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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 June 2007, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Washington diary: Prohibition lite
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

The rolling hills around Charlottesville are the sophisticated cradle of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

This is where Thomas Jefferson, that most famous of American Renaissance men, kept his ebony toothbrush, surrounded by his inventions, his fine French wines and, of course, his slaves.

Thomas Jefferson's home in Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia
The state of Virginia was the birthplace of eight US presidents

The town of Charlottesville itself is a gracious home to one of America's oldest and most venerable colleges, the University of Virginia.

The town centre is more lively and funky than perhaps any other in the state.

The Playhouse is staging Harold Pinter, the Slava dance club is hosting a transvestite salsa night and, at the cinema in the pedestrian district, there is a Stanley Kubrick marathon this weekend.

But even towns like Charlottesville need a jail.

Perhaps in keeping with the sense of decorum, the Albemarle County jail is unusually pleasant.

Colour-coded

The red-brick blocks are tastefully minimalist with a nod to Bauhaus and there are neat rows of freshly planted oleander.

In the visitors' lobby, polished wooden frames adorn the portraits of employees of the month.

There is a glass jar of boiled sweets on the receptionist's desk.

Captain Jeanette Rush, the chief prison guard, is polite to a fault and generous about her charges. "They're people too," she told us, motioning to the prisoners who shuffle through the corridors in colour-coded uniforms that immediately tell you their status.

Male inmates wear black and grey stripes. Women prisoners wear red. The trustees, the prison elite who qualify for special privileges like more free time and longer visiting hours, wear Guantanamo Bay orange.

Elisa Kelly
Elisa Kelly is angry at what she sees as an unjust penalty

Elisa Kelly wears red. This is hardly surprising. She has only spent two days in jail and she still does not know her way round.

For instance, she did not know that inmates can create a mobile phone account with a designated user, necessary because jails only allow collect calls.

She was not sure about the registration process, without which she cannot receive her two visitors every month for half an hour.

But what Elisa Kelly does know is that she will be here for two-and-a-quarter years.

It is a relatively short sentence compared to the murderers and rapists with whom she paces around the narrow, pit-like courtyard once a day for 10 minutes.

You might argue that Elisa Kelly, who shares her cell with nine other inmates, is lucky, because her original sentence of eight years was slashed to 27 months after a lengthy and costly appeals process which finally hit a dead end when the US Supreme Court refused to hear her case.

But none of that matters to Elisa Kelly, who barely rises above 5ft 3in (1.62m), wears her blonde hair in a bun and has the muscular stature of a former physical education school teacher.

Tears

Because, even in the presence of Ms Rush, silently and sympathetically listening to our interview, Elisa Kelly vents her anger and lets the tears flow.

"It's absurd. It's an injustice," she told me with red eyes that matched her uniform.

Elisa's crime was to hold a birthday party for her 16-year-old son Ryan and serve his friends beer

"My boys don't just think I'm a good mother. They think I'm the best mother!"

I look over to Ms Rush, fiddling with a large bunch of bronze keys as if they were prayer beads.

She shrugs, smiles, and looks down at the grey carpet.

Elisa's crime was to hold a birthday party for her 16-year-old son Ryan and serve his friends beer.

As a precaution, she and her ex-husband, who is serving 30 days for bringing the alcohol onto the property, made sure that none of the kids would be able to drive home.

As they arrived at their 6000ft suburban mansion on the outskirts of Earlysville, she confiscated their car keys, put them in a bucket, barricaded the drive with her Hummer and told them to have a good time.

They were all expecting to have a sleep over and, since Elisa knew most of the kids because she had taught them at school, she did not think it was necessary to warn their parents that beer would be consumed.

Multiple packs of beer on sale in the US
A simple pleasure, but a crime if you are under 21 in the US

At about 10pm the din of music and boys' voices was drowned out by police sirens.

Some 30 officers with guard dogs swooped on the red-brick house in Bleak House Road.

Someone shouted "cops!" and many of the boys dispersed into the surrounding forest.

Everyone was caught. The young guests were breathalysed and about half tested positive.

Elisa and her husband were immediately handcuffed and led away to jail. They both pleaded guilty.

In Virginia, like in much of the US, you can drive when you are 15, die in the army at 17 and buy a gun at 18.

But you cannot let beer or wine pass your lips legally until you are 21.

On that night in 2003 Elisa knew that she was breaking the law but since she was doing so at home, she did not think that anybody would know - or care, for that matter.

She was wrong. And now, through sobs and tears, she explains how she made a silly mistake but how her remorse is trumped by her anger at the punishment.

Selective Puritanism

The bizarre and selective Puritanism of the US is as old as the nation.

This country boasts a multibillion dollar porn industry that dwarfs the GDP of most developing countries.

The evening news is cluttered with adverts for erectile dysfunction: "If your erection lasts for more than six hours consult a physician."

But there were howls of outrage when the singer Janet Jackson allowed her left breast to be exposed in a "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl half-time show in 2004.

A friend of mine was lambasted by an elderly gentleman on a deserted beach in North Carolina for allowing her three-year-old son to roam naked in the sand.

The Freis too have repeatedly been criticised for consuming wine in the presence of our children.

Not that we were knocking back bottle after bottle, dribbling uncontrollably or throwing chairs around.

We are talking about a humble bottle of red, shared by two consenting adults. With food.

Old attitude

History provides an answer of sorts. There was, of course, prohibition.

The ban on alcohol was the only constitutional amendment (1920) that was overruled by another constitutional amendment (1933).

Henry Ford supported prohibition because he thought that booze slowed down his car workers.

The suffragettes supported it because they blamed alcohol for the rise in domestic violence.

Much of the public supported it because many of the breweries were in German-American hands and, after World War I, beer became known as "the Kaiser's brew" and "our worst German enemy".

But the resulting epidemic of deaths caused by moonshine (some 50,000 in 1923 alone) and the rise in organised crime (Al Capone) eventually killed off prohibition.

And yet, the spirit of prohibition lite lingers even today.

In Washington DC, a city forever vying for the title of murder capital of the US, liquor stores are closed on Sunday.

The same is true in Virginia, Wyoming and 32 other states.

It is not just about the evils and perils of booze.

It is about the intrusion of civic America into the lives of its citizens.

The Presbyterian Puritanism of the pilgrims and the founding fathers still haunts a nation that is forever trying to live up to abstract ideals and forever failing to do so.

It is the sober side of the American dream that will keep Elisa Kelly awake at night in her crowded cell at Albemarle jail on the lush outskirts of Charlottesville.


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