The 2006 Election Viewed From Behind Bars | Ex-Context | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The 2006 Election Viewed From Behind Bars

All over the nation, convicts spent last Tuesday night watching the election returns. Convicts are avid followers of electoral politics. That was certainly the case at the federal level during my tenure, at least. Even guys who lacked the patience to watch the cable news networks all night used to pop their heads into the TV room every so often, just to check the score.

You'd never know it by how few ex-convicts ever get around to actually voting once they get out, of course. But while they're still in the can -- and in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary -- convicts see elections as events pregnant with potential for something good to happen for them.

Convicts are, after all, optimists. It takes an optimist to believe he can get away with robbing a bank or growing marijuana with the sophistication and intensity of policing that goes on in the U.S.A. Throughout the Clinton administration, "after the next election" was the mantra that described when convict grievances were to be addressed. Convicts have enough political savvy not to expect anything before an election, but some windfall after the next election always seems plausible.

With more hanging judges being appointed to the bench every year, and more prosecutors seeming to go for the jugular in every case, it's small wonder that prisoners see elections as their most likely source of relief. Somebody has to have a pretty impressive resume to get appointed to the federal bench or hired by the U.S. Attorney's Office, but anybody can get elected. The examples are too numerous to list.

The big issues where federal prisoners would like a little Congressional help this time around concern arcane matters: whether the 15 percent good time a federal prisoner can earn by statute adds up to 54 days per year or 47, and whether the two-tiered sentencing system will continue, in which convicts are doing time on sentences determined by rules and procedures that the Supreme Court says are constitutionally bankrupt. Convicts also wouldn't mind a little respite in the form of the return of parole. A bill to do just that has been languishing in committee for years.

I have no doubt that the election results have convicts walking laps in the yard with a little more bounce in their steps. After all, come January, Nancy Pelosi will be the Speaker of the House -- the same Nancy Pelosi who is on record saying that too much money is being dedicated to the criminal justice system at the expense of treatment and education. The same Nancy Pelosi who unabashedly favors the medical use of marijuana.

Every convict's nemesis, Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, may have been re-elected in his safe district in Wisconsin, but at least Mr. Mandatory Minimum won't be the Chairman of the House Judiciary anymore. That honor will be assumed by Michigan Congressman James Conyers, whose words of late indicate he is more interested in investigating the misdeeds of the Bush administration than the small-time antics of penny-ante thugs in Detroit. He's even mentioned the I-word: impeachment.

Hell, there's even an outside chance Ted Kennedy might be the new Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee instead of former prosecutor Arlen Specter. Ted Kennedy ... need I say more?

Well, as my old buddy Frankie Cheech used to say, "Forgetaboutit. You ain't got nothing coming." A bad day out on the street is better than a good day in prison, and I really hate to rain on everyone's parade. But the Democrats are pretty much the same cast of characters who were in charge when Congress passed the sentencing-reform legislation that so many cons are hoping to change. You'd have to be a chump to believe that they have any inclination to change course now.

The new representatives won't take office until January, but most of them will start campaigning for re-election before Christmas. I doubt convicts are a constituency they plan to court. Convicts can't vote, and being "tough on crime" is a real big seller -- in both the ghetto and the sticks.

My advice to any con who thinks he's going to catch a break is to snap out of it. It's tough enough to do time without the burden of believing that you'll be getting out any day now.

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