Truth And Trouble
April 28, 2005 - 12:45pm ET
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Sometimes, to find the truth in a situation you need to sleep with rats. Literally. In 1994, author and journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc did just that, spending the night in a sweltering, rat-infested Bronx apartment, while working on her book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (a book, by the way, that I have recommended to just about anyone who will listen to me). Over the span of 10 years, beginning in the late 1980s, LeBlanc was an observer, and sometimes participant, in the lives of two young Puerto Rican women, Jessica and Coco. During that period of time, the girls had a combined eight children by six fathers and tried to maintain relationships with boyfriends in jail. Jessica herself served time on drug-related charges missing out on most of her oldest daughter's childhood.
Last week, The Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute awarded LeBlanc The Ron Ridenhour Book Prize for Random Family. The prize is awarded "to the work that best reflects the values of truth telling and social justice," and LeBlanc's work does just that. Coincidentally, earlier this week the Department of Justice released statistics on the number of Americans in the prison system, up to "2,131,180 in the middle of last year, an increase of 2.3 percent over 2003," as reported by Alan Elsner of Reuters. The United States maintains the highest percentage of incarcerated individuals of any democracy. Despite the fact that both violent and property crimes have fallen over the past ten years the prison population continues to grow. What's causing this continued rise? Elsner stated that, "Criminologists attribute the growth in the prison population to 'get tough on crime' policies that have subjected hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug and property offenders to long mandatory sentences."
One of those nonviolent drug offenders was Jessica, only 23 at the time she was charged in connection with her boyfriend's million-dollar heroin operation. The same boyfriend who filled her mother's cupboards with groceries when the family couldn't afford to was also the reason why, despite never dealing drugs herself , Jessica spent seven years in prison.
To LeBlanc, getting at the truth, and understanding the details of how women like Jessica end up in prison, needs to happen before real change can occur. "In terms of poverty policy and social policy in this country," LeBlanc stated in an interview following the release of Random Family, "we are really going to get on with it when poor people will just be people and not have to be self-abdicating martyrs—when poor people can just be like anyone else: Make good choices, bad choices, be nice, be jerks, be whatever anyone else gets to be." And that's the truth.
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