The Investigator
As an activist for prison issues, Lisa Zahren '98 has witnessed the other side of the drug war. And just like the SOA crusaders, she found her cause almost by chance.

Nearly 100 miles east of Oberlin sits the city of Youngstown, a once-great steel town still reeling from the industry's collapse three decades ago. For 20 years the city suffered the highest unemployment rate in Ohio. But in the 1990s the landscape of Youngstown was redrawn by its acquisition of Ohio's first private prison, first federal prison, and first control unit, as well as expanded new county jail.

Many Youngstown residents, like those in prison towns across the country, were grateful for the influx of jobs and money. But local activists took issue with the idea of warehousing human beings as a money-making venture. Critics worried that private prisons would cut corners on items like food, blankets, health-care, and staff training. They also felt that the control units housed in the federal prison--tiny cubbyholes in which inhabitants are kept locked down 23 hours each day­violated prisoners' basic human rights.

During her trips to Youngstown with Oberlin Action Against Prisons, Zahren became intrigued with the way prison issues attracted a range of people, from church groups and unions to former prisoners and families of inmates. "That's what made me realize the importance of taking on the growing prison-industrial complex," she says, using a phrase that expresses a key belief of many prison activists--that the spike in incarceration rates is linked to the multi-million-dollar prison industry and its lobbying force in national and local government.

As an investigator for the past two years with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), Zahren battles the prison-industrial complex case by case. Sometimes this means ensuring that conditions meet basic human-rights standards. Sometimes it means fighting for adequate legal assistance for impoverished defendants. And sometimes it means gaining the release of inmates who shouldn't have been imprisoned in the first place.

"I've gotten three people out of jail this week," Zahren says from her office in Atlanta. One of the three, a mentally ill woman, had been arrested for approaching an ambulance parked outside her boarding house and belligerently demanding to be taken to the hospital. Although the charges were minor, the woman sat in the county jail for more than two months without seeing a lawyer.

Zahren learned of the woman's plight while visiting the jail on unrelated business, and she phoned the office that had prosecuted the case. "The prosecutor said to me, 'I'm so sorry, there is no reason for this woman to be in jail. We'll drop the charges.' This happens all the time--people fall through the cracks and sit in jail for stupid stuff."

These cases are just a side effect of Zahren's work at the SCHR. She spends most of her time gathering information for class actions on behalf of prisoners and defendants and monitors compliance with court orders when the SCHR prevails. She doesn't consider litigation as activism per se ("I think of activism as more grassroots than what we do here"), but she's learning how effective legal strategy can be.

Last May, for example, the SCHR won a ruling from a federal judge who ordered Alabama to remedy overcrowding in a county jail. Inside the facility (which was built to house 96 inmates but held 256), prisoners slept on tables and concrete floors, next to toilets and on top of shower drains. The judge compared conditions in the jail to those on a slave ship. Zahren's photographs of the jail, entered as court evidence, were reprinted in a front-page New York Times article.

Today the SCHR is focused on legal representation for impoverished defendants in a Georgia county where just two attorneys handle an indigent defense load of 600 cases a year. The system discourages citizens from asserting their right to a fair trial; in the past two years, every defendant has pled guilty. "People sit in jail for eight or nine months without ever talking to an attorney," Zahren says. "Then they show up in court where one of the two attorneys walks around with a clipboard saying, 'Ten years...five years...three years'--deciding your plea bargain for you. If you try to talk to him, he threatens you for interrupting him."

Working within the courts, it might be easy for Zahren to lose sight of the broad-based local activism that first drew her to prison issues. But it still finds its way into her life. She says she's been heartened at the political consciousness she's found everywhere, even in small Alabama towns.

And that, she says, is the little-noted counterpart to the flashy big demonstrations in major cities. "There are people who are and who have been resisting in small communities everywhere," she says. "Anywhere you go, you can find people who care about their communities and are working for change."

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