Nancy Kurshan documents her lengthy battle against solitary confinement in prisons.
Author and longtime activist Nancy Kurshan’s new book, entitled Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, has just been released by the Freedom Archives. Kurshan’s book documents the work of The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which she co-founded in 1985 as a response to the lockdown at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. It quickly turned into a broader campaign against control unit prisons and human rights violations in US prisons that lasted fifteen years, until 2000. The following excerpt from Out of Control details CEML’s origins:
I had been living in Chicago for about a year when I heard the news that two guards had been killed by two prisoners in the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, 350 miles south of Chicago. Although it was an isolated incident with no associated riot conditions, the prison was immediately placed on lockdown status, and the authorities seized on the opportunity to violently repress the entire prison population. For two years, from 1983 to 1985, all of the 350 men imprisoned there were subjected to brutal, dehumanizing conditions. All work programs were shut down, as were educational activities and religious services.
During the initial stage of this lockdown, 60 guards equipped with riot gear, much of it shipped in from other prisons, systematically beat approximately 100 handcuffed and defenseless prisoners. Guards also subjected some prisoners to forced finger probes of the rectum. Random beatings and rectal probes continued through the two-year lockdown. Despite clear evidence of physical and psychological brutality at the hands of the guards, Congress and the courts refused to intervene to stop the lockdown…
… Although the terrible conditions at the prison were striking, what drew us to Marion in particular was the history of struggle of the prisoners and their allies on the outside. When the infamous Alcatraz was closed in 1962, Marion Federal Penitentiary was opened and became the new Alcatraz, the end of the line for the “worst of the worst.”
In 1972 there was a prisoner’s peaceful work stoppage at Marion led by Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda. In response to this peaceful work stoppage, the authorities placed a section of the prison under lockdown, thus creating the first “control unit,” essentially a prison within a prison, amplifying the use of isolation as a form of control, previously used only for a selected prisoner. That was 1972.
At this time, in 1985, after two years of lockdown, they converted the whole prison into a control unit. Importantly, because Marion in 1985 was “the end of the line,” the only “Level 6” federal prison, there were disproportionate numbers of political prisoners—those who were incarcerated for their political beliefs and actions. These included people such as Native American Leonard Peltier who had spent years there until recently, and now (in 1985) Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli and Sekou Odinga, Puerto Rican independentista Oscar López Rivera, and white revolutionary Bill Dunne. These were people we knew or identified with, activists of the 1960s and 1970s incarcerated for their political activities. Marion, like its predecessor Alcatraz and its successor ADX Florence, was clearly a destination point for political prisoners.
Kurshan writes that during the 15 years of work, “CEML led and organized hundreds of educational programs and demonstrations in many parts of the country and tried to build a national movement against ‘end-of-the-line’ prisons. Along the way the Committee wrote thousands of pages of educational and agitational literature and pioneered new ways of analyzing and fighting against this national quagmire that morphed into the proliferation of the ‘prison industrial complex.’”
In this interview, Nancy Kurshan discusses her new book and covers a variety of topics, including the growth of solitary confinement and its relation to mass incarceration, the connection between US militarism abroad and domestic prisons, concluding with the lessons that today’s human rights activists can learn from the history of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown.
Angola 3 News:Your new book chronicles fifteen years of organizing against control unit prisons, from 1985-2000. Can you begin the interview by explaining exactly what a control unit prison is?
–The Angola 3 case may help change the arbitrary and sometimes abusive use of solitary confinement
By Katti Gray
(This article was originally published by The Root on January 30, 2013 and is being reprinted here by Angola 3 News with permission from the author.Click here to read part 1, “Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary?” on The Root website. Special thanks to Katti Gray, whose articles for The Root are archived here.)
In December 2012 the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to curb the use of solitary confinement in that state’s prisons, broadly decrying it as “extreme isolation” that imperils the physical and psychological well-being of inmates on solo lockdown and risks undermining prison safety overall.
Also in 2012, Maine lawmakers — including a Republican governor considered tough on crime — voted to formally ratchet back the use of solitary confinement in that state. In addition, Congress hosted a rare special hearing on the practice, highlighting the fact that the United States has no federal guidelines precisely defining when solitary confinement should begin, when it should end and which infractions merit such an added punishment for prisoners.
Prison watchers and reformers, however, say that incremental activity in 2012 does not in itself suggest that the nation is anywhere near a wholesale crackdown on what many deem to be arbitrary decisions about who is placed in solitary confinement. But in Louisiana, where the remaining two members of the Angola 3 are approaching 41 years in solitary confinement, there is cautious optimism.
“It’s exactly the kind of movement on this issue that we’ve been pushing for,” said attorney and law professor Angela Allen-Bell of Southern University Law Center. Allen-Bell is a member of Free the Angola 3, an international coalition of attorneys, human rights groups, grassroots activists and moneyed benefactors who are helping to pay legal fees related to the cause of Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King.
The three black men have consistently held that white officials of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola punished them for organizing an arm of the Black Panther Party at the facility — and, as self-taught jailhouse lawyers, for challenging systematic rape of inmates, racial segregation and other ills — by falsely claiming that the men killed a 23-year-old white prison guard in 1972. All three, who did not know one another before Angola, landed at the prison in the 1960s after being convicted of robberies that did not involve physical assault.
Hope for One of the Angola 3
Lawyers for Woodfox, 65, say that they expect a favorable ruling in his current petition to be released, which will be heard “any day now” by the same federal judge who ordered him freed in 2008. (State prosecutors successfully appealed to have that ruling reversed.)
But Angola 3 attorneys are convinced that, this time around, they have more emphatically proved the official corruption that resulted in the 1972 conviction of Woodfox and of Wallace, 71, the other Angola 3 member still on solo lockdown.
King, 69, was released in 2001, after accepting a plea bargain on charges unrelated to the murder. King, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement, was never formally charged in the killing, although Angola officials steadfastly claimed that he was involved.
After Woodfox’s current petition for release has been adjudicated, lawyers plan to pursue the release of Wallace, who is diabetic and suffers from what his supporters say is unexplained swelling throughout his body.
“My brother’s hearing is bad,” Vickie Taylor, Wallace’s sister, a retired security guard from New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, told The Root. “His health ain’t so good. Period. He been in there so long, and that makes you feel real bad.
“But he ain’t letting prison stop him,” she continued. “God fixed it so that he and Albert and King remember everything from the beginning to the end … And it was told to me by God that this is their season. My brother coming home, baby. I believe that.”
Albert Woodfox: Freedom After 40 Years in Solitary? –Supporters of one of the Angola 3 tell The Root why he might be released this time.
(The first of two parts) by Katti Gray (This article was originally on January 29, 2013, and is being reprinted here by Angola 3 News with permission from the author. Special thanks to Katti Gray, whose articles for The Root are archived here.) After four decades of solitary confinement in the nation’s most populated maximum-security prison — and one of its most historically brutal — a member of the internationally known “Angola 3” has reasonable cause to expect that he will soon be released, his attorneys and supporters say. The request to set free Albert Woodfox, 65, is being heard by the same federal judge who in 2008 ordered that Woodfox be released, a ruling that Louisiana prosecutors successfully appealed and blocked.Woodfox and Herman Wallace, now 71, were placed in solitary confinement in 1972 — theirs is the longest-running solo detention of which human rights group Amnesty International is aware — after being convicted of killing a white guard at Angola prison, the slave plantation-turned-Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Both men have consistently said that they were falsely accused and that their conviction was the means by which prison officials punished the Angola 3 for their membership in the Black Panther Party. Also a member of that trio is Robert Hillary King, now 69, who was released in 2001 after plea-bargaining to a crime unrelated to the murder, a crime for which he was never officially charged, although prison officials insisted that he was involved.
As prison activists, the Angola 3 had challenged ongoing, unpunished rape of inmates — including a system of “sexual slavery” that prison officials eventually acknowledged — racial segregation and other adverse prison conditions. The three, who did not know one another before landing at the 18,000-acre prison farm — named for the town where it is located, roughly an hour’s drive from Baton Rouge — initially were convicted in the 1960s of assorted robbery charges that they do not contest.
Concerning Woodfox, his lawyers say that this time around, they believe they have unequivocally affirmed several points favoring their client:
* An all-white, all-male jury — seated in a jurisdiction where almost half the residents are black — was wholly disinclined to consider that the Angola 3, who are black men, were innocent of killing a white prison guard, 23-year-old Brent Miller.
* State prosecutors bribed the sole, alleged witness to the killing with a weekly pack of cigarettes and better living quarters in exchange for reversing his initial claim that none of the three was at the crime scene. Prosecutors and prison officials withheld details of that bribe and other essential information during the trial; have since contended that they lost evidence, including scrapings from the dead guard’s fingernails; and refused to release inmate fingerprints to compare with fingerprints left near Miller’s corpse that the Angola 3′s lawyers obtained.
* Subsequent court proceedings, including Woodfox’s 1993 retrial, were tainted by a pattern of excluding blacks from juries and of judges exclusively choosing whites as foremen of grand juries that decide whom to indict for trial. For that 1993 retrial, a white grand jury foreman with a high school diploma was chosen over a black candidate who had a college degree.
(Watch the full-screen, high definition format here.)
The Black Panther Party’s Living Legacy
–Touring Oakland and Berkeley with Billy X Jennings
By Angola 3 News
This month, over twenty students enrolled in the “Dismantling Racism” class offered by St. Catherine University in Minnesota traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area. The class focused primarily on California’s prisons and what anti-prison activists are doing to challenge the human rights violations and racism endemic to California’s infamous prison system.
Last week, the class was taken around on a Black Panther History Tour in Oakland and Berkeley, led by Billy X Jennings from It’s AboutTime BPP Alumni & Legacy. Along with ongoing BPP history exhibits at the Alameda County Law Library in downtown Oakland and the window of Rasputin Music on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley is a new photo exhibit running until February 28, entitled Louder Than Words, at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley).An important friend and ally of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, Billy X Jennings’ work was previously spotlighted in an interview with Angola 3 News, entitled We Called Ourselves the Childrenof Malcolm.
Co-instructor William W. Smith IV is a juvenile correctional officer and community consultant on the prison industrial complex & the school to prison pipeline. Following the tour, he told Angola 3 News that he thought “the tour was very well done, with lots of information. We were extremely lucky to have that opportunity to talk and walk with Billy X Jennings. I wish more young people could be exposed to this because it was truly powerful. This information can change your mind, and it can enhance your lifestyle. Race still matters in criminal justice and all things. This tour reminds us of events/stories they want us to forget. We will not turn our backs.”
Professor Heitzeg reflected on the recent tour, telling Angola 3 News:
The Black Panther History tour with Billy X Jennings was an incredible experience. The discussion of the history at the site of key locations was very powerful.. Students commented on how much they learned about this often hidden history; others noted how the tour undid the stereotypes and mis-education they had received about the Panthers from the mainstream. This was transformational for them.
As someone who was deeply influenced by the BPP vision at a very young age, this tour was invaluable. It was extraordinary to experience this living history through the words of Billy X. Much credit to the City of Oakland for acknowledging the legacy of the BPP through street signs and various public displays of the position of the Party and its many community programs. Certainly the living legacy of the BPP is continually expressed in a variety of programs — breakfast programs for kids, community health clinics, and more – they we now accept as a given. We all owe them a debt of gratitude and a place of honor in our history.
The BPP’s early critique of capitalism, of police brutality, of racism/exclusion in the criminal injustice system is foundational for all those of us who continue to challenge what we now call the “prison industrial complex”. They were true visionaries whose call for a rainbow coalition, intersectionality and community empowerment continues to guide our work. What We Want/What We Believe – including “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace” – has not changed at all.
(Stay tuned for part two, touring Berkeley and downtown Oakland!)
–Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.
Caged in the USA: Torture in America’s many prisons
By Aviva Stahl, Cageprisoners.com
(Reprinted by Angola 3 News)
Last week, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for a truly remarkable event: a conversation between two men whose lives have been indelibly altered by American’s brutal prison regime, Robert King and Omar Deghayes. At first glance, it might seem as if these two men have nothing in common. King grew up in New Orleans in an era of violent racial repression and is a Black Panther to this day; he was convicted by an all-white jury in 1973 for a murder he did not commit, and spent 32 years in Louisiana state prison. In his earliest childhood, Deghayes lived in Libya, but after his father was murdered by Gaddafi, he and his family fled to the UK. Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, where he had been living with his Afghan wife and child, and spent over six years detained at Guantanamo without charge or trial.
Angola, Louisiana and Guantanamo Bay are actually quite near to each other. But for anyone present at the event, it was clear that what Omar and Robert had in common was more than geographic proximity during their confinement. After all, they were both unjustly imprisoned. They both fought for years for their freedom. And they both endured the same torture whilst on the inside: long-term solitary confinement.
Now that the words “Guantanamo Bay” have become synonymous with torture, it’s easy to assume that the tiny isolation cells where Omar and many others were kept, are something new, invented for the Muslim bogeyman. But solitary confinement in America’s “supermax” prisons didn’t begin at Gitmo; it began long before 9/11, long before the War on Terror, long before al-Qaeda or the Taliban. In the 1970s, “control units” were put in place, first in Marion prison (which replaced Alcatraz) and then elsewhere. These control units were largely implemented to neutralize activists imprisoned for struggling for Black and Third World liberation – people like Robert King, Ojore Lutalo, Ray Luc Levasseur, Siliva Baraldini, Leonard Peltier, Assata Shakur, and many others. The idea has always been to break prisoners by invoking in them a sense of total dependence on their captors. As Ralph Arons, a former warden at Marion, once testified in federal court, “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large”.
Nor is the use of solitary to control political or politicized prisoners something confined to the era of COINTELPRO. Take Ojore Lutala, who survived 22 years in solitary in the Management Control Unit in Trenton State Prison, New Jersey. In February 2008, the Review Committee rejected Ojore’s requested to be released into general population for the umpteenth time, noting:
“The [Committee] notes your concerns regarding your feelings of persecution and discrimination based on your political affiliation. The Committee continues to show concern regarding your admitted affiliation with the Black Liberation army and the Anarchist Black Cross Foundation. Your radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution…”
Interestingly, Marion – where control units were first born – now houses a Communication Management Unit (CMU), in which Muslims are overrepresented by over 1000%. The two CMUs are so strikingly similar to that dark place where Omar was held, that they’ve been nicknamed “Guantanamo North”: they both hold Muslim prisoners with political affiliations deemed to be dubious, in tortuous conditions of long-term solitary confinement.
Control units now exist in almost every state in the nation, and have also morphed into large supermax prisons like ADX Florence. In fact, it’s estimated that today, at least 80,000 people are suffering in solitary confinement in America’s prisons, overwhelmingly poor people and people and colour. And it’s not just the “most dangerous” (read: most political) prisoners languishing in solitary anymore. Oftentimes, it’s the most vulnerable prisoners who end up in solitary – people who are mentally ill, mentally retarded, learning-disabled, or illiterate; these are people who find it the most difficult to follow the minutia of prison rules. More recently, its people perceived to be associated with prison gangs – though as recently explored in an excellent series in Mother Jones, prisoners in Pelican Bay in California may be “gang validated” for seemingly innocuous items like a Christmas card or a drinking cup with a dragon drawn on it.
Solitary confinement… can you imagine it? This is how one inmate at Pelican Bay, Gabriel Reyes, describes it in a 2012 article:
“Unless you have lived it, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be by yourself, between four cold walls, with little concept of time, no one to confide in, and only a pillow for comfort – for years on end. It is a living tomb. I eat alone and exercise alone in a small, dank, cement enclosure known as the “dog-pen.” I am not allowed telephone calls, nor can my family visit me very often; the prison is hundreds of miles from the nearest city. I have not been allowed physical contact with any of my loved ones since 1995. I have developed severe insomnia, I suffer frequent headaches, and I feel helpless and hopeless. In short, I am being psychologically tortured.”
But prisoners have been fighting back. Last year, inmates at Pelican Bay went on two hunger strikes, and at least 12,000 inmates in 13 of California’s prisons eventually joined in solidarity with them. There have also been various lawsuits brought against particular prison wardens and the Bureau of Prisons. Most recently, in June 2012, several inmates of ADX Florence filed a class-action lawsuit against federal officials, arguing that they have violated prisoners’ constitutional rights by failing to provide basic treatment for mentally ill prisoners. The lawsuit describes how mentally ill prisoners crumble on the inside: “Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.” Another lawsuit, filed in May 2012, alleges that BOP officials were “deliberately indifferent” to the medical needs of a prisoner, Jose Martin Vega, who committed suicide while at ADX Florence. At the Secure Housing Unit in Pelican Bay, 41% of inmates reported experiencing hallucinations, 27% have thought about killing themselves, and inmates successfully commit suicide at 8 times the rate of those in general population.
Torture to the point of insanity, hunger strikes, suicides of despair… Sound familiar? Sounds like Guantanamo. You might remember hearing about Albert Biderman, a sociologist in the 1950s who studied the treatment of American POWs captured in Korea. They were kept in solitary confinement in order to make them “compliant”, ie. in order to force them to make false confessions. Biderman’s research was later integral to designing the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training that US military receive before they go into the field; but at Guantanamo Bay, military personnel borrowed his work to “reverse-engineer” the ideal environment in which to break detainees. (See below for Biderman’s chart entitled “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance, lifted directly by the US military when they were designing interrogation methods). Breaking detainees and inducing them to confess also happens on American soil. Many War on Terror defendants (most notably, Fahad Hashmi) have been held for years in pre-trial solitary confinement, before they eventually plead guilty, willing to do whatever they have to in order to imagine they’ll walk out of solitary alive, even if it takes decades.
That brings us back to last week’s events, held in response to the recent extradition of Babar Ahmad, Talha Ahsan, and three others from the UK to the US. I imagine Talha, Babar and the others may in pre-trial solidarity confinement right now, prison conditions which are illegal and non-existent in the UK. Meanwhile, Gary McKinnon has stayed on UK soil, since Theresa May is worried that sending him to the US would violate his human rights. It’s a shameful day when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) shrugs their shoulders, and rule that conditions of solitary confinement in the US don’t constitute torture – when even the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture vehemently disagrees with them. But it’s rather chilling when May can invoke compassion for McKinnon just days after Talha is whisked away to American soil, when he has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s and has an evaluated suicide risk. (Note: Of the 1.5 million people in prison in the US, about 80,000 are in solitary – yet about 39% of inmate suicides happen in isolation units). How telling that she can discuss bringing a forum bar into force, to safeguard British citizens (of course!), when Babar and Talha are already locked away, far away from home, when the entirety of there purported crime was committed in the UK..
During the civil case brought by Binyam Mohamed, we learned that the British government had never opposed the transfer of its own citizens to Guantanamo – in fact, Tony Blair personally rejected the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) request to access British prisoners detained by the US. In a 2002 memo from the FCO, officials commented, “We accept that the transfer of UK nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to the US base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet out counter-terrorism objective by ensuring that they are securely held.” As May’s differential treatment of Talha and Gary makes clear, the fundamental policies that were in place under Blair continue through today… one rule of white Brits, and another for Muslims. If the government has made anything clear to British Muslims in the past 10+ years, it’s that their citizenship rights are revocable, because they are undesirable subjects.
The extraditions of Babar, Talha and the others marks a new chapter in the continuing saga of American torture and British indifference: a tale that weaves from the brutal isolation of Robert King in Angola State Prison to Guantanamo Bay; from those struggling for Black liberation to those eager to fight the American occupation in Afghanistan and elsewhere; from British complicity in the rendition of Omar Deghayes to that of Babar, Talha and the others. But last week’s events also marked a break from this long history. It was an event that spanned across continents, generations, political perspectives, faiths, and racial identities, linking our common opposition to the torture of solitary confinement and our solidarity with Talha, Babar and their families for the challenges to come.
Other news related to event: South London Press ‘The isolation that leads to insanity’ click here:
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a veteran journalist, author of seven books, and a former Black Panther who was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in a 1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International and many others. Abu-Jamal, who has always maintained his innocence, spent almost 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania. The death sentence has now been officially overturned and since early in 2012, Abu-Jamal is out of solitary and in general population at SCI-Mahony, with such new ‘privileges’ as contact visits with family and friends (view photos).
Long Distance Revolutionary features interviews with a range of longtime Abu-Jamal supporters including Pam & Ramona Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Amy Goodman & Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now, Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and many others. Making his first appearance in a film about Abu-Jamal is actor Giancarlo Esposito, known recently for his role as Gustavo Fring on the AMC TV series, Breaking Bad.
Featured in Long Distance Revolutionary is a clip of Esposito reading from Abu-Jamal’s first book Live From Death Row at a mid-1990’s event supporting Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia. The rally attracted a large counter-demonstration outside of the event, that had been organized by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). In the film’s recent interview, Esposito reflects upon the intensity of that day, and fearing that his acting career would be negatively affected by the broader FOP-led campaign of public intimidation towards those supporting Abu-Jamal. These intimidation tactics surfaced again this week, as Politics PA reported on a National Republican Congressional Committee “campaign consisting of online ads reminiscent of Willie Horton and hundreds of thousands of robocalls” linking Abu-Jamal to congressional candidate Kathy Boockvar.
Philadelphia’s disturbing history of racial oppression and officially sanctioned police violence is a central focus of Long Distance Revolutionary’s interview with Linn Washington Jr., currently an Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University and a columnist for the historic Philadelphia Tribune–the nation’s oldest African-American owned newspaper. In the film, he comments that “Philadelphia has a veneer of liberalism and this whole Quaker mystique. The reality is it has been this ruthlessly racist city—really from its inception.”
Linn Washington has been covering the Mumia Abu-Jamal/Daniel Faulkner case since the morning of December 9, 1981. While not spotlighted in Long Distance Revolutionary, Washington has continued to report on the many different reasons that Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial, including a recent test he conducted with journalist Dave Lindorff. The results are interpreted by Washington and Lindorff to have conclusively disproved the prosecution’s scenario of the shooting presented at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial (see article and video).
We interview Noelle Hanrahan and Stephen Vittoria about their new film examining Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life and work as a revolutionary journalist. Vittoria is the writer, director, editor, and co-producer of Long Distance Revolutionary. His last film, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern won “Best Documentary Features” at the Sarasota Film Festival. He also recently was a producer on two feature documentaries by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney: Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Magic Trip.
Noelle Hanrahan co-produced the film alongside Vittoria and co-producer Katyana Farzanrad. The director of Prison Radio, Hanrahan first began to record Abu-Jamal’s radio commentaries from SCI-Huntington’s death row in 1992, which now total over 2,000 (archived at www.prisonradio.org).
Angola 3 News:Unlike previous documentary films about Abu-Jamal, your film deliberately avoids the legal/factual background of Abu-Jamal’s case and instead focuses entirely on his life and work as a revolutionary journalist. Why did you choose to do this?
Steve Vittoria: First of all, John Edginton made an excellent film about Mumia’s case and it was broadcast here in the States on HBO entitled Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? Even though it was made back in 1995, it’s a fairly comprehensive look at the legal narrative. Books, articles, other films, as well as a myriad of videos have been distributed worldwide that deal with the case.
As a documentary filmmaker, unless I’ve uncovered something so different than what’s already been created, why traverse ground already traveled? What has really interested me about Mumia Abu-Jamal since I first heard his commentaries and read his work was his extraordinary ability to transcend the Draconian hell that is Death Row and suggest alternative narratives to the myths of so-called American justice and liberty. His work over the last decade or so has evolved into a sophisticated and searing indictment of American imperialism – on a par with Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and the ever courageous Arundhati Roy.
In the film, Cornel West sums it up this way: “He forces us to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American Empire.” In a country run by mass murderers, economic rapists, and general run-of-the-mill sociopaths, you’re forced to look for some sanity, some compassion, maybe even some love in the bowels of this asylum. I found that sanity courageously written from a dark, dank hole in America’s prison gulag.
Here’s a man who has been fighting for the victims of a violent empire since he was fourteen years old. Here’s a man who has published seven books from death row and who has written thousands of commentaries that have been broadcast all over the world from death row, that impact real people every day. Remember, thirty years on Death Row and he hasn’t blinked. As a storyteller, that’s an incredible story to tell.
The story about his case can be summed in one line uttered by the judge in his case, the Honorable Albert F. Sabo, who boasted in chambers: “I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” That’s all you really need to know about the case.
Noelle Hanrahan: The impact of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s writing and his radio commentaries is far greater than one, albeit dramatic, incident. Yes, Mumia was shot and critically injured on Dec. 9th 1981, yet that is clearly not the defining moment of his life. It is not who he was or who he has become. For the very first time, through this movie, people can begin to see what circumstances and forces shaped Mumia, and how he in turn has shaped the world.
A3N:The film begins with a variety of right-wing talking heads, ranging from Michelle Malkin to Michael Smerconish, who are shown calling Abu-Jamal a ‘cop-killer,’ among other things. Why do you begin the film this way? How do you respond to their ‘cop-killer’ accusation?
SV: The entire film is a response to their lunatic ravings. It’s like taking candy from a baby. I wanted to let the bed-wetters have their say right off the bat and let the audience experience how ridiculous their gibberish really is. Some may think that it’s vile, that it’s ugly, that it’s hate mongering or fear mongering, but it’s really absurdist comedy because there’s no basis in reality, and that’s the light it should be seen in. Why not begin the film with a clown parade?
Documentary audiences need some laughs. In 1932, Tod Browning directed a horror film called “Freaks” about circus sideshow performers, including a bearded lady, pinheads, a sword swallower, you know freaks. Maybe this is homage to Tod Browning.
NH: First, mainstream media claptrap led by Fox TV reaches and influences millions. They are trying to weave a fictional narrative and feed it to folks as if it is reality. News once had a veneer of professional practice, and noble goals. The last thirty years have brought a dramatic shift in what passes for mainstream journalism. Corporate capital has bought out and dumbed down what today passes itself off as broadcast news.
News today leads with pet stories and gore, and fast paced shrill video and sound bites that are emptied of content and serious analysis. Frankly, it is a perfect storm for the expansion of the police state. ‘Cop Killer’ is like some red towel before the bull, two words that they throw out to divert attention from the real issues that are at the core of the repression that dominates this culture. They obfuscate, confuse, frighten, threaten, and tell us War is Peace. These are tactics and methods of the state and their hired enforcers: the police.
A3N:Noelle, as someone that has collaborated with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990’s, what do you think the mainstream media has failed to accurately report on regarding his journalistic career and struggle for freedom?
NH: In 1981 Mumia was an award-winning mainstream journalist who was extremely well known in Philadelphia. Today, if you listen to mainstream reporters they would try and sell you a lie upon lie upon lie about Mumia. I have been stunned by the ignorance and duplicity of the writers and reporters who are determined to try and rewrite history.
20/20 actually distorted Mumia’s voice (that I had recorded) because they wanted it to sound worse. Mumia was not allowed to conduct his own defense and was removed from the court room during his trial because he was having a positive impact on the jury. He was compelling and his voice is very authentic.
The police spent days in the studios of WUHY (now WHYY) where Mumia had worked, poring over his audio tapes trying to find something to play for the jury that would enflame the jurors. They listened to dozens of hours of tape, but everything that they came across that he produced would have had a positive effect on the jury. They eventually dug up something he had written in the Black Panther Party paper when he was sixteen, a quote actually from Mao Tse-tung: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” This is what the police had read to the jury to try and convince them that he was just waiting to kill a cop, to inflame them, to push the jury to vote for death. This jury had asked for reinstruction on manslaughter. Remember it was July 3, about to be the 4th of July weekend, when the jury was facing sequestration over the holiday weekend, and the judge and the DA pushed them to come back with death.
Our film counters the false mainstream narrative with facts. “He forces us to come to terms with the depths of the crisis of the American Empire and how do you create some awakening,” notes Cornel West in the film.
A3N:Stephen, while Noelle has been working with Abu-Jamal since the early 1990’s, you have approached this project as an ‘outsider’ of sorts. What was your impression of Abu-Jamal before starting the project? Did this impression change following the completion of the film?
SV: Actually, I worked with Mumia a few years before I started this project, when I was producing a documentary entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny and Mumia recorded twenty-five remarkable short essays that defined the march of Empire over the last five hundred years – from Columbus setting foot on Hispaniola to George Bush’s murder spree in the Middle East. So I had some history with Mumia as a contributor to my film and that was really the genesis of Long Distance Revolutionary.
As I approached this project, my impression of Mumia was this: a brilliant writer, a courageous voice battling the forces of tyranny, a tireless warrior, a fierce researcher completely dedicated to his craft, and ultimately a long distance revolutionary. After producing this film for three years, none of that changed because my impression was spot on and solidified.
But what I did learn that pleasantly surprised me was from a personal standpoint, because after thirty years in hell the man remains gentle, he remains loving, and for me, above all, funny. Mumia loves to have fun, loves to laugh. When we visit, sure, we talk about drone attacks, poverty, torture, mass incarceration, you name the horror and we talk about it. We even talk a lot about art and music. Mumia loves music. Most of the time we laugh and talk about the craziness masquerading as culture in this country.
A3N:Specifically, what do you think is most significant about Abu-Jamal’s life and work?
SV: Clearly, it’s been the consistency of his work and the consistency of his message. Of course he’s matured as a writer but his belief structure has remained remarkably consistent. Professor Todd Steven Burroughs from Morgan State defines this well in the film, saying: “I was astounded at the fact that at 15 years old, he was essentially the same writer. The style was a little more dogmatic as a Panther. You know, because he’s using all this Panther rhetoric, “Do Something, Nigger, Even If You Only Spit!” But, at core, it is the same black leftist analysis that he does at 56. And I was shocked at that.”
I think Todd is right on and I think the film captures this reality. How many writers, how many activists, how many revolutionaries remain that consistent? Not many. I know I’m not. But Mumia has managed to stay true to his spirit. Maybe that has something to do with being right.
NH: Mumia has been consistently focused on exploring and honoring the humanity of those people in society who often remain unheard. His dedication to his craft and his commitment to speaking truth to power, regardless of the oppression and obstacles is truly epic. As a journalist myself, I could not imagine doing more important work than amplifying prisoner’s voices and listening to their perspectives.
A3N:Along with video footage of Senator Bob Dole’s infamous tirade against Abu-Jamal on the Senate floor in the mid-1990’s, you also spotlight some more recent footage from the ‘discussion’ of a Congressional Bill condemning the City of St. Denis, a suburb of Paris, France that named a street after Abu-Jamal. What do you think it was about this street-naming that so outraged US politicians? What do you think are the primary motives of the Philadelphia FOP-led campaign against Abu-Jamal? Do you think it would be accurate to describe this campaign as a modern-day lynch mob?
SV: The street-naming publicly outraged US politicians because the US Congress is so weak and ineffectual when it comes to representing the true needs of their constituency and actually affecting change that might actually move the society forward. Things like real health care, real education, and real financial reform are truly important, but instead they latch onto things that they can yell and scream about–pretending that they’re actually doing something. And Mumia was the perfect patsy.
They create a demon, stir up the racism that runs through the US psyche like a main circuit cable, and then start lying. This formula has worked in the US since the founding fathers were counting their slaves. It’s an old and insidious game, but it works because the sheep buy it every time.
Regarding the FOP and their ongoing campaign, is it accurate to call it a modern-day lynch mob? Of course it is. Lynching never stopped in this country. The props just changed: trees and rope were replaced by mass incarceration. Law professor and author of the bestselling book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, framed it this way in the film: “There are more African American adults under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 – a decade before the Civil War began.”
NH: Anyone who questions the hegemony of the right wing is subject to their ire. They certainly protest a lot more than it seems appropriate. It makes one wonder, are these truths and their revelation, so damaging to the state that they have to use every conceivable tactic of intimidation to try and suppress it?
A3N:Can you each please tell us about one notable interview featured in the film that viewers should be sure to watch for?
SV: Two interviews stand above all the rest. First is Lydia Barashango, Mumia’s sister who passed away just before we finished the film. Her memories of growing up with Mumia were warm and wonderful and honest to the bone. When we interviewed Lydia she was already in the horrific throws of cancer and yet she represented her family’s history with dignity, respect, and great honor. She was also, like her brother, very funny. Her memories captured Mumia’s life with great love.
The second interview was filmed in 1995 by John Edginton for his film Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? I love this interview for two reasons: one, it captured Mumia’s intellect and rebellious nature, and two, Mumia looks great because the interview was shot on film and Mumia is extremely confident–it’s like this moment of his life was captured forever. It’s very iconic imagery.
NH: Wow that is hard. Everyone has something to say that is very poignant, interesting and in many cases, profound. We will be releasing longer versions of many of these interviews, so folks should tune in as we post them at www.mumia-themovie.com. We will be editing and posting more from Dick Gregory, Cornel West, and Michelle Alexander. We also have a DVD of extras that is available now from www.prisonradio.org.
A3N: How do we get to see your movie? Are there upcoming film screenings besides the Mill Valley Film Festival? When will the DVD will be released?
SV: Visit www.mumia-themovie.com to see the updated screening list. After the Mill Valley Festival, the film enjoys a great fall festival run. We begin at the Starz/Denver Film Festival on November 3 and 4, CPH:DOX Copenhagen on November 7, and then the great New York City doc festival DOC NYC on November 10. The film will then open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles early in 2013 followed by other cities, special engagements, and an extensive college tour.
Video on Demand and Home Video will be released shortly after the theatrical opening. In fact, the DVD will have some amazing extras including extended interviews with our historic cast.
A3N: Anything else to add?
SV: Earlier, I mentioned a project entitled Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny. I decided to shelve the film but not the project. Mumia and I have decided to write this story as a non-fiction book and we are now well into the process. In the long shadow of Howard Zinn, we hope this 500-year story will shed some needed light on the myth and reality of American history.
NH: Just to take a bit of a risk and be a bit vulnerable, as it has been twenty years that I have been on this journey, let me share with you a note I wrote to Mumia:
Someone asked me why I connect with you. Well, actually they said ‘why do I love’ you? I hesitated then answered:
I, with every molecule of my soul, want the world to be more beautiful, more generous, and more caring. I dream about that. Helping the world hear your voice is like participating in a wonderful and deeply moving jazz quartet, or with all the folks that make this possible, even a symphony. It is that beauty, when your voice joins with ours, and the voices of all people of color are honored with our listening. And we inspire and move together to a deeper understanding of the present and our history. Now that, I believe is transformative. That spirit of possibility will change the world.
I believe you will be free. This work–radio from prison–is truly your work. You continue, you struggle, no matter what the hurdles. Amazing. And we are there with you with every breath and every step you take toward freedom.
–Angola 3 News is an official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. Additionally we are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more. Our articles and videos have been published by Alternet, Truthout, Black Commentator, SF Bay View Newspaper, Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Z Magazine, Indymedia, and many others.
Check out this new interview with Prof Bell about her new law journal article focusing on the Angola 3 and the broader human rights crisis in US prisons.
Read the earlier Angola 3 News interview with Prof Bell here.
Listen to Wanda Sabir’s new radio interview here .
Below is the full text from the original website, describing the show:
We are dedicating this broadcast to the women and men behind bars. Our first guest, Professor Angela A. Allen-Bell is Assistant Professor of Legal Analysis & Writing at Southern University Law Center in Louisiana. She speaks to us about the 40th Anniversary of Angola 3 inmates Albert Woodfox & Herman Wallace, stint in solitary confinement and the actions April 17, 2012 in Baton Rouge. She also gives us the context and results of Woodfox’s recent 3 day hearing and the momentum built to ensure his release this time.
The next hour we speak to Hamdiya Cooks, Assistant Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. She speaks about Georgia Horton, who is currently up for parole, and what it means to go to the board hearings. As former executive director of CCWP, Mrs. Cooks also updates us on the proposed conversion of Valley State prison, also in Central Valley, Chowchilla CA.Mrs. Beatrice Smith joins Mrs. Cooks to continue our conversation about Ms. Horton, long term incarceration and its impact on both the prisoner and her family. Mrs. Smith, a formally battered woman, left three young children when she was incarcerated. She talks about rebuilding or mending severed relationships. Both she and Mrs.Cooks talk about the CA Habeas Project.
Sabina Zuniga-Varela, “Medea,” speaks about her role in Luis Alfaro’s BRUJA at Magic Theatre, Ft. Mason Ctr., San Francisco through July 1, 2012. We close with the 2, 3, 4, part of an interview with Georgia Horton June 10, 2012. Because she is in a CA correctional facility she has to make multiple calls for us to complete the interview. I get almost to the end of the 4th. About 7 minutes is missing. Write letters of support for her parole hearing July 11, 2012 to: Georgia Horton W33911, Central California Women’s Facility 512-20-3L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA 93610-1508.
Examining the horrific and tortuous case of the Angola 3 with special guest and former Angola 3 political prisoner, Bro. Robert King.
Bro. Robert writes: “My name is Robert H. King, a.k.a. Robert King Wilkerson. I am the only freed member of the Angola 3. Along with my comrades Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace we were targeted for our activism as members of the Black Panther Party. After 31 years in Angola prison in Louisiana, 29 spent years in solitary confinement, I was released in February 2001. Since that time I have been described as an author, a candy maker, a former political prisoner and an activist. However, I just see myself as a person trying to make a difference. My life’s focus is to campaign against abuses in the criminal justice system and for the freedom of Herman and Albert, who are now serving their 40th year in solitary confinement. I may be free from Angola, but Angola will never be free of me…”
Herman and Albert remain in solitary, continuing to fight for their freedom, over 40 years later. Both men, whose sentences for their original crimes have long since passed, suffer from a range of different medical issues. Amnesty International is calling on the Louisiana authorities to end the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Woodfox and Wallace, and to remove them immediately from solitary confinement.
This Senate hearing comes on the heels of widespread prisoner hunger strikes that have made the use of solitary confinement a central issue. Last summer, a prisoner hunger strike at California’s infamous Pelican Bay State Prison sparked a state-wide strike that gained national attention. On May 31, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay, arguing that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.
A similar federal lawsuit that was jointly filed over a decade ago by Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox, of the Angola 3, is expected to go to trial in early 2013. When King’s conviction was overturned in 2001, he was released after spending 29 years in continuous solitary. Wallace and Woodfox remain behind bars and have now spent over 40 years in solitary. The three have also jointly submitted a statement for Tuesday’s Senate hearing.
On April 17, 2012, exactly 40 years after first being placed in solitary, Amnesty International delivered a 67,000 signature petition to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s office, demanding Woodfox and Wallace’s immediate release from solitary confinement. Robert King and Everette Thompson, Southeast Regional Director of Amnesty USA were joined by a delegation that included State Representative Patricia Haynes-Smith, Chair of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, Alfreda Bester-Tillman, Esq. from the Baton Rouge Chapter of the NAACP, Pastor Kathleen Bacon from the Slidell Chapter of the National Action Network, and many others, but Governor Jindal refused to meet with them, and referred the issue to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. In response, Amnesty has launched a new online petition directed to Secretary James M. LeBlanc.
Another member of the delegation that joined Amnesty International on April 17 was Angela A. Allen-Bell, a law professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge. The newly released issue of the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly features an article by Prof. Bell entitled “Perception Profiling & Prolonged Solitary Confinement Viewed Through the Lens of the Angola 3 Case: When Prison Officials Become Judges, Judges Become Visually Challenged and Justice Become Legally Blind.” A ten-page summary of her article’s key points has been submitted by Bell for Tuesday’s Senate hearing along with a link to the full article. On the eve of the hearing, we spoke with Bell about why she wrote this piece and what the case of the Angola 3 reveals about the broader human rights nightmare inside US prisons.
Angola 3 News:How did you first learn about the case of the Angola 3?
Angela A. Allen-Bell: Over ten years ago, I happened upon a newspaper article about the case. It caused me pause. I continued with my normal routine until the memory of that headline entered my mind in 2009. Work on an article about injustices in post-Katrina Louisiana made me recall that headline I had read years earlier. Once I finished that publication, I could not overcome the need to know the end of the Angola 3’s story so I began to research the case. To my complete surprise, the end had yet to arrive.
A3N: Why did you choose to focus on the Angola 3 case as “lens” to view the use of solitary confinement in US prisons today? What does their case tell us?
AB: It’s unfortunate, but there is no shortage of cases to choose from. I could have selected many other cases, but that was never a consideration. My article was born of a desire to understand the Angola 3 case, based on those lingering questions that remained after I saw the headline about the case years ago. Given this, I never entertained the thought of using any other case as a case study.
Now that the article is complete and the research is done, I am certain I made the right choice in using the Angola 3 case for a case study. I say this because there is nothing in their prison records that could hinder a reasonable mind from seeing the flaws in the current solitary confinement “process” (used for lack of a better word, but with no intention of legitimizing what is happening in American’s penal institutions today).
For example, there are some inmates in prolonged isolation who have recent disciplinary infractions or who have a history of repeated institutional violence or who have medical opinions supporting the housing assignment. In such a case, the average person would not give thought to a conversation about abolishing or modifying the solitary confinement system. In such a case, the average person would dismiss conversations about harm being done to the inmate as being deserved.
In contrast, the facts surrounding the Angola 3’s stay in solitary confinement compel action and challenge silence because there are no recent disciplinary infractions and no medical or psychiatric findings to justify or support the housing assignment. Prison officials have even said that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are not physically dangerous to others and are not an escape risk. Because of this, the Angola 3 case makes for the perfect case study because there are no factual distractions. When you look at their case, you can see the issue without anything obstructing your view.
A3N:Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox’s 40 years in solitary began after they organized a chapter of the Black Panther Party at Angola Prison. Shorty after acclaimed prison author George Jackson started a BPP chapter at San Quentin Prison in California, he was assassinated, and his closest known comrades were prosecuted as the San Quentin Six. The last of the Six behind bars is Hugo Pinell, now in solitary confinement for over 42 years—currently held at the notorious Pelican Bay supermax prison.
We know that Angola warden Burl Cain has justified Albert Woodfox’s continued placement in solitary by citing his practice and belief in “Black Pantherism.” What do you think it is about the Panthers and their legacy today that prison authorities find so threatening?
AB: The media very effectively taught the world that the Black Panthers were nothing more than a gun toting militia group. Schools have omitted meaningful lessons about the Black Panthers from their curriculum. The Government, through its COINTELPRO program, criminalized the Panthers and led a campaign to discredit them.
With all these competing forces, the average citizen is left to his or her own devices to investigate and reach a conclusion about the Panthers. I don’t think we are there yet as a society. And I especially don’t think most Louisiana, politically-appointed, prison administrators shape their viewpoints of those in their custody after engaging in a balanced study of issues concerning racial history and social change organizations.
Your question asks about “prison authorities.” I offer a more limited response because, in my view, the Louisiana prison experience, and certainly the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) prison structure, warrants a particularized response. This is said because the 13th Amendment, legalizing slavery in prison, means something very different in a former slave state than it does where slavery was not practiced. The 13th Amendment also takes on a different form on plantation land, which is what Angola is. In a former slave state, like Louisiana, free labor has always been a commodity in high demand. When there are opportunities to get free labor or to be compensated for housing human cargo, some act aggressively to capture the prey. In those cases, it’s the prey that is being hunted and not the politics that is being challenged.
In other cases, there is sheer ignorance about the fact that the Black Panthers wanted much of what mainstream America wants. They wanted to see men be providers and leaders in their homes and communities and they wanted to see their communities be functional and not dysfunctional. They wanted to see children respect authority and aspire for academic excellence. The Panthers strongly believed in self-reliance and community empowerment as opposed to government dependence. The Panthers did so many positive things for the community, like escorting the elderly to the bank, protecting their neighborhoods, educating the ignorant and the lost, and feeding the hungry.
Many prison administrators, like the general public, do not know this history. What is etched in their minds is the image of the guns that that media shows in the same way the media showed the images of African Americans “looting” or “taking” (and not “finding” or “needing”) after Hurricane Katrina. With this limited understanding, one can see the basis for the perceived threat.
I will share one final perspective about the reaction of some prison officials to the Panthers. To some administrators, an African American man today is what the law named him yesterday: a piece of property. When such a person is confronted with a Panther, a non-pacifist type of African American, their innate and subconscious reaction is to do what is done to property that is misplaced. The inclination is to put it back in its proper place. Thus, many of the Panthers are being put in their places (solitary confinement) because what they represent as African American men is incomprehensible, intolerable and out of place. What is threatening about them is not the Panther affiliation necessarily, but the Panther mind and ideals. Some administrators are at their best without the fear of the consciousness that could be raised by such a person. As they see it, their regime would run more effectively with property because property doesn’t move or speak back.
To appreciate this point, you might consider a house when its inhabitants are away and the property is left all alone. Inactivity and calm prevails. When the inhabitants return, activity follows. Some prison administrators delight when the occupants of their home are away and only the property is left in their immediate view. These administrators falsely assume all activity is disruptive activity. More importantly, these administrators dwell in a day gone by. Today, African Americans are no longer recognized as property. These administrators are actually guilty of creating the threat they say they fear.
A3N:With over 2.4 millions prisoners today, the US now has more total prisoners and a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate ). How does the use of prolonged solitary confinement fit into this human rights nightmare that is mass incarceration fueled by the criminalization of poverty? In this broader context, what role does it play?
AB: I alluded to the 13th Amendment in my earlier response. It is applicable here as well and it would be intellectually dishonest of me not to interject it into this discussion. A lodging facility is happier when you lodge for a prolonged period than they are when you lodge for a brief period. They are paid more for a longer stay than for a short stay. Such is the case with many institutions.
The 13th Amendment allows slavery or involuntary servitude when someone is incarcerated. If certain jurisdictions or corporations are paid for the amount of human cargo in their facility, then the longer the stay, the better. Inmates held in prolonged solitary confinement ensure maximum occupancy and they do not require the expenses related to compensating teachers or staff or expenditures for materials or supplies.
Once in solitary for a prolonged period, the average inmate will be robbed of the mental stamina to effectively challenge his stay. Even if the inmate could mount a challenge, it would be meaningless because, in most institutions, the review process one would employ to gain exodus from solitary confinement is constitutionally deficient. On this point, my article expresses: “A simulated process akin to a hearing, where formalities can be documented, but where no meaningful probing occurs, is unjust and unconstitutional. It amounts to nothing more than procedural automation in a legal assembly line where unfavorable reviews are mass-produced.”
In the end, the beds remain full and the payments continue coming. Before you know it, more prisons get built and more beds need to be filled. Going back to my earlier point about how, as a society, we are not investigating the things that are reported, this would be another such case. Some elected officials and some media outlets suggest we need prisons in order to be safe. We innocently accept that.
A3N:Let’s take a closer look at the title of your Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly article. How have “prison officials become judges?”
AB: A judge is charged with the task of imposing sentences, not a prison administrator. When a prison administrator places an inmate in prolonged solitary confinement (often after the inmate has not committed an infraction while in custody), that inmate has an increased risk of mental decline and death. Taking this at face value, one might contend that a sentence (possibly a death sentence) has been handed down.
My article notes: “When prison officials stop acting as administrators and effectively begin handing down sentences, they, for all practical purposes, become judges. The Separation of Powers Doctrine prohibits prison officials from acting with this authority.”
A3N:How do “judges become visually challenged?”
AB: Courts generally defer to prisons administrators and often limit their role to making sure that the inmate was afforded a process. In the case of prolonged isolation, courts do not review the substance of the process.
My article states: “When judges abstain from meaningful involvement in the periodic review process, they look, but fail to see the very thing they are uniquely positioned to see. They do not see the need for justice and interpretation of law–due process law.”
A3N:How does justice become “legally blind?” What do you mean by this?
AB: If a court does a “sniff test” and not a thorough review of the actual process afforded an inmate subject to prolonged isolation, the court’s view of the problem is challenged. What the court misses is the fact that the prison did not carry a burden of proof or the inmate was left with no way to mount a defense because the isolation robs the inmate of a way to show any reformation as the inmate is not allowed to work or attend school.
According to my article, “The judge, by his omission, renders justice legally blind as far as the inmate is concerned. The legally blind can innocently be a detriment to those around them.”
A3N:What legal processes to do you propose in your article for remedying the prolonged solitary confinement crisis in US prisons and making prison authorities more accountable?
AB: The article actually contains proposed legislation. It is my hope that legislators, courts and prison administrators all across the country will use it as written or in spirit to cause legislative and policy changes. I advocate:
An end to prolonged solitary confinement.
That inmates be given a case plan upon placement into solitary confinement.
That inmates be only placed in solitary when a specific, actual, and legitimate security or penological concern exists.
That inmates in prolonged solitary confinement have access to some programs
That a burden of proof be met during the periodic review process.
That, after one unfavorable review, a seven-member special review board be
That courts engage in a more substantive review.
A3N:Anything else to add for the interview?
AB: Yes, three final points.
If we are a Christian nation, shouldn’t we act like Christ? Christ was a defense attorney to victims of human rights violations, as well as to the poor and downtrodden. What is happening where solitary confinement is concerned is a “human wrong.” As a nation, we must give thought to this.
I was amazed to discover in my research the existence of standards governing how shelter animals must be housed and how research animals must be treated. The protections are greater than what is now in place for the HUMAN BEINGS that are subject to prolonged isolation. Where is the outcry?
In doing community outreach work on behalf of the Angola 3, people often offer prayers and express gratitude for the work that is being done in this regard. The prayers are valued. The expressions of support are appreciated, but they often leave me wondering what that individual is doing while other individuals are doing this work. I consider what their talent might be and wonder if it is the one I lack. I ponder if I could or would indulge myself in what it is that they do if I weren’t doing this work and ask if they would do this work if they didn’t feel safe that it was getting done by those of us who do it? Talent and commitment stacked side-by-side could circle the globe and bring social change with it. Talent unwedded to commitment creates an era of stagnation. If resistance is shackled away behind bars and stagnation is roaming free, we are left to discern who dwells in a cell and whose dwelling is, in fact, a cell.
–Angola 3 News is an official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. Additionally we are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more. Our articles and videos have been published by Alternet, Truthout, Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Z Magazine, Indymedia, and many others.
Midday the State rested their case, and both sides requested that the judge rule that the other had not met their burden and end the proceedings then and there. To avoid another delay in the proceedings for him to consider these motions, Judge Brady instead asked Albert’s legal team to proceed with the presentation of their case for the record while everyone was already assembled and promised to decide the pending motions sometime later.
Albert’s first expert witness was Dr. Marx, a statistician with a mountain of unimpeachable credentials who very artfully and clearly explained the heart of why the State’s numbers don’t show discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson but Albert’s do. The different results stem from a fundamental disagreement about not just the methodology and methods, but the very population to be examined in the first place.
The baseline group the State is using to calculate whether there was discrimination in the selection of the grand jury by race is based on broad census numbers of eligible voters, minus illiterates, but without adjusting for any of the other many factors used to qualify and seat voters for jury duty. In contrast, Albert’s expert relied upon the actual numbers of people who were called and found willing and able to serve as jurors as his base data pool for analysis. He made a credible and compelling argument that this more exact, case specific base number provided the only accurate, reliable result and demonstrated a strong, statistically significant pattern of racial discrimination in the selection of the forepersons in West Feliciana during the time of Albert’s retrial that simply cannot be explained by chance.
Testimony continues tomorrow as the third and final day of Albert’s third bid for freedom continues.
BACKGROUND ON EVIDENTIARY HEARING:
On Tuesday, May 29th, Albert Woodfox will begin a 3 day hearing that may result in his conviction being overturned for a third time. Proceedings will begin at 9am in Courtroom 1 at the US District Court in Baton Rouge and continue through Thursday, May 31st.
Albert will be present for the proceedings, and the hearing is open to the public. Please remember if attending that the Federal Court strictly enforces a more formal, conservative dress code (no short skirts or shorts of any kind, even with tights, no bare upper arms, sleeveless, or low cut shirts) and requires that observers don’t react, either visibly or audibly, to anything the might see or hear in the courtroom. Also security is tight, so bring only your ID, car keys, and a pen and paper into the courthouse.
There is limited seating in the courtroom so if you arrive and are turned away, consider your show of support a success and try coming back the next day!
Unlike the first and second time that Albert’s conviction was overturned based on judges who cited racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense, and suppression of exculpatory evidence during his first trials for the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, this proceeding will seek to overturn based on apparent discrimination in the selection of a grand jury foreperson during his 1998 retrial.
The well known facts of the A3 case will not be debated; all that will be examined is whether or not people of color were discriminated against during the grand jury selection process. This means instead of murder mystery theatre, witnesses will mostly discuss compositions of the pool of grand jury forepersons in the Parish where Albert was indicted. Expert witnesses will discuss statistical analysis and methodology, the demographics of the community, and the sociological mechanics of how discrimination can play out in the criminal justice system. If successful, this claim could serve to overturn Albert’s conviction for a third time.
Judge James A. Brady, the same judge who overturned Albert’s conviction the second time in 2008, will preside. That ruling was ultimately reinstated on appeal by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals who cited AEDPA-gutted habeas protections that limit federal power that allowed them to defer judgment to Louisiana.
Although there are no time limits officially imposed by law, Brady is expected to rule before the end of 2012.
(Download a flyer version of this fact sheet here.)
40 years ago, deep in rural Louisiana, three young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation called Angola.
Peaceful, non-violent protest in the form of hunger and work strikes organized by inmates caught the attention of Louisiana’s elected leaders and local media in the early 1970s. They soon called for investigations into a host of unconstitutional and extraordinarily inhumane practices commonplace in what was then the “bloodiest prison in the South.” Eager to put an end to outside scrutiny, prison officials began punishing inmates they saw as troublemakers.
At the height of this unprecedented institutional chaos, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were charged with murders they did not commit and thrown into 6×9 foot solitary cells.
Potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been “lost” by prison officials—including fingernail scrapings from the victim and barely visible “specks” of blood on clothing alleged to have been worn by Albert.
Both Herman and Albert had multiple alibi witnesses with nothing to gain who testified they were far away from the scene when the murder occurred.
In spite of this setback, the validity of Albert’s conviction is again under review due to apparent discrimination in the selection of a grand jury foreperson, an injustice that may finally set Albert free.
Over a decade ago Herman, Albert and Robert filed a civil lawsuit challenging the inhumane and increasingly pervasive practice of long-term solitary confinement. Magistrate Judge Dalby describes their almost four decades of solitary as “durations so far beyond the pale” she could not find “anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.” The case, expected to go to trial by 2013, will detail unconstitutionally cruel and unusual treatment and systematic due process violations at the hands of Louisiana officials.
We believe that only by openly examining the failures and inequities of the criminal justice system in America can we restore integrity to that system.
We must not wait.
We can make a difference.
As the A3 did years before, now is the time to challenge injustice and demand that the innocent and wrongfully incarcerated be freed.
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