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Report from New York

From Nora Callahan - October 17, 2002

A day's drive in New York brought us close enough to a little town in upstate where I went to Junior High, where my brother Gary graduated from high school, and where I visited one summer before my own graduation. I hadn't been back for 32 years, but had loved the years I lived there so much, I had found a town a lot like it in the west to settle in. I located friends in the white pages, and we met at the bar we once longed to drink together in as 'grown-ups.' Drinking sodas and coffee, we got the, "You do what? Drug law reform?

Our message is a first for many. Others know our message, but the meetings are a first.

We met with an Associate Warden and a colleague of his today. They wanted to meet with us before the vigil, to make sure that we were safe when we demonstrated, and voice concerns about any impact protesters might have on the town. I had explained, days earlier, that it would likely be my only husband and I, since Ray Brook Federal prison is in the mountains, far from any urban areas. They met with us at our hotel, and we invited them to the restaurant to join us for morning coffee and breakfast.

The warden politely reminded me why they had come. I poured Chuck and I a cup of coffee.

"Where do you plan to vigil?" the Associate Warden asked.

"Last night it was dark when we arrived and raining like mad, we couldn't even find the road, or signs to the prison. We will vigil where it is safe, not on private property; we are aware of consequences of federal trespassing," I answered him.

"I read your biography online, you have had-have someone in prison?" the warden responded.

 "My brother," I said.

"Where is he, or is he out?"

I was trying to mind my activist manners; that tendency to lay out a case for reform.

The second question, having nothing to do with vigil safety or impact to the community beyond Chuck and I at this point--just as I'd warned them--told me that we were going to talk about why we came to Saranac Lake, and were now having our morning coffee with two officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

"Is he in prison near you?"

"No, he's not -- never has been close to any family. He's serving twenty-seven and a half years, on the word of those who cooperated with the government, testified against my brother and went free. He's in Seagoville, Texas--moved all over the last 14 years." I continued looking at his African American colleague, "The first time I visited him, our family was the only white family in the visiting room. We want earned, early release--some relief from all this injustice. These men and women getting 30 years--they don't need to be serving 30 years for drugs on the word of a snitch--all this imprisonment isn't doing anyone any good, there are more illegal drugs than ever on the streets, and more drug use of all stripes."

The warden reminded me why we were sitting in the Hotel Saranac, while Chuck and Nora had their morning coffee: To discuss the vigil, safety and impact to their community.

The African American man said something to the effect: "Well, you are after the 85% rule--not all that drug stuff?"

"Yes sir, we want release before eighty-five percent of a sentenced served, and we also want broad drug law reform. Prohibition isn't working, and it is what is fueling federal incarceration levels." Driving through upstate New York, I'm again impressed by how well the prison industrial complex is hidden from most citizens. But, even more impressive is how they've managed to maintain three large prison facilities in the middle of their gorgeous Adirondak neighborhood--and not one tourist, or two drug law reformers can see them!

The men seemed pleased they were tucked away so neatly, and assured us there was a sign on the highway, then they laughed.

Later, we understood the laughter. The sign, too small to see in the dark, much less the rain, was hard to see without either obstacle later that day. About a quarter of a mile outside of the town, and down a wooded lane, looms two of the prisons. A federal and state prison; and old Dannemora State prison is beyond another mountain in the region. The shoppers stroll through Saranac, Ray Brook and Lake Placid's groomed streets, by pretty storefronts and more restaurants I've ever seen per block --oblivious to the fact that about 4,000 prisoners live there year round--behind a mountain--only a few miles away in several directions.

Ray Brook Federal Correctional facility has quite a history. It was built in 1960 to house Olympic athletes. It looks like a Nazi concentration camp today--I don't know what a drug war prison looks like, except by comparison. It doesn't look like part of an Olympic village anymore.

Tourists and townspeople don't see the prisons, or the people in the buses that come up from the cities below, drop them off in front of the prison, and whisk them home to New York City and New Jersey after the visit. The warden told me that is the way it goes, and said of the family members that visit their imprisoned loved ones, "They don't stay in our town."

Chuck told them that we had hoped to meet with the families of the prisoners, to teach them how to do what we do--educate others about the need for earned, early release, and relief of drug war injustice. He explained that we are building public support, and one day will have public hearings before Congress on the issues surrounding mass imprisonment due to drug laws.

I told them this was our first trip to Ray Brook, but we'd be Journeying for Justice for the next four years to accomplish this.

It went like that, questions, responses and reminders about why we were at Saranac Lake. The coffee was great, too!

Later we met with, then vigiled with two others that joined us from New Jersey and the state of Maine. I wish we had more photos to share, but it rained so hard not long after we began the vigil - we didn't dare get our camera out. We were safe, stayed on public property - and measuring the honks, smiles, nods and hand waving - we had an impact on their community.

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