The Poor Get Prison, The Rich Get Pardoned
David Muniz serves a prison term with me at Taft Camp. He is a 28-year-old father of two who is serving a sentence of 11 years. During the three years that David has served thus far, he has earned his GED and he has begun accumulating college credits that will lead to his associate’s degree from Taft Community College.
I watch David’s progress closely because we share a cubicle. Every day I work with him, as I have hopes of helping David prepare for a law-abiding and productive life upon release. The struggle challenges David, however, as he lives without much in the way of hope for a better life. In the article My Roommate at Taft Camp, I describe what I learned about David.
Essentially, David’s longing for his family challenges his adjustment. Administrative policies aggravate the separation because they limit David’s access to telephone calls and visits. His young children cry to talk with him, yet prison rules prohibit David from talking for more than an average of 10 minutes per day. During the Christmas season, the entire family suffers.
Every day, David sits on the edge of his steel rack and flips through a photo album with pictures of his beloved wife and children. For the first two years of his sentence, administrators denied David permission to marry the mother of his children, but after filing administrative grievances, David overcame the objections of prison administrators at Taft Camp and finally was able to marry Gabriella. Ironically, the staff members had been expressly dissuading David from marrying because they said he had too much time remaining to serve.
The pain for David runs deep, however. Like millions of ordinary Americans, David’s family has been hit especially hard by the country’s financial crisis. The family home is nearing foreclosure status, and Gabriella labors in a factory job that pays just above minimum wage; the job does not offer much in the way of security. David is distraught with worry, as he knows his imprisonment precludes him from contributing financially to the welfare of his family.>
“The best thing you can do for your family,” I tell David, “is to educate yourself. You must keep steady with these efforts to earn your college degree. That is the only way that you’ll be able to break the cycle of poverty that has put your family through struggle for so long.”
“I’m working, jefe,” as David referred to me. “Sometimes it’s too hard, though. Nothing’s really going to change. No one is going to care about whether I get educated or not. I still got to do all these years in prison.”
David feels discouraged because administrators do not recognize the significant efforts he is making to change his life. Considering from the disadvantaged background from which David and his family comes, the growth he has made thus far has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet to the profession of so-called corrections, David’s efforts do not mean a thing. All that matters to the system that holds David is the turning of calendar pages, that he serves the 11 year sentence his judge imposed.
David’s case is a prime example of what our prison system locks in cages. He is a young man of Hispanic heritage who comes from systemic poverty. Neither of his parents were highly educated, and as such, they did not impress upon David the importance of learning. In his teenage years he dropped out of school and worked a series of dead-end jobs until seemingly better opportunities came along as a low-level drug trafficker. DEA agents busted him, and without resources to access top-level legal advice, David pleaded guilty and he has been locked inside prison boundaries ever since.
What is remarkable about David, however, is the commitment he makes to learn. For him, the hurdles are high, as he has had to work exceptionally hard to reach levels of proficiency in basic reading and math and writing. He devotes hours every day. David is giving everything he has to educate himself, although the payoff for his efforts will not come for many, many years, until he concludes his prison term.
Like tens of thousands of American prisoners, David and his family suffer in significant ways because of his imprisonment. Unlike powerful criminals, like Scooter Libby, David did not come from a life of power and privilege. He did not have credentials from the world’s best universities. Certainly, David did not know people of influence and power. Prior to his incarceration, David did not even have a single friend or role model who was not from the same disadvantaged background that he had known for his entire life.
Unlike David, however, the rich and powerful do not need to suffer the indignities of lengthy prison terms. While the poor languish in prison, President Bush said that the privileged like his friend Scooter Libby suffer enough when a jury finds them guilty. Our prison system is one of corruption. I am hoping for change.
Perhaps with the leadership of President Barack Obama, we will see prison reforms that eliminate the harsh penalties that nonviolent drug offenders serve. We also need prison reforms that will offer incentives to nonviolent offenders like David Muniz who work so hard to redeem themselves and earn their way to freedom.