Out of Control: Chapter 9–A People’s Tribunal, 1987 Continued

Over the summer we planned a “People’s Tribunal” for our big fall event. It would be a grand event beginning with the reading of an indictment, then testimony from lawyers, ex-prisoners, family members of prisoners, and representatives of different communities in Chicago. Their testimony would be heard by a panel of judges who would then render their verdict.

We brought our dear friend Morton Sobell to the Midwest for a speaking tour to help build for the Tribunal. The reader may recall that Morton, co-defendant of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, served 19 years in federal prison, including five at Alcatraz. He had come out of prison ready to contribute to the fight for social justice and worked tirelessly to support the Attica Brothers. He traveled to Vietnam to offer his technical assistance in developing an inexpensive, easily-constructed hearing aid, hoping especially to assist those whose hearing was impacted by the U.S. air war. Most recently Morton had been arrested in an act of civil disobedience, protesting U.S. aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. We were excited to bring Mort to the Chicago area as an outspoken critic of government repression directed at political activists and an advocate of human rights for prisoners.

On October 19, 1987, the Tribunal opened with great energy at our friendly Wellington Avenue Church. The schedule suggests the ambitious nature of the day, typical of CEML activities. The 300 people in attendance were first offered a tour of a full-size model of a Control Unit cell built to specifications by CEML members. Those who stepped inside were deeply impressed by its starkness.

During the next two hours we showed a video about the Lexington Control Unit, a slideshow that described the Stanford University prison experiment in which college students were locked in a model prison in a basement for a weekend and forced to adopt roles as either guards or prisoners, and our very own Marion slide show. Statements from prisoners at both Marion and Lexington were distributed. One letter had more than  20 signatures of Marion prisoners. Handwritten by prisoner Bill Dunne, the signatures were each handwritten as well and were contained on a smaller piece of paper taped down at the bottom of the letter. I wonder how they managed to gather those signatures under lockdown conditions.

At 3:00 pm we moved up to the church Sanctuary where we welcomed everyone on behalf of the sponsoring organizations and moderated the afternoon session. José López presented the indictment of the wardens of Marion and Lexington, the director of the BOP, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and the FBI.

We then listened to the testimony of 17 witnesses. The first group was made up of family members. Steve explained (p. 15 of transcript) that “No one feels the pain of the imprisoned as much as their family members. Often families are so staggered by the brutality directed at their loved ones that they become immobilized. The family members here today are just the opposite; they have been energized by the spirit of their loved ones and by the need to act. And they bring that spirit here with them today.” There was great pain and many tears during this segment. All four speakers spoke of the unimaginable conditions their loved ones were enduring, and also their bittersweet experiences as visiting family members.

Rev. José Torres, husband of Puerto Rican political prisoner Alejandrina Torres, spoke of the Lexington Control “as a living tomb. . . part of the sophisticated torture system created by the federal government to punish Puerto Rican Prisoners of War and other political prisoners that support Puerto Rican independence.”

Manny Rosenberg, the father of Susan Rosenberg, said that:  “I tell you what I have seen is that this Control Unit kills people and tries to so unnerve them that they will kill themselves. . . the Lexington Control Unit is a dungeon within a prison.” (Read about Lexington from An American Radical by Susan Rosenberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Kensington Publishing Corp.)

Alejandrina, Susan, and Silvia sent a statement of their own to the Tribunal.

The third speaker was Rev. Mary Warner, the mother of Anthony Warner, who testified that:

I had mixed emotions accepting the invitation to speak at this Tribunal. I was torn between my duty as a parent to protect my son from any harm if it was found out by the system that I spoke here today, or to come forth with information that would further the cause to eliminate the Lockdown at Marion. As you can see, I decided to participate. People don’t seem to know what the prisoners are going through, and the treatment that they experience daily.

How would you like to be considered something less than human? This is the attitude of those who have control of our Black men in these Control Units. It makes you think about slavery times, when we as Black people were treated as animals. To think that the same things are going on today is almost too devastating to comprehend.

The final family member to speak was Rev. Theodore Blunk, the father of political prisoner Timothy Blunk. He referred to Marion and Lexington as a place where:

[T]here are rules, and many of the rules are unspoken, and so the prisoners don’t know when they’re going to get their strokes. There is no recognition, or at least there’s no recognition that is positive. For families there is no contact. Reverend Warner talked about going to visit there, talking through the plexiglass. Manny, at least, got to be in touch with Susan. But it’s tough to be in touch with your son by placing your hands against the plexiglass—and that’s as close as you can get. There’s no work. How can a person get any respect without being able to work? They’re only allowed out of their cell for one hour a day.

There is limited communication—even when you speak to them on a personal basis it is monitored, and then it’s used against the prisoners later on. There are no study programs. We look at Leavenworth now as a healthier place for Tim to have been. There he could at least participate in a graduate program. Now we can’t even get hard-covered books to him—only a limited number of paperbacks. There, in Marion, it’s one big negative.

The second group described the conditions and included: recorded testimony of former Marion prison guard David Hale; Phil Scopelite, the Transport Fleet News editor mentioned above; Dr. Bindu Desai, a Chicago area neurologist, activist, and member of Amnesty International, who read parts of the recently released Amnesty International report; Don Goldhamer, who summarized a report released the day before by the John Howard Association; psychologist Susana Schlesinger; Ellen Youniss, summarizing a recently released ACLU National Prison Project report on Lexington; and Shelly Miller, who spoke about the effects prison had on her as a political prisoner.

The third group consisted of three attorneys—Nancy Horgan, Melinda Power, and Jan Susler—all political activists as much as lawyers, who expressed that only through concerted political action would the conditions of the Control Units be changed and the units themselves finally abolished. Testimony was also given by representatives of the sponsoring organizations, CEML and the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, as well as the New Afrikan Independence Movement.

We broke for dinner and then reconvened to hear the judges’ verdicts. I moderated this section of the Tribunal and introduced the diverse group of judges: Betty Balanoff, Professor of History at Roosevelt University; Darla Bradley, a Silo Plowshares activist recently released from a nine-month prison sentence for entering a missile site in Missouri and destroying two Minuteman II missiles; my old friend and longtime peace activist Dave Dellinger who was a main organizer of the 1968 protests at the Democratic Convention and then one of the Chicago 8 defendants; Puerto Rican independentista Dora Garcia; and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Northeastern Illinois University, Bernard Headley.

Photo of Morton Sobell in front of poster of Rosenbergs

Morton Sobell

Also serving as a judge was Morton Sobell. In a moment of levity, Morton began by saying: “One thing I should make clear before I begin. If you think that just because I did 18 ½ years on a bum rap I’m incapable of giving objective justice, you’re wrong. I pride myself with my objectivity,” resulting in peals of laughter throughout the room.

Akinyele Umoja of Atlanta, Georgia, an activist in grassroots human rights struggles for the past 15 years, such as the fight to free political prisoner Geronimo Pratt, served as a judge as well.

Sister Jean Hughes, a nun and member of the Eighth Day Center for Peace and Justice and an activist in the Pledge of Resistance and the Sanctuary movement, was also a judge. She spoke of her feelings of rage and outrage about the Control Units and stated that she was willing to do anything creative to shut them down, anything but write any more letters to Congress since, she maintained, Congress was part of the problem.

After the judges voted unanimously to find the defendants guilty as charged, I asked the  audience to vote. In one voice we shouted, “Guilty!” and then when asked to speak louder, roared “Guilty!” once more. The day ended with sustained applause for the courageous prisoners at Marion and Lexington. (See the full Tribunal transcript.)

On December 16, 1987, National Public Radio ran Part III of their report on Marion remarking that “Now it is a year later and little has changed.”

On December 19, we marched once again in downtown Chicago during the Christmas shopping season, leafleting the Christmas shoppers about control unit prisons (see leaflet).

Next: Lexington Victory
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