When a mega-grow gets busted in Humboldt County, it makes a splash in local media — photos of lush greenhouses, irrigation pipes and bricks of processed weed, plus names and numbers (money, pounds, plants) that read like sports stats. What we don't see are the repercussions of those busts, what becomes of the growers after they're arrested, charged and convicted.
This past July the Journal submitted a request to interview locals serving terms in a federal correctional institution located in Sheridan, Ore., about 50 miles southwest of Portland. There are currently at least five men from Humboldt County being held in the prison's minimum security satellite camp. They're serving terms of three years, five years, even 10 years for nonviolent, marijuana-related crimes (mostly conspiracy to distribute).
After almost a month of emails and follow-up phone calls to the warden's assistant, our request for interviews was denied. "[T]he decision was made based on security concerns and the possible disruption to the operations of the institution these in-person interviews would cause," explained Paul Thompson, the prison's executive assistant.
This, obviously, is reasonable-sounding nonsense. There is a provision in federal law that allows wardens to deny an interview request if he or she thinks the interview "would endanger the health or safety of the interviewer, or would probably cause serious unrest or disturb the good order of the institution." But the men in question here are nonviolent offenders being held in a minimum security prison camp with inmates of similar backgrounds. Was the warden suggesting that simply interviewing these men could cause a prison riot?
We contacted Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers' Association. Told of the reasoning behind the denial, Ewert was perplexed. "That sounds a little preposterous to me," he said.
In late August the Journal sent a follow-up email asking for a more detailed justification of the denial, and throughout September we left numerous voicemails and sent several emails. On Sept. 18 we were told that Warden Marion Feather was off that week and would respond the following week. She didn't. On Oct. 8 Executive Assistant Thompson sent an email saying that things would have to wait due to the government shutdown: "Once the federal government is operating fully again your requests can be assessed again."
On Nov. 18, Thompson wrote to say that the satellite prison camp manager was meeting with the five local inmates to have them review news interview authorization forms. "I will keep you informed," he wrote.
Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Thompson sent an email saying that the interview requests had again been denied, this time with an additional reason: Talking to the inmates may "be considered as receipt of something of value or prestige in the eyes of the other inmates."
Just six days earlier, Rolling Stone published a 10,000-word story on Charles Manson, complete with glossy photos and online audio clips of a fresh interview from inside Corcoran State Prison. The piece was dubbed "The Final Confessions of a Psychopath." Meanwhile, Humboldt pot growers can't talk to their local weekly. Do the feds find them more dangerous than Charles Manson? Or maybe they think the Journal's more prestigious than Rolling Stone. Gosh, thanks!
Regardless, we'll keep pressing for access to the prisoners at Sheridan. In the meantime it's at least worth pondering the lives of the men who not long ago were surrounded by lush greenhouses, irrigation pipes and bricks of processed weed, but who are now serving multi-year terms in federal prison.
Marijuana is our region's No. 1 cash crop because its value is artificially buoyed by prohibition. And the federal laws enabling drug war profiteers can quickly turn them into hidden prisoners of that war.