Human Rights Coalition Interview with Lynne Stewart

From: Prison Radio
By Patricia Vickers, Human Rights Coalition
August 31st 2011

The Political Prisoner, Lynne Stewart, was interviewed by mail by Patricia Vickers, a founding member of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) of Pennsylvania. Ms. Vickers is the co-founder/editor of The Movement magazine of the HRC. A former 1960s student activist, Ms. Vickers is an eco-feminist whose youngest son, Kerry ‘Shakaboona’ Marshall, is a wrongly convicted juvenile serving Life Imprisonment as a Juvenile Lifer in Pennsylvania prisons and, though incarcerated for 25 years, is a political activist.

Human Rights Coalition: Hello. Welcome to THE MOVEMENT Sister Lynne. Thank you for granting me this interview with you. How are your health and spirits, and how are you being treated at FMC Carswell [Federal Prison]?

Lynne Stewart: My health is passable—the usual brushfires of aging, but good. My spirits are always high, especially with the mail I get to encourage me. I am being treated as well as can be expected. I receive heavy scrutiny—all mail, email and phone conversations.

Human Rights Coalition: There are people who aren’t aware of your unlawful confinement and the government’s repression of you for your legal representation of the Muslim blind Sheik. Can you enlighten the people about your situation?

Lynne Stewart: There are two aspects to my “situation,” as you so gallantly described it. First, I was prosecuted for doing what I believe is the duty and work of an attorney—to represent the client zealously and conscientiously. In the case of the original trial (1995) of the blind Sheik, Omar Abdel Rahman, of Egypt, we wanted to keep his name alive so that we could eventually try to negotiate a return for him even if it meant jail in Egypt. In that spirit I made a press release public, and to Reuters, expressing his point of view on a unilateral cease fire then in effect in Egypt. I believed that this was part of salvaging him from the torture of his solitary confinement and also that it was part of the work I had sworn to do. I was tried and found guilty for materially aiding “terrorism.”

Then, after I received a sentence of two-and-one-half-years, as opposed to the 30 years the government wanted, on appeal, the Second Circuit Court sent the case back for the Judge to give me more time. Without much ado, he sentenced me then to ten years, partially based upon on statements I made after the sentencing and before I surrendered in November 2009. That sentencing is currently on appeal and will be argued in the fall in New York City.

Human Rights Coalition: In the people’s eyes, mine included for sure, you are our [s]hero and represent a long line of principled and committed warriors of the struggle. How do you take being a Political Prisoner of the American government?

Lynne Stewart: I believe I am one of an historical progression that maintains the struggle to change the perverted political landscape that is the U.S. It seems that being a political prisoner must be used as a means of focusing people’s attention on the continuing atrocities around them. Nothing seems to be too shocking or corrupt to blast the complacency. Like my client Richard Williams used to say, I might think I hadn’t been doing my utmost if they didn’t believe I was dangerous enough to be locked up!

Human Rights Coalition: In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that Political Prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence is unconstitutional. However, I am sure there are forces working behind the scenes within the Criminal Injustice System—like what happened in your case—to manipulate another death penalty outcome on Mumia. What is your opinion of the current news surrounding our brother Mumia?

Lynne Stewart: Mumia’s case is our greatest challenge because he is the best and the brightest, and they know it too. We, the progressive revolutionary movement, and Mumia’s lawyers, must create the strategy that forces the District Attorney to elect to try the death penalty issue. Then we get a chance in public, in court, to clearly present the overwhelming proof of his innocence. The worst thing that could happen is that the DA elects to give him life without parole—a living death that deprives our movement of one of its true leaders. I just hope that the blood thirsty Blue Line forces the issue and holds out for the death penalty so we are in the position to take advantage and advance our cause, and Mumia’s.

Human Rights Coalition: July 4th is widely celebrated as “Independence Day” in America, but the masses of people are experiencing their independence (freedom) taken away by the corporate American government, and by the big banks and mega-corporations that run them. Are the citizens of America truly free, or is their independence a grand illusion?

Lynne Stewart: I re-read Frederick Douglas’ great 4th of July speech every year to just remind myself of how little the ultimate issue has changed from the founding of the nation to today’s alleged “freedom.” Racism is at the core of the empire; and we can never be blinded by all the fireworks in the world.

Human Rights Coalition: Can you describe the difference between Civil Rights and Human Rights?

Lynne Stewart: For me the difference is the same as between the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The Bill delineates the ways that Government may not encroach on our ability to operate freely. It is a prohibition on the Government limiting free speech, religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to free assembly. It delineates the rights within the legal system.

The Declaration guarantees fundamental human entitlements—freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, freedom to choose, freedom to live in an environment that doesn’t kill us, and our children.

We obviously fight for more than the political guarantee to be free of government interference—it is to be able to live an open and generous and contributing life toward the betterment of people on the entire planet.

Human Rights Coalition: Sister Lynne, What are human rights to you? What do you make of the growing human rights movement in the U.S.? And how can people advocate their human rights effectively?

Lynne Stewart: Advocating for human rights must always delineate that our struggle is not one of “self interest.” It is a fight for all of us. This raises the always-troubling question of the recognition that for some this may mean sacrificing their entitlements (i.e. skin privilege, class privilege) to better others’ lives. Nobody wants to give up what they feel that they have achieved legitimately, “within the system.” But without the recognition that one has benefited unfairly by the unwritten “code” that has favored certain groups over others, change cannot occur.

I also believe we have lost the sense that we enjoy the right of self-defense. Everyone is so busy announcing their “peacefulness” and willingness to be a victim for a cause, that we forget that a true measure of one’s seriousness is to defend oneself, and others—to live; Che’s observation that a revolutionary is moved by great feelings of love. This includes not only self-sacrifice but also daring to struggle, daring to win (to quote another hero, Mao).

Human Rights Coalition: What are some of the human rights violations that you see happening in the U.S. today that we, the people, need to eliminate?

Lynne Stewart: The most egregious and obvious violations are occurring in the prison system. Not only the obscenely long sentences but the torture holes of “Special Housing Units.” These are the equivalents of Belsen and Dachau, resulting in living death and mental deterioration. When I think that so many imprisoned without current hope of redress are political prisoners and have been held so for decades, it not only brings tears but also a feeling of grim determination to make it change!

Human Rights Coalition: What are some of America’s foreign human rights violations going on that people may not be aware of?

Lynne Stewart: I personally feel that the deterioration of the African sub Saharan continent and its descent into rapacious capitalism will ultimately translate into unparalleled destruction of people and resources. I include South Africa in this assessment. If the African National Congress (ANC) and Mandela had remained steadfast in the socialist principles that guided their resistance and not given in to the terrible temptations of compromise, greed and power, we might have seen the beginning of a different balance of power. Alas, this was not to be and instead we see the depredation of Africa, by absolutism and the American capitalist paradigm.

Human Rights Coalition: People seem to be oblivious or indifferent to the human rights abuses that occur daily in U.S. prisons against other human beings, women prisoners in particular. Can you shed some light on that human rights issue?

Lynne Stewart: Human rights do not exist in prison. Aside from the obvious violations described above, I see day-to-day a brainwashing that teaches all prisoners that they are less than nothing and not worthy of even the least human or humane considerations. This is reflected in the lack of adequate medical care, the appalling diet, the steady diet of spoon-fed mediocrity—TV (Archie Bunker re-runs), movies, no access to the Web, etc. There is an absence of legal advice or aid inside the walls. Law libraries with books have been eliminated; instead they have a computer program that is so anti-user that even I, an attorney of 30 years, have difficulty navigating it. Their goal is to keep us dumbed-down, docile and estranged.

The outside world is oblivious because they too have been brainwashed into believing that those locked away are less than human—based on differences of race and class. It is most difficult to struggle against the power if you don’t have a belief that the struggle is worth the sacrifice.

Human Rights Coalition: Do you consider the legal practice of sentencing children to life imprisonment without any possibility of release (a de facto death sentence) for homicide, to be a human rights violation?

Lynne Stewart: I am 100 percent opposed to anything that does not have a factor of human redemption or at least of remediation. I guess it is part of a whole belief system. If you are, like I am, committed to “changing” the world it must be ALL of us, who deserve to live in a system that recognizes that terrible psychic and physical damage can be done to human beings, and has a plan to make people, especially children, whole and restore them to our community.

Human Rights Coalition: In Pennsylvania, being debated is whether sentencing child offenders to life imprisonment without parole should simply be “reformed” by leaving the legal practice intact and simply give the child offender a sentence of life with parole eligibility or should the legal practice be abolished entirely and a new sentencing scheme be developed for child offenders instead? What is your position on the matter—reform or abolish it?

Lynne Stewart: Your question really asks if “reform” is possible within an inhumane system? This is an issue revolutionaries have wrestled with always. Do we give the starving a crust of bread or leave them hungry to make the greater change. I, like Rosa Luxemburg, always made it my practice to minister to immediate primary needs but also to render the explanation for their predicament in political terms and with political (group action) solutions. At least in that way, the baby was no longer starving for milk and there might be a spark ignited for the next confrontation with the oppressor.

In the strict context of your question, we do need to struggle to save people from the most inhumane punishments. However, until we resolve the burning questions of race and class, we must not forget that these are palliative, Band-Aids on a hemorrhage.

Human Rights Coalition: What do you say about the illusion of democracy in America that the people are now witnessing from the domestic austerity program that the federal and state governments are imposing on the American people?

Lynne Stewart: Our job is how to smash the myth of America and we haven’t really figured out as a movement how to blast our way past the sentimentality the media foists on us. We used to believe that if people knew the “truth,” this would shake their faith and move us toward change; or alternatively, if their personal shoe pinched, they would act in self-interest. Now people seem to know only fear and rely on the myths of Big Brother government to assuage them. Our job is to keep on struggling, keep on raising the contradictions, create an atmosphere where we the people are ungovernable.

Human Rights Coalition: Any final comments for the movement out there, Sister Lynne?

Lynne Stewart: In this struggle, once you enlist, it is for life. There are no guarantees and you will be disappointed. But you will also be uplifted when there are victories and enriched by friendship and dedication of the comrades. Most importantly, you can look in the mirror every morning and be at one with the person there because you made the difficult choice and decided to fight for the people against the evil empires. It is the best way to live and I have been on the lines for fifty-plus years, living it.

www.hrcoalition.org

www.lynnestewart.org

A Christian Perspective on Prisons: An interview with Stan Moody

Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic.

Thursday, May 13 2010

A Christian Perspective on Prisons

An interview with Stan Moody

Contributed by: angola3news

Stan Moody has served in the Maine State House of Representatives both as a Republican and a Democrat, pastors a small country church in Central Maine and served as a Chaplain at the maximum security Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the Supermax unit. He has authored several books on the state of the evangelical church in America, including No Turning Back: Journal of an All-American Sinner, Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship: A New Look at the Second Coming of Christ and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.

Moody has written several recent articles focusing on prison issues, including A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit, At Angola Prison, Does Jesus Christ Save?, and Maine’s New Capital Punishment Law: Solitary Confinement. For more, please visit www(dot)stanmoody(dot)com.

Angola 3 News: The Bible uses the word “prison” 116 times, and Psalm 69:33 reads, “. . . the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.” Throughout the Bible, prison and executions are identified as tools of oppression against the underclass and dissidents, including the early Apostles and Jesus himself. The Bible presents the liberation of prisoners as a social good, as illustrated by the following noteworthy passages:

* “Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners.” (Psalm 146:7)
* “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness . . . to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
* “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1).

US popular culture often proudly makes reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions so prominent in US history, yet “Get tough on crime,” is still the winning political slogan of the day. How did society come to view incarceration as a social good, as something necessary to keep society safe?

Stan Moody: First, we have ghettoized ourselves into white, suburban group-think that builds on self-righteousness. We are probably the most self-righteous nation on earth, which precludes us from contemplating, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Tragically, the greatest social good in America has become the acquisition of wealth through “legitimate” means, such as self promotion and corporate empire building, where greed becomes an acceptable virtue. Those who take shortcuts to the American Dream are pariahs to be banished from the kingdom of us pedestrian wannabees who, in frustration, quietly cheat on our taxes and on our spouses.

Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, leave vengeance and retribution up to God and visit Him in prison. “Inasmuch as you have or have not done it to the least of these my brothers, you have or have not done it to me.”

A cursory examination of our nation’s history will satisfy that the founders had no Christian theocracy in mind and, in fact, crafted a document that expressly ensured otherwise. Yet, people who advocate for the theocratic view are not listening. The best evidence that we are not a Christian nation is not in the actions of government but in the actions of our erstwhile evangelical state church that has embraced the Republican Party as God’s instrument for redemption. The vehicle for that redemption is a moral code rather than divine grace. Getting tough on crime is just another version of an anti-Christian moral code.

A3N: Why do you suppose prisons and prisoners’ living conditions are so far removed from the popular US consciousness today? How do US popular culture and the corporate media present the issue of human rights in prison?

SM: Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic. Corrections has taken full advantage of this denial by essentially saying, “You cannot possibly understand what we are up against.” They have built incarceration into a growth industry that is sapping our national strength and shredding our decency.

There is a shroud of secrecy that envelops prisons. That shroud of secrecy is protected through a system of nepotism, patronage, and public ignorance and apathy. The public thinks of prisons as country clubs, while they are, in fact, crushingly boring places within high-tech boxes designed more for mass movement than rehabilitation. The human element has tragically been removed from most US prisons by a public frustrated in pursuit of its own dreams, thereby advocating for crushing the spirits of those getting what they enviously consider to be a “free ride.”

Both the mainstream press and the public it entertains are too pedestrian for relevancy in this volatile world in which we live.

A3N: How can people of faith shed light on human rights abuses in prisons?

SM: The best answer is to challenge the comfort zones of your denomination, the media, your friends and neighbors and your political leaders. Write, speak and live out your faith on the front lines of activism for human dignity, especially when it disturbs your comfort zone. Only through patient suffering can you convince others of the legitimacy of your beliefs.

Belief in the power of God to move mountains by touching one life will drive people of faith toward little victories, knowing they are cumulative. While Christian volunteers in prisons are legion, they scatter to the four winds when the subject of human rights is raised. As a Chaplain at Maine State Prison, I sometimes was criticized by management for not sticking to “Chaplain things,” meaning administrative and counseling duties. There was hardly a single volunteer who joined with me once I stood up for Sheldon Weinstein, who died of a ruptured spleen in segregation on April 24, 2009, a couple of hours after I requested a roll of toilet paper for him. He had been using his pillow case; he had no pillow anyway.

I speak as a Christian, believing that the willingness to sacrifice one’s own comforts in defense of the human rights of those in exile among us is the best barometer of the legitimacy of faith. “Touching a life” rarely brings press coverage, but it may well reap huge rewards in the grand scheme to which people of faith must demonstrate devotion.

We must take great care, however, not to be caught up in embellished stories. If we recognize our own need for redemption, we will see the whole person rather than his or her crime.

A3N: The Bible also makes several references to the persecution of the early Christians through physical torture and forced labor (II Corinthians 11:23), and solitary confinement (Acts 28:16). Quakers and other faith-based prison reformers developed Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, self-avowedly “one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States . . . as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor’.” This model was soon replicated nationwide.

Today, do you think that the practices of forced prison labor (recognized as legal slavery by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) and solitary confinement have any beneficial effects on the spiritual growth of people in prison? How has your outlook on this question been influenced by what you witnessed first-hand, working as a Chaplain at Maine’s maximum security state prison?

SM: Dehumanization is the most debilitating punishment that can be imposed on another human being. Prisoners are no exception. I can imagine a situation where prisoners are used for the crudest labor but are valued as human beings – treated fairly and consistently. On the other hand, I can imagine another situation where you have numbers of entrepreneurs in a prison who are making very good money but are working under conditions of arbitrary patronage and favoritism. Slavery does not always have to do with how much money you make. It may be possible to learn something of the value of human life even in the harshest of conditions.

I found at Maine State Prison that the biggest impediment to spiritual growth was idleness and lack of respect in work, in life and in interrelationships. Earn the right to clean the toilets, if you will, or to pick cotton, or to work in the kitchen, but know that you are respected for earning that right and will be respected for the kind of job you do and not because you are somebody’s “kid.” Know that you are valued as a human being and that the administration is always looking for a spark of hope to kindle.

I am reading In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau. It is interesting that the cotton picking “slavery” at Angola seems to get far less space than the sexual slavery that stays beneath the radar of the administration and destroys human dignity.

A3N: The Maine State Legislature recently passed a bill that focused on the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons. Initially, the bill sought to limit the use of solitary confinement, but The Free Press has reported that it was “seriously amended” to only call for more scrutiny of how solitary confinement is used. What do you think will be the impact of the bill?

SM: As a former Maine State Legislator, I was very involved with this bill and was the only former prison staff member to give testimony. The Committee ignored our plea for transparency and accountability and, instead, continued its blind, loyal support of the Department of Corrections, the very institution it has been entrusted to oversee.

It is incorrect to view this bill as having been “seriously amended.” The bill was killed with kindness by turning it into a resolve for the Department to study itself. A resolve is what a legislative committee does to kill a bill when it fears public uprising if it votes “ought not to pass.” Legislative resolves are akin to patents with claims so narrow that you would not infringe on them if you copied the design but changed the color. They are not worth the paper they are written on.

Sadly for this case, the resolve showed a failure of courage on the part of committee members on both sides of the aisle. The House and Senate chairs failed their constituents and the State of Maine.

The good news is that with the upcoming legislative session to begin in January, 2011, and with the election of a new Governor, there will be a bevy of new prison bills to debate. I have personally spoken to 6 gubernatorial candidates about the conditions at the Department of Corrections and the Maine prison system and expect that the next Governor will be far better informed than previously. Further good news is that the prison administration immediately began to implement some of the advances contained in the bill. This, after having expended their energies defending their previous policies, indicates that they are aware of the battle ahead.

Prisoners who “were not supposed to be there” were put back into population. Solitary confinement residents can now earn privileges such as up to 4 hours daily outside their cells, normal prison garb instead of orange jump suits, TV’s and radios, and contact visits. Sadly, there has not yet been a disposition with regard to those mentally ill prisoners held in solitary.

A3N: From the perspective of someone who has worked inside a prison as well as in the Maine State House of Representatives, why do you think that a stronger version of the bill was unable to be passed? Why did government officials and prison authorities oppose it?

SM: Corrections administrators in Maine have successfully sold the public on the falsehood that nobody understands what they are up against. From the Commissioner on down, with occasional exceptions, you have people who have come up through the guard system rather than professionals trained to be innovative in solving the larger problem of the waste of human life. The Governor and legislative committee members, convinced that they did not understand people convicted of crimes, consistently bowed to the wisdom of the “old boy network.”

I recently intervened in a law suit by a former guard against the State of Maine for the purpose of unsealing a deposition that offers a damning picture of the inside politics of Maine State Prison. I was successful in doing so and have studied it in its entirety. The closest I can come to describing it is that it ought to be subject to a RICO (federal racketeering) investigation. Over the next week or so, I expect to issue a public report. It is a fear-based culture that adheres to secrecy at the expense of both staff and prisoners. While there is very little skill in managing people, what distinguishes prison management the most and is most endearing to politicians is the ability to circle the wagons to put out fires.

The legislative committee of oversight has become an echo chamber for the Department of Corrections. It exhibits the height of denial and laziness to fail to listen to professionals who have put their personal reputations on the line in the pursuit of truth. Why would they listen to such people when it is their pattern of behavior to sacrifice their own integrity in the pursuit of political gain?

We are not done… This bill was the best thing to come along for prison reform in the history of the State for it showed the Department as the tired old system it is – a 19th Century culture housed in a 21st Century box… We will prevail, God willing, and we will see a day when our Corrections house is cleaned from top to bottom…

A3N: Any closing thoughts?

SM: The Eastern State Penitentiary was torn down, I believe, in 1973…Most of the prisons in the U.S. today, however, retain the Eastern State, 19th Century Quaker culture that punishment builds character. It has survived through a system of patronage and nepotism – getting rid of good staff people in favor of the corrupt. The high tech boxes that we today call prisons are designed to manage mass movement rather than to build community and self respect, with punishment being arbitrary, inconsistent and capricious in most cases, extended out of sheer boredom.

Prison staff believes and promotes the belief that they have dangerous jobs…I ran some statistics on jobs in the US…Prison guards hardly surface…At the top are commercial fishing and logging industries, both prominent in Maine but rarely heard to complain about danger…It might interest the readers to know that a prison guard has a lower death rate than do licensed drivers – lower than 21 per 100,000 population.

Studies prove that re-entry programs begun in the inside and carried over to the outside will cut recidivism rates by as much as 75%. Why, then, are we not implementing those programs? I believe it is because Corrections is protecting itself as a growth industry. It is only when the public begins to realize it is being fleeced, will it demand change. Meanwhile, we the people continue to elect arrogant obstructionists to public office in protection of the status quo.

Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www(dot)angola3news(dot)com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.