Before my arrest and retrial, my life was the American dream.
Growing up, I had shined shoes, worked in a slaughterhouse, worked on the Alaskan oil pipeline, and delivered pizzas. I went to law school, I was a prosecutor for two years, I served in the Illinois House, the U.S. Congress, and was twice-elected governor. I won 14 elections in a row.
My gubernatorial administration made historic progress in Illinois on women’s and children’s healthcare. We opened free preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old. We also reduced repeat crimes by ex-offenders. My initiative, “Inside Out,” provided better access to education, job training, substance abuse treatment and counseling services to inmates and parolees. This led to the lowest conviction rate among parolees in Illinois history; a reduction in arrests among the parolee population; and reductions in repeat incarceration among parolees with substance abuse issues. The dramatic drop in recidivism even saved the state of Illinois $64 million in incarceration costs over a four-year span from 2004 to 2008.
Today however, I am living the reverse American dream – a bad dream that I share with other inmates at a prison in Colorado where I am currently serving a 14-year sentence. So what happened?
Carved in stone on the front portico of the U.S. Supreme Court building are the words “Equal Justice Under Law.” But as I sit here in prison, I can’t help but reflect on those four words and feel an overwhelming sense of sadness – not just for me, but for many of my fellow inmates as well. Here’s why.
It is not equal justice under law when over-sentencing is the rule rather than the exception; when our incarceration rate has increased by more than 500 percent over the last forty years; when an American citizen in good faith trusts the integrity of the courthouse, but to their horror discovers that the game is rigged, and that they are being denied a fair trial before proceedings even begin.
The national debate in Congress on prison and sentencing reform is a conversation that is long overdue. And as that debate heats up, I’d like to offer a few points of my own and share some things I’ve learned on this painful journey.
As a dishwasher, I start work at 3:30 each morning and earn a total of $8.40 a month. Did you know that the average wage for an inmate is 23 cents to $1.15 an hour? In some states, inmates have to work for free. I never expected to get rich in prison, but am I wrong in viewing this rock-bottom wage as society’s way of showing its contempt, telling us that we are all worthless? Is that a good message to send to people we plan to release someday, and whom we’d rather not see offend again? To people we hope will survive on their own without resorting again to crime?
And the work in prison isn’t easy – it’s hard labor. Each day, inmates are working in maintenance, scrubbing floors and toilets, in government factories, farms and call centers, and making everything from clothes to furniture. During the California wildfires in 2017, federal inmates were placed on the front lines to battle the raging fires while being paid only $1 an hour.
Did you know that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world? “Tough on crime” policies and mandatory minimum laws have led to overcrowded prisons, unfair sentencing and wasted taxpayer dollars. Robert, a fellow inmate of mine, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for growing marijuana. Under normal sentencing guidelines, he would have served five years, but under mandatory minimums, he’s instead serving 15 years as a first-time offender.
Did you know that the average cost to the taxpayer to house each inmate is around $33,000 a year? In California, taxpayers pay $75,000 a year per inmate. In total, taxpayers are left with a $39 billion invoice each year. And what’s the government’s solution? Increase our prison population and force hard working Americans to pay even higher taxes.
Did you know that federal prosecutors like to boast about their 97 percent conviction rate? Yet when you think about it, shouldn’t that fact raise an alarm bell to all freedom loving people? Michael Jordan, as great as he was, only made half the shots he attempted. And knowing what I now know through my experience, this almost perfect success rate is convincing proof that the federal criminal justice system works against the accused. It is neither a place to expect a fair trial nor is it a place where the promise of justice for all is a promise kept.
Did you know that from 2013 to 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons denied 94 percent of the applications from inmates requesting a “compassionate release” due to a terminal illness? And in all of these cases, instead of dying with dignity surrounded by loved ones, terminally ill inmates were left to die alone in prison.
Did you know that if a spouse or child passes away while you are in prison, that you’re not even allowed a furlough to attend the funeral services?
Did you know that when incarcerated women give birth, that they are chained and handcuffed to the hospital bed?
My time in prison has taught me that we need serious reforms. It’s also taught me that there are a lot of people in here with good hearts.
Instead of creating a system that punishes and dehumanizes inmates, let’s create a system that rehabilitates prisoners and prepares them for life outside of prison. So here is my message: We can never reach our potential until we as a people rise up and demand that our elected representatives bring about reform; until freedom is safeguarded by a renewed and unwavering commitment to the rule of law; until mercy seasons justice, and fair play governs those who govern us.
Equal justice under law? We’re not there yet. But we can get a lot closer.
Rod Blagojevich was governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2009.