approach to juvenile crime.-The Editors

Ernie Preate’s epiphany came the first time he shuffled through the chow line at the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minnesota. As Pennsylvania’s former attorney general, Preate obviously knew that a disproportionate number of minorities end up behind bars. But, serving time himself for mail fraud, Preate, who is white, saw that table after table in the minimum-security facility’s dining hall was filled with African American and Hispanic men-most of them serving time for drug offenses.

“It was just a sea of black faces,” Preate recalls of that day in 1996. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I helped create this.'”

A vocal proponent of tough mandatory drug sentences, Preate had, as state attorney general, vowed to make Pennsylvania tougher on drugs than any other state-a pledge that had caught the attention of President George H.W. Bush, who met with Preate on several occasions to discuss strategy for the War on Drugs. Preate had also championed capital punishment, successfully arguing the constitutionality of the death penalty before the United States Supreme Court. He put five men on death row and even penned a book advising prosecutors how to pursue death-penalty cases.

But in 1993, Preate was to find himself on the other side of the law. Aspiring to be governor of Pennsylvania, he was the front-runner for the GOP nomination until the story broke, a month before the primary, that he was being investigated for mail fraud. The controversy sank his campaign. His leading challenger, Congressman Tom Ridge, ended up in the governor’s mansion, and Preate wound up with a 14-month sentence in federal prison. When the feds had threatened to also charge Preate’s brothers, he felt he didn’t have enough money to fight the case and pleaded guilty. Though he takes full responsibility for his mistakes, he does feel the charge reeked of political maneuvering-the federal felony hinged on campaign contributions he had not disclosed a decade earlier.

His reputation preceded him to the Duluth prison camp, where the prisoners, already inclined to hate anyone involved with law enforcement, gave him the cold shoulder. Preate minded his own business, spending most of his waking hours at his assigned job, scouring pots and pans in the prison kitchen.

A breakthrough occurred a few weeks after Preate’s arrival. One of his four bunkmates was writing to a judge, arguing that he should be considered for release after serving eight years. The lawyer in Preate couldn’t resist. “Let me take a look at that,” he said. Preate ended up filing a formal petition, which got his bunkmate out in 30 days. “They had miscalculated the amount of time the guy was supposed to serve,” Preate says. “He couldn’t believe it. Well, the word started to spread that I had a little bit of knowledge and . . . was a decent guy.”

Prisoners began to detail their cases to him, describing their trials. Preate figured some had gotten what they deserved. But others had had inept lawyers and had been convicted on flimsy evidence. Using the prison’s small law library, he helped a few more prisoners be considered for parole or a reduced sentence.

“Frankly, I was shocked by the number who had not received effective counsel,” he says. “Even the simplest things, some of those lawyers didn’t do: They didn’t ask for discovery, they didn’t call witnesses, they didn’t make the appropriate motions. Our whole system is based on advocacy, and it was clear many of these prisoners had not had competent advocates.”

As Preate listened to inmates’ stories, the hard-line prosecutor and the hardened criminals started seeing each other in a different light. Preate came to recognize how much he had in common with his fellow inmates: Some had also seen their futures shattered, and, like Preate, missed family and loved ones. “What I was finding was there are a lot of good people in prison who made mistakes,” Preate says. “Contrary to public perception that they are a menacing evil,” he adds, “the vast majority are not.”

As the months wore on, Preate realized that the strident law-and-order approach he had advocated was horribly flawed. Mandatory sentences put drug users behind bars with little or no treatment for their addictions. Lack of substantial rehabilitation programs meant that prisoners weren’t challenged to change their behavior.

Preate also saw how little access prisoners had to tools and information that would help them become contributing members of society. The system, Preate concluded, only served to dehumanize and degrade convicts, so that they walked out of prison more bitter and hardened than when they’d arrived. Preate made a vow-to use what he learned to reform the system that he had helped create.

Shortly before his release, a group of African Americans prominent in the prison pecking order asked him to “cross the line” and eat dinner at their table. Such an invitation was unheard of. The prisoners asked Preate for help, saying, “You see the system is broken. If we say something, it’s just poor blacks whining. You were one of those big shots; they’ll listen to you.”

When Preate returned to his hometown of Scranton, he began pushing prison reform with the same zeal he once used to prosecute defendants. He talked at schools, churches, and law enforcement symposiums. Using his access to some of Pennsylvania’s most influential lawmakers, he argued that the criminal justice system stacks the deck against racial minorities and the poor.

“Who gets targeted for drug arrests?” asks Preate. “The drug sweeps are [in] the ghetto. Who gets the mandatory sentences? About 75 percent are thrown on the backs of people of color. And the poor people in the projects . . . get an ineffective lawyer or an overworked public defender. They go to jail-next case. No one wants to talk about . . . racism, but you have to deal with it if you want a system that fulfills the promise of this country.”

Unless our approach changes, Preate predicts, America will be destroyed from within. “We know that the greatest preventer of crime is education,” he says. “If we truly committed ourselves to education, we would have a much safer society.” But that’s not where the government is investing. Pennsylvania hasn’t built a single new university in decades, notes Preate, but it has built 19 new prisons since 1984, has expanded one, and has another two in the works.

As for the death penalty he once championed, “we’ve seen it doesn’t deter anybody,” he says. One problem, says Preate, is that people who receive death sentences often do not receive effective legal counsel; more than 90 percent of those now on death row could not afford to hire their own attorneys. Another problem is racial inequity; nearly half of those on death row are black. But Preate has already brought about significant change. He was the principal drafter of a Pennsylvania bill, signed into law this summer, that mandates state-of-the-art DNA testing to assure that those who are serving time are indeed guilty. Preate also is promoting the idea of a center to teach lawyers how to defend suspects facing a possible death penalty sentence.

He came full circle when his license to practice law was reissued-this former prosecutor returned to the courtroom as a defense attorney. Among his clients is a man Preate successfully prosecuted on drug charges years ago.

Preate may not be a political rising star, as he was in the early 1990s, but his life is just as busy. Married for the second time, he has a toddler daughter. He splits his working hours between defending clients, lobbying for restorative justice programs, and traveling the state and country touting prison reforms.

From Hope Magazine (May/June 2002). Though the Brooklin, Maine-based bimonthly offers a positive spin on our all-too-often negative world, it goes well beyond “feel-good” news and fluffy features. It’s packed with solutions for real-world issues and tales of uncommon courage and integrity. Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 160, Brooklin, ME 04616.

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