As an activist for prison issues, Lisa Zahren
'98 has witnessed the other side of the drug war. And just like
the SOA crusaders, she found her cause almost by chance.
Nearly 100 miles east of Oberlin sits the city of
Youngstown, a once-great steel town still reeling from the industry's
collapse three decades ago. For 20 years the city suffered the highest
unemployment rate in Ohio. But in the 1990s the landscape of Youngstown
was redrawn by its acquisition of Ohio's first private prison, first
federal prison, and first control unit, as well as expanded new
Many Youngstown residents, like those in prison towns
across the country, were grateful for the influx of jobs and money.
But local activists took issue with the idea of warehousing human
beings as a money-making venture. Critics worried that private prisons
would cut corners on items like food, blankets, health-care, and
staff training. They also felt that the control units housed in
the federal prison--tiny cubbyholes in which inhabitants are kept
locked down 23 hours each dayviolated prisoners' basic human
During her trips to Youngstown with Oberlin Action
Against Prisons, Zahren became intrigued with the way prison issues
attracted a range of people, from church groups and unions to former
prisoners and families of inmates. "That's what made me realize
the importance of taking on the growing prison-industrial complex,"
she says, using a phrase that expresses a key belief of many prison
activists--that the spike in incarceration rates is linked to the
multi-million-dollar prison industry and its lobbying force in national
and local government.
As an investigator for the past two years with the
Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), Zahren battles the prison-industrial
complex case by case. Sometimes this means ensuring that conditions
meet basic human-rights standards. Sometimes it means fighting for
adequate legal assistance for impoverished defendants. And sometimes
it means gaining the release of inmates who shouldn't have been
imprisoned in the first place.
"I've gotten three people out of jail this week,"
Zahren says from her office in Atlanta. One of the three, a mentally
ill woman, had been arrested for approaching an ambulance parked
outside her boarding house and belligerently demanding to be taken
to the hospital. Although the charges were minor, the woman sat
in the county jail for more than two months without seeing a lawyer.
Zahren learned of the woman's plight while visiting
the jail on unrelated business, and she phoned the office that had
prosecuted the case. "The prosecutor said to me, 'I'm so sorry,
there is no reason for this woman to be in jail. We'll drop the
charges.' This happens all the time--people fall through the cracks
and sit in jail for stupid stuff."
These cases are just a side effect of Zahren's work
at the SCHR. She spends most of her time gathering information for
class actions on behalf of prisoners and defendants and monitors
compliance with court orders when the SCHR prevails. She doesn't
consider litigation as activism per se ("I think of activism
as more grassroots than what we do here"), but she's learning
how effective legal strategy can be.
Last May, for example, the SCHR won a ruling from
a federal judge who ordered Alabama to remedy overcrowding in a
county jail. Inside the facility (which was built to house 96 inmates
but held 256), prisoners slept on tables and concrete floors, next
to toilets and on top of shower drains. The judge compared conditions
in the jail to those on a slave ship. Zahren's photographs of the
jail, entered as court evidence, were reprinted in a front-page
New York Times article.
Today the SCHR is focused on legal representation
for impoverished defendants in a Georgia county where just two attorneys
handle an indigent defense load of 600 cases a year. The system
discourages citizens from asserting their right to a fair trial;
in the past two years, every defendant has pled guilty. "People
sit in jail for eight or nine months without ever talking to an
attorney," Zahren says. "Then they show up in court where
one of the two attorneys walks around with a clipboard saying, 'Ten
years...five years...three years'--deciding your plea bargain for
you. If you try to talk to him, he threatens you for interrupting
Working within the courts, it might
be easy for Zahren to lose sight of the broad-based local activism
that first drew her to prison issues. But it still finds its way
into her life. She says she's been heartened at the political consciousness
she's found everywhere, even in small Alabama towns.
And that, she says, is the little-noted
counterpart to the flashy big demonstrations in major cities. "There
are people who are and who have been resisting in small communities
everywhere," she says. "Anywhere you go, you can find
people who care about their communities and are working for change."
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