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Time for Compassion? Aging Political Prisoners Suffer From Illness, Decades in Solitary Confinement

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As people around the world mark the holiday season, often recognized as a time of compassion, we host a roundtable discussion about the growing number of aging political prisoners in the United States convicted in the 1960s and 1970s who are seeking compassionate release, clemency or a pardon. In some cases, they are simply asking to be released into general population after decades of solitary confinement. Many have poorly treated diseases such as diabetes, while at least one has terminal cancer. We are joined by Soffiyah Elijah, an attorney who has represented many political prisoners and successfully won the release Marilyn Buck in 2010 so she could live her final weeks in freedom before she died from cancer. Elijah also has a separate career as the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors conditions in state prisons. We also speak with Jihad Abdulmumit, national chairperson for the Jericho Movement; Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, who has found the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons can amount to cruel and unusual punishment; and Matt Meyer, longtime leader of the War Resisters League who previously served as coordinator of the international Nobel campaign for Puerto Rican political prisoners. He co-wrote the introduction to “Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance” and is the editor of “Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners.”

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Web ExclusiveDec 22, 2013VIDEO TIMELINE: Political Prisoners Amongst Soaring Population of Elderly Behind Bars
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

RENÉE FELTZ: It’s great to be here with you, Amy, on the other side of the camera. This year, I have helped us cover a topic extensively on the show as a producer, and that’s the issue of political prisoners here in the United States. It’s now December and the holidays, and it’s a time of giving and compassion. And often at this time of year, Democracy Now! has looked at the political prisoners who are seeking compassionate release, clemency or a pardon.

And today we’re going to focus on a particular issue that’s come up multiple times this year in our reporting, and that’s the large number of aging political prisoners in the United States who are seeking release—or, in some cases, simply seeking release out of solitary confinement into general population after multiple decades. These are largely people convicted of crimes in the 1960s and 1970s after their involvement with organizations like the Black Panther Party. They’re now in their sixties and seventies. Many have poorly treated diseases such as diabetes, while at least one has terminal cancer.

This issue came up when I attended an event recently called Love Through the Walls in Brooklyn. People had gathered there to sign holiday cards to political prisoners.

MEG STARR: I’m Meg Starr, and I’m writing to David Gilbert, who is a white European anti-imperialist political prisoner in New York state, who’s aging—wonderfully, as he’s done everything else. He’s, I believe, a little over 70 now. And my daughter actually made this card. “Dear David, as usual, Molly Sue wanted to decorate the card for her friend, David, so you get another Molly Sue original this year. As usual, I am in between having a lot to say to you and not knowing what to say. Wish you were here to see how much she, Molly Sue, has grown, though that is another way of measuring time inside and outside. You are here in spirit. I just wish your spirit could enjoy eating the roasted vegetables and nuts. Love, Meg.”

BETTY DAVIS: My name is Betty Davis, and I’m a member of the Lynne Stewart Defense Organization. When the Black Liberation Army was arrested and when the people from May 19th and the folks that were fighting to liberate South Africa—they were liberating money from banks, and they were donating it to the South African cause—when these brothers and sisters were arrested, Lynne was called, along with some other attorneys, to defend them. Many of the people we are writing cards for today were Lynne’s clients: David Gilbert, Richard Williams, Sekou Odinga. The name just goes on and on. Lynne defended them.

GWEN DEBROW: Good afternoon. My name is Gwen.

RENÉE FELTZ: And I see you also have a card regarding Lynne Stewart. Can you read what you have here?

GWEN DEBROW: Yes. On the card, it says, “Dear Mr. President, time is running out for Lynne. Free Lynne Stewart. We don’t want to see Lynne die in prison, like Marilyn Buck being sent out like two weeks before she died. You know, that’s horrific. No one deserves to die in prison, least of all Lynne, who has fought all her life on behalf of not just people of color, just on behalf of people who have been oppressed in this country and continue to be oppressed.”

ANDREW: My name is Andrew. I’m with the NYC Anarchist Black Cross. We are a collective organized around providing support for U.S.-held political prisoners and prisoners of war.

RENÉE FELTZ: So, this is a card to Albert?

ANDREW: Yes, it is. I’d like to preface this by saying that, you know, one of his former co-defendants—and I’m sure most of your viewers and listeners know this, but Herman Wallace died after only enjoying three days of freedom. And so, what I wrote was: “For as hard as 2013 was, may 2014 be equally great for your health and for your freedom in the coming year.”

RENÉE FELTZ: Have you been corresponding with Albert for some time now? And has he shared with you any of his challenges that he’s faced from medical neglect or simply from being in solitary for decades?

ANDREW: Yes. It’s left him largely debilitated, and it’s had an impact on his mental health, as well. It’s hard to imagine living in artificial light for most likely 23 hours a day for over 40 years. The sheer strength of mind that it takes to endure that is incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks to Cassandra Lizaire, our Democracy Now! multimedia fellow, and Renée Feltz for that report. When we come back from our break, we host a roundtable discussion on the issue of aging political prisoners and simply older prisoners here in the United States. The population is skyrocketing. We’ll be joined by two former prisoners, a lawyer that represents them, and a U.N. rapporteur who himself was a prisoner for several years in Argentina. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Renée Feltz. We’re joined by a number of guests for the rest of the hour, beginning with Soffiyah Elijah, an attorney who has represented many political prisoners. She successfully won the release of Marilyn Buck in 2010 so that Buck could live her final weeks in freedom before she died from cancer. Elijah also has a separate career as the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors conditions in state prisons. Before that, she was deputy director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School.

First I want to turn to a comment made by a former U.N. ambassador, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. A reporter with the newspaper Le Matin de Paris asked him about the Soviet Union and its treatment of political dissidents. Young famously raised the issue of such prisoners here in the United States. He said, quote, “We still have hundreds of people that I would categorize as political prisoners in our prisons,” this in reference to jailed civil rights and antiwar protesters.

Soffiyah Elijah, define “political prisoners” for us, to begin, as we move on with this discussion.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Certainly, Amy. Political prisoners are defined internationally as people who are incarcerated both for their political activities and their political views. Some here in the U.S. have expanded the definition a bit to include people who went to prison for social crimes and who became politicized inside, and then their treatment, such as their continued denial of release for parole, was tied to their acquired political beliefs.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about what happened with Marilyn Buck and who she was and how you got her out of prison in 2010.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Certainly. Marilyn had been labeled by the FBI as the sole white member of the Black Liberation Army and was originally from Texas, became politicized in the Bay Area of California, and was ultimately sentenced to 40 years of incarceration. During the time that she was incarcerated, she helped many women with—in translation, because she was a very skilled Spanish translator, but ultimately she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was a victim, as many people who are incarcerated, of medical neglect. And her possibility of being released before she died was decreasing, and so I pulled out all the stops and went really behind the scenes and ultimately was successful in getting her release just 21 days before she died.

RENÉE FELTZ: And I want to talk a little bit more about that process, but first I want to get into the mindset of who Marilyn Buck was and the time and place in which she was originally sent to prison. This is Marilyn Buck speaking from prison during an interview in 1989. This is an interview with members of Resistance in Brooklyn. And she describes how she came to get involved in the black liberation struggle.

MARILYN BUCK: I came of age in a period of revolution, when armed struggle was being successfully employed by the Vietnamese, that revolution was in Latin America. Che Guevara was struggling in Bolivia along with many other people whose names we know and we don’t know, men and women. And I always—one of the things that I learned from that was that I really believed in the question of two, three, many Vietnams. And the black liberation struggle was really beginning to flower in this country, being able to assert itself, in the question of not only self-defense, but being able to fight back and being able to take on the state in certain kinds of way, from an not organized—from a mass, not organized level of insurrections in Detroit, in Watts, in Chicago, in Newark, to more organized forms of struggle. And one of the things that really impressed me was when I met young men and women from the Black Panther Party, and the kind of being in this organization and fighting for the liberation of their people, and not having the fear, having the—having the moral courage, the physical courage and the knowledge of that this was the right and just way to go forward, impressed me a lot. And I believed that if I supported this process, that I had to be willing to be able to engage in that.

RENÉE FELTZ: That was Marilyn Buck speaking in 1989 from prison. Now, Soffiyah Elijah, you helped get her out. But I wanted to go back to that clip for a minute to talk about the time in which she went in, and to help us again place who these people were when they became political prisoners and the era in which that happened. And then I wanted to see if you could talk about how your work getting her out relates possibly to other political prisoners who are also seeking release?

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Yes. Well, Marilyn became politicized during the civil rights movement and the black liberation movement and other national liberation movements—the Puerto Rican independence movement, for instance. And she was part of a larger movement of North American anti-imperialists who challenged issues of racism and capitalism in the U.S., and they also challenged the U.S. foreign policy, like the war in Vietnam. All of those factors that were going on helped to shape who she was. And she was really committed to anti-racism, and she carried that strongly in all of her messages and in her activities.

She, as you know, became more and more involved in the black liberation movement. She was accused by the FBI as being a person who purchased guns, produced false identification, in an effort to protect people who were targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. As they engaged in what ultimately was determined to be illegal activity, the FBI targeted many members of the black liberation movement and other liberation movements for frame-ups, assassinations and long periods of incarceration.

RENÉE FELTZ: Despite all of those odds, you managed to win her release so that she would not have to die in prison as she suffered from cancer in her later years. How does that relate to, for example, Lynne Stewart, another person who is currently incarcerated in federal prison in a Fort Carswell Medical Center? It sounds like a hospital, but it’s a prison down in Fort Worth. And she also is suffering from cancer and has been given, by her oncologist in prison earlier this year, 18 months to live. I’m sure it’s less now.

SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Right. You know, ironically, Marilyn and Lynne were in the same facility. And Lynne, who I actually clerked for in my early years as a lawyer, has, as you said, been diagnosed and is having a really difficult time getting the federal government, the Bureau of Prisons, to release her. There are a number of efforts. A number of people are calling for her release. And this actually is a larger problem in our prison system, with respect to compassionate release and medical release. Far too many people are medically—are suffering from medical neglect in facilities and our prison system, and our society is not compassionate when it comes to how these people should be handled, and not providing opportunities for them to be released.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few months ago, I had a chance to interview the renowned attorney and law professor, Michael Tigar, who represented attorney Lynne Stewart in 2010, when she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for releasing a press statement from her client, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, to his followers in Egypt. This is what Michael Tigar said.

MICHAEL TIGAR: The history of Egypt, since Lynne’s case, shows us that this prosecution was nonsense. To base a prosecution involving releasing rhetoric about whether or not there should be a ceasefire between the Islamic and non-Islamist forces in Egypt—that speech—whether there should be a prosecution about that and label it terrorism is just nonsense. It’s nonsense because the speech in question cannot possibly be said to have had any adverse effect or to contribute to any adverse effect. Sure, the rhetoric that surrounded it all, none of which was by Lynne, is pretty inflammatory, but we’ve seen what’s happened in Egypt, and we’ve seen how the United States has once again screwed up by these kinds of interventions into the Middle East, where every European power has poured blood and treasure for more than a thousand years and not a single one of those efforts has succeeded. So, in terms of history, law and history really do need to get in touch with one another and to understand themselves. There have been iconic trials that have been—reflected historical understanding. Nuremberg was one of them. And the trial of Papon, the French collaborator, was one of them. But this one was not. And the second thing was that—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Lynne was charged with.

MICHAEL TIGAR: Lynne was charged with having released to the media a statement by Sheikh Abdel-Rahman which asked for a reconsideration, not an ending, of the truce between Islamist and non-Islamist forces in Egypt under the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak—full stop. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what was wrong with—what the government saw was wrong with what Lynne Stewart, the attorney—Lynne Stewart was the Blind Sheikh’s attorney.

MICHAEL TIGAR: They thought—they said, well, she had signed a paper agreeing that she wasn’t—that under a special administrative measure, they were not going to—that she would not release anything that the sheikh said to the media. That, the so-called SAMs, special administrative measures. Now, Lynne took the position—and the jury didn’t agree with her, but her position was that every other lawyer that was involved in the case had thought that these administrative measures didn’t apply to disseminating political speech-type information that could lead to a good result for the sheikh, in terms perhaps of getting him transferred to Egypt. And, in fact, as Ramsey Clark said in a letter at sentencing—

AMY GOODMAN: The former U.S. attorney general.

MICHAEL TIGAR: The former United States—former attorney general. He, on behalf of Sheikh Abdel-Rahman—he being the person who talked Lynne Stewart into getting into the case—had done far more in terms of getting the sheikh’s words out there and sharing them with people.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s renowned defense attorney Michael Tigar speaking about his former client, Lynne Stewart. Now 73 years old, Lynne Stewart is dying from cancer in a Texas prison. Earlier this year, her treating physician in prison estimated her life expectancy at less than 18 months. The Federal Bureau of Prisons so far has denied Stewart’s request for early release, a denial her lawyers are appealing. And, Renée, you got the latest on Friday in this case.

RENÉE FELTZ: I spoke with Lynne’s attorney, Bob Boyle. And, you know, he reminded me that she received a denial of her compassionate release request earlier this year, on August 9th, and they have submitted a new one, which was approved at the facility level where she is at Fort Carswell, but has since sat languishing in Washington, D.C. So, as people inquire about her health, her attorney says, she’s getting much weaker, day by day, not in a good condition. It’s hard for her. It’s hard on her family. And people are waiting for the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice to take the next step here.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Jihad Abdulmumit, national chairperson for the Jericho Movement, joined the Black Panther Party as a teenager, served 23 years in prison for convictions related to two bank robberies while he was a member of the Black Liberation Army. He’s speaking to us from Richmond, Virginia. How many political prisoners would you say there are around the country, Jihad?

JIHAD ABDULMUMIT: Good morning, Amy and listeners.

Jericho list has 66 prisoners, though these particular political prisoners have been members of different liberation movements in the past, legitimate struggles against the capitalist system at that particular time. But, no doubt, there’s hundreds now, particularly when you look at the “war on terrorism,” quote-unquote, against the Muslim population and the singling out, fabricated cases, contrived cases and conspiracy cases that mean a hill of beans, really, this aggressive prosecution. So I would say there are hundreds of political prisoners. But on our particular list, those that have been actually attached to organizations and movements from the ’60s and ’70s, we have about 66.

RENÉE FELTZ: Now, you visited many of these men in prison—some women, too—and I want to ask you specifically about one who is facing some health challenges now, that you’ve mentioned before. That’s Robert “Seth” Hayes here in New York. Can you tell us about—


RENÉE FELTZ: —who he is, briefly, and the challenges he is facing right now? How long has he been inside?

JIHAD ABDULMUMIT: Well, Seth—we call him Seth—but Robert Hayes is a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. He was arrested in 1973 and convicted in 1974. So, I guess, doing the math, that puts him up to about 40 years, which all of our—most of our prisoners for those days going back to the '70s, we're talking about 40 years, which is much more time than Nelson Mandela had served in prison. And these are our Nelson Mandelas.

But he’s 65 years old, and he’s suffering from diabetes that he’s had now, I guess, for about 15 years or so, fluctuating sugar levels all the way from up to 400 to all the way down to 20, where he’s falling out—I think he fell out about two weeks ago—from this hypogyclemic type of reaction to low blood sugars. And it seems like the jail authorities just cannot get it right. So we recently had a national call-in campaign, which is one of the things that Jericho does for our prisoners when issues arise, to have—to kind of mobilize people across the nation to call in and put pressure on the prison authorities so that he can get medical care. So, hepatitis C is what he has, and diabetes, acute diabetes, right now that he’s suffering from.

RENÉE FELTZ: I want to go to a—


RENÉE FELTZ: Go ahead. I’m sorry.

JIHAD ABDULMUMIT: I’m sorry. No, also, I’m just saying, he’s supposed to go into infirmary, I guess, in the first week in January. And once again, this is only the result of many, many people calling in and putting pressure on the administration. They just can’t seem to get it right. I guess their response to his diabetes is to give him no candy and cut down his sugar. So, there’s no really healthy diet that goes along with that. The modulation of his insulin injections has always been awry, and can’t seem to get it right. And except for the fact of his fellow comrade prisoners that look after him and can see that he’s going through different bouts and he’s getting kind of loopy and/or that he’s even fell out—fallen out, he probably would be dead by now.

RENÉE FELTZ: Now, I have looked into this situation—as you mentioned, 67 political prisoners around the country that Jericho Movement monitors and follows and seeks freedom for. And, to me, when I look at it, I saw many people, as you described, who face medical challenges from being in solitary, in some cases, for a long time—


RENÉE FELTZ: —or just growing old in prison, as you mentioned, in their sixties and seventies. But there’s also people who suffer greatly from being held in solitary confinement for decades, things like problems with their eyesight from not having much access to natural light. And we’ve covered one person who suffered from that, in particular, here on the show, who passed away earlier this year. That’s Herman Wallace, a member of the Angola Three.


RENÉE FELTZ: He was released from prison in Louisiana after serving nearly 42 years in solitary confinement, longer than any other prisoner in the United States. In this clip, in Herman Wallace’s own words, he described, before he passed away, the impact of solitary confinement on his body. This is a clip from the film Herman’s House.

HERMAN WALLACE: Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. I mean, you may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think that you’re OK, and you just perfunctorily move about, you know. However, when you was removed from out of that type of situation and placed in an open environment where, you know, you’re even breathing that oxygen and it’s getting into your lungs and you’re feeling something growing within you, and—you begin to develop a different mode within your body. I even watched my body. I’ve looked in the mirror, and I’ve seen muscles and [bleep] begin to pop out there. I began to run even faster and [bleep]. And I’m saying, “Whoa, what the hell is going on here?” Much was preserved. But then I got locked up again after eight months. And being locked up like that, the whole body just got confused.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Herman Wallace speaking from prison. It was recorded, and it aired in a film called Herman’s House that aired on PBS. Herman Wallace was released from prison after a federal judge in Louisiana demanded he be released immediately, within hours. And he was. Two days later, he died of cancer.

Juan Méndez is also with us, United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. His reports have found the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons can amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and even torture. He himself was a political prisoner in Argentina in the 1970s.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Juan Méndez.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the effect of solitary confinement, and then talk about it in the United States, how it’s used.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, the medical literature is pretty strong on the effects of just social isolation on the way the mind operates. And, you know, that effect can be as early as 15 days of being subjected to 23 or 24 hours a day of just looking at a wall. So, unfortunately, international law has very little to say about solitary confinement, but that’s what we are trying to change. And I wrote a thematic report two years ago to the United Nations General Assembly, in which I tried to promote standards, first prohibiting indefinite solitary confinement—because it goes without saying that the anxiety of not knowing when will it end, you know, just adds to the psychological mistreatment—but also prohibiting prolonged solitary confinement, however defined.

I proposed that anything beyond 15 days of absolute solitary confinement should be considered prolonged and therefore banned—maybe a slightly longer term, but measured in days and not even weeks or months, for conditions that are a little more moderate, like, for example, a couple of hours of social interaction a day. And then, of course, for certain categories of prisons, there should be a complete ban for even a few hours of solitary confinement, and I mean juveniles, I mean the elderly, I mean pregnant women or women feeding young children, and particularly the mentally disabled. Solitary confinement for those categories is just punitive and unreasonable, and it should be banned.

As far as how it’s applied, it is applied, unfortunately, all over the world in different settings and different situations. And my sense is also that it is growing rather than diminishing. And unfortunately, the United States sets a very bad example, because literally tens of thousands of people in the United States are, on any given day, in solitary confinement, whether that’s called like that or given some other name, like “special administrative measures” or “isolation” or “segregation.” The fact is that the conditions are that at least 22 hours a day are spent without any meaningful social interaction.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying you want a ban on solitary confinement after 15 days.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have people, like Herman Wallace, who served 42 years in solitary confinement consecutively.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right. Yeah, well, those are the extreme cases that illustrate why solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman and degrading. I did—my report did find some legitimate uses of solitary confinement, but as long as it’s short-term and not repeated and, you know, used only for addressing a very specific situation.

AMY GOODMAN: The number of people in solitary confinement in California?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, nobody knows for sure, but the estimates that I have seen—and I have not seen them contradicted—are about 20,000-22,000 people in solitary confinement in prisons in California at any given day.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is why there was a hunger strike there this summer.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right. And I’ve been trying to visit prisons in California, in New York state, in Pennsylvania, in federal prisons. And I’m waiting for the United States government to tell me when I can do it.

RENÉE FELTZ: You bring up the state of Pennsylvania, and I want to ask you about a person who’s largely recognized as a political prisoner there, and that’s Russell Maroon Shoatz. Now, I know you don’t always deal with political prisoners, per se, in your course of work when you look at the issue of solitary confinement and how it’s used, but you have taken a look at his case. Talk about how that came to your attention—


RENÉE FELTZ: —and what you found in your report.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, a daughter of Mr. Shoatz contacted me two years ago and, you know, gave me the information about his treatment in solitary confinement for many years.

RENÉE FELTZ: Since the 1980s, I believe.

JUAN MÉNDEZ: That’s right. I wrote to the U.S. government. We exchanged notes on that. And I published a report stating that the United States was in violation of its international obligations by keeping Mr. Shoatz in solitary confinement, because the reason, as far as I could tell, was purely punitive in nature. It was about something that had happened 20-some years ago. Now, I don’t—I don’t consider questions of political prisoners, because that’s not my mandate. My mandate applies to solitary confinement as applied to common crime offenders, to political prisoners or to anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted—for some background on Mr. Shoatz, I wanted to turn to Matt Meyer, who is also joining us, a longtime leader of the War Resisters League, previously served as coordinator of the international Nobel campaign for Puerto Rican political prisoners. He co-wrote the introduction to Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance, and we’ll talk about Oscar López Rivera in a moment. But talk about the case of Russell Shoatz, Matt Meyer. Give us the background, as Juan Méndez talks about just his condition in prison.

MATT MEYER: I think it’s important for people to realize that despite whatever issues, political or otherwise, related to his conviction, the reason he’s in solitary confinement is because he was elected by an official prison-approved body to be the head of this lifers’ group. And it was because he was seen, correctly, as a key organizer, even amongst his fellow inmates, that he was put into the hole. He was not put into solitary confinement initially, once convicted; it was only an immediate and very direct reaction to his organizing work.

AMY GOODMAN: He is in Pennsylvania?

MATT MEYER: He is. He is currently at Frackville, and there is some breaking news about that story that I think is important for folks to know. Just this last weekend—and we’re still getting the information right now; his lawyers are actually meeting with him via conference call today—he learned from the program review committee that his attempts within the institution to get release from solitary into general population have been denied.

Now, this has happened before, where he has asked and requested. But, in fact, in the last two months, the prisons transferred him into a facility, the State Correctional Institution at Frackville, Pennsylvania, with the explicit and clearly stated purpose to move him into general population. They have a program for that, called the Step Down Program. It’s a 60-day program that he began in late September. And every 20 days in this Step Down Program, prisoners, Maroon included, get review from the prison authorities. After 20 days, a very positive review. After 40 days, again a positive review. And after 60 days, in a panel in front of this entire program review committee, even some of the most conservative guards and people within the facility at Frackville said, “You have done an amazing job. You have been fully compliant. You have acted in good faith. We give you a thumbs up.”

And so, now, just on the verge of this holiday season, where people are supposed to be compassionate and thinking about peace on earth and goodwill towards all people, he found out—again, just a day or so ago—that, in fact, the appeal, the paperwork necessary, to move him into general population was being denied.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, he’s been in solitary confinement for?

MATT MEYER: He’s been consistently in solitary confinement since 1991. There was a—so, over 21 years. There was a break, actually, because he was in solitary for a few years before that. But it’s been consistent, 23-hours-a-day lockdown, seven days a week, since 1991.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking well over 20 years. Juan Méndez, you are the U.N. rapporteur. How do the authorities, from the federal authorities in Washington to the prison authorities—in this case, Frackville; you’ve looked at many other cases, though—respond to you?

JUAN MÉNDEZ: Well, in this case, they responded to me that his subjection to solitary confinement was because of his past history of violence and having escaped a prison and committed acts of violence. But those are things that happened way before, sometime in the '80s, I believe. So, for me, it was clear that, you know, whatever else he might have committed was included in his punishment and that solitary confinement then becomes strictly a punitive measure. It may well be that Matt is right, that the real reason may have been his organizing, but that's not what the U.S. government told me. What they told me was that it was related to his crimes of violence. And I just don’t find that persuasive. I don’t find it justifiable. Once you’re convicted and sentenced to a prison term, that should be the end of it. There shouldn’t be any additional punitive measures, especially not punitive measures that are so cruel and inhuman and degrading as subjecting somebody to complete social isolation for so many hours a day—and many years, at that.

RENÉE FELTZ: In a minute, we’re going to be talking about how other prisoners, more broadly, have also sought release and faced challenges in those types of challenges, and how this factors into the astronomical number of aging people behind bars who could eventually die behind bars. But very briefly, Matt Meyer, before we go to break, in just a minute, I wanted to ask you about another high-profile political prisoner who’s seeking a pardon, Oscar López Rivera. You know, just briefly—we’ve talked about his case extensively here on the show with you—briefly, who is he, and what’s the situation with his—the seeking his release?

MATT MEYER: I think the most important thing, especially in the context of a fantastic show like this — and we’re excited to have the issue of political prisoners featured so prominently on Democracy Now! — of course, the U.S. government says there are no political prisoners in the U.S. So you can’t always take what the U.S. government says on face value.

But Oscar López Rivera’s case is extremely unique, even in the context of political prisoners, because here’s a man who has been in jail, along with more than a dozen of his colleagues, since the early 1980s, and every single one of his colleagues are out, granted clemency by President Clinton. And his campaign has been signed on for release by the highest levels of international humanitarian and Puerto Rican leadership. The entire nation of Puerto Rico is united in calling for Oscar’s release.

AMY GOODMAN: The president of the Puerto Rican Senate has called for it, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as well as others. Now, he was also included in the clemency that President Clinton gave, but he refused because two other Puerto Rican activists were not being freed at that time, who have since been freed.

MATT MEYER: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s still in jail.

MATT MEYER: Exactly. And so, again, there are no reasons, except for punitive ones, for him to still be behind bars. And, of course, this issue for clemency has come up again and again and again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s before President Obama now?

MATT MEYER: It is, indeed. And it’s not even just the Nobel laureates, that I’ve worked with directly—and, of course, we see them monitoring a number of political prisoners’ cases, Archbishop Tutu monitoring the case of Maroon—but in Oscar’s case, political activists in the parties that are closely associated with the Republican Party, with the Democratic Party, independentistas, across the political spectrum. When I was last in Puerto Rico, Catholic Archbishop González Nieves, the head of the Catholic Church, was strongly in favor of his release. And we just had a statement a week ago from the leadership of the United Church of Christ about their affirmation of the need for his release immediately.

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, when we come back, we’re going to look at the issue of how many people are seeking release from prison and the challenges they face. So many political prisoners to talk about, as we’ve mentioned. I encourage people to go to our website, democracynow.org, to see our past coverage of Oscar López Rivera and others in much greater detail. We’ll be back in a minute.

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“If the Risk Is Low, Let Them Go”: Elderly Prison Population Skyrockets Despite Low Risk to Society

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