OTI Online
Fall 1998

America's Political Prisoners
by Mary Lou Greenberg


Glaring artificial light 24 hours a day, no sense of time, constant surveillance, every remark recorded, better conditions promised only upon "confession" or renunciation of political beliefs.

A torture chamber in some faraway despotic regime? No. The U.S. today. Such prison conditions exist in this country, and are used against political dissidents. Courts have ruled that a prisoner's political beliefs and associations are a legitimate basis for placement in special prison units designed to break spirits, if not bones.

There are scores of men and women in U.S. prisons today for political reasons. Many have long histories of involvement in radical politics and straggles against injustice, and it is because of these political associations, rather than any specific acts, that they are serving draconian sentences. Here are just a few:

Susan Rosenberg: A supporter of the Black liberation and Puerto Rican independence movements in the 60s, she is serving a 58-year sentence

Susan Rosenberg: A supporter of the Black liberation and Puerto Rican independence movements in the 60s, she is serving a 58-year sentence for possession of false identification papers, explosives and other weapons. Neither charged with nor convicted of any act of violence, her sentence is the longest the U.S. has ever imposed for a weapons charge.

Silvia Baraldini: Accused of aiding Black revolutionary and prison escapee Assata Shakur, she is serving 40 years under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for belonging to "corrupt organizations." Three years were added to her sentence when she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating the Puerto Rican independence movement. Last year, her request for parole was denied, and she now faces another 10 years for refusing to provide information on her political associates.

Alejandrina Torres: A Puerto Rican independence activist serving 35 years for "seditious conspiracy," a highly political charge based on guilt by association.

All three were imprisoned in the extremely punitive Control Unit in Lexington, Kentucky, until it was closed in 1988 because of mounting protests against its inhumane conditions, which included sensory deprivation and direct physical abuse to create a feeling of complete powerless- ness. The women were told they would be imprisoned there indefinitely until they renounced their politics and squealed on associates on the outside. They refused to comply. (All three are currently being held at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.)

Techniques developed at the Lexington unit, however, are still being applied in federal super-maximum security prisons. Some 30 states now have supermax pens where inmates are kept in isolation in tiny, concrete, bunker-like cells, considered one of the most psychologically debilitating environments.

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Well known radio journalist and former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Jamal is on death row at a maximum security Pennsylvania prison. He was an outspoken critic of the racist Philadelphia police department, which gained national notoriety in 1985 when they bombed a house, incinerating six adults and five children, and destroying a Black neighborhood. Jamal was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia policeman, in an incident in which he himself was shot and nearly died. Since his sentence, key evidence has been refuted, witnesses admitted they were coerced into lying, and Jamal's original lawyer has stated that he had neither the experience nor the resources to mount an adequate defense. Amnesty International and other supporters are campaigning for a new trial. If Jamal is killed, he will be the first political prisoner to be executed in the U.S. in more than 40 years.]

Human rights activists also point to a growing number of what they call political prisoners of a different kind today. These include battered women like Jayne Stamen who have killed their abusers in self-defense yet are imprisoned for murder; Stamen has been imprisoned for 11 years and twice been denied parole although she has been a model prisoner at Albion, New York. They also include victims, many of whom are women, of unjust drag laws aimed primarily at poor, inner-city populations. Mandatory 15-year-to-life sentences for convictions under the "Rockefeller drag law" in New York state, for example, have sent mothers and grandmothers to jail for long terms for merely being in apartments where small quantities of drags belonging to others were found.


Mary Lou Greenberg is a long-time political activist and writer.


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