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Hidden table caption inserted for accessibility: Images, text and links for OUT OF CONTROL A 15-YEAR BATTLE AGAINST CONTROL UNIT PRISONS by Nancy Kurshan.
 

OUT OF CONTROL: A 15-YEAR BATTLE
AGAINST CONTROL UNIT PRISONS

 

26. REGIONAL HEARINGS, NATIONAL COORDINATION: 1996

Steve Whitman talks about who is sent to control unit prisons and their proliferation throughout the US.

 

 

Marking the new year we received letters from prisoners at Florence describing the conditions and encouraging us to continue. In Chicago we began to build the National Campaign by networking with many groups in the region, to encourage them to join the work in whatever way possible. We planned regional hearings on control units and related issues of imprisonment in April, to be followed by May demonstrations at several prisons.

In early 1996, we in Chicago collected descriptions of planned activities from the various regions throughout the country (New Jersey, Chicago, Oakland, and Cleveland) and produced, as agreed, the first issue of ABOLISH!, the newsletter of the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons. The purpose of ABOLISH! was to allow the different regions to organize around their individual plans, while placing these plans in a national, coordinated context.

On April 20, bright and early, 9:00 am on a Saturday morning, we began our all-day Chicago regional hearing with about 20 groups signed on as sponsoring organizations. Held downtown at the Methodist Temple, the keynote address was given by Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. Marc had directed programs on criminal justice reform for 20 years and was the author of widely circulated reports including “Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System.” His most recent report on racial disparity and the criminal justice system led the New York Times to editorialize that the report “should set off alarm bells from the White House to city halls—and help reverse the notion that we can incarcerate our way out of fundamental social problems.”

As indicated in our 15-page program guide, the keynote was preceded by morning workshops on control unit prisons, women in prison, the death penalty, political prisoners, and prisons and the economy. Throughout the program we encouraged people to join us in our upcoming demonstrations at several prisons in the region.

Although we expected only a few people to attend the morning workshops, over 100 came. After lunch, another 60 joined us to hear Marc Mauer. The keynote was followed by a hearing presided over by a panel of “eminent people” who heard testimony from 19 witnesses. The “eminents” included: Dr. Margaret Burroughs of the Du Sable Museum of African-American History; Illinois Representative Coy Pugh; U.S. Congress member Danny Davis; Patricia Hill, President of the African-American Police League; Dr. Quentin Young, founder of the Medical Committee for Human Rights; Dr. Nehemiah Russell, Principal of Engelwood High School; and Chicago Sun Times columnist William Rentschler.

The testimony came from many prisoners who wrote, videotaped or audiotaped their messages; ex-prisoners, several of whom discussed the particular situation of women in prison, and community activists. We heard from Jo Ann Patterson, anti-death penalty activist and mother of torture victim Aaron Patterson; Dr. Mardge Cohen who ran the biggest women’s and children AIDS program in the city; Attorney Peggy Byrne, Director of the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women; Delbert Tibbs, former death row prisoner, poet, and activist, and many others. Several people noted that at the end of the long day, they felt like they had been put through an emotional wringer but, at the same time, they had learned a great deal and felt encouraged to act.


1992 demonstration against control units at the California state building in San Francisco. Doug Spalding speaking.

 

Nancy with daughter Rosa Kurshan-Emmer at Jericho demonstration about political prisoners in DC, 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A network of activists was developing around the country and in our region. Events were planned in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Boulder, Gary, Newark, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. More people had joined the work in Chicago, and by now Charles Carney and others from the 8th Day Center for Justice were essential organizers in the process.

This was a particularly exciting time for me because I had the opportunity to work with my daughter Rosa on political activities. As a second year student at Antioch College in Ohio, she organized a program in mid-April, and produced and distributed a flyer that said COME HEAR ABOUT THE CAMPAIGN TO FIGHT RACIST IMPRISONMENT. Together she and I wrote an article for the school newspaper—Abolish Racist Prisons. Steve and I drove down to Yellow Springs, where Antioch is located, to speak and spend the weekend with Rosa. We encouraged the students to join us at our upcoming demonstration at two more-or-less nearby prisons in Indiana, where we would be protesting both the death penalty and control unit prisons.

The Indiana demonstrations were held on May 4th. Our Caravan set out first on the four-hour ride to Indiana’s second control unit, Wabash Valley Correctional Institution in Carlisle. As usual, we had every detail planned out in advance, including where and what time we would have lunch. Our flyer listed the times we would reach each destination and the times we would depart, so people could join us at any one or all locations.

A severe rainstorm was sweeping the area at the very moment we stepped off the buses to demonstrate. Undeterred, and partly protected by plastic trash bags we had brought along for just such an eventuality, we picketed on the road right in front of the prison, just under the gun towers, for about an hour, followed by two speeches. One was by S.A. Tinnin-Bey who had done 15 years in three different Indiana prisons. He related the story of his participation in a march in the yard of Pendleton Penitentiary, conducted in solidarity with hunger-striking prisoners in Indiana’s first control unit prison at Westville.

The marchers there were in turn repressed by a long prison-wide lockdown. The other talk was by Charles Carney of 8th Day Center for Justice, one of the organizers of the day, who had been visiting several prisoners at the Wabash facility.

We then continued on to Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary, where Puerto Rican prisoner Eddie Cortés was incarcerated and was also the site of the federal death row. Along the way, we stopped at a food plaza and met, by design, three more cars that had come from Chicago, a car from Indiana, one from St. Louis, and a van with six students (including Rosa) from Antioch College in Ohio. With our numbers well over 100, we caravanned to Terre Haute. By now the sun had come out and we were energized by the drying out process—as our shoes stopped squeaking and our clothes became lighter. After picketing for about an hour across the road from the prison grounds (extended negotiations with state troopers, local police, and prisoncrats did not get us any closer than the half-mile distance to the prison), we heard several speakers.

We started with a message from Owusu Yaki Yakubu, a prisoner leader for more than 25 years, urging us to do organizing that responds to community needs, as the best way to organize to oppose the various brutalities of the criminal justice system. This was followed by a talk by: Mike Stanek, a member of CEML who had done six months at the work camp at Terre Haute for an anti-nuclear weapons action; a message from Puerto Rican political prisoner Eddie Cortés read by his sister, Magdalena; and finally an inspirational talk by Puerto Rican national hero, Rafael Cancel Miranda.

Rafael traveled from Puerto Rico to Chicago to help build for the actions and to attend them. Although he served 25 years in U.S. prisons, including six at Alcatraz and eight at Marion, and although he was 66 years old, Rafael had not slowed down for one second. His energy was contagious, and his courage inspiring as he read the names, one at a time, of the 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners, and several others, and led us in chanting and calling for their release.

Our last stop of the day was a few miles from the prison, in downtown Terre Haute, where we stopped at the courthouse facing the main highway through the city. There we picketed again and were joined by a group from the Sisters of Providence community in Terre Haute. Sr. Carol Nolan spoke first, on what prisons do to those of us on the outside, passionately noting the need for us to stop the cruelty of the prison system and the death penalty. S.A. Tinnin-Bey spoke again, followed by Mary L. Johnson, one of Chicago’s most prominent activists, who made an eloquent presentation laced with humor and humanitarianism while explaining the destructive and dehumanizing nature of our racist society.

This was followed by a greeting from my daughter Rosa Kurshan-Emmer on behalf of the Antioch students. Rosa ended her rap with “Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” much to the great pleasure of the demonstrators. This last demonstration was capped by an inspiring talk by José López, the director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. José discussed the issue of prisons in the context of colonialism and pledged that wherever Puerto Rican political prisoners were incarcerated, we would follow, noting that together we had shut down the Lexington control unit.

We were surprised by all the sympathetic coverage of local and regional media. The Indianapolis Star reported that our event “was sponsored by the Eighth Day Center for Justice and 23 other organizations, including the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center. Two busloads of protesters from Chicago were joined by other activists, including nine students from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio… ‘Antioch encourages its students to participate in social issues, and the school gave us money to come here,’ said student Nick Szuberia.”

The article went on to quote José López who stated that independentista “‘Edwin Cortés, who is at the federal penitentiary here, is charged with seditious conspiracy. But he was not motivated by personal gain. All of these Puerto Rican prisoners are advocates of independence for Puerto Rico,’ said López. Cortés’ sister came from Chicago to speak.”

Although all of us were exhausted, and some were still soggy from the earlier drenching, there was the spirit of a day well-spent as we headed back to our respective destinations—some to other places in Indiana, to St. Louis, the Antioch students to Ohio, and most of us to Chicago, where we arrived at about 10:00 p.m. to cap our 16-hour, three-demonstration day.

It is always hard to know what to make of such a set of activities. Both the program and the demonstrations were fairly well-attended. Many of the people who participated were new to us and obviously drawn to these events for important political reasons. Additionally, the coalition functioned very well, better than anything any of us could recall. In all of the long meetings and complicated interactions, and with two events only two weeks apart, there were arguments and political disagreements, but this process seemed only to bring us closer.

Finally, the media coverage was quite good, with several television and radio spots throughout Indiana and four major newspaper articles. A prisoner at USP Terre Haute wrote to tell us that he had overheard that day some of the prisoncrats lamenting the exposure that we brought to the incarceration of Eddie Cortés and the federal death row.

On the other hand, many questions were raised by these events. We had expected more people to attend. Those of us who had been doing the work for a while were able to recall the names of 100 people who expressed concern over these issues, but who did not attend either the program or the demonstration. In addition, the activities seemed to generate few people who would actually join the work in an ongoing way. We were still certain this was important work to be done. In a written report we stated, “Prisons and white supremacy are one of the junctures at which the future of this country and perhaps even the world will be decided. How to do this work effectively in the time of reaction that is today remains the open question.”

Much of the energy of the National Campaign became focused on “monitoring” developments with regard to control unit prisons which primarily involved collecting more and more data. I was not very interested in that process. I felt we had more than enough information to develop education and action plans.

During that time I worked on the Emergency Response Network (ERN), as did several other people: Jana Schroeder from the AFSC in Ohio; Bonnie Kerness, AFSC, New Jersey; Charles Carney, AFSC in Chicago. We sent out a flyer and e-mail blast: “l blast: “JOIN THE CONTROL UNIT EMERGENCY RESPONSE NETWORK.” We began to learn about situations in other places, both past and present. There had been years of prisoner resistance to conditions in Lucasville, Ohio, and now Ohio death row prisoners were on a hunger strike. Over time, we responded to situations in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Various members of the National Campaign wrote reports on each attempt: Charles Carney reported on the Wabash Valley SHU in Carlisle, Indiana; Jana Schroeder on the death row hunger strike in Ohio.

I thought the ERN was a great idea, although with several stumbling blocks. The technology was not what it is today, and so it was more labor intensive than you might expect. But the larger impediment was the decision-making process. Not wanting to send out a request every day, we needed to develop a system of prioritizing needs. That’s a very subjective process, and we never really settled on a set of standards for making those decisions. Rather we proceeded in a very ad hoc manner, in which a couple of us got to decide because we were doing the work. Also, we were never quite certain about how many people actually responded to the alerts, so we were lacking a good feedback process by which to refine the system. I wrote a report to the National Campaign raising some of the issues.

I still believed the work had great potential, but sometimes felt frustrated and less than hopeful. Often people would ask us, “what sustains you given the uphill nature of the work?” One of the most important pieces of the answer to that question for myself and many others was the amazing people we got to know along the way and the bonds that were formed between us. The opportunity to spend time with Michael Yasutake was one of these strong connections. In November, 1996 we sponsored an evening in tribute to the Reverend Seichi Michael Yasutake. This 76-year-old Episcopalian priest was the Executive Director of the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project, whose purpose was to monitor the human rights of political prisoners and mobilize support in church and society for their release.

In preparation for the Tribute, we printed a brochure that included many messages from the political prisoners Yasu so often visited. Steve and I produced a slideshow that reviewed some of the highlights of his life. I recall here some of his life—not to turn him into an icon—but as just one example of the profound histories of many of the people involved in this work. As a young man “Mike” experienced U.S. repression firsthand, when he and his family were interned in the camps set up for Japanese people at the outbreak of World War II. While registering voters in Mississippi after Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered, the house Yasu was staying in was blown up. Upon return to Chicago, he continued to fight for open housing in Chicago’s all white and wealthy North Shore. He marched with Dr. King and thousands of others, and also began to support Vietnam war draft resisters, visiting imprisoned war resisters across the U.S.

Until he died in 2002, Yasu was a tireless friend of political prisoners, probably visiting more political prisoners than any other individual in the U.S. He was a motivating force behind Can’t Jail The Spirit (the collection of political prisoner biographies referred to earlier) and an essential fundraiser for the project. He fought continuously against control unit prisons, traveling to Marion to visit prisoners, demonstrate and argue with the warden. He traveled to Washington to protest to the Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department, and Congress. Yasu understood the need to resist social injustice, and he also had an appreciation of the personal cost that often results from confronting authority. He did all he could to help minimize that cost. He was exemplary in demonstrating the true potential of human beings to be dignified, productive, and loving members of an international community. (For more about Yasu’s life read a piece by Steve and me and the archives of the Episcopal church.)


Josefina Rodriguez with Alejandro Molina (in the background), 1997.

Josefina Rodriguez discusses raising political prisoners Lucy and Alicia with the values of social justice and independence for Puerto Rico. 


Nancy and Rosa, visiting Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez in
Dwight Prison, 1982.

Although Yasutake was a unique individual, there were many other people who were inspirational as well. Another was Josefina Rodriguez who, the reader may recall, is the mother of two of the Puerto Rican political prisoners—Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez.

Josefina grew up on a small farm in the town of Las Marias, attended only two years of grammar school, and followed her husband and other family members to Chicago in 1952 with her two oldest children. In Chicago she not only continued her education, but with the strong encouragement and support of José López and others at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, she eventually obtained a college education, while raising her four children and working at the post office. In addition, inspired by Lolita Lebrón and the other Nationalists, she learned more and more about Puerto Rican history and the struggle for independence, and participated in countless political activities in the community.

When her daughters and others were arrested, she became an international spokesperson for the campaign to free them, traveling throughout the U.S., Latin America, and beyond. Not only did Josefina wholeheartedly support her daughters in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, she herself was a key activist in the campaign to free the prisoners and in the overall struggle for the freedom of her nation. Josefina, Lucy, and Alicia demonstrated that one could be essentially tender and caring, but also as firm as steel in the fight for justice. They were motivated as much by love – love for the country of Puerto Rico, its people, and all those who struggled for justice around the world—as they were by hatred of oppression and colonialism. The strength of all three came from their love for, and pride in, their nation of Puerto Rico, their family, and their community.

When I visited Lucy and Alicia in prison I would often take my children along, and the sisters had a profound influence on them as well. Years later, my daughter Rosa would write:

The most powerful, in­your­face lessons for me as a child growing up were visits to prison. Lexington, Alderson, Leavenworth, Pleasanton, San Quentin, Dixon, Dwight. I visited Dylcia Pagan, Adolfo Matos, Alejandrina Torres, and most often Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez. For many years I could get in to visit without being on a list because I was with my mother. Entering prison always felt strange, being patted down and searched by metal detectors. The impersonal nature of the visiting room was chilling. I had a profound feeling of leaving the outside world behind. But then there were the prisoners. Our friends. At each visit, they began by asking about me, how was school, how everything was going. I thought they must have more important things to talk about with my mom, but I was always a big focus. Children and the future they could bring were so vital to them… I could feel the joy I brought them at every visit. Then we would leave, go through the whole security rigmarole, walk out a locked door and be cleared through an area, get our stuff out of the lockers, and they would be taken back to their cells. And we would walk out through the barbed wire, back into the “free” world. And I knew something was really wrong.

Our friends were the nicest, most genuine, most dedicated and caring people. They asked me about school and life and were sincerely curious about who I was becoming. They were in prison for fighting for freedom. I got to walk out free, and they could not walk out with me because they were forced to stay inside those walls for decades on end. If they were the ones called “terrorists,” something was terribly wrong.

 

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