Low-Pressure Lobbyists for Humane Prisons

Special to The Progressive Populist

Washington, D.C.

Charles and Pauline Sullivan, who may be Washington's most unusual and surely most underpaid lobbyists, have for 14 years worked the Capitol corridors patiently trying to persuade members of Congress that humane treatment for prisoners is a good and sensible idea.

They came to D.C. from Texas, fresh from helping pass 20 state prison reform bills -- limited reform, to be sure, but making the system better than it was before -- wondering if they could press their issues in Washington.

For 15 years in Texas the Sullivans were fixtures at the Texas Capitol, lobbying for alternatives to prison, restitution to victims, and rehabilitation. Today their agenda is the same.

The Sullivans' arrival in Washington coincided with a vast expansion of both federal and states' prisons. At the dawning of the New Millennium, approximately 2 million people will be imprisoned, and half of those will be under age 30. Most will have limited job skills and education and 25 percent will be from foreign countries. Policymakers finally may be ready to consider alternatives to locking people up and to look for smarter ways to keep inmates from returning.

The 59-year-old former priest, who wants to be called "Charlie," and his wife, a 61-year-old former nun, founded CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) in 1972, the year after they were married in her home state, Minnesota.

The grassroots organization now has perhaps 10,000 members in 46 state chapters -- mostly prisoners' families and former prisoners, but also lawyers, social workers, doctors and others -- who pay dues of from $2 to $100 a year. (Prisoners' dues are $2, and stamps are accepted.)

CURE's priority in the current session of Congress session is to halt the annual appropriation of $500 million in federal grants to states to build more prisons. "This annual half-billion-dollars is the engine driving the over-incarceration," Charlie Sullivan said.

Another priority is a national campaign to stop a practice that requires relatives to pay much more for collect calls from prisoners than people on the "outside" pay -- about 66 percent more. In most states, the department of corrections receives a commission from the telephone company from fees paid largely by the poorest citizens.

Sullivan also is pushing a controversial bill (H.R. 2558) that promises to expand opportunities for prisoners by inviting private manufacturers and other businesses to use imprisoned workers. It is co-sponsored by a congressional odd couple, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime who is running for the U.S. Senate from Florida next year, and U.S. Rep. Robert (Bobby) Scott of Virginia, the highest-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. McCollum was a fierce prosecutor of President Clinton in the impeachment hearings last year while Scott was one of the president's most articulate defenders.

"What we're saying is, take a fresh look at this proposal," Sullivan urges. "We'll have two million people in prison going into this next century; most of them are idle and most of them are going to come out. If we don't give them employable skills, we're in trouble."

The bill would modify the law governing UNICOR, the inmate work training program of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It would eventually end the Mandatory Source Preference requiring federal agencies to buy goods from Federal Prison Industries (FPI) whenever possible, encourage states that have similar laws to do the same, and remove the law that since the 1930s has prohibited interstate sale of prison-made goods.

"That means FPI could sell its goods -- and, for the first time, services -- to anyone in the world," Sullivan says. He has visions of private business coming in to teach high-tech skills that lead to good-paying jobs.

Labor unions are up in arms. "We can understand where the AFL-CIO is on this issue -- they've always been very much opposed," said Sullivan. "The unions see this as taking jobs away from workers in the 'free world.' But economists at a seminar we held here this spring agreed that even if all prisoners were employed, it would be only a little blip on the radar screen concerning overall unemployment." McCollum estimates 40 percent would work in prison industries.

Sullivan is a lifelong champion of the disadvantaged -- he left the priesthood after criticizing the church for a cautious attitude on racial desegregation in his native Alabama and was jailed for anti-Vietnam War protests -- and he is unlikely to be labeled as pro-big business or a foe of organizer labor. But he, his wife, and many other CURE members are pragmatists and they see work and education as the path to better lives for prisoners and their families. However, they want guaranteed protection against exploitation for the inmates and constant monitoring of the work arrangements.

"Prison industry is so important," Charlie Sullivan said. "One example is the money that is going from Anacostia [a poor Southeast Washington neighborhood] to Lorton [the federal prison in Virginia where most D.C. inmates serve their sentences]. Suppose we reverse that and have money going from the prisons to their families?"

The McCollum-Scott bill states that prisoners must be paid the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour. However, nearly all -- 90 percent as the bill is now written -- can be deducted for fines, restitution to victims, charges for room and board, support of the inmate's family, and money saved for the time that he or she is released.

A narrow window of opportunity remains for the bill to become law because this session of Congress will adjourn at the end of the Year 2000 and its chief sponsor, McCollum, will no longer be in the House. The bill, with 11 co-sponsors, has had a hearing, was approved by the crime subcommittee on Sept. 23 and forwarded to the full Judiciary Committee.

Sullivan also likes some features of a competing prison industries measure (H.R. 2551) co-sponsored by another political odd couple -- U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a conservative Republican from Michigan, and U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts -- but he favors McCollum-Scott.

Hoekstra would have FPI compete with private business for UNICOR contracts. Currently, private-sector firms can't bid on contracts claimed by FPI. "Law-abiding workers lose opportunities -- and sometimes their very jobs -- to provide work opportunities for inmates. ... It is simply indefensible," Hoekstra said at the August hearing on his and McCollum's bills. Frank represents a Massachusetts district where a shoe factory lost a federal contract to FPI.

Hoekstra and 78 bipartisan co-sponsors would require FPI to compete for all of its federal contracts. However, they would grant authority to award contracts to FPI on a non-competitive basis "when necessary to maintain prison safety," a provision endorsed by prison guards. Charlie Sullivan interprets that to mean, "to prevent a riot."

The turn-off for many CURE members is Hoekstra's continued prohibition against prisoners producing goods and services that could be sold in the open market. "But with every cloud, there is a silver lining," Sullivan says. The proposed legislation would set aside 20 percent or more of the gross profits from prison work for vocational training. "Even those not in UNICOR would receive job-training with funds from UNICOR," he said.

Sullivan is delighted that Hoekstra-Frank would require a report from UNICOR showing that employment obtained by inmates after their release was connected to the work done in FPI. "In Texas, CURE used to go round-and-round with the prison director on the subject of cotton-picking," he recalled. "The Department of Corrections justified having inmates pick cotton on the theory it was teaching the 'work ethic.' We said the 'work ethic' could be taught by working with computers. Half the prisoners were returning to Dallas and Houston where there is no demand for cotton-picking jobs."


The Sullivans live in genteel poverty. CURE's budget for the national office has escalated from $20,000 a year in 1985 to $30,000 today, with $6,000 of that earmarked for the Sullivans' salaries --BOTH salaries. The budget also includes $175-a-month subsidy for their $575-a-month one-bedroom apartment because they use it as an auxiliary office. The main office is a room that once was a priest's bedroom at the top of a narrow flight of iron stairs in an elegantly restored, 142-year-old Catholic church six blocks from the Capitol. The church charges no rent.

They ride bicycles, not limousines, to the Capitol from their home in a drug-ridden neighborhood not far from half-million-dollar homes on The Hill. "People who see our apartment say the landlord would get $800 for it anywhere else in the city," Pauline Sullivan said. "I have two little garden plots in front where I grow flowers."

Friends say the drug dealers try to look out for the couple on the old bikes.

A senior lobbyist in Washington, who is acquainted with the Sullivans, said the attractive team with their college degrees and effectiveness in organizing and lobbying could earn "at least 20 times their present salaries." Many top Washington lobbyists are paid more than $1 million annually.

CURE members would give them a raise, but Charlie and Pauline won't ask for one. People who know them are puzzled as to the reason they are so happy to be poor and some speculate that they are maintaining the vows of poverty they took when they joined their religious orders. "We live well," they insist.

Pauline is a talented cook who shops carefully for fruits and vegetables and bakes bread. They have no car and don't earn enough to owe taxes. They don't smoke or drink alcohol and a sandwich at a fast-food restaurant is a rare treat. Their one indulgence is gourmet coffee once a day.

Charlie swims almost every day at a city pool, not a country club. They choose clothes from donations to the Salvation Army or other charities. As members of the "working poor" they are entitled to health care at city clinics or D.C. hospitals.

Retirement plans? "We don't worry about it," said Pauline Sullivan. "We will have a very small Social Security benefit, and Medicare, I believe. In the District (of Columbia) there may be subsidized senior housing. That's where we probably will end up. There's a nice building on North Capitol. They just re-did it."

Peggy Roberson is a Washington-based writer and editor. Contact CURE, P.O. Box 2310, Washington, DC 20013-2310; phone 202-789-2126; web (

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