11/23/2006 02:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Wish Thanksgiving Were For All of Us

I'm not in a particularly upbeat mood this Thanksgiving. I know we just won an election and hopefully have started on a path to end the War in Iraq and take back our country from the right-wing extremists who have ruled since 1994. I'm thankful that the days of appointing right-wing ideologues to our federal courts and the Supreme Court may be behind us.

But I live in a peculiar world, one that is filled with days spent visiting mostly non-violent prisoners in jails, and it saddens me that for them and their children and parents, I see little hope.

For two hours on Sunday night, I sat on a cold bench at the jail in Omaha, waiting to get in to see a client (the mechanical doors had malfunctioned, and there was nothing anyone could do until a repairman fixed them.) The bench was in a waiting room between the door to the outside world and the partitioned glass window where a lone sheriff's deputy sat, taking money from a stream of inmate family members, who were bringing it to be placed on the inmates' accounts so they could buy food and hygiene items from the commissary.

In order for the inmate to be able to purchase anything from the commissary and receive it by Thursday for Thanksgiving, the money had to be in by Sunday night. The Sheriff's deputy would come out for five minute stretches and then disappear behind closed doors for a half hour or so. During the time she was gone, the room would fill with parents, grandparents and children, all coming to put $20 or $40 on their loved one's "book" so that their Thanksgiving would be a little less dreary. The line got really long at times and I got to hear all their stories.

There was the 78 year old grandmother, who had no idea why her grandson hadn't spent more time reading the bible, but wouldn't abandon him. The teenage daughters who reminded me of the Bush twins, stunning in their petulance at having to wait. "Don't these people work for us? Aren't we paying their salaries?"

The working mother who fretted she would be late to work but couldn't leave before making sure her son wouldn't have an empty Thanksgiving. A young man who had stopped by to pick up his "store" -- the commissary items he had purchased during his 90 day stay -- but weren't delivered to him when he was released the day before. His stories about the food served at the jail left me no doubt why his "store," when it was finally turned over, was filled with Snickers bars and Fritos.

It was just a parade of pitifuls, one after the other. The saddest part was that, except for having to wait for the appearance of the Sheriff's deputy, they all accepted these conditions. Once they got to tender their money, they all wished the Sheriff's Deputy a happy holiday, and she replied in kind.

Back in Denver today, I spent the morning with a young female inmate who hasn't seen her kids in a few months. She's not yet been convicted, but is missing Thanksgiving because she was denied bond since she's charged with a federal drug offense and the Government requested she be held until trial without bond. As I left, I mentioned I wouldn't be back until next week, due to the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that my mother was in the hospital. She told me not to worry, she'd be fine. She told me to give her blessings to my mother.

I spent the afternoon with a formerly well-to-do businessman, his wife and daughter as they tried to accept that he would be going to prison for a few years for an economic crime he never thought was against the law. The tears, the sadness, the coming to grips with reality -- is it really necesary?

The incarcerated are human beings too. Everyone is more than the sum of their misdeeds. Wouldn't we be better off shortening the prison terms of non-violent offenders and spending the money we saved on educating, rehabilitating and training them to live productive lives? When it comes to non-violent drug crimes, shouldn't we be spending the money to provide treatment and vocational skills to allow them to live lives free of drug abuse and the crime to which they resort to be able to afford their next high rather than on draconian sentences destined to destroy their lives and the lives of their children?

When are we going to end the War on Drugs, and in particular, mandatory minimum sentences?

It's not just drug and economic crimes. When are we going to stop allowing prosecutors to have the discretion to try juveniles as adults where they become especially at risk in adult prisons? When are we going to stop mandatory deportation of non-citizens who have been convicted of minor crimes even if they have spent most of their lifetimes in this country paying taxes, working and raising families?

Who is going to care for the children of the incarcerated? For their elderly parents? What did these innocents do to deserve this fate? Inmates have family values too -- as evidenced by the steady stream of relatives that came out in Omaha on a cold Sunday night to put money on their loved one's books. Their family values are as strong as yours or mine.

America is a prison nation. More than two million are currently housed in our state and federal jails. Of those, more than one million are incarcerated for non-violent offenses at a cost of more than $24 billion per year.

It's great that the Democrats have been elected, but there isn't one domestic prisoner issue on their agenda for the new legislative session. I applaud Senators Feingold and Leahy for promising to hold hearings on restoring habeas corpus to the detainees, but it's just not enough.

What I hope for in the coming two years is that Democrats tackle their agenda of ending the War, providing universal health care and saving Social Security as fast as possible, so they can turn their attention from those who are at the center, the middle class, to those who are the most marginalized among us -- the more than 2 million inmates in our prisons.

When that happens, then I'll give my thanks. Today, I'm just feeling guilty that while I'm free to visit my mother in the hospital and then have a warm turkey dinner with friends, millions of others, especially our non-violent inmates, will be separated from those they love and eating processed turkey in cages.

Jeralyn Merritt blogs daily at TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime