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Lucasville prisoners: If we must die

January 5, 2011
The second edition of “Lucasville” by Staughton Lynd will be released by PM Press in February. This is the cover. Mr. Lynd kindly shared the foreword by Mumia Abu-Jamal with the Bay View. It can be read at http://sfbayview.com/2009/the-meaning-of-lucasville/.
Four prisoners unjustly sentenced to death for the 1993 Lucasville, Ohio, prison uprising began a hunger strike on Monday, Jan. 3, to demand that they be placed on Death Row rather than be held in solitary confinement – and to initiate a campaign that will hopefully lead to executive clemency. Here, the first of the prisoners to begin the strike speaks out:

by Bomani Shakur

Before I speak my piece, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I don’t want to die. I want to live and breathe and strive to do something righteous with my life. Truly. For the past 16 years, however, I’ve been in solitary confinement, confined to a cell 23 hours a day for something I didn’t do, and, speaking honestly, I have gone as far as I am willing to go.

Am I giving up? No. This is a protest, the only non-violent way I can think of to express the deep disdain I have for the unjust situation that I am in. Make no mistake: My physical and mental strength is intact. However, to continue on in this way would be to lend legitimacy to a process that is both fraudulent and vindictive; this I am no longer willing to do.

I realize that for some of you the thought that an innocent man could be sent to prison and ultimately executed is inconceivable. But it happens. In a system that’s based more on competition than on the equitable treatment of others, the football field is not the only place where participants are encouraged to win at any cost.

Hence, in order to be victorious, some prosecutors hide evidence, lie in open court and even pay for the perjured testimony of their witnesses. And this is exactly what happened in my case – and in the majority of cases stemming from the 1993 prison uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio; and there are a few people among you who have reviewed the file and know this to be the truth.

To continue on in this way would be to lend legitimacy to a process that is both fraudulent and vindictive; this I am no longer willing to do.

But let us for the moment put aside the question of my guilt or innocence, because that, believe it or not, is not what this is about. On that score, we have written several books, produced a play and are putting the final touches on a full-scale documentary to illustrate the travesty of justice that has taken place here; and these things are available to you if you are interested. For now, I want to talk about dying …

In all that is presently unclear, one thing is certain: I have been sentenced to death, which, as you know, is the severest penalty known to man. Typically, when one has been given the death penalty, one is placed alongside other similarly-sentenced prisoners and they, together, are housed in an area that has been designated as Death Row. As living situations go, this is a very bleak and miserable place: Men are sent here to die, to be killed by the state. No one in their right mind would ask to be sent here; and yet, this is precisely what I am asking, which should give you an indication of just how insufferable the situation I am living under is. And I am not alone …

This drawing, “A Prisoner Behind Bars,” by Jason Robb, one of the four hunger strikers, appears in the first edition of Staughton Lynd’s book, “Lucasville.”
When the uprising was over, and all was said and done, five of us were singled out as leaders and sentenced to death. Jason Robb, James Were (or Namir, as he prefers to be called), Siddique Abdullah Hasan, George Skatzes and myself. With the exception of George Skatzes, who for the past 10 years has been in a less pressurized though by no means acceptable situation, we have undergone penalty on top of penalty, been kept from fully participating in our appeals, from touching our friends and families, denied adequate medical treatment and so many other things that are too numerous to name.

In a word, we have been tortured. And yes, I am aware that the word “tortured” is a strong word to use, but I know of no other word that adequately describes what we have been through. We have been put through hell.

A few months ago, a federal judge recommended that my case be dismissed, which effectively moved me one step closer to being executed. It’s hard to explain how this made me feel; but upon hearing the news I immediately thought that a mistake had been made and that my attorneys had somehow misunderstood the judge’s ruling. As it turns out, I was the one who misunderstood. Indeed, I have been “misunderstanding” things all along.

When I was first named as a suspect in riot-related crimes, I was certain that my name would eventually be cleared. Instead, I received a nine-count murder indictment with death-penalty specifications. I was shocked.

And then they offered me a deal: “Cop out to murder and we’ll forget the whole thing,” they told me. “But I’m innocent,” I said, thinking to myself that the truth of this would somehow set me free. And so, with the trust and faith of a fool, I went to trial, thinking and believing that I would receive a fair one (I didn’t) and that I would ultimately be exonerated (I wasn’t).

We have been tortured. And yes, I am aware that the word “tortured” is a strong word to use, but I know of no other word that adequately describes what we have been through. We have been put through hell.

And then, when I was sentenced to death, it was my understanding that I would be placed on Death Row and allowed to pursue my appeals alongside other similarly-sentenced prisoners; but, again, I misunderstood … “Just wait until you get to federal court,” I was told, “and you’ll definitely get some relief there.” So I waited … I waited for 16 years!

If justice as a concept is real, then I could with some justification say, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” But this has never been about justice, and I finally, finally, finally understand that. For the past 16 years, I (we) have been nothing more than a scapegoat for the state, and convenient excuse that they can point to whenever they need to raise the specter of fear among the public or justify the expenditure of inordinate amounts of money for more locks and chains.

And not only that, but the main reason behind the double penalty that we have been undergoing is so that we can serve as an example of what happens to those who challenge the power and authority of the state. And like good little pawns, we’re supposed to sit here and wait until they take us to their death chamber, strap us down to a gurney, and pump poison through our veins.

Fuck that! I refuse to go out like that: used as a tool by the state to put fear into the hearts of others while legitimizing a system that is bogus and sold to those with money. That’s not my destiny.

At the beginning of this I wanted to make it perfectly clear that I didn’t want to die, and I don’t. Life is a beautiful thing, especially when one is conscious and aware of the value of one’s life. Sadly, it took going through this process for me to wake up and finally understand the value of my life.

I say “wake up” because, unbeknownst to me I had been asleep all this time, oblivious to the reality of my situation and unaware that the only way for one to stop dreaming – and gain control over things – is for one to open one’s eyes. My eyes are open now.

Is it too late? I don’t know. As I said, the books have been written, the play has been performed and, pretty soon, the documentary will be completed. But what good are these things if they never enter into the stream of public opinion and force the governor – who answers to the public – to issue a general amnesty?

Admittedly, convincing the governor to bend in our favor will be a difficult undertaking, one that will require huge amounts of energy and effort on our behalf. But it can be done; at the very least, it can be attempted.

In the meantime, we who have been sentenced to death must be granted the exact same privileges as other death-sentenced prisoners. If we must die, we should be allowed to do so with dignity, which is all we’re asking: the opportunity to pursue our appeals unimpeded, to be able to touch our friends and family, and to no longer be treated as playthings but as human beings who are facing the ultimate penalty.

Again, I stress that fact that I do not want to die, but in the words of Claude McKay [in the poem often called the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance – about the Harlem “race riot,” when whites attacked Blacks], I share the following as my parting sentiments:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die, O, let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us through deed!

O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

What you can do

Write to the Lucasville hunger strikers, who are all at the Ohio State Penitentiary, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Road, Youngstown, OH 44505:

• Siddique Abdullah Hasan (Carlos Sanders), R130-559

• Namir Abdul Mateen (James Were), A173-245

• Bomani Shakur (Keith Lamar), 317-117

• Jason Robb, A308919

Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd, attorneys and activists, have been active in the movement for justice for the Lucasville Five. A current article from Staughton’s ZSpace page can be read at http://www.zcommunications.org/hunger-strike-at-ohio-state-penitentiary-by-staughton-lynd and has been reposted by the Bay View at http://sfbayview.com/2010/hunger-strike-of-the-lucasville-uprising-prisoners-starting-monday-jan-3/. Watch the Bay View for new stories in coming days.

Sign two petitions of support, one sponsored by the International Action Center at http://www.iacenter.org/prisoners/lucasvillehungerstrikepetition/?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4d23d7ce76743765%2C0 and another at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/ohiosupermaxhungerstrike/.

Haley Barbour to Free Scott Sisters: Beyond Race to the Bitter Aftertaste

Editor’s update: A spokesperson for the Scott Sisters, Nancy Lockhart, announced tonight, Wednesday, January 5, that the Scott Sisters will be released from prison on Friday to start their lives on parole.

By now you may have heard that on December 29, 2010, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, possibly a Republican contender for the presidency in 2012, has suspended indefinitely the life sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott. You’ve probably also heard that Jamie Scott was on dialysis in prison and that a condition of her sister’s release is Gladys must donate a kidney to Jamie as soon as possible by decree of Gov. Barbour. That condition is only one of many disturbing elements in the sisters’ journey through hell to freedom.

My mantra for this post: I am happy Haley Barbour will free the Scott Sisters. God bless those young women. They are overjoyed to know freedom. God bless social media activists. God bless the NAACP. God bless the sisters’ attorney Chokwe Lumumba. God bless America. I am happy. Breathe.

The Scott Sisters are African-American women who were convicted of armed robbery in 1994 in Mississippi’s Scott County based on the testimony of three teen males who took plea bargains and swore the women planned the robbery. Both sisters were considered first-time offenders, and so neither had a criminal record before their convictions.

They were not accused of handling a weapon or of demanding anyone’s money, but the jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced them to life in prison. According to Nancy Lockhart, an advocate for the sisters, and others, they actually received two life sentences each, “double life.” This is a complicated story, and so, the devil’s in the details when we consider how these two young mothers landed in jail. You may read the bedtime version here, and the fuller background at this 2010 BlogHer post.

Jamie ScottAt left is a photo of Jamie Scott, now 38, holding her grandchildren during a short visit home in 2008 to attend the funeral of her oldest sister who died of congestive heart failure. Gladys was not allowed to attend.

Sent to prison when they were ages 22 and 20, neither saw their children grow up. Jamie has three and Gladys, now 36, has two. Gladys also has grandchildren. Their five children were raised by their mother, Evelyn Rasco, who had already raised six children of her own, three boys and three girls, when her two younger daughters received life terms. Gladys is the youngest.

When I first heard that Barbour had suspended their sentences, I rejoiced, but not as much as I would have rejoiced had the governor pardoned the women because it is my understanding that an indefinite suspension amounts to life on parole and leaves both women with felony records, making it difficult for either to find work.

I was also leery. Barbour, a real-time, good-old boy of the South had been pressured for years with blasts from activist bloggers and other purveyors of social media and then the johnny-come-lately grumblings of the NAACP that arose in September to let the sisters go. Their release seemed like it would never come, but when the timing was right, when Barbour found himself wading in hot water after an attempt to rewrite history and paint segregationist Citizens Councils of the 50s and 60s as warriors against the KKK—to tell a story that even some white conservative southerners refused to buy—then the Mississippi Parole Board deemed the Scott Sisters no longer a threat to society and Voila! Presto. Free at last!

Free sort of, that is. Time served on a sentence that even Barbour himself called longer than usual for the alleged crime committed wasn’t enough payment; a kidney was due. When I read that Barbour—a “tough on crime” governor—said the condition for freedom for Gladys, who had already said a year ago without coercion that she wanted to donate a kidney to her sister, was she must part with an organ, a little more of that initial happiness ebbed from me. “What!” I said and decided not to write too much about it then lest my anger set the computer on fire.

I don’t have to go into exactly what’s wrong with the “kidney deal” here. Bioethicists have already objected. Barbour’s “quid pro quo” order violates 50 years of organ transplant law, they say. But the governor, with his sights on the Oval Office, is not worried. In fact, he seems to think he’s found a new way to claim that he’s fiscally responsible as he signs off on the sisters’ release.

Undoubtedly nodding to some constituents who never saw a budget cut they couldn’t love, Barbour framed Jamie’s release in terms of cost savings. In his official announcement he says:

“To date, the sisters have served 16 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole in 2014. Jamie Scott requires regular dialysis, and her sister has offered to donate one of her kidneys to her. The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society. Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.

Jamie’s dialysis, according to Barbour, could cost the the state $200,000 per year and that’s the best reason to release her. A release in the name of justice, in the name of compassion? No, can’t have that. It’s far better to court the muses of Southern Grotesque.

And Barbour’s very pleased with himself about his decision. In the video below you’ll hear a clip of the governor on WMPR talking to Charles Evers, the station’s manager, a small-town mayor, civil rights activist and older brother of the late Medgar Evers (Yes, that Medgar Evers). Someone is chuckling off camera while Barbour discusses how ridiculous it is for the State of Mississippi to pay for a prisoner’s dialysis.

On that same show, according to the Clarion Ledger, Evers, who is also a Republican, “asked Barbour how Jamie would afford her dialysis after her release, and Barbour said she would become Medicare eligible because of her disability.”

I think the governor misspoke there. It’s Medicaid for which Jamie should be qualified not Medicare. It’s easy for the average person to confuse the two. But, knowing how important it is not to misquote the governor, I called Mr. Evers to ask if the Clarion Ledger had quoted Barbour’s comment on the show correctly. Evers said it doesn’t matter if he said Medicare or Medicaid.

“I get them confused, too. They keep criticizing the governor, but he’s letting them (Jamie and Gladys) out. There were two other governors that they pleaded to and they didn’t. They were in there for committing a crime, and he let them go,” said Evers.

O.K. I am happy for the Scott Sisters. In fact, I suspect that there are prisoners hearing of their impending release who right now wish they had someone to whom they could donate a kidney, score points for some governor, and be set free. Who can ever argue that being locked up for life in a Mississippi penitentiary is better than an average day in the life of anyone average? I am happy for the Scott Sisters.

But then Mr. Evers and I part ways. I can’t abide in a cloud of bliss that blinds me to how Gov. Barbour went about making his decision, what words he used to frame his message, and the potential policy that he now considers as a result of his encounter with the Scott Sisters.

I even set race matters aside—the righteous indignation of others at NAACP President Benjamin Jealous’s praise of Barbour; the strange image that invaded my mind when I read the conditions of the Scott Sisters’ freedom [I envisioned Haley Barbour waiting on a mountain, bathed in sunlight, wearing a white linen suit and a straw hat as he sipped a Mint Julep prepared by grinning servants, and as he stood there, he imagined black people bowing at his feet, weeping and laughing—"Oh, thank ya massah! Thank de big buckra! You haz freed dem." (I am not making this vision up.)]; and even knowledge of politics’ Southern Strategy and Barbour’s past, such as his defense of taking photographs with White Nationalists. I decided that you and I, we Americans, should focus on a greater concern. We must try to understand the words coming out of Haley Barbour’s mouth because he is a former chair of the RNC who may run for President of the United States of America in 2012.

What else has Barbour said on the departing skirts of the Scott Sisters?

Explaining the wonders of freeing Jamie Scott, Barbour told Evers:

Instead of Mississippi taxpayers bearing that (cost of her dialisys), it will be spread over all the taxpayers in the United States.

This weird wisdom comes from a man who has railed against health care reform, likening it to mass suicide, and who’s taken the hard line on the importance of whittling down the national debt. (I agree. Government money is not magic money.) But Barbour probably also chants “U.S.A!” and “Country First!” at Republican conventions with his fellow conservatives (and there’s nothing wrong with loving this nation). So, undoubtedly he would make Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” list. Nevertheless, it strikes me that Barbour is not seeking the highest of American ideals when he puts America’s interests behind Mississippi’s responsibilities. He’s making the case that the rest of America should pay for his state’s judicial decisions and prison practices that affect the health care of his state’s citizens.

Let us keep in mind, per Bob Herbert‘s column in October, that:

Even the original prosecutor, Ken Turner, who is now retired and who believes the sisters were guilty, has said that he thinks it would be “appropriate” to offer them relief from their extreme sentences. He told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., “It was not a particularly egregious case.”

So, was this release about an unjust sentence or not?

In addition, can we ignore this fact? Jamie Scott was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure three years after she entered the Mississippi prison system. She cannot be said to have had much control over her food choices and lifestyle while incarcerated. Was the excessive sentence and imprisonment itself the trigger for her illness? And yet Barbour, an advocate of States Rights, thinks the rest of America should pay for what Mississippi does to its citizens and its prison population.

But wait! It gets even better. Apparently Barbour likes the idea of his new-found cost savings so much that he’s asked Mississippi’s prisons chief to review the cases of other sick inmates on dialysis in Mississippi to determine whether they are “fit for release,” reports the Clarion Ledger.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said he would begin the process next week. There are 16 patients – 15 males and 1 female – who are currently receiving dialysis treatment in the Mississippi prison system.

I called the governor’s communications staff and asked would someone please clarify for me what “fit for release” means and when Barbour said that by releasing Jamie the cost of her dialysis will be “spread over all the taxpayers in the United States,” did he also imply that this is the logic for his request to review the cases of all Mississippi prisoners on dialysis?

Alas, neither Laura Hipp nor her colleague Dan Turner in the governor’s office returned my calls or answered my emails. But that’s okay. I used to do what they do for a living. I wouldn’t have answered me either because there’s no right way to answer for this kind of gubernatorial nonsense.

So, I turned to the more courageous souls who might at least give their opinions. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who is a best-selling author and managing editor and columnist writing on politics and culture at the The Moderate Voice, commented on Barbour’s idea to review the cases of sick inmates and release them so Medicaid could pay their bills. She speaks from the perspective of her experience as a former Chair of the Colorado State Grievance Board who also held monthly hearings with the state DA’s office for 13 years, and she told BlogHer that she could share wonderings rather than assertions because she does not know Mississippi law. Her thoughts in part are these:

Ethically, and professionally, the issue of shifting expense to the feds, appears to be one of those ‘just thinking out loud’ bad ideas… a move that actually exposes the state to huge costs in another direction entirely… having to defend itself against the potential appeals and overturns of already set cases, and risking suits regarding negative impact of health from former prisoners whose healthcare ‘after parole’ may fall through the cracks.

In my opinion, there can’t be a sudden release for cost-savings re the justice system, based not on convictions and sentences that were considered accurate and just to begin with, but a rogue view of the law—that the law and sentencing can be set aside in order to ‘save money’ for the state.

This seems a serious ethical issue that may in fact, change the face of the law in that state …if congress people and senators there grasp the ethical issues surrounding this ‘after the fact’ attempt to save money for the state suddenly being held higher than the integrity of the sentencing of a person who has been found guilty of a criminal act…

She suggested that if proposed in Colorado, Barbour’s proposal might be viewed as a type a fraud. Read her full comment at WritingJunkie.net.

And the doctor was not the only person willing to comment. Jill Miller Zimon, a public servant in Ohio, writer and occasional TV guest considered possible reasons for Barbour framing the sisters’ release the way he did:

I am very glad to see the sisters get out. I just wish people would take responsibility for their role(s) in these mistakes and stop looking to blame everyone and everything else. Barbour’s trying to get out of having to answer for why, if they’re not a danger, the state has been paying for them all these years, and also why they were in there in the first place. The lack of humility in Barbour and so many other politicians is just embarrassing to me as an elected official. We are public servants, first and foremost, not God or anything remotely like anyone’s God.

Pamela Lyn Kemp of Pam’s Coffee Conversation and The Political Voices of Women told me on Facebook that she believes first that Barbour freed the sisters because he hopes to gain favor with the African-American community and groups like the NAACP, but she also thinks:

When Barbour cites the high costs of providing quality health care to in-mates as well as the fact the by releasing the prisoners, Medicaid will have to pick up the cost of care, he is pandering to constituents like the person who left the following comment: “the thing is if the crime is bad enough there should be a gassing & if known for a fact that they killed someone it should be right away not 20 years later … most of the ones on death row & a lot that aren’t should probably be put to sleep, what point is there to keeping them around? They are non productive individuals that is except for the guards, makes em a living…”

The biggest problem with Barbour’s decision re: the Scott sisters is that the right thing may have been done for the wrong reason.

I saw that comment about “gassing” as well. It’s the first one following the Ledger’s article about reviewing the cases of sick inmates.

Did I say I was happy? I am very happy that the Scott Sisters are being released. As you may expect, so are their children and their mother, Evelyn Rasco. I interviewed her last night, and she is praising God at every turn, but as you will hear if you listen to the entire podcast, she also takes issue with the circumstances of her daughters’ release. In addition, we discuss the poor quality of treatment Jamie received while in prison, including sometimes not being given her blood pressure medication as part of her punishment. Both diabetes and high blood pressure can damage kidneys.

Here is the podcast of the interview. Powered by Podbean.com

What’s wrong with us people who can’t ignore the dark rim of the silver cloud like some of those commenting on the Scott topic at Shakesville? What’s up with us who scrutinize what the people say who run for office and also what they do? Why, as my former spouse once asked of me, can’t we just be happy with what we’re given, no questions asked? I dunno. Sometimes I can’t take the whole of life at face value and pretend all is well or play dumb when I notice shadows of oppressive hegemony such as how often males’ decisions shaped the journey of Jamie and Gladys Scott. Sometimes it’s hard to hold my tongue.

So, I’m glad the sisters will walk sort-of free, that they may still possibly get a pardon if enough pressure is put on Gov. Barbour, and that one day soon they will sleep in better beds and hug their children, grown and not-so-grown, some night soon. I am very happy and love sweet liberty, but I must refuse to bake a cake for Haley Barbour at this time.

Update Wed., 1/5/11 @ 11:24 PM CST: Nancy Lockhart’s announced that the Scott Sisters will be released from prison Friday to being their lives on parole.

Note: BlogHer is nonpartisan. My opinions are my own, and I have many.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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