Out of Control: Chapter 8–Permanent Lockdown, 1987

In 1987 the Bureau of Prisons pushed back. Communication with the prisoners was a hallmark of our work. We were diligent in reporting to them on our activities, and we actively solicited their input. But now our communication was impeded. Some letters were returned to us with “Return to Sender” stamped on them. However, we were not easily deterred. There was a flurry of letters between CEML and the Bureau of Prisons, with Warden Henman, as well as with the Regional Director, protesting the censorship and requesting that the Regional Director overrule Henman in this matter. We persisted until finally the prisoners did receive our mail, but the reports arrived two months late!

In February, we were delivered a significant defeat when a federal judge threw out the prisoners’ class action lawsuit, denying their claims that the previously described conditions at Marion were cruel and unusual, finding them to be constitutional. He stated that the prisoners were “not credible witnesses.” He stated that it was perfectly fine to have men chained spread eagle to cement beds as long as guards checked on them periodically. Essentially this judicial decision legalized the torture at Marion and provided the basis for future justifications. No matter what we had to say, the BOP would now respond “but the Court ruled it was constitutional.” The realization that the lockdown was permanent was becoming unavoidable. Prison officials were no longer referring to a “temporary lockdown,” but rather a general way of structuring life at Marion. We sent out a Marion-Lexington Update to our mailing list:

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, we joined with other groups, including the newly formed Committee to Shut Down the Lexington Control Unit, for a demonstration once more outside Lexington Prison, where now there were three political prisoners, Silvia Baraldini, in addition to Alejandrina and Susan. One other prisoner, Debra Brown, had been shipped there as well. Convicted on a murder charge, it was commonly thought she was included to counter public opinion that Lexington was only a matter of political internment. The 250-strong demonstration from Chicago, Lexington, and Cincinnati was addressed by UCC Minister Ben Chavis and the spirited Puerto Rican music group El Grupo Morivi performed. We read letters from each of the three political prisoners incarcerated inside. We sent out a letter to our supporters reporting briefly on the event.

One of our many objections to the conditions at Lexington was the color of the walls—a disorienting bright white. As a result, prison authorities were painting the walls a more subdued shade at the very time we were outside demonstrating. We considered that a minor victory, but of course continued to demand that the Lexington control unit be closed.

On March 11, Illinois Senator Dixon, stimulated by a constituent request to review conditions at Lexington and Marion, wrote to BOP Director Carlson. On March 25, Carlson responded with a mendacious defense of both places.

On May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, in a continuing tradition, we took time out from our usual work to hold a meeting in Malcolm’s honor where we showed two films, one an interview with him three months before his death, and the other, “Teach Our Children,” a short documentary about the struggles in the Black and Puerto Rican communities at the time of the Attica Prison rebellion. CEML member Stephan Oscharoff designed a dramatic leaflet for the occasion.

A breakthrough occurred on May 31, when the Chicago Tribune actually printed a long opinion piece by Steve entitled “The crime of black imprisonment,” highlighting the phrase “The total number of Black men in the United States who have been in prison is about 3 million, roughly the population of Chicago.” Steve wrote that whereas in the U.S. a Black person was six times more likely to go to prison than a white person, in Illinois the figure jumped to 10 times more likely. What’s more, the Black imprisonment rate in the U.S. was the highest in the world, beating out even South Africa. Steve went on to say:

William Nagel, a well-known criminologist, analyzed many factors in each state to determine which were related to rapidly increasing imprisonment rates. He found no relationship between the crime rate (or violent crime rate) and the imprisonment rate, and no relationship between the proportion of black people in a state. However, Nagel discovered a very strong relationship between the imprisonment rate and the proportion of black people. In other words, people go to prison in increasing numbers because they are black, not because of a rise in the crime rate. Two British criminologists, Steven Box and Chris Hale, found similar results and concluded that people are sent to prison during times of economic instability, not because of an increase in crime but because they are perceived as a threat by those who hold power in society. (Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1987, section 1, p. 25)

The ripples of our influence were reflected by the responses of two very different people. One was a letter to the Chicago Tribune by Carol Moseley Braun, then assistant majority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, in which she evaluates Steve’s article as:

. . . powerful, compelling and true. I have made it a point to have the article distributed to colleagues in the House and Senate, in the hope that some general education may come of it.

All too often, so-called law and order legislation is passed that is calculated to warehouse the black poor in prisons. Whether out of failure or inability to see and understand the ramifications of their actions, many of our colleagues are in dire need of the perspective Mr. Whitman so eloquently presented.

Perhaps our approach in Illinois to criminal justice will begin to recognize that crime does not occur in a vacuum and that education, employment and economics have as much, if not more, to do with crime as does individual character or malice. (Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1987, page 2. section 4)

Braun, of course, would go on to become the first Black woman Senator in the history of the United States.  The other response was also extremely interesting and unexpected. A man by the name of Phil Scopelite, who owned a trucking company, edited a publication entitled Transport Fleet News, a journal by and for truckers. He published a series of editorials about the situation at Marion. In “Ms. Gibes – You’re Wrong!” ,  Scopelite wrote: “Ostensibly, a man is sent to Marion for failure to adjust in another prison. This could mean killing another inmate or guard. In practice, it means he’s been disruptive, someone who organizes work strikes, leads religious services or files too many legal writs. Many of the inmates are not even told why they’ve been transferred and, in all cases, the prisoners have had no chance to appeal their transfers before being sent to Marion.”

Phil lived in Bridgeport, the home of Mayor Daley and a notoriously racist part of town. He invited Steve and me to join him and his wife for lunch one day, and we met in his neck of the woods at a locally popular Polish restaurant. Phil agreed to participate in our upcoming CEML event. It was an encounter with some fiercely independent-minded people that we would never have bumped into if it weren’t for this work.

On May 31st the Chicago Sun Times ran an article entitled “Human rights group rips Marion prison” which described the 15-page report of Amnesty International (AI) asserting that “Certain conditions could, in their totality, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Amnesty International had never issued such a critical report of an American prison, usually lodging such complaints against prison conditions in many Third World nations. The study charged that Marion routinely violated the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and warned that Marion might also be in violation of the UN’s declaration against torture and other forms of cruel and inhuman punishment.

Next: People’s Tribunal 
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