National Lawyers Guild Panel on Political Prisoners & Solitary Confinement

SAN JUAN, Oct 25 2013 – The struggle against the torture of solitary confinement is an urgent necessity in building liberation movements in North America.  That was the message conveyed to attendees of a major panel on political prisoners and solitary confinement at the National Lawyers Guild’s annual convention held in San Juan, Puerto Rico on October 25, 2013.

Organized by the Abolitionist Law Center and the NLG Mass Incarceration Committee, the panel featured Jihad Abdulmumit, former Black Liberation Army political prisoner and national co-chair of the National Jericho Movement to Free Political Prisoners; Clarisa López Ramos, daughter of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera; political prisoner and world-renowned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal via recorded statement; and Azadeh Zohrabi, California attorney for Pelican Bay prisoners.

Unfortunately, Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón could not be on the panel as planned due to health issues, but there was an unexpected panelist when Edwin Cortes, Puerto Rican political prisoner freed by President Clinton in 1999, grabbed the mic.

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center moderated the panel and also spoke about the campaign to end the nearly 30 years of solitary confinement for Russell Maroon Shoatz.

Systemic and severe violations of international human rights law are an endemic—and suppressed—feature of prison conditions in the United States.  During the last thirty years the United States has embarked upon a project of race- and class-based mass incarceration unlike anything the world has ever seen.  Emerging in this same period has been the regime of super-maximum security prison units, where people are held in solitary confinement between 22-24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for years on end.  These units are defined by extreme restrictions on visitations, phone calls (which are often prohibited), incoming and outgoing mail, limits on in-cell legal and personal property, and prohibitions on cell decorations.  Medical neglect, physical and psychological abuse, food deprivation, racism, and other human rights violations flourish in these conditions, which are effectively hidden from public scrutiny.  Hundreds of thousands of people cycle in and out of the psychologically toxic and emotionally harmful conditions of solitary confinement every year, with more than 80,000 people held in 23-24 hour lockdown on any given day in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers.

The speakers presented an inspiring and diverse set of stories, insights, and ideas to the 130-150 people in attendance.  Jihad Abdulmumit urged the crowd to recognize the context of struggle when discussing political prisoners in the United States, rather than fixating on the question of guilt or innocence.  After all, nobody ever asked if Nelson Mandela participated in the armed struggle (he did, of course), but instead recognized that he was fighting for the freedom of his people.  The same standards should apply to freedom fighters held in the belly of the imperial beast.

Bridging the struggles of the Black Liberation Movement and the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement was the commentary of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Articulating how the pathology of white supremacy infected early 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding Puerto Rico, Mumia traced the arc of struggle of generation after generation of Puerto Ricans in and out of U.S. prisons, as part of their efforts to free their homeland from the crime of colonialism.

Clarisa López Ramos presented a moving account of the anguish and hardship that solitary confinement imposes on the families of prisoners.  She spent many hours of her childhood building a relationship with her father, Puerto Rican political prisoners Oscar López Rivera, through the glass partition of the non-contact visiting booth in the United States Penitentiary at Marion, the prototype for supermax prisons.

Next, Azadeh Zohrabi laid out a brilliant overview and analysis of the prisoner human rights movement in California, which has been led by visionary prisoners held in the Pelican Bay State Prison control units.  Her call to “abolish” solitary confinement elicited a powerful round of applause from the audience.  Noting that she views the prisoners she represents in a class action lawsuit more as her colleagues than her clients, Azadeh enlisted dozens of audience members to assist with advocacy on behalf of the health care needs of men still suffering the effects of the most recent California prisoner hunger strike, which included more than 30,000 prisoners at its peak.

Edwin Cortes then joined the panelists after being introduced by Jihad, who he served time with at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  Cortes emphasized the importance of recognizing that the Obama presidency represents the “same old racism” with a different face, urging those in attendance to continue the struggle for liberation.

Finally, Bret Grote discussed the case of Russell Maroon Shoatz, Pennsylvania political prisoner who is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center in his efforts to be free from nearly 30 years of isolation, including the last 22 years consecutively.  Grote emphasized the structural role of solitary confinement, observing that solitary is used to terrorize the prison population; the prison population is then used to terrorize poor communities in general and communities of color in particular; socio-economic conditions in these communities are used to keep the middle classes in line; and these classes carry out the social, economic, and political agendas of the powerful few who control society.

If the feedback received by the ALC is any indication, those in attendance at the panel left better prepared and inspired to move the struggle against this system forward.

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