Prisoners Stage Hunger Strikes Worldwide July 12, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in California, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Torture.
Tags: bobby sands, california prisons, force feed, force feeding, Guantanamo, hunger strike, israeli jails, jasil noor, michael ratner, Palestinians, pelican bay, real news, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who’s now joining us from New York.
Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network.
Thank you for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It’s good to be with you, Jaisal, and good to be with The Real News.
NOOR: So, Michael, what do you have for us this week?
RATNER: I’ve been very concerned for a long time about the situation both in Pelican Bay, which is the big prison in California where my office has a lawsuit around solitary confinement, obviously concerned by Guantanamo Bay and what’s happening there, as well as over time have spent some attention to Palestinians in Israeli jails, where they’re under administrative detention. In all three of these cases, we now have hunger strikes going on.
And the first thing I want to say about them that’s important is really hunger strikes are a last resort. I remember when I was back teaching and working on the Guantanamo one, which was the Haitian cases, the HIV people left at Guantanamo Bay, kept there by the United States. And after we’d lost all the lawsuits, the Haitians said, what can we do but go on a hunger strike? You hate to see your clients do it. It’s painful. Any of us who have fasted for one day or two days or three days–I know what it’s like. So it’s really a last resort. It’s when all else has failed, when the powers that be failed, when the litigation we do fails, when even a mass movement to some extent has failed, and prisoners and detainees and others say, we’re going to take our fate into our own hands, we’re going to decide our fate, and we’re going to do what’s necessary to change what’s going on; we’re going to become the actors in this drama that is unfolding.
And going back before that, and in my memory, in the early ’80s, there were the hunger strikes that took place by people from the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland in British jails. The one most people have heard of is of course Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a prisoner of the British. He went on a hunger strike and he died, actually, from that hunger strike. He died I think in 1981.
And what was interesting, what was established as result of Bobby Sands’s death was that you don’t have a medical right or a legal right to force-feed a person who’s making a conscious decision to go on a hunger strike. That’s the fundamental law. And that’s the law that really developed out of the Bobby Sands case. If we look at it, it’s like any medical decision. I have a right to forgo medical treatment if I want, and I have a right to forgo forced feeding.
Let’s jump forward to today. First, Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay, as I said, has some 29,000 people both at Pelican Bay and in prisons throughout California on hunger strike. There’s a history to that at Pelican Bay. In 2011, some 6,000 people at Pelican Bay in prisons in California went on a hunger strike. California agreed to make certain changes. The main change–and this is really important to understand why people are on hunger strike in California–is to solitary confinement. When you hear the statistic, you just can’t believe it. People have been in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay from 11 to 28 years. That’s right, 11 to 28 years. And they have no real way of getting out. And solitary confinement past something like 15 days is to be considered–is considered by most authorities and legal authorities to be cruel and unusual treatment, and here it is going on in hundreds of cases for 11 to 28 years. The state of California promised to remedy that three years ago after the last hunger strike or two years ago. They didn’t do anything. And just this week the hunger strikes again began. The demands are to end that solitary confinement contrary to the U.S. Constitution as well as international law.
Interestingly, in this whole package, that hunger strike is continuing. My office, the Center for Constitutional rights, has a major class-action going to try and end the practice of solitary confinement. Hopefully the combination of the hunger strike and the heavy pressure of the lawsuit will finally force California to do what any humane society should do, which is get the people out of solitary. That’s California. It should get all of our support. It needs support. The hunger strikers have finally said, we’ve had enough.
Let’s fast–not fast-forward. Let’s just go to Guantanamo, where a hunger strike is continuing right now. Some 100 people are on a hunger strike at Guantanamo. Forty of them are being force fed. Their demands are, one, to finally get them out of Guantanamo. This is only been 11 years that they’ve been at Guantanamo. In some cases many of those people have been cleared for release. They remain there. And what’s most interesting, the most interesting development–of course, they’re being force fed contrary to law. The most interesting development was a lawsuit that a judge ruled on this week in the case of one of the people at Guantanamo. It was someone who had been cleared for release who’s on a hunger strike who’s being force fed. His lawyers went into court and said, you’ve got to stop the force-feeding, it’s illegal, it’s contrary to medical ethics. The judge said, I can’t do that, I don’t have any jurisdiction to do it, there’s just no way the court can do it. So the first thing the court said: there’s no jurisdiction. And the reason the court said that is because our Congress, in it’s great wisdom, passed a law stripping all federal courts of dealing with any conditions at Guantanamo. So the judge had no jurisdiction. She could have ended the case right there, but she went on in two amazing respects, and it’s something–it’s a short opinion, but I’m going to read you a little bit of it, but everybody ought to look at. The first thing she said: she essentially agreed that there’s a consensus in medical and legal opinion that force-feeding violates article 7–article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that prohibits torture, cruel, and inhumane treatment. In other words, forced feeding–and, of course, the way they do it is you sit in a restrained chair like this, your head’s restrained, a tube is put down your nostril into your stomach. It’s a form of torture itself. And so what she’s saying the law is clear that the international covenant on civil and political rights is violated by force-feeding. And then she cited a letter that the American Medical Association wrote to the U.S. Department of Defense, secretary of defense. And here’s what it said. The core ethical values of the medical profession find that force-feeding is a painful, humiliating, and degrading process, so it can’t be done. So the U.S. is violating the law not just in keeping people at Guantanamo, but in forcing them to be fed. So she found first she couldn’t hear the case, but then she went on to say it’s essentially illegal and unethical. And then–and I think the greatest slap we’ve seen from a federal judge in recent times to a sitting president was this. She says, even though the court doesn’t–does–the court must dismiss this case. And she obviously as an individual judge felt very badly in doing so. She says this important thing about President Obama. There is an individual, she says, who does have the authority to address the issue. In a speech on May 23, 2013–it was the big Obama national security speech–she says President Obama stated, quote, look at the current situation where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that. Then she goes on to say, after quoting the speech, she then says the president of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the military. And she quotes the Constitution. And then she says–she ends her opinion. It seems to follow therefore that the president as commander-in-chief has the authority and the power to directly address the issue of the force-feeding of the detainees at Guantanamo. She places the blame squarely where it belongs, on the shoulders of Obama, who himself has condemned the force-feeding yet refuses to do anything about the force-feeding or releasing the Guantanamo detainees.
So we have California, we have Guantanamo, and then as when I opened this segment, we have Palestinians in Israeli jails who are on hunger strike. And there’s, you know, at least two dozen of them, very long hunger strikes. Some have come very close to death and have been released as a result because Israel apparently, from what I read and hear, does not have a policy of force-feeding. And so what does that mean in the Israeli context? What it means is that the Israelis–what I understand: the attorney general’s office in Israel is currently examining the legality of a government bill that would enable prison authorities to force-feed hunger-striking prisoners. And they’re doing that because in the past they faced mounting challenges, this article said, to the fact that Palestinian security detainees, in other words, administrative detainees who are held in prison without any charges, are getting early release because the Israelis are so afraid of them dying in prisons. So hunger strikes are effective. And as long as the law is followed, which is to say you can’t force-feed them, they actually can result in change and release of some people. So what’s Israel considering? Complying with the U.S. law, the U.S. law, the U.S. nonlaw. And I’ll end on this little note. The Israeli–the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have issued a strong solidarity statement with the Pelican Bay prisoners, trying to make us understand that people in this situation, the oppressed, those made and weakened by the state, those abused by the state, can begin to take control in their own hands and their solidarity across these lines from Pelican Bay to Guantanamo to Israeli prisons.
I’ll end on this remarkable statement that I read in the paper that doctors from Israel are coming to the United States because the United States claims it needs help in dealing with hunger strikes, that they’re having trouble figuring out what to do, so they’re going to the Israeli doctors, no less. Now, in some way I don’t believe that headline, because if you accept what I just said, which the Israelis do not force-feed but the U.S. does, in fact what may be happening is the Israelis are coming here to learn how to force-feed prisoners so they don’t have a problem in dealing with the force-feeding of their prisoners. In the end what we’re seeing is people who are the oppressed taking their lives into their own hands, becoming actors in their own dramas. And basically that is the way–sadly, but that is the way that they will make change, whether it’s at Pelican Bay, Guantanamo, or in Israeli prisons where Palestine–where Palestinians are in prison.
NOOR: Michael Ratner, thank you so much for joining us.
RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
Tags: california prisons, Criminal Justice, human rights, hunger strike, pelican bay, roger hollander, solitary confinement, torture, victoria law
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The strikers are calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement and better prison conditions.
On Monday, July 8, prisoners at the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison began a mass hunger strike to protest long-term solitary confinement. It is not the first time such an action has taken place. In 2011, prisoners staged two separate hunger strikes to protest their continued placement in long-term solitary confinement.
Hunger strikers issued five core demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
During the first hunger strike, in July 2011, at least 1,035 of the SHU’s 1,111 inmates refused food. The strike spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved at least 6,600 people incarcerated throughout California. The second strike, in September 2011, spread to twelve prisons within California as well as to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma that housed California prisoners. By the third day, nearly 12,000 people were participating. The strike ended after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) promised a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates.
Now prisoners are striking again. They charge that in the intervening two years the CDCR has not addressed any of these demands, and they have called for a mass hunger strike combined with a nonviolent work stoppage. “Once initiated, this protest will continue indefinitely—until all Five (5) Core Demands are fully met,” they declared. By the second day of the strike, almost 30,000 California prisoners were taking part.
The 2011 hunger strikes mobilized family members as well. For many, this is their first foray into political organizing, even though their loved ones have spent years locked in windowless cells nearly twenty-four hours a day.
Dolores Canales’s son Johnny has spent thirteen years in the SHU. Canales herself has had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. During her own imprisonment, she spent nine months in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at the California Institute for Women, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard everyday. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But being in solitary confinement still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being moved from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget.”
In contrast to his mother’s experience, Johnny spends nearly twenty-four hours a day in a windowless cell. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door. The “yard” he is taken to for solitary exercise consists of a cement yard the length of three cells with a roof only partially open to the sky. Johnny never sees the sun.
Over 1,000 people are held in the SHU, and more than half have spent over a decade there. Prison administrators place people in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they have been accused of membership in a prison gang. Accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence, such as tattoos or possessing certain books. Prison administrators also place prisoners in the SHU on accusations of gang association, again relying on circumstantial evidence such as being seen speaking with an alleged gang member on the housing unit, associating with prisoners of similar background or racial group or possessing literatures associated with political ideologies (such as the Black Panther Party).
Until recently, alleged gang members are released from the SHU only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners can be falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member or associate to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU. Johnny was one of those jailhouse lawyers. “He’s assisted with legal work for alleged associates charged with being in gangs,” his mother stated.
In May 2011, Johnny began sending his mother letters that he asked her to forward to the governor. The letters declared that Johnny and others were going on hunger strike on July 1, 2011, to protest SHU conditions and their indefinite terms within the SHU.
The day the strike began, Canales attended a rally in Los Angeles. “I had no intention of getting involved in organizing,” she recalled. “I just wanted to find out what was going on. I was asked to speak, and I read a letter from Johnny.”
That was Canales’s entry into organizing. “We [family members] started meeting every other day. More and more family members were coming out, sharing stories of their loved ones in different prisons and jails who were on hunger strike.”
In Oakland, Marie Levin was also galvanized into action by the hunger strike. In 2011, Levin had not seen her brother, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, for over fifteen years. Shortly before the strike, Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, visited her, bringing an audiotape in which Jamaa talked about his decision to go on hunger strike. Moved, Levin then attended a solidarity rally in San Francisco. “I was activated after going to that rally,” she recalled. Like Canales, this was her entry into political organizing. She joined Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), a coalition of lawyers, advocates and family members. “It was overwhelming at first,” she remembered. “I found out so much information I didn’t know about. Not just about SHU conditions, they were talking about the Black Panthers and history that I didn’t know.” But Levin continued to attend.
Family members, advocates and supporters have held rallies and vigils in various cities to draw public attention. On July 18, 200 family members, lawyers and supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento to deliver a petition with over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers. They then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers.
The hunger strike lasted three weeks, ending after CDCR officials promised changes. Hunger strikers suspended the strike to allow CDCR a grace period to fulfill their promises. In the meantime, family members continued to speak out about SHU conditions. “We were going to churches, universities, anywhere,” Canales recollected. “I can be on line at the bank and I’ll talk to people. I’ll pull out a picture of the SHU cell and the closed-in yard.” When the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions in August 2011, Levin and other family members attended and testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. Levin also helped build a mock SHU cell, which they brought to rallies, vigils and speaking events.
When prisoners renewed their hunger strike in September 2011, Canales and other family members started California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement. “A lot of family members work full-time jobs, so the organizing is all in our spare time even though we have families, jobs, etc.” They continued to speak out about SHU conditions. In the Bay Area, Levin and other PHSS members have brought the mock SHU to the city’s parks, universities and vigils.
The second hunger strike ended on October 13, 2011, after the CDCR agreed to a comprehensive review of all SHU prisoners validated as gang members or associates. Family members continued to keep public attention on Pelican Bay. They held rallies in front of the Los Angeles County Jail. They have continued weekly candlelight vigils in cities throughout California. When Senator Dick Durbin held hearings on solitary confinement in June 2012, they traveled to Washington, DC, in a show of support.
They also began coordinating to enable loved ones to visit Pelican Bay. Canales applied five times for permission to visit her son, who was in the SHU at Corcoran State Prison. Each time, her application was denied because of her conviction record. When she was finally approved, Johnny had been transferred to Pelican Bay, thirteen miles from the California-Oregon border, making the trip more time-consuming and expensive for Canales, who, like many family members, lives in Southern California. Organizing with other family members, she learned that this distance prohibited others from seeing their loved ones. “I try to bring other family members up when I’m driving.”
Although Marie Levin lives in the Bay Area, 370 miles closer to Pelican Bay, the cost and distance have also prevented her from visiting her brother for years. Levin credits the hunger strike with bringing together various families who pool resources. “The support that I’ve gotten from the women who go up there has been a blessing. I can carpool with them, we share the [hotel] rooms together, and we share all the costs. We room as if we were family.” She adds, “In the past, we did not have that.”
California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement also organized larger group visits. On November 19, 2012, the group brought three vans of family members to the prison. Less than one month later, on December 7, 2012, they chartered a bus, half of which were children. The group has since organized several caravans that enable family members to visit their incarcerated loved ones, some for the first time in years.
Family members near the prison in Crescent City have also opened their homes to those traveling from further away. Canales credits this hospitality to the Pelican Bay prisoners’ call to end racial hostilities. “If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system…now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than twenty to thirty years of hostilities between our racial groups,” SHU prisoners announced in August 2012. “Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups…in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and CountyJails, will officially cease.”
“It’s real,” stated Canales. “I’ve stayed in the homes of family members of every alleged organization when I’ve gone to visit. I wouldn’t be able to do that if the cease-fire wasn’t real.”
In Fall 2012, the CDCR unveiled its stepdown program. Under the program, even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement. The debriefing program remains in place. Groups of three or more can be labeled as Security Threat Groups, warranting SHU placement. Prisoners, family members and concerned advocates have criticized the program, stating that the program does not address the five core demands and instead expands the criteria for people eligible for SHU placement.
On February 14, 2013, prisoners at Pelican Bay’s SHU announced a renewed hunger strike, combined with a work strike, to begin July 8. This time, they promise to go “all the way” if the CDCR does not meet their five core demands. They demand that the CDCR sign a consent decree spelling out the specific terms of the policies they will enact. In addition, they have issued an additional forty demands, which include prohibiting official sanctions for hunger strike participation as well as improving conditions in the SHU and in general population. On June 20, 2013, prisoners reaffirmed their decision to hunger strike after a court-ordered mediation session with CDCR officials.
In Oakland, Marie Levin and her husband Randy have organized monthly vigils. They bring the mock SHU and invite people to step inside. “A large part of it is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ People don’t think about the conditions under which people [in prison] have to live. It’s up to me and others to educate them so they know what’s going on.” Levin notes that the public reaction when confronted with the mock SHU cell has generally been outrage and horror. “The majority of people realize this is wrong.”
In April, Levin also began fasting three days each week. “The purpose was to pray for change from the governor, CDCR officials, the Public Safety Commission, the Assembly, even the officials at Pelican Bay.” She ended her fast in June, but plans to fast again this July 4 and may participate in a rolling fast—in which outside supporters fast for one day in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Family members are also planning a caravan and solidarity rally to Corcoran State Prison, which has its own SHU, for Saturday, July 13.
Both Canales and Levin hope that meaningful change will occur before the hunger strike begins. “As a mother, I don’t want them to put their bodies through this,” Canales said. “But these men have come to a point where there’s no turning back.”
Tags: California, Criminal Justice, human rights, hunger strike, john rudolf, pelican bay, prison conditions, prison inmates, prisoners, prisons, roger hollander, solitary confinement
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Published on Saturday, July 9, 2011 by the Huffington Post
Nearly 1,500 inmates at six California prisons have joined a hunger strike by prisoners confined in one of the state’s harshest isolation units, prison officials said Friday.
Demonstrators hold up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco, Friday to support prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. Inmates in an isolation unit at Pelican Bay State Prison are on a hunger strike to protest conditions that they describe as inhumane. Advocates say several dozen inmates in the Security Housing Unit declined to eat their morning meal on Friday. The unit holds about a third of the 3,100 inmates at the Northern California prison. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) The hunger strike began a week ago and was organized by prisoners confined in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security facility located near the Oregon border. Inmates there are held in windowless isolation cells for more than 22 hours a day and can have little or no contact with other prisoners for years and even decades at a time.
A core group of prisoners at Pelican Bay said they were willing to starve to death rather than continue to submit to prison conditions that they call a violation of basic civil and human rights.
“No one wants to die,” James Crawford, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, said in a statement provided by a coalition of prisoners’ rights groups. “Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have?”
The hunger strike comes only weeks after the Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically lower its prisons population, because severe overcrowding was exposing inmates to high levels of violence and disease.
California prison conditions were so poor as to be “intolerable with the concept of human dignity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
The hunger strike is not a protest against overcrowding, however, but against the treatment of offenders who are segregated from the general population due to gang affiliations or crimes committed in prison.
In June, the Pelican Bay inmates provided prison officials advance warning of their intent to begin a hunger strike and made six key demands, including that the prison reform its policies on long-term solitary confinement.
The prisoners cited a 2006 report by a group of attorneys and law enforcement professionals that determined long-term solitary confinement practiced in U.S. prisons can create “torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration.”
State and federal courts have rejected prisoner lawsuits seeking to alter such policies, however. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that prisoners in the Pelican Bay isolation unit were held there due to their known affiliation with prison gangs or for violent acts committed in prison.
“The purpose of the Security Housing Unit is to remove gang members’ influence over other inmates and to keep our prisons safe,” she said.
The prisoners also called for an end to a policy allowing indefinite detention in the isolation unit for inmates suspected of continued involvement in gang activity. Gang-affiliated prisoners can be released from the unit if they “debrief,” or provide information on other gang members.
Those who choose not to “debrief” must serve a minimum of six years in the solitary unit and can be held there indefinitely if they engage in any activity that prison officials deem gang-related.
The Angola Three: Torture in Our Own Backyard May 2, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights.
Tags: 13th amendment, aclu, albert woodfox, amnestgy international, angola louisiana, angola three, black panther, black panther party, bobby jindal, brent miller, Criminal Justice, cruel and unusual, desmond tutu, fred hampton, george jackson, hans bennett, herman wallace, human rights, John Conyers, pelican bay, political prisoner, prison industrial complex, prison injustice, prison justice, prison labor, robert king, roger hollander, slavery, solitary confinement, white supremacy
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Together, Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace have spent more than 100 years in solitary confinement.
“My soul cries from all that I witnessed and endured. It does more than cry, it mourns continuously,” said Black Panther Robert Hillary King, following his release from the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2001, after serving his last 29 years in continuous solitary confinement. King argues that slavery persists in Angola and other U.S. prisons, citing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legalizes slavery in prisons as “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” King says: “You can be legally incarcerated but morally innocent.”
Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace are known as the “Angola Three,” a trio of political prisoners whose supporters include Amnesty International, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Congressman John Conyers, and the ACLU. Kgalema Mothlante, the President of South Africa says their case “has the potential of laying bare, exposing the shortcomings, in the entire U.S. system.” Woodfox and Wallace are the two co-founders of the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) — the only official prison chapter of the BPP. Both convicted in the highly contested stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, Woodfox and Wallace have now spent over 36 years in solitary confinement.
The joint federal civil rights lawsuit of King, Woodfox, and Wallace, alleging that their time in solitary confinement is “cruel and unusual punishment,” will go to trial any month in Baton Rouge, at the U.S. Middle District Court. Herman Wallace’s appeal against his murder conviction is currently pending in the Louisiana Supreme Court, and on March 18, he was transferred to the Hunt Correctional Facility in St. Gabrielo, Louisiana, where he remains in solitary confinement. On March 2, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court heard oral arguments regarding Albert Woodfox’s conviction, after the Louisiana Attorney General appealed a lower court’s ruling that overturned the conviction.
An 18,000-acre former slave plantation in rural Louisiana, Angola is the largest prison in the U.S. Today, with African Americans composing over 75% of Angola’s 5,108 prisoners, prison guards known as “free men,” a forced 40-hour workweek, and four cents an hour as minimum wage, the resemblance to antebellum U.S. slavery is striking. In the early 1970s, it was even worse, as prisoners were forced to work 96-hour weeks (16 hours a day/six days a week) with two cents an hour as minimum wage. Officially considered (according to its own website) the “Bloodiest Prison in the South” at this time, violence from guards and between prisoners was endemic. Prison authorities sanctioned prisoner rape, and according to former Prison Warden Murray Henderson, the prison guards actually helped facilitate a brutal system of sexual slavery where the younger and physically weaker prisoners were bought and sold into submission. As part of the notorious “inmate trusty guard” system, responsible for killing 40 prisoners and seriously maiming 350 between 1972-75, some prisoners were given state-issued weapons and ordered to enforce this sexual slavery, as well as the prison’s many other injustices. Life at Angola was living hell — a 20th century slave plantation.
The Angola Panthers saw life at Angola as modern-day slavery and fought back with non-violent hunger strikes and work strikes. Prison authorities were outraged by the BPP’s organizing, and overwhelming evidence has since emerged that authorities retaliated by framing these three BPP organizers for murders that they did not commit.
Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace
Both convicted of murder for the April 17, 1972 stabbing death of white prison guard Brent Miller, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have recently had major victories in court that may soon lead to their release. In response, Angola Warden Burl Cain and the Louisiana State Attorney General, James “Buddy” Caldwell, are doing everything they can to resist this and to keep the two in solitary confinement. In sharp contrast, Miller’s widow, Leontine Verrett, now questions their guilt. Interviewed in March, 2008, by NBC Nightly News, she called for a new investigation into the case: “What I want is justice. If these two men did not do this, I think they need to be out.”
Woodfox and Wallace were inmates at Angola, resulting from separate robbery convictions, when they co-founded the Angola BPP chapter in 1971. Woodfox had escaped from New Orleans Parish Prison and fled to New York City, where he met BPP members, including the New York 21, before he was recaptured and sent to Angola. Wallace had met members of the Louisiana State Chapter of the BPP, including the New Orleans 12, while imprisoned at Orleans Parish.
On September 19, 2006, State Judicial Commissioner Rachel Morgan recommended overturning Wallace’s conviction, on grounds that prison officials had withheld evidence from the jury that prison officials had bribed the prosecution’s key eyewitness in return for his testimony. However, in May 2008, in a 2-1 vote, the State Appeals Court rejected Morgan’s recommendation and refused to overturn the conviction. Wallace’s appeal is now pending in the State Supreme Court, with a decision expected any month.
On June 10th, 2008, Federal Magistrate Christine Noland recommended overturning Woodfox’s conviction, citing evidence of inadequate representation, prosecutorial misconduct, suppression of exculpatory evidence, and racial discrimination. Then, on November 25, U.S. District Court Judge James Brady upheld Noland’s recommendation, overturned the conviction, and granted bail. Attorney General Caldwell responded by appealing to the U.S. Fifth Circuit. In December, the Fifth Circuit granted Caldwell’s request to deny Woodfox bail, but indicated sympathy for the overturning of the conviction, writing: “We are not now convinced that the State has established a likelihood of success on the merits.” On March 3, oral arguments were heard by appellate Judges Carolyn Dineen King, Carl E. Steart and Leslie H. Southwick, and a decision from them is now expected within six months. If the three judge panel affirms the overturning of Woodfox’s conviction, the state will have 120 days to either accept the ruling or to retry Woodfox. The state has already vowed to retry him if necessary. If the Fifth Circuit rules for the state, Woodfox’s conviction will be reinstated.
Ira Glasser, formerly of the ACLU, criticized AG Caldwell, writing that following the October 2008 announcement that Woodfox’s niece had agreed to take him in if granted bail, Caldwell “embarked upon a public scare campaign reminiscent of the kind of inflammatory hysteria that once was used to provoke lynch mobs. He called Woodfox a violent rapist, even though he had never been charged, let alone convicted, of rape; he sent emails to [Woodfox's niece's] neighbors calling Woodfox a convicted murderer and violent rapist; and neighbors were urged to sign petitions opposing his release. In the end, his niece and family were sufficiently frightened and threatened that Woodfox rejected the plan to live with them while on bail.” In his Nov. 25 ruling, Judge Brady himself criticized the intimidation campaign: “it is apparent that the [neighborhood] association was not told Mr. Woodfox is frail, sickly, and has a clean conduct record for more than twenty years.”
When the October 27-29 National Public Radio (NPR) series on the case reported directly from Angola, reporter Laura Sullivan observed, “a hundred black men are in the field, bent over picking tomatoes. A single white officer on a horse sits above them, a shotgun in his lap … It’s the same as it looked 40 years ago, and 100 years ago.” Commenting that many at Angola today “seem to want to bury this case in a place no one will find it,” NPR reported that Warden Burl Cain and others refused to comment. However, Caldwell told NPR he is convinced that Woodfox and Wallace are guilty, and that he will appeal Woodfox’s case all the way to the US Supreme Court. “This is a very dangerous person,” Caldwell says. “This is the most dangerous person on the planet.”
As NPR documented, there is no physical evidence linking Woodfox or Wallace to the murder. A bloody fingerprint was found at the scene but it matches neither prisoner’s prints. Prison officials have always refused to test that fingerprint against their own inmate fingerprint database. Caldwell vows to continue this policy, telling NPR: “A fingerprint can come from anywhere … We’re not going to be fooled by that.”
Caldwell also told NPR that he firmly believes the testimony of the prosecution’s key eyewitness, Hezekiah Brown, a serial rapist who had been sentenced to life without parole. Brown first told prison officials that he didn’t know anything, but he later testified to seeing Miller stabbed to death by four inmates: Woodfox and Wallace, and two others who are now deceased: Chester Jackson (who testified for the state and pled guilty to a lesser charge) and Gilbert Montegut (who was acquitted after an officer provided an alibi).
Pardoned in 1986, and now deceased, Brown always denied receiving special favors from prison authorities in exchange for his testimony. However, prison documents reveal special treatment, including special housing and a carton of cigarettes given to him every week. Testifying at Woodfox’s 1998 retrial, former Warden Murray Henderson admitted telling Brown that if he provided testimony helping to “crack the case,” he would reward him by lobbying for his pardon.
Solitary Confinement for “Black Pantherism”
In early 2008, a 25,000-signature petition initiated by ColorOfChange.org, calling for an investigation into Woodfox and Wallace’s convictions and solitary confinement, was delivered to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal by the head of the State Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, Cedric Richmond. To this day, Jindal remains silent on the case.
In March, 2008, following a visit from Congressman John Conyers, Chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee; Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck; and Cedric Richmond, Wallace and Woodfox were transferred from solitary and housed together in a newly-built maximum security dormitory for twenty men. This temporary release from solitary lasted for eight months, during which time Woodfox reflected: “The thing I noticed most about being with Herman is the laughing, the talking, the bumping up against one another … we’ve been denied this for so long. And every once in a while he’ll put his arm around me or I’ll put my arm around him. It’s those kinds of things that make you human. And we’re truly enjoying that.”
In April, following his visit, Conyers wrote a letter to the FBI requesting their documents relating to the case, stating: “I am deeply troubled by what evidence suggests was a tragic miscarriage of justice with regard to these men. There is significant evidence that suggests not only their innocence, but also troubling misconduct by prison officials.” The FBI responded by claiming that they had no files on the case, because, they had supposedly been destroyed.
In his deposition taken October 22, 2008, Warden Burl Cain explained why he opposed granting Woodfox bail and removing him from solitary confinement. Asked what gave him “such concern” about Woodfox, Cain stated: “He wants to demonstrate. He wants to organize. He wants to be defiant … A hunger strike is really, really bad, because you could see he admitted that he was organizing a peaceful demonstration. There is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration in prison.” Cain then stated that even if Woodfox were innocent of the murder, he would still want to keep him in solitary, because “I still know he has a propensity for violence … he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict, and I believe that.”
The only other known U.S. prisoner to have spent so many years in solitary confinement is Hugo Pinell, in California. One of the San Quentin Six, Pinell was a close comrade of Black Panther and prison author, George Jackson. Currently housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s notorious “Security Housing Unit”, Pinell has been in continuous solitary since at least 1971. The recently freed Angola 3 prisoner Robert Hillary King says Pinell “is a clear example of a political prisoner.” This January, Pinell was denied parole for the next 15 years, which King says “is a sentence to die in prison. This is cruel and unusual punishment, which may be legal but is definitely not moral.”
Robert Hillary King
The new book From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Robert Hillary King has just been released by PM Press. This inspiring book tells of King’s triumph over the horrors of Angola. Born poor in rural Louisiana, he was raised mostly by his heroic grandmother, who King recounts “worked the sugar cane fields from sun up ’til sun down for less than a dollar a day. During the off-season, she washed, ironed clothes, and scrubbed floors for whites for pennies a day or for leftover food. Her bunions and blisters told a bitter but vivid tale of her travails.”
King first entered Angola at the age of 18, for a robbery conviction. In his book, he admits to doing some non-violent burglaries at the time, but maintains his innocence regarding this conviction and every one since. Granted parole in 1965, at the age of 22, he returned to New Orleans, got married, and began a brief semi-pro boxing career as “Speedy King.” He was then arrested on charges of robbery, just weeks before his wife Clara gave birth to their son. After being held for over 11 months, his friend pled guilty to a lesser charge and was released on time served. Simultaneously, the DA dropped the charges against King, but he was not released, because his arrest, coupled with his friend’s guilty plea was deemed a parole violation. Therefore, King was sent back to Angola where he served 15 months and was released again in 1969.
Upon release, King was again arrested on robbery charges, and was convicted, even though his co-defendant testified that he had only picked King out of a mug shot lineup after being tortured by police into making a false statement. King appealed, and while being held at New Orleans Parish Prison, he escaped, but was re-captured weeks later. Upon returning to Orleans Parish he met some of the New Orleans 12–BPP members arrested after a confrontation with police at a housing project. He was radicalized and worked with the Panthers organizing non-violent hunger strikes, and engaging in self-defense against violent attacks from prison authorities.
In 1972, King moved to Angola shortly after the death of prison guard Brent Miller. Upon arrival, on grounds that King “wanted to play lawyer for another inmate,” he was immediately put into solitary confinement: first in the “dungeon,” then the “Red Hat,” and finally to the Closed Correction Cell (CCR) unit, where he remained until his 2001 release. At CCR, King writes that the Angola BPP chapter and others continued to struggle, using the one hour a day outside their cells (when they were allowed to shower and interact in the walkway) to organize: “That was how we talked, passed papers, educated each other, and coordinated our actions.”
King writes about the fight, started in 1977, to end the practice of routine rectal searches of prisoners: “Coming to a consensus conclusion that this practice was a carryover from slavery (before being sold, the slave had to be stripped and subjected to anal examination), and after months of appealing to our keepers, we decided to take a bold step: we would simply refuse a voluntary anal search. We would not be willing participants in our own degradation.” When King and others refused, they were viciously beaten. Woodfox hired a lawyer on the prisoners’ behalf and they filed a successful civil suit. The court ruled to ban “routine anal searches.” Another victory came after a one month hunger strike that stopped the unhealthy and dehumanizing practice of putting the inmate’s food on the floor to be slid underneath the cell door, whereby food would often be lost and the remaining food would usually get dirty.
In 1973, King was accused of murdering another prisoner, and was convicted at a trial where he was bound and gagged. After years of maintaining his innocence and appealing, his conviction was overturned in 2001, after he reluctantly pled guilty to a lesser charge of “conspiracy to commit murder” and was released on time served.
Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore
On June 21, 2008, Robert King attended the unveiling of a 40-foot mosaic dedicated to Angola prisoner and Angola BPP member Kenneth “Zulu” Whitmore, launching the “Free Zulu” campaign. King is working to publicize his case, saying “Zulu is a true warrior, Panther, a servant of the people. He has fought a good battle, for so long, unrecognized, unsupported!”
The mosaic adorns the back of activist/artist Carrie Reichardt’s home in the West London suburb of Chiswick. Reichardt says “we chose to base the design around a modern day interpretation of the Goddess Kali. She is considered the goddess of liberation, time and transformation. We wanted to use a strong, positive image of a female that would give hope and encourage others to join the struggle to bring about social change. Her speech bubble says ‘The revolution is now’.”
Imprisoned since 1977, Whitmore met Herman Wallace while imprisoned in 1973 at the East Baton Rouge Prison. Whitmore was released but then arrested and subsequently imprisoned at Angola when he was convicted of robbery and second-degree murder after he had returned to the community and been a political organizer. Just like the Angola 3, the case against him is full of holes, and he is appealing his conviction. Whitmore does not have a lawyer yet, so the freezulu.co.uk website is raising money to support his appeal.
Angola: The Last Slave Plantation
Three court cases are now pending: the federal civil rights lawsuit at the U.S. Middle District Court, Albert Woodfox’s appeal at the U.S. Fifth Circuit, and Wallace’s appeal at the State Supreme Court. At this critical stage, a new DVD has just been released by PM Press, titled The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation. The DVD is narrated by death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and features footage of King’s 2001 release, as well as an interview with King and a variety of former Panthers and other supporters of the Angola 3, including Bo Brown, David Hilliard, Geronimo Ji Jaga (formerly Pratt), Marion Brown, Luis Talamantez, Noelle Hanrahan, Malik Rahim, and the late Anita Roddick.
The perpetuation of white supremacy and slavery at Angola is a central theme throughout the film. Fred Hampton Jr., emphasizes that “we’ve got to make the connection between these modern day plantations, and what went down with chattel slavery.” Scott Fleming, a lawyer for the Angola 3, says: “That prison is still run like a slave plantation … People like Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace are the example of what will happen to you if you resist that system.”
Longtime Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama says that Woodfox and Wallace “love people and will fight for justice even if it puts them on the spot. I think of them as real heroes … who hated to see people in the prison get hurt.” San Francisco journalist and former BPP member Kiilu Nyasha adds that “it behooves us to not forget those who were on the frontlines for us. … We need to come to their rescue because they came to ours.”
The many years of repression and torture have failed to extinguish the Angola 3′s spirit or will to resist, as Woodfox explains in the DVD: “At heart, mind and spirit, we’re still Black Panthers. We still believe in the same principles as the BPP, we still advocate the ten point program. We still advocate that all prisoners, black or white, are human beings. They deserve to be treated as human beings.”
Tags: Criminal Justice, geneva conventions, hellhole, human rights, incarceration, mental torture, pelican bay, prison inmates, prison population, prisons, recividism, roger hollander, sherwood ross, solitary confinement, supermax, supermax prison, torture
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www.opednews.com, March 24, 2009
TheUnited States today is housing tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement, a form of numbing mental torture that drives about one-third of them psychotic, induces irrational anger in 90 percent, and ups the likelihood they will commit violent crimes upon release.
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” U.S. Senator John McCain once wrote of his two years spent in a fifteen by fifteen foot prison cell in Viet Nam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Testimony from other notables that have endured long stretches in solitary have elicited like comments.
Yet, the U.S. today has the dubious distinction of incarcerating “the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement” around the world, according to an article in the March 30th The New Yorker magazine.
And they make up a growing portion of our 2.3 million inmates, a shameful statistic that ranks America first among all nations. Gawande’s article is titled “Hellhole.”
In the 17 years beginning with the construction of the first U.S. “supermax” prison in Marion, Ill., in 1983, 60 such prisons have sprouted—prisons specifically designed for mass solitary confinement, reports Atul Gawande in the The New Yorker. The Federal Bureau of Prisons euphemistically refers to its solitary cells as “Special Housing Units.” Most of the supermax prisons have been erected by State governments and two-thirds of all states have them.
“The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels,” Gawande writes. “America now holds at least 25,000 inmates in isolation in supermax facilities. An additional 50,000 to 80,000 are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.”
The Urban Institute found the per cell cost for confining one prisoner in solitary for one year is $75,000. Taxpayers could put a dozen students through community college for the same bucks and society would get a better return. From every indication, money spent on a supermax is money poorly spent.
Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who interviewed more than 200 prisoners kept in solitary, concluded that about one in three of them had developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Prisoners so confined spend their time talking to themselves, pacing back and forth like animals in cages, and blank out mentally.
Some beat their heads against the walls until blood flows. Others lapse into catatonic states, utterly destroyed as functioning human beings. “EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement,” Gawande writes.
Often, prisoners can be confined in solitary for minor infractions of prison rules, such as taking too much time in the shower or associating with a gang member. By denying an inmate social interaction, “the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury,” Gawande points out. After all, he notes, “Human beings are social creatures.”
The writer quotes Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz allowed to study inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, as finding many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result.”
Additionally, many of the solitary inmates become consumed with revenge fantasies. We need to ask, “What is the cost to society in treasure and blood after their release?” “How many go straight to mental hospitals?” “How many wind up right back in prison?”
There are defenders of the supermax model, however. One inmate wrote the Denver Post he was not affected by the boredom and considered the silence “wonderful.” He said, “I still have a relatively intact mind. It could be infinitely worse.” And in Forbes magazine, author Ian Ross (no kin), wrote, “It’s worth considering that the Supermax model–which includes prisoner isolation for 23 out of every 24 hours a day–may be serving as a deterrent to some violent criminals, a kind of brightly lit billboard that advertises the life of rather extreme measures they are facing. There’s no way to quantify that, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.” (It may be, indeed!)
In June, 2006, after a year-long study, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons called for an end to long-term isolation of prisoners. It said there were no benefits to the practice beyond 10 days of punishment. What’s more, Gawande writes, “evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released.”
The writer says our willingness to confine our own citizens to solitary made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war. “In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people….”
Sherwood Ross worker as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and as a columnist for wire services. He currently operates a public relations company for worthy causes. Reach him at email@example.com.