Civil asset forfeiture sounds confusing, and most Americans don’t know that it means drug enforcement officials can help themselves to people’s cash, cars and other belongings. Christopher Ingraham’s article in the October 1, 2015 issue of the New York Times is titled: Most Americans don’t realize it’s this easy for police to take your cash.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander calls forfeiture laws “Finders Keepers” and traces the practice of the police being able to seize cash and assets when enforcing drug laws back to 1970. But it wasn’t until 1984 during the Reagan Administration that Congress amended the law that allowed all law enforcement agencies to retain the proceeds for their own use. Alexander continues, “ Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales.” 
When I read about this in The New Jim Crow, it shocked me, and then I remembered bringing up the idea of search warrants with my prison students in a civics class one day. It set off a firestorm with my students saying that the police could barge in and help themselves to anything they wanted. At the time, I found it hard to believe.
Several rules make it even worse. A mere suspicion that someone is involved in using or selling drugs is all that’s need for property to be seized; the owner has no right to counsel; and the burden of proof is on the owner. Few people can afford lawyers and do not want to challenge the government’s action for fear of criminal charges.
There are even more insidious aspects to this. I cannot imagine the anger, desperation, frustration and despair of having property seized only because the authorities are suspicious. For the police to be able to simply help themselves to someone else’s property opens the door to all kinds of abuse and corruption. More people need to know that this has persisted for decades, with reforms not going nearly far enough. As Alexander writes, “Despite all of the new procedural rules and formal protections, the law does not address the single most serious problem associated with drug-war forfeiture laws: the profit motive in drug-law enforcement.”  No wonder the drug wars have continued!
Fortunately, there is bi-partisan support for reform of this practice. In a time of legislative gridlock, the beginnings of reform are sailing through both houses of the Michigan legislatures.
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York, 2012), 79.
- Ibid., 83.
While teaching in prison, I was always aware of just how invisible the people incarcerated were—and how little the general public knew about the reality of life behind bars. The high security shrouding the people inside and what really happens inside the fence makes it difficult to figure out the truth. There is a widespread tendency to not believe the stories that inmates tell; instead they are seen as unworthy of dignity, fair treatment and ordinary human kindness. Two articles from the New York Times: Restraint of Pregnant Inmates Is Said to Persist in New York Despite Bans from April 9, 2015 and Handcuffed While Pregnant from September 23, 2015 expose what happens to women who are pregnant while incarcerated. It is not a pretty picture.
As a former childbirth educator, I know just how vulnerable and afraid women feel when they are pregnant, when they are in labor, when they deliver their babies and as new parents. Women have an innate fear of finding themselves alone, especially as their babies are born. After hearing hundreds of childbirth experiences, I was always struck by how fragile women felt in the face of hospital policies and procedures. It was not a time to assert their wishes or question the people who were in control of how the baby would be born. It is difficult for laboring women to move around, and they do not like to move very far away from the bed. I cannot imagine how being incarcerated exaggerates those fears and vulnerabilities. Pregnant women in jail or prison are not exactly flight risks—apt to run out of a room, down the hall, into a stairwell or out into the street. Labor is hard enough without such medieval torture practices like handcuffs, waist chains and ankle manacles. The editorial board of the September 23rd article calls these indignities “sheer cruelty and pointless degradation,” and says these practices introduce health risks to the mother and her baby.
Another article, U.S. Prisons and Jails Are Threatening the Lives of Pregnant Women and Babies on September 28, 2015 from In These Times, a monthly magazine published by The Institute for Public Affairs in Chicago, Illinios, also points out the fact that in spite of bans on this type of treatment in several states, the practice of shackling women who are pregnant, in labor, delivering their babies and caring for newborns persists. Part of the solution is coming from outside advocacy groups who are investigating and interviewing incarcerated women who have endured these awful practices. There is hope in Delaware’s example of creating a group home program where both mothers and babies are given the education and support that they need, though that facility is locked. Another program in New York operates independently of the prison system, and mothers are allowed to keep their children, avoiding the problems of foster care.
Children suffer greatly when their mothers are incarcerated. In the interest of keeping families as healthy as possible, we could do so much better. We need to be creative in finding alternatives to incarceration, and we need to investigate the forces in our culture that create these levels of punishment, see the pathology of these practices and provide the kind of training that would not only keep both mother and baby from harm, but provide the best care and nurturing possible. All mothers count. All babies matter.