[Marxism] Torture in America: The Prison System

bonnieweinstein giobon at comcast.net
Tue Apr 3 10:21:29 MDT 2018

Torture in America: The Prison System
By Carole Seligman, March 2018
http://www.socialistviewpoint.org/marapr_18/marapr_18_01.html <http://www.socialistviewpoint.org/marapr_18/marapr_18_01.html>

I had the tremendous honor of meeting Mumia Abu-Jamal on January 18th and Bryant Arroyo on January 19th. After several years of corresponding with these innocent prisoners, respectively serving life sentences in SCI Mahanoy and SCI Frackville, in Pennsylvania, I wanted to meet them in person.

While visiting Mumia, I also met Eddie Africa in the visiting room. Eddie Africa has been imprisoned for four decades after cops attacked their home in the City of Philadelphia in 1978 and arrested the nine occupants—the MOVE 9. Later cops bombed the MOVE home and killed 11 of the organization's members including five children. Eddie Africa was just denied parole again by the corrupt and callous Pennsylvania Parole Board, although they are well aware that Mr. Africa, had nothing to do with the death of the police officer who died, most likely by "friendly fire" during the attack on the MOVE home in 1978. In the face of such prolonged imprisonment Eddie Africa takes an active role in helping young prisoners to survive in this hostile environment.

While visiting Bryant, I met Major Tillery, an innocent man in prison for 33 years. Major is the man who actually saved Mumia's life, when Mumia collapsed and went into a coma at the height of his Hepatitis C illness. For that good deed, he was punished, transferred from Mahanoy to Frackville and sent to solitary confinement for four months.

Knowing about their cases—innocent, framed prisoners—and then getting to meet them in person gives one a new understanding of the depth of cruelty in the American prison system, a system whose atrocities and torture are only beginning to be revealed to the public, as there are more and more exonerations, including from death row! The revelations are due in part to the writings and radio broadcasts of Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as those of several other prisoners who write about their prison experiences and help us understand what we're up against in the struggle for justice against the capitalist state.

Mumia is a warm, welcoming man. Despite a terribly uncomfortable skin outbreak that keeps him from sleeping, and itching that is constant and unrelenting, Mumia has kept on writing trenchant commentaries on all current pressing issues and recording them in his beautiful voice on Prison Radio. I was introduced by attorney Rachel Wolkenstein who was visiting Eddie Africa, as well as Mumia. Basym Hasan (from the Pennsylvania Prison Society) and Mumia's brother, Keith Cook, were also visiting and we had a roundtable, wide-ranging discussion on many topics—including the court proceedings of the previous day, DNA testing, the death penalty in Pennsylvania, the water quality in the prison (the guards don't drink from the water fountains,) the itchy skin conditions that many prisoners are suffering, prison food, the April 20 Women's March, and the significance of last year's Women's March on the day after the Trump inauguration. We also discussed the case of a juvenile lifer, who, after 64 years in prison had his sentence converted to 35 to life, but wasn't allowed to leave the state to go to family members in the South! Much of our discussion cycled around to the combined conditions of extreme cruelty with irrational idiocy in the prisons.

Now, the system of mass incarceration has spread to the population of undocumented immigrants and refugees who are being rounded up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal agency—ICE. They are held in profit-making private prisons in horrendous conditions including the forced separation of young children from their parents, inadequate protection from cold weather, inadequate quality and quantity of food—in other words, basic necessities of life. ICE is making a concerted effort to violate local and state sanctuary policies, such as the recent round-up of immigrants in the Northern California Bay Area on February 28.

To write in any meaningful way about the prison system in the United States is to document a litany of abuse. One example, as explained in the January visit: Mumia, while he was on death row in Pennsylvania's SCI Greene was in the wing of the prison where they could watch the food preparation from their cells. The food was put on carts and delivered to all the different cellblocks, ending with the death row blocks, where it was always cold. When he was transferred to SCI Mahanoy, he burned his mouth because he had grown used to never tasting hot food. Simple cruelty, carried out for years on end. 

Another: Mumia told us about new, colorful, cheerfully painted signs on the Mahanoy prison walls saying: "Help is near," and "If you feel suicidal, contact staff." Such irony. "Help" is non-existent there. Suicide is a regular occurrence. Medical neglect a constant reality. Even killings of prisoners by guards!
Mumia's skin condition seemed to worsen over the time of the visit, with open red areas on his inner arms. As our visit was ending, Mumia gave a message of love for Kevin Cooper, on death row at San Quentin and compliments on Kevin's beautiful art. And at a "Live From Death Row" event on February 10th in San Francisco, where Kevin called in to a public meeting sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America, Kevin spoke in support and admiration for Mumia. I feel privileged to have listened and participated in conversations with such a big-hearted, knowledgeable person.

Bryant Arroyo
Bryant Arroyo, is serving a life sentence for a terrible crime that he did not do—killing his baby stepson. Another innocent man. Like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Bryant is a person who acts on behalf of others while struggling for his own exoneration. He is known as the "prison environmentalist." He has spoken out for environmental justice in the prison and surrounding community, about corporate destruction of the environment through a proposed coal de-gasification plant, and also, through organizing prisoners, guards, and community to oppose the building of the plant. Bryant has to jump through prison administrative hoops to speak by phone to students and groups of environmentalists to help educate us about how to protect the environment.

Major Tillery
Major Tillery was framed in Philadelphia, with cops providing sexual favors for prisoners to testify against him. While fighting for his own exoneration, he also advocates for others, focusing on elderly and disabled prisoners who suffer especially in the cold prison environment. An example: Tillery is trying to get the prison to issue long johns to the elderly prisoners who suffer more in the cold weather. You would think such a easy-to-grant demand would get results, but, in the cruel environment of the prisons, the authorities scoff at the request and refuse to grant it.

Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper, death row prisoner in San Quentin State Prison, (whose article in honor of Black History Month is in this issue of Socialist Viewpoint), spoke by telephone to a public forum at the San Francisco Public Library. His moving presentation and answers to audience questions inspired many in the audience to write postcard appeals to California Governor Jerry Brown supporting Kevin's appeal for clemency. Kevin is a tireless campaigner for abolition of the death penalty, educating and speaking out and explaining slavery as the background of the current abusive system of mass incarceration and torture in the U.S. 
California voters recently approved starting up the state's execution machinery, and if that happens, Kevin is one of the first to die. His innocence is beyond dispute, and yet he was almost executed in 2004, coming within three hours and 42 minutes of lethal injection. He has been in prison for 33 years. Governor Brown has had Kevin's petition for clemency for over two years. A delegation went to Sacramento on February 22 to deliver petitions with over 20,000 signatures in support of clemency to the governor as part of a campaign to get the governor to act. A letter signed by the deans of four prominent California law schools supporting Kevin's appeal for clemency was also sent to Governor Brown in February.

Without a doubt, U.S. prisons house an estimated over-100,000 innocent people, and this doesn't include people incarcerated for infractions such as drug possession. It doesn't include the thousands of detained immigrants. Most all prisoners (perhaps with the exception of the millionaires caught for white collar crime and corruption) suffer extreme institutional cruelty. (See the article by Kevin "Rashid" Johnson in this and previous issues about how prisoners in Florida State Prison are tortured and abused.) I find it miraculous, almost in the biblical meaning of the word, that the people I write about in this article not only have retained their humanity, but actually struggle for the rights of other oppressed people.

The conditions of prisoners in this country indicate to the most extreme degree the values of capitalist society and its state power. While we must fight like hell to free the innocent and stop the torture of the prisons, it's also clear that for any humane values to be adopted, the power of capitalism and its state must be definitively broken. A state whose reason to exist is to prop up the capitalist profit system, and to do that with the use of extreme violence, is incompatible with human values of decency. We must bring it down!

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