Visiting with Stephanie Landa

November 29, 2007
Jane is a medical marijuana activist and ASA volunteer in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Recently, I joined fellow activists Ana and Chris to make our bi-monthly trek up the 5 freeway for a visit with our friend Stephanie Landa.  Stephanie, a 61 year old mother, is being held at the Dublin Federal Parks Camp, a decrepit women’s minimum security federal prison. The prison, a former World War II Japanese internment camp, sits in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling golden hills, between a military base and the cookie cutter condo development built to house the soldiers. This prison, however, is not like what you’d imagine.  There are no guard towers, sweeping spotlights, and high barbed wire fences surrounding this facility.  In fact, there are no fences at all. A few inmates over the years have literally just walked away, but most don’t because they hope to reintegrate into society as soon as they are done clicking off days handed down by an arbitrary Sentencing Commission. Everyone knows that if they escape and get caught, the punishment is imprisonment just across the parking lot at the infamous maximum security Santa Rita County Jail, a facility that very much looks just as you’d imagine. At the guard’s desk, we surrender our identification and empty our pockets. The guard gives us a once over, to make sure we are dressed properly (no torn jeans or open-toed shoes as we learned on a previous visit). We log our names as visitors (having already undergone Federal background checks for approval) for Stephanie Landa, Prisoner Number: 09247800, then wait patiently for her to be called. She enters the room from a separate entrance, wearing blue prisoner garb and always a smile, her right arm hangs limply at her side under the pain of her ailing shoulder. We usually sit in the outdoor visiting area and Stephanie fills us in on her life in prison. In prison, there is no privacy. Most women are housed in dormitories in lots of 40. Throughout the night, every two to three hours, guards barge into the dorms for the nightly count, shining flashlights in the eyes of women attempting to sleep. Stephanie was recently upgraded to relatively lavish accommodations: a four bunk room, but she still hasn’t had a full night’s sleep since she arrived. She has very little freedom and personal choices are usually limited to a cheese burrito or a pepperoni microwave pizza from the vending machines. All her mail is read and censored, all phone calls are listened in on, and she can trust no one because everyone is a possible snitch. The wardens pit the women against each other by rewarding any piece of incriminating information. All conversations are subject to eavesdropping; even our conversation in the outdoor visiting area is likely to be listened- in on. She is monitored like a child, having to report to certain places at certain times. She must always obey and behave according to the rules. If she rebels in any way, she will be punished.  Of course, this doesn’t stop her.  Even in jail, she continues to be an activist, for medical marijuana and for improved prison conditions. Despite all this, Stephanie jokes that she thinks she might be becoming institutionalized. She doesn’t like it there, but she is getting used to it.  Eventually, Stephanie will be back in Los Angeles , but for now, it is just a matter of waiting. Not surprisingly, Stephanie is making the best of her time and keeping busy. She is the head of the Dublin Federal Correctional Institute chapter of Toastmasters International (which has record attendance since her takeover), she makes cards to answer every letter she receives, and she has nurtured some amazing crocheting skills (I have a hat and bag to prove it!). Usually, we are able to take pictures with Stephanie, but today, the “picture lady” is unavailable. The last time we took photos, four out of five photos were confiscated by the prison officials. We had posed in front of various signs in the visiting area (Keep of the Grass, the sign for the prison, No Smoking) and apparently someone didn’t like the rare moment of personal expression. In fact, now photos can only be taken in two designated areas.  There was even now a backdrop set up.  Tighter control is constantly being placed on the smallest of freedoms. Visiting hours end at 2 PM. It’s always hard to say good bye. It’s hard to leave her behind. Sometimes Stephanie will smile and ask a guard if she can come home with us, and follow it up with an “OK, just checking.” While we leave to enjoy a nice lunch before heading home, Stephanie must go back into the dormitories, where her life is dictated. The injustice of her conviction is felt acutely. She is eleven months into the forty-month sentence doled out to her for growing medication (plants!) for sick and dying patients. Stephanie has been incarcerated since voluntarily turning herself over to federal authorities on January 4th, 2007. In 2002, after receiving the full cooperation of the SF Board of Supervisors, the SF Medical Marijuana Task Force, and San Francisco District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, Stephanie, Tom Kikuchi and Kevin Gage were turned over to the Drug Enforcement Agency by a rogue narcotics detective in the San Francisco Police Department, an action that was in a violation of the city’s Medical Marijuana Sanctuary Resolution. Because they were not allowed to present a medical defense in federal court, all three accepted a plea bargain and plead guilty. Despite 8 SF Supervisors and DA Hallinan writing personal letters to Judge William Alsup asking for leniency in sentencing, she was still sentenced to 41 months, Alsup admitting the sentence was improper but claiming his hands were tied. Stephanie is still a beacon of light and love, despite the circumstances. The one thing that has helped through all of this is the mail she receives. She says that she absolutely lives for mail call. Please, write to Stephanie! FCI DUBLIN SATELLITE CAMP Prisoner Stephanie Landa POW # 09247-800 5675 8TH ST DUBLIN, CA 94568
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