President Obama's recent statements about mass incarceration, together with his decision to commute the sentences of 46 people serving lengthy and life sentences in federal prison on drug charges, treat "nonviolent drug offenders" as the symbolic figureheads of America's prison problem. This framing seems to imply that everyone else actually deserves to be in prison.
But the world's biggest prison system is not filled with nonviolent drug offenders alone. Before and alongside the war on drugs, mass incarceration was built through the wholesale repression of radical movements - especially in communities of color.
Take, for example, the cases of two other people who have long sought commutations from Obama and other presidents before him: Leonard Peltier and Oscar Lopez Rivera. Both men are longtime activists who have each served more than 30 years in prison and garnered international support for their release from figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and organizations such as Amnesty International.
"We have to demand freedom for those who struggle for freedom."
Peltier is an Anishinabe-Lakota former member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) serving two life sentences for the 1975 death of two FBI agents killed during a confrontation between FBI and AIM on the Pine Ridge reservation. Lopez Rivera is a Puerto Rican former community organizer from Chicago who is serving a 55-year sentence for "seditious conspiracy," an outmoded charge that makes it illegal to plot against the US government.
Throughout the 20th century, the United States has tried dozens of Puerto Rican independence activists with seditious conspiracy - including 11 of Lopez Rivera's codefendants, whom President Clinton freed in 1999 after a remarkable campaign for their release.
"We have to demand freedom for those who struggle for freedom," said Alejandro Molina, a member of the coordinating committee for the National Boricua Human Rights Campaign, a prominent organization demanding freedom for Lopez Rivera.
Peltier and Lopez Rivera are two among dozens of people incarcerated for actions they took as part of radical social movements. Many are former members of the Black Panther Party - people such as Herman Bell, Romaine Chip Fitzgerald and Ed Poindexter - who have been in prison for more than 40 years. They are some of America's political prisoners.
For some, the idea of political prisoners conjures images of far-off dictatorial regimes imprisoning opponents for their beliefs. Yet this country has a long history of imprisoning its dissidents. Political prisoners have included people incarcerated for nonviolent direct actions, such as sabotaging nuclear weapons facilities or participating in civil disobedience. But the ones who have received the longest sentences and the harshest treatment inside are people who have been convicted of violent offenses, typically against police, or conspiring against the government.
In fact, political prisoners have been the canaries in the coal mine for mass incarceration: Some of the most distinguishing features of the American prison state - aggressive policing, hefty charges, preventive detention, lengthy sentences, parole denial and prolonged solitary confinement - were first deployed as means to stop radical social movements beginning in the 1960s. Political dissidents and other oppressed communities remain guinea pigs for the intensity of American punishment.
Who Qualifies as a Political Prisoner?
Focusing on the issue of political prisoners more broadly provides a fuller accounting of where mass incarceration comes from and how it works than does a narrow focus on nonviolent drug offenders. It also connects today's movements to ones that came before.
"They are freedom fighters who stand as living reminders of the Black Freedom struggle, the criminalization of black resistance, and a Black Liberation Movement that started centuries before their birth," activists déqui kioni-sadiki and Sekou Odinga wrote of Black political prisoners in a recent issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy. Kioni-sadiki chairs the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, which hosts an annual dinner in support of political prisoners. Odinga was paroled at the end of 2014, after serving more than 33 years in maximum-security prisons for helping free fellow Panther Assata Shakur from prison in 1979, among other charges. Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba, where she has lived since 1984.
Defining who is a political prisoner is a challenge - especially in a country with a prison population so large, impoverished and disproportionately Black, Latino/a or gender nonconforming. Every aspect of the law, from policing to imprisonment, is shaped by complex political processes, and so everyone in prison is there, in some sense, as a consequence of politics.
"The vast majority of people in prison are there not so much for what they did but for who they were when they did it," said Laura Whitehorn, who spent more than 14 years in prison for conspiring to bomb several government buildings in protest of police killings and aggressive US foreign policies in the 1980s.
Everyone in prison may be subject to what Whitehorn calls a "political system of 'justice.' " But there is a difference between that and "someone who breaks the law or is treated unfairly because of their involvement in social struggle."
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover described first the Black Panther Party and later AIM as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."
Political prisoners are incarcerated not just for their beliefs or identities, but also for the actions they took in service of those beliefs. They are people who "commit a political act that has a criminal consequence," said Lois Ahrens, director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which educates people about the American prison system and supports people within it. Some of history's most famous political prisoners - Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. - all violated the laws of their nation in pursuit of social justice. That is why international law defines political prisoners as those who struggle against racist or oppressive regimes, including through force. Mandela, for instance, was imprisoned for his role in armed resistance to apartheid.
"I don't think you can separate the issue of who is a political prisoner from the politics and movements for progressive social change and national liberation that exist around the world," said Bob Boyle, an attorney in New York City who has represented several political prisoners.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover described first the Black Panther Party and later AIM as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Many of America's political prisoners began their activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s before joining above-ground organizations such as the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Republic of New Afrika or underground organizations such as the Black Liberation Army, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, or the Weather Underground.
These and other revolutionary organizations at the time came under intense repression by various law enforcement agencies. Most famously, the FBI initiated its notorious counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to spy on, intimidate, harass, imprison and even kill activists from the Black Power, Puerto Rican independence, indigenous sovereignty and antiwar movements.
"It was a movement that was attacked, not just individuals," Boyle said.
Partly motivated by this repression, some people tried to continue their activism underground. They embraced more militant tactics. When they were arrested, they faced stiff charges and long sentences - longer than those faced by people with no political profile charged with similar offenses. Whitehorn, for instance, was held in preventive detention awaiting trial for nearly five years. During that time, Klan leader Don Black served two years for stockpiling weapons and explosives in a plan to invade the island of Dominica, and abortion clinic bomber Michael Donald Bray served 46 months for bombing 10 abortion clinics.
The criminal charges brought against these activists obscure the political nature of their arrests and ongoing imprisonment. They are doing collective time for the movements they come from. Some people from our movements may have taken "actions that you wouldn't necessarily agree with," Boyle told me. "But there needs to be a recognition that they are still part of the movement."
According to Alicia Garza, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, America's political prisoners remain incarcerated for their vision of universal social justice.
"So we have to ask ourselves, why is the state afraid of them," Garza said in a recent talk. "The simple answer is that the state is afraid because of the fundamental challenges that the Black Liberation movement posed to the ongoing conditions of poverty and racism and patriarchy and privatization and on and on and on. So our fight must also be to free all political prisoners."
Political Prisoners Post-9/11
To Diana Block, a longtime anti-prison activist and founding member of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, it is both "common sense as well as principle" to support people who are repressed for their activism. Otherwise, she said, it may have a chilling effect when the government inevitably responds to increasing radicalism with severe repression.
That chilling effect is especially disconcerting in this moment of renewed activism against prisons and police violence. Already, conservatives have tried to denigrate those killed by police as well as those who protest that violence as "criminals."
"This new movement must prioritize our prisoners - our past prisoners and our prisoners to come," Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford told an audience in May at the Left Forum conference.
In recent years, the FBI has pursued its targets with a severity reminiscent of its actions 40 years ago. Recent victims include Muslim activists opposed to US wars in the Middle East, radical environmental activists and anarchists. Using informants or entrapment, the FBI has made political prisoners of several such people since 9/11. Once in prison, they have often been placed in solitary confinement as a result of their political beliefs and affiliations. Some, such as army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, have been held in solitary even prior to a conviction.
Take the case of Daniel McGowan, an environmental and social justice activist who was convicted in 2006 of conspiracy and arson charges related to actions he took with the clandestine Earth Liberation Front in the early 2000s. McGowan was arrested in a sweep of radical environmentalists that some activists have taken to calling the "Green Scare." The government added a "terrorism enhancement" to his charges. He ultimately served six years in federal prison.
In August 2008, one year into his sentence, McGowan was transferred to a new isolation unit in Marion, Illinois. It is a prison with a long history of isolating political prisoners through long-term solitary confinement. In the 1970s, the prison was home to a permanent-lockdown unit that even the warden admitted was created to "control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large." That control unit confined numerous political prisoners and inspired other isolation prisons, including a short-lived control unit for women political prisoners in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Administrative Maximum prison in Florence, Colorado, which has also housed dozens of political prisoners.
Marion's new experiment in isolation is called a "Communication Management Unit." (Another CMU opened in 2006 at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.) The prisoners there are kept under more intensive surveillance and less able to communicate with the outside world. The CMUs place extreme limitations on access to phone calls, mail or visits. People are not placed in CMUs for any disciplinary infraction and are given little explanation as to whether or how they might get back to the general population.
The majority of the men are there for their politics: 60 percent of those held in CMUs are Muslim, many of them are the victims of suspect Homeland Security dragnets. A group of CMU prisoners, including McGowan, has sued the BOP to close the unit. As a result of the lawsuit, Aref v. Holder, McGowan discovered that he was placed in the CMU because he wrote a series of political essays for The Huffington Post and activist newspapers, as well as the political tone of his letters.
Objections to the Discourse of Political Imprisonment
Mujahid Farid does not like the designation "political prisoner." He did not even identify as a "prisoner," even though he spent 33 years confined in maximum-security prisons across New York. He spent most of that time writing articles and filing lawsuits around prison conditions; he even cofounded the first comprehensive peer-education AIDS program inside a men's prison. The group formed after Kuwasi Balagoon, a Black Liberation Army political prisoner serving a life sentence, died in prison from an AIDS-related illness.
"I'm against the whole label of people behind the walls as 'prisoners,' period," said Farid, who is now coordinator of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign. "It's a dehumanizing term. We should always refer to people as people, not by one single aspect of their condition. Sometimes it takes an effort, more words, but I think the effort is worth it."
Other people object less to the terminology than to dividing people in prison. Are "political prisoners" more deserving of support than other people in prison? What about the people who become activists once incarcerated?
"There's 50, maybe 100 political prisoners [in the United States], and the amount of attention they get, the resources some of them have versus others just toiling away unknown" is frustrating, said Ahrens. "My connection is to the 99.9 percent of other people who are incarcerated."
Many of the most politically active people in prison are those who became activists to challenge the dire circumstances of confinement.
Ahrens suggests that people "doing the real work" inside deserve wide support and recognition, regardless of the offense for which they were convicted. The people she has in mind are filing lawsuits, protesting abusive treatment, forming civil and human rights organizations, educating other people in prison and the public about life in prison. This often includes people who only became activists once inside. Ahrens regularly communicates with more than 100 such people in prisons throughout the country, none of whom went to prison for politically motivated actions but who have become stalwart organizers.
"They are the ones telling us what's happening inside," Ahrens said. "They know what the fixes are."
Indeed, many of these people have faced similar reprisals for their activism as those imprisoned for activism on the streets: they have been subject to solitary confinement and routinely denied parole. They too have become political prisoners.
Political Organizing Inside Prison Walls
Politics do not end at the prison wall. Prison organizing has simultaneously emphasized ameliorating abuse in prison while working for broader social change. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, political prisoners around the country conducted urgent life-saving work around HIV/AIDS that included peer education and protests against institutionalized homophobia.
Today, as Ahrens suggests, many of the most politically active people in prison are those who became activists to challenge the dire circumstances of confinement. Several of them were mentored or inspired by political prisoners of the 1960s and 1970s.
Robert Saleem Holbrook was just 16 years old when he was sentenced to life without parole in 1991. Once inside Pennsylvania's state prisons, he met veterans of the Black Panther Party and other Black radical movements. They taught him and other younger prisoners to challenge both their own self-destructive behaviors and the violence of the government.
"Prisoners like myself and countless others who came to prison for offenses unrelated to political activity, that have been influenced and inspired by the example of Political Prisoners, have used their examples to transition ourselves out of the criminal behavior and thought process," Holbrook wrote about the mentorship he received in prison.
The men mentoring Holbrook included former Black Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz and Joseph Jojo Bowen, a one-time gang member who killed a warden and deputy warden in 1973, allegedly in retaliation for the intense repression of Muslim prisoners. Both tried to escape prison several times in the 1970s and early 1980s. Shoatz escaped in 1977 and 1980, and Bowen led an ambitious but failed escape attempt in 1981. Pennsylvania authorities have kept both men in solitary confinement for decades. Bowen has been in solitary since 1981, while Shoatz was released into the general population in 2013, after his family campaigned to end a 22-year stretch of isolation.
Each book and zine shared is a small act of resistance.
Even prolonged isolation, however, failed to stop their organizing. Holbrook points to Shoatz and Bowen as inspirations for his own activism inside prison. Holbrook has been a prodigious author, an advisor to Decarcerate PA and the Human Rights Coalition and cofounded an innovative correspondence course program for Pennsylvania prisoners in solitary confinement.
Holbrook's example is telling. Much of today's organizing inside prison is being done by people compelled to action because of their dire circumstances, regardless of what offenses led to their incarceration. Since 2010, people in several prisons and immigrant detention centers across the country have staged dramatic labor and hunger strikes to protest their conditions. The biggest took place in California, where 30,000 people refused food in 2013 to protest long-term solitary confinement. The leaders of the strike, a multiracial group, explicitly drew on the history of radical Black and Irish nationalism in coming up with their plan. They also issued "An Agreement to End the Hostilities" that urged multiracial and anti-racist unity in California's notoriously divided prison system.
On a daily level, political prisoners serve as mentors - both for people in and out of prison - and work to chip away at the prison system through legal or legislative reform efforts, writing, art, and other means. Being a political prisoner often means sharing resources, whether books, food, or access to legal resources or outside supporters.
"The [Federal] Bureau of Prisons technically prohibits sharing and actively creates boundaries between people, so basically, each book and zine shared is a small act of resistance," said McGowan, who estimates that upwards of 20 people would read the publications he received.
Being a political prisoner entails a long-term focus on education and empowerment. Political prisoners have participated in several innovative projects, including The Jericho Movement, which campaigns for the freedom of US political prisoners, and the Certain Days calendar, a collaboration between prisoners and artists throughout North America. Many political prisoners try to educate people on the outside through books, articles and artwork.
They also work with other people in prison. Tyrrell Muhammad described himself as a "19-year-old wayward young man" when he went to prison in 1979. He turned his life around inside, thanks in part to the mentorship of Albert Nuh Washington, a political prisoner from the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army.
"His dedication to people like me was like water to a thirsty man," Muhammad said tearfully at a recent panel.
Washington was imprisoned since 1971. He became a well-respected imam throughout the New York Prison system. Muhammad said Washington tutored him in everything from Mark Twain and the history of slavery to the geopolitics of the African continent. Muhammad credits him with inspiring him to better his life and work for release.
Muhammad was paroled in 2005 and works at the Correctional Association of New York. Washington, however, died of liver cancer in prison on April 28, 2000. His deathbed appeals for compassionate release were denied.
While the government still refuses to admit the existence of political prisoners, the last 18 months have seen some victories for several long-held political prisoners: Lynne Stewart, a New York attorney who has defended several political prisoners and who was serving a 10-year sentence for violating a gag order placed on one of her clients, was granted compassionate release with stage 4 breast cancer. Former Black Panthers Marshall Eddie Conway, Sekou Kambui and Sekou Odinga were each granted parole after serving more than 30 years in prison.
The last three members of the Cuban Five were freed as part of the move toward normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. Green anarchist Eric McDavid was freed in January after it was revealed that the FBI withheld evidence during his trial that showed that the FBI had entrapped McDavid, leading him to receive a 19-year sentence.
Finally, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that the state had unfairly denied parole to Sundiata Acoli and that the former Black Panther should be released on parole. The 77-year-old former NASA employee has been in prison since 1973, with many years in solitary confinement. He remains in prison as New Jersey authorities appeal the decision.
Aging in Prison
Meanwhile, several others continue to be incarcerated in stark conditions. Albert Woodfox, the last incarcerated member of the Angola 3, remains in solitary confinement after 43 years, despite a judge's order that he be freed. Transgender environmental and labor activist Marius Mason continues to serve the longest sentence - 22 years - of any Green Scare defendant and remains isolated in "administrative detention" without cause.
Many who go to the parole board fare little better. Former Black Panthers Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, among others, have faced repeated parole denials based on their convicting offense, whipped up by intensive campaigns by police unions and conservative media. In 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez canceled the mandatory parole for Veronza Bower. He remains in prison.
Prison adds undue stress to the process of aging, leading to increased rates of high blood pressure and diabetes.
Perhaps the biggest concern for longtime political prisoners is that of all long-term prisoners: aging in prison and the atrocious state of prison health care. Since Nuh Washington died in 2000, at least six political prisoners have become ill and died either in prison or within weeks of compassionate release - Richard Williams, Marilyn Buck, Teddy Jah Heath, Bashir Hameed, Herman Wallace, and, in January, Phil Africa.
That history has supporters today concerned about the fate of former Black Panthers Mumia Abu-Jamal, the outspoken journalist imprisoned since 1981 who has been struggling with adult-onset diabetes and related conditions since he fainted in diabetic shock in March, and Robert Seth Hayes, battling diabetes, hepatitis C, and some as-of-yet-undiagnosed ailments. Hayes has been in prison since 1973.
Much as prisons try to foreclose the radical imagination, political prisoners animate alternate horizons.
The poor quality of prison health care affects everyone in prison, especially people serving lengthy sentences in maximum-security facilities. Prison adds undue stress to the process of aging, leading to increased rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, among other ailments. Those problems are exacerbated by routine parole denials for many people serving long sentences, especially those convicted of violence against police officers. Blocked parole flies in the face of ample evidence demonstrating that even people who may have committed antisocial acts tend to age out of crime.
These problems - poor health care, punitive isolation, long-term sentences and politically motivated parole denials - provide one arena where the issue of political prisoners connects directly to the overall problem of prisons. That is why, under the slogan of "if the risk is low, let them go," formerly incarcerated people and their advocates launched the Release Aging People in Prison campaign in New York. Similar efforts have formed elsewhere, including Pennsylvania's Coalition Against Death by Incarceration.
The focus on elderly people in prison challenges the way political prisoners have been among those who, as RAPP coordinator Farid put it, have been "treated as sacrificial lambs," first by a punitive state and now by a narrowly construed prison reform. It gets to the core problem of mass incarceration. "Talking about long-term prisoners, why they're in for so long and the politics they have, exposes the structure of permanent punishment," said Whitehorn, also a member of RAPP.
Around the world, countries have often released political prisoners in an attempt to heal past wounds and address current injustices. But the punitive culture of the United States - still unchallenged in mainstream debates about mass incarceration - has yet to excise its demons of repression. As Whitehorn told me, permanent punishment tries to deny "that there are such deep problems in the system that there are movements dedicated to changing them by any means necessary." Much as prisons try to foreclose the radical imagination, political prisoners animate alternate horizons. Their freedom remains a necessary part of the fight against mass incarceration.