07/31/19 Jennifer Hess

Century of Lies
Jennifer Hess

This week we speak with Jennifer Hess, a Kansas medical cannabis patient, wife and mother whose husband died in police custody. Plus, Jessyln McCurdy from the ACLU, Patrice Onwuka from the Independent Women's Forum, and Aleks Kajstura from the Prison Policy Initiative speak before a House subcommittee hearing on the topic of women and girls in the criminal justice system.

Audio file



July 31, 2019

DEAN BECKER: The failure of the Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization and the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

Jennifer Hess lives in Eureka, Kansas where she is a medical cannabis patient as was her late husband, Homer Wilson. The circumstances that led to Homer’s tragic death were an outrage perpetrated by local law enforcement. The situation in which Jennifer now finds herself is an even greater outrage that is again being perpetrated by law enforcement. I spoke with Jennifer recently. Here is her story in her own words.

JENNIFER HESS: On the evening of May 24th it was about 10:30 at night and my eldest son who is 15 had gone to bed already while my younger son who is 11, myself and my husband were sitting in the living room watching TV minding our own business and there was a knock at the door. My porch light was burnt out at that time and I couldn’t really see who was out there through the window so I cracked the door open as I wasn’t fully dressed and when I opened the door there were four Greenwood County Police Officers who said that someone had reported screaming coming from my house, which there wasn’t and I let them know that and went to close the door. At that time they forced the door open, two of them entered the house and demanded that I go outside with the other two. I asked them to let me get a bra on and they wouldn’t do that. They handcuffed and Mirandized me and would not let me back in the house for any reason. They asked my husband and my son some questions and then they brought my husband out and cuffed and Mirandized him and booked us both in the jail. The jail conditions were absolutely horrible as they had nine women packed in a cell made for six women and we had to sleep on the floor sometimes even blocking the doorway, which would seem like a fire hazard to me.

On the day of June 7th I was getting ready to bond out and the sheriff and a KBI agent took me in to the interview room and let me know that my husband had had a medical emergency and didn’t make it and they asked me questions about his health and habits. He did have mitral valve prolapse, hypertension, bipolar disorder, ADHD, as well as some issues with his ear and I think that is pretty much everything. He was not about to die before we went in even though he was on several medications including lithium and medications for blood pressure. After that I immediately bonded out and I have just been home by myself since then. They took my children who are now placed with my sister for the time being.

DOUG MCVAY: That is outrageous. So a made up story with no probable cause, no warrant, you both end up in jail and as you are getting ready to leave you are told that your husband has died. Jesus.

JENNIFER HESS: Yes and there is just no humanity in it. None. There is no humanity in these police. They do not care whose life they are destroying.

DOUG MCVAY: Did they do an autopsy and determined cause of death yet?

JENNIFER HESS: I was told that the report would take about 90 days from time of death.

DOUG MCVAY: So you are still waiting to hear from them.

JENNIFER HESS: Right. I then have to request that from the district court.

DOUG MCVAY: So you are being put through the system to fight trumped up charges and they are trying to take your children away, am I right?

JENNIFER HESS: They have taken my children. I am here alone now.


JENNIFER HESS: St. Francis, which is a religious organization, handles these kinds of situations and they are going to try to reintegrate them back in to the home but I am looking at them being gone until December at the soonest, from what I am told. That is a lot of time with my kids that I can’t get back.

DOUG MCVAY: No kidding.

JENNIFER HESS: And I can’t be there for them while they are grieving the loss of their father. I am the kind of person that just wants a simple, domestic life and try to make myself as small as possible and then these (UNINTELLIGIBLE) come forcing their way in to my house, where the kidnapped my children, took my freedom, and killed my husband so now I can’t do that. When it comes to injustice I am not one to keep my mouth shut, ever.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Jennifer Hess who lives in Eureka, Kansas and Jennifer Hess is a hero. Unfortunately she cannot afford a private attorney and so she has to rely on a court appointed lawyer as she moves forward through this ordeal. I wrote up her story for Freedom Leaf Magazine and you can get more information by reading that and you can find that link by going to my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/DouglasAlanMcVay. You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host Doug McVay.

Now let’s turn to that House Judiciary Subcommittee meeting on Women and Girls and the Criminal Justice System. The Subcommittee Chair is Representative Karen Bass, who is a Democrat from California. Let’s hear her opening statement.

KAREN BASS: I welcome everyone to today’s hearing on Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System, and I now recognize myself for an opening statement.

I am very pleased that the Subcommittee is holding this hearing today after decades of policies that led to mass incarceration we are finally at a point of examining the policies and the consequences. What has been missing from the discussion of criminal justice reform is the special and specific impact the tough on crime era has had on women and children. Today’s hearing begins a discussion about women in the criminal justice system. It is critical that we understand how and why women become involved in the system, what happens to them when they are incarcerated, and what their trajectory is once released. We need to examine the impact of the war on drug related policies that specifically targeted women in hopes of capturing men and what happens to families and especially children when women are incarcerated. We need to examine the special needs women have when they are incarcerated and what is different, what their needs are and what happens to their children while they are in the system and when they are released. For example, federal law can lead to termination of parental rights if the child of an incarcerated women remains in foster care beyond 18 months. Some states have even shortened the timeline to 6 or 12 months. If a woman receives a sentence of five years, why should she face losing her children forever to adoption? Examining pregnancy while incarcerated is the most obvious difference. Specifically, prisons and jails are not designed or equipped to deal with the issues of pregnant women in custody. I would like to now recognize Charlotte Cook. Wave your hand, please.

While in prison she complained that she was pregnant and the medical staff at the prison insisted that it was just because she was fat and stressed out. After much persistence, a blood test ruled that she was in fact pregnant and after six months in to her pregnancy without prenatal care she had complications and her son was born a preemie at 4 ½ pounds. 18 months later he was diagnosed with severe autism. The health needs of women regardless of pregnancy is different and all women should have access to appropriate medical care and that includes access to gynecological care and not just during the child bearing years. So what is to be done? Through this hearing we will learn the common reasons why women enter the criminal justice system. This testimony must inform our next steps on sentencing reform. The testimony of Ms. Kerman and Ms. Shank will help us determine whether it is time to revisit our overly broad drug conspiracy laws, which tend to leave low level offenders who are commonly women laden with the responsibility for actions they did not commit and sometimes did not even know about. We must also consider methods of reviewing extremely long sentences as the number of women serving a life sentence is on the rise. One out of every 15 women in prison (nearly 7,000) is serving a life or virtual life sentence while 80% of women in the criminal justice system are mothers, these life sentences do not only affect the person incarcerated, they affect the children who lose a parent. Thus the conversation of incarcerated women must include a conversation about their children. The Urban Institute’s research shows that staying in touch promotes positive outcomes for both the children and their parents which often reduces recidivism. Communities must also be a part of the conversation. Teachers and staff should prioritize knowledge and sensitivity about issues children of an incarcerated parent face. Schools should spearhead efforts to meet the needs of children with incarcerated loved ones and offer resources or clubs targeted toward students who have been affected by incarceration including support groups, counseling, extracurricular activities providing opportunities to process experiences through writing poetry, arts, and journaling. Perhaps if we do this we can reduce the statistic that 50% of children who have a parent incarcerated wind up incarcerated later in life. Connections should be made with community programs and local service providers that serve families affected by incarceration for additional support. We cannot ignore the conditions of women in prison and the difficulty of their reentry back in to communities after release. I hope to explore how we can improve conditions of women incarcerated to ensure that their most basic needs are met including the needs of incarcerated pregnant women. Any facility that incarcerates women must be held to a minimal standard of care. Today women will no longer be overlooked in the criminal justice conversation. We must have an overall approach to criminal justice reform that specifically considers women. I look forward to hearing the testimony of our panel of witnesses and the opportunity to discuss these issues.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Representative Karen Bass, she was chairing a hearing of the House Judiciaries Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on the subject of Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System.

You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host Doug McVay. Now let’s hear from some of the witnesses that were there to testify. First here is Jesslyn McCurdy who is the Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

JESSLYN MCCURDY: Thank you, Chairwoman Bass. The American Civil Liberties Union would like to thank you Ranking Member Ratcliffe for the opportunity to testify at today’s hearing on Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System.

Prison is a women’s issue. Lost in the sobering statistics on this country’s prison population and the narrative surrounding mass incarceration is the degree to which women are ensnared in the criminal justice system. Over the past 30 years the number of incarcerated women has grown exponentially. Again, women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population increasing by 700% from 1980 to 2017, which is a rate twice that of men. Today more than 200,000 women are incarcerated in jails and prisons across this country. The majority of women in prison are incarcerated for low level offenses, most often property and drug related crimes. Even as the rate of incarceration of women has risen dramatically in recent years, the percentage of women sentenced for crimes involving violence has fallen. Much of the growth in the women’s prison population over the past 30 years can be attributed to the war on drugs. From 1988 to 1999, the number of women in state facilities for drug offenses grew by 888%. Drug and property offenses are often fueled by conditions of poverty, addiction, and untreated mental health issues which is experienced by many women cycling through the criminal justice system. In addition to poverty what often lands women in prison is their history of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV, and substance abuse problems. When they participate in more serious crimes, including serious drug crimes and robbery; women are minor accomplices. When women commit homicide they often do so in order to protect themselves from men who have abused them. Women of color are disproportionately represented in the population of incarcerated women. In 2014, black women were more than twice and Latino women were 20% more likely than white women to be incarcerated. Although the racial disparities among incarcerated women has narrowed over the past 15 years the legacy of the disparity remains. Girls are more likely than boys to be in the juvenile facilities due to low level status offenses or technical violations and are far less likely to be detained for violent offenses. Women make up approximately 7% of the federal prison population – almost 13,000 women compared to 1980, when there were 13,000 women in both state and federal prisons combined. More than 70% of the women sentenced in 2017 in the federal system were convicted of drug trafficking, fraud, or immigration offenses. In the same year, 68% of females sentenced had little or no prior criminal history. Furthermore, women frequently end up in federal prison due to federal drug conspiracy laws. Too often federal drug conspiracy laws disproportionately punish those who unwittingly and unknowingly find themselves caught in the net of drug related activity, even in a peripheral role. Women who are minimally involved in drug dealing but have partners or family members who are involved in the drug trade can be required to serve long sentences as a result of conspiracy. Some of these relationships are abusive or coercive and leave women vulnerable and with few options. Women of color often find themselves subjected to prosecution based on their relationships and associations rather than their own personal conduct. Adding to the burden of women behind bars is that the majority of women in prison are mothers. Since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has grown 131%. The majority of these women are both custodial parents and primary financial providers. Further, mothers behind bars are five times more likely than men to report that their children are in foster care or cared for by the state. The very existence of parental relationships can be endangered when a parent is incarcerated. Incarcerated parents who have not abused or neglected their children are far more likely to lose their parental rights permanently than a non-incarcerated parent who has assaulted their child. Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the U.S., leaving far too many children and families without a mother despite the fact that she is often their primary caregiver. Until we recognize the unique circumstances, needs, and consequences associated with women who come in contact with the criminal legal system, we will never truly address this nation’s mass incarceration problem.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Jesslyn McCurdy, Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union testifying before a House Subcommittee on the topic of Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System. Now let’s hear from Aleks Kajstura who is the Legal Director of Prison Policy Initiative.

ALEKS KAJSTURA: Thank you, Chairwoman Bass and Ranking Member Radcliffe and Members of the Subcommittee for providing me the opportunity to share some data on women’s incarceration not only because this is an issue that’s been overlooked for far too long but also because women’s experiences in the criminal justice system serve to highlight the faults of the entire system.

The U.S. incarcerates women at the highest rate in the world so there is a lot of data to dig through but as I outline the basics I would like you to all keep one fact in mind; 1 in 4 women who are incarcerated have not been convicted. That figure alone demonstrates that we use incarceration far too much. Since the 70s, women’s state prison populations have grown faster than their male counterparts. There are nearly ten times as many women in state prisons now as forty years ago and despite this dramatic growth women’s incarceration remains an afterthought and in most states women have not benefited from recent efforts to reduce incarceration as much as men have. There are many complex and interconnected reasons why the U.S. is incarcerating women at ever increasing rates and here are a couple of examples.

States still continue to widen the net of criminal justice involvement by criminalizing women’s responses to gender based abuse and discrimination. We’ve heard about the expansion of drug conspiracy laws that lead to minor or peripheral roles of women receiving very harsh sentences; even more harsh than those in charge of the operation. In terms of gender abuse you have policy changes that led to mandatory dual arrests simply for fighting back against domestic violence and once caught in the net, there are fewer diversion programs available to women. In Wyoming for example, there was a boot camp that allowed men to participate in a six month program instead of having to serve a lengthy sentence but no similar program is available in the state for women so they face years of incarceration for first time offenses while their male counterparts can quickly return to the community. Once women are incarcerated they face more and harsher disciplinary sanctions for similar behavior when compared to men and this disciplinary action harms women’s ability to earn time off the sentence and decreases chances of parole. The pentacles of mass incarceration have a long reach. Women incarcerated in jails and prisons account for just a small percentage of women under some form of correctional control. Probation accounts for the majority of women under correctional control and is often billed as an alternative to incarceration but compliance with restrictive probation terms is particularly difficult for women and it often sets us up to fail. For example, probation comes with mandatory monthly fees, which women are in the worst position to afford and failing to pay these fees alone is often a violation of probation. Child care duties further complicate compliance because probation requirements often include travel to mandatory meetings or having to get advance permission for an emergency school pick up or advance permission for an emergency doctor’s visit. Ongoing struggles with mental health and Substance Abuse Disorders, which affect women in jails far more than men require additional support rather than being punished as a failure of probation. Even as incarceration rates drop, women’s incarceration continues to grow. Getting hard data is the obvious next step for policy change and you would think that knowing how many women are locked up, where, and why would be easy; after all this is a population that is literally counted multiple times a day. There is an astounding lack of data on women’s incarceration. I set out to give a complete picture of women’s incarceration in my report, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie. I had to weave together data scattered across incompatible government reports and surveys. For example, the last time the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) published a comprehensive report on incarcerated women, it was 1999, which was 20 years ago. Since then data on incarcerated women has been available piecemeal, scattered throughout BJS publications. Even worse, the BJS has stopped even collecting some data on women incarcerated much less publishing it. When our statistical agencies are blindfolded, the policy makers are too. Having accurate, timely data is an important part of ending mass incarceration of women but quite frankly, there is such vast room for improvement in so many areas that we can wait for data collections to catch up while we take commonsense action today.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Now let’s hear from Patrice Onwuka, Senior Policy Analyst for Independent Women’s Forum.

PATRICE ONWUKA: Good morning. Thank you Chairman Bass and Ranking Member Radcliffe. I work with the Independent Women’s Forum, and we are an educational organization committed to increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. We advance policies that enhance people’s freedoms, choices, and opportunities. My work focuses on expanding opportunity for women. This subject is something that is really important to us and it is truly a great time and opportunity for women. We know that we have record low unemployment rates with over 1,800 new businesses started by women each day from 2017 to 2018. Firms owned by women of color have had triple digit growth over the past decade yet a criminal background locks too many women out of opportunity and economic mobility. Work is a critical component to the successful transition from the criminal justice system back in to society. So I am encouraged by the historic bipartisan First Step Act that was passed and signed in to law last year which laid a foundation, but we know there is more to do for women. Conversations like today remind us that the left and the right are committed to helping every American achieve their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Organizations across the philosophical spectrum are engaged in criminal justice efforts and for different reasons. I think we can all agree that committing a crime and paying her debt to society should not preclude a woman from the pursuit of a better future. It is not just her future, but the future of her children; her family; her community that depend on her successful transition back in to society. It all starts with so many women who are in the criminal justice system. You have heard the staggering statistics but what is interesting is that we saw the replacement of judicial discretion with one size fits all sentencing mandates, landing a lot of low level non-violent offenders in federal prisons for longer periods of time that what they may have otherwise been given particularly because there are alternatives to serving time. That not only impacted women but their families as well and as a result more women are likely to have served as a primary care giver to children prior to entering prison and have plans to return to their children upon release. We know that children whose parents are involved in the justice system face a host of challenges and difficulties. Incarceration also forces families deeper in to poverty and debt and the burden falls on family members, society, and the taxpayers. The family bond and the bond with their children become the motivating factor for women not to return to crime so effective criminal justice requires respect for the dignity for all people and the successful means towards rehabilitation. While serving time women face special challenges as some of the panelists have talked about from general health and wellness to ongoing gynecological and prenatal care, and they require separate facilities for showering and using the toilet. Serving a criminal sentence should not mean that female inmates serve in dehumanizing, unsanitary, unsafe, or unhealthy conditions. Some level of privacy from male guards is a reasonable expectation and can protect female prisoners, many of whom have experienced sexual violence. Incarcerated pregnant women are the most vulnerable. Unfortunately the justice system rarely considers the special needs of this population. Thankfully the shackling of women is a practice that has been ended by law because of the risk it poses to moms and babies. As a mother of a seven month old baby boy, this is especially close to my heart. Ongoing physical and mental health care should not be forgotten and when it is time for a woman to be released from prison that is not the moment to begin thinking about what she is going to do afterwards. We know that women’s recidivism rates are similarly troubling to those of men with about one quarter of women who are released from prison have an arrest for a new crime within six months, and one-third within a year, and two-thirds five years out. So training and technical educational opportunities, including those tied to the faith community can be assets in the rehabilitation and reentry process. There is evidence that these programs work. The First Step Act encouraged rehabilitation programs and offered significant incentives to inmates to participate and recidivism reduction programs. A strong economy is an ally in providing women opportunities but where government puts up roadblocks to opportunity, government needs to remove them. We have seen that occupational licenses have been a tremendous hindrance for women who simply want to work. This is a place where we can start and we are seeing states take some action there. The criminal justice system is an area where we all believe that smart reforms can help women who want to be productive members of society. I look forward to today’s discussion.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Patrice Onwuka, Senior Policy Analyst with the Independent Women’s Forum. She was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on the subject of Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System.

That is it for this week, thank you for joining us. I am Doug McVay and you have been listening to Century of Lies. We are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. You can find us on the web at: www.drugtruth.net. We will be back in a week with 30 more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For the Drug Truth Network this is Doug McVay saying so long.

For the Drug Truth Network this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition, the Century of Lies. Drug Truth Network programs are archived at the James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy.