April 2005: The Tallahassee Project: Update on Karen Hoffman and Becky Stewart
Next month marks the fourth anniversary of the publication of The Tallahassee Project, the unforgettable work created by Karen Hoffman and Becky Stewart, drug war prisoners in the women's penitentiary in Tallahassee, Florida, and the ninety-eight non-violent drug offenders who give their candid, often poignant take on life as a POW. Unrivalled for its first-hand testimony and photographs, many taken in prison especially for the Project, the book is a must-read for anyone who wants an honest look at the effect of the Drug War on its primary victims - prisoners and their families. Intended as a communiqué to the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time of the 1998 conference on the War on Drugs, the Project was published by Last Gasp of San Francisco for the general public. Included are an introduction by Karen and Becky and an 11 section Appendix containing essays by Lorilee Leckness, herself a contributing prisoner.
For more information on The Tallahassee Project, go
There's nothing like having a copy of the book in hand. To order a copy, write to the publisher, Last Gasp of San Francisco, 777 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, enclosing $12.95 plus $5.00 for shipping and handling. Satisfaction guaranteed.
My decision to apply to New College is based upon a promise I made not so long ago. I promised those I left inside I would not forget them or leave them behind.
As a teenager, I abandoned my small New England town to follow the Grateful Dead. This turned out to be only the beginning of am awe-aspiring odyssey, far beyond my wildest imagination, one that continues today. It was the start of a magical journey during which I began to explore my consciousness and grow as a human being. I spent years traveling around the country meeting people and visiting places I'd only read about. LSD played a major role in my life. To myself, and many other Dead Heads, LSD is a sacramental tool which awakens the innermost living spirit that resides in each and ever one of us.
It was in 1990 that the Drug Enforcement Administration initiated "Operation Looking Glass", otherwise known as "Operation Dead End". Under it state and federal agents went undercover exclusively to search for Dead heads, create "crime" and make arrests. They dressed like us, posed as one of us, which might reasonably be considered entrapment as they managed to get themselves invited to places they would certainly not have been had their true identity and purpose been realized. It was the beginning of a massive sweep that would land thousands in prison.
Appalled at watching friend being sent away to prison for ten, twenty or thirty years for LSD, I began networking with prisoners to change mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines related to LSD. Through their letters I was introduced to another world, a very cold and dark one, within the prison walls. It was during this time I became a target for the DEA and on Aug. 16, 1993, I was arrested under the Looking Glass. They claimed I was the leader of over twenty people responsible for distributing LSD across the country. I was charged with a multitude of LSD offences and originally destined to spend the rest of my life behind bars.
While I had been working with prisoners for several years, I could only fathom so much of what they were going through. This was my opportunity to discover the world they lived in and to try and figure out what could be done to rectify it.
The experience was far more shocking than anything else I had ever encountered. There is no amount of reading or studying one can do to prepare them for walking into a prison compound. There are women from a wide array of backgrounds, diverse cultural and social classes. However, most are poor, most are uneducated, most don't belong there. The majority of them are non-violent drug -offenders, more than half are addicts. Nearly all had a sense of defeat, or utter helplessness.
I witnessed gross cases of medical neglect several of them resulting in death. Doctors were not permitted to be doctors; their orders and recommendations were second-guessed and amended by bureaucrats with no medical background only concerned with the cost and managing the budget.
I lived in conditions that would be held legally unfit
for a dog. Prison overcrowding is phenomenal, as it is also the norm,
for I was in every federal prison in the country for women. Tallahassee
used to do the shuffle, sending the women off to other institutions
each time OSHA came in and threatened to shut them down. Out they
would go by the hundreds, only to be replaced equally as fast after
the inspection. Danbury should have been condemned long ago. Dublin
simply didn't care; they just pay their fines. It's hard to say which
one is worse,
I worked in the prison law libraries aiding women fighting their cases. Victories were few and far between. I taught English as a Second Language in the maximum-security prison if Florida. I tutored women preparing for their GED tests, and had special training working with remedial readers.
Meanwhile, the government was determined to make an
example out of me. They took what could reasonably be considered one
continuing conspiracy and broke it down into multiple federal districts
in order to give me the greatest sentences they could. My first trial
was a fiasco. The government introduced form letters, petitions and
lists of prisoners from the mandatory minimum sentence and carrier
weight campaigns I was working on into evidence. They proclaimed this
made me a leader. The jury found me guilty. I was sentenced to ten
I spent the better part of the next few years warding off the life sentences that would be imposed should I be convicted of any further charges. I fought for religious freedom and against selective prosecution. In 1997, the multiple life without parole sentences were dismissed by the Sixth Circuit on other grounds. That then made me the one in a million who actually beats a federal conspiracy. However great the victory nothing can erase the trauma of having those hanging over my head. For 4 years, I did not know if, or even when I would step outside an institution.
In 1998, on behalf of the Committee On Unjust Sentencing, I gathered together a collection of photographs and stories of 100 non-violent women prisoners of the War On Drugs. This was to be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations held in New York City on June 8-9. This drug policy debate was scheduled at a time to recall the anniversary of a UN signing of a convention on illegal drugs, and was widely hoped to be an opportunity for member nations to discuss issues related to illegal drugs and new approaches on how to cope with them. We felt there would be no better way for the UN, or anyone else for that matter, to hear about how US policy effects people's lives than to hear it from the prisoners/addicts themselves. Right before the Assembly was to be held, the US prohibited anyone from speaking out against their drug policies. This immensely hampered all discussions for change. We then tried to pass the stories to the Secretary-General of the United Nations hoping he would at least read them. Things were fumbled on the outside and the tales never made it to New York. However, several years later, they did make it into print when Last Gasp of San Francisco published them as "The Tallahassee Project". Each story remains unedited, precisely as written by it's author.
Telling their own stories gave the women a sense of accomplishment, of empowerment. Most had never dared to speak out on their own behalf before. While the book was an excellent start to raise public awareness, it is not enough. The bulk of the women are uneducated, some are completely illiterate, and quite unable to express themselves in writing. This is why I feel a more appropriate method to expose their plights would be to film them, thus, allowing them to speak freely. I feel it is imperative they be able to speak for themselves. If the 'Tallahassee Project" served no other purpose, it served to raise the self-esteem of the 99 women within it's pages.
Two years ago, I was handed a one way ticket back to San Francisco along with fifty bucks. They wished me well and said not to come back. Well, I haven't gone back, but I haven't gone forward yet either. I often still feel like a deer frozen in the headlights. The world has changed drastically and now I must as well. I fear if I don't move soon, it may be too late.
Two years ago, I was also introduced to New College, by a friend and former student. He knew of my dream of making documentaries and the promise I made. He felt, as I agree, the alternative philosophy gained through New College coursework will enhance my thinking and my friends.
The education offered at New College will better prepare me for grants necessary for my life work. I want to be a documentary filmmaker. I want to expose the dirty secrets behind the prison walls. I want people to see what I saw. I want for them so see the faces of those inside and hear their cries. I want the needless suffering to end.
I experienced firsthand what a small-dedicated group of people can do. While not in perfect health to begin with, I became gravely ill due to years of medical neglect. In 1999, I was transferred to the Carswell Medical Center, the only one in the country for female federal prisoners. The administration denied my needs and I gradually deteriorated until I was in a wheel chair, unable to walk or care for myself. Through the Committee On Unjust Sentencing, Anarchist Black Cross Network, Jeff Dick's Medical Foundation and various women's support groups my story was publicized. Letters from around the globe poured in. The administration could ignore me no longer. While I did not receive the compassionate release I requested, I did receive what could fairly be considered the best medical treatment available anywhere. I am crippled for the rest of my life and continue to battle this illness, but I am alive. I am alive because I dared to cry out and those who heard answered.
I believe more will answer. I want to help my friends find their voices again. I want to help them be heard. I promised them I would.