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‘Condemned’ by Keith LaMar (Bomani Shakur)

February 27, 2014

Review by Denis O’Hearn

When I was asked to write a review of Keith LaMar’s “Condemned,” I wondered if I was the best person to do it. First of all, I wrote the foreword to the book. Plus, as you’ll see when you read this book – and I hope you do – we are the closest of friends, really brothers. That must mean I am a bit biased, right?

'Condemned' by Keith LaMar coverWell, I will admit my bias from the beginning. I regularly visit Keith LaMar, or Bomani Shakur, as I know him. We correspond and talk on the phone. He and his comrade Jason Robb have been regular visiting professors (by phone) to my classes at Binghamton University.

Rather than disqualifying me from reviewing this book, however, all of these things should make you listen a bit closer to what I have to say. Especially if you come from California, where the injustices that Keith LaMar outlines in this book, and the severe consequences of such injustices, are all too familiar.

Some readers of San Francisco Bay View may have read an article I published in this newspaper about my friend Todd Ashker, a member of the “Short Corridor Collective” in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison. Keith LaMar has a lot in common with Todd Ashker.

They both grew up in poverty raised by single mothers, Keith in East Cleveland and Todd in Colorado and California. They both fell into petty crime as young kids, a fate that has visited millions of poor young people in this country regardless of their ethnic background. They both would be free today if the prison authorities of Ohio and California had not created policies to isolate “difficult” prisoners who refuse to become snitches and instead choose to practice solidarity with other prisoners.

As you will see when you read this book, Keith was never a member of any prison gang. Yet the state of Ohio put together a case against him, saying that he was the “godfather” behind a death squad that murdered a group of prisoners during the Lucasville uprising of 1993.

Although the state of Ohio offered to exonerate him of responsibility for the prison murders if he snitched against other prisoners, some of whom were in a prison gang called the Black Gangster Disciples, he refused to snitch. One of the men, who the state admits did some hands-on killings and ordered others, agreed to such a deal and avoided punishment.

The state of Ohio hid exculpatory evidence from Keith LaMar before his trial. They held the trial in a practically all-white town in southern Ohio to ensure that he could not have a jury of his peers. As a result of his refusal to admit to something he did not do, and to “debrief” against other prisoners, Keith LaMar has been in strict solitary confinement for more than 20 years.

Keith was never a member of any prison gang. Yet the state of Ohio put together a case against him, saying that he was the “godfather” behind a death squad that murdered a group of prisoners during the Lucasville uprising of 1993.

Todd Ashker never murdered anyone in jail, either. I’ve corresponded with him and visited him over the years, and he has always insisted that he was never a member of a prison gang. He may have done some stupid things as a young man and collected some stupid tattoos but I have no doubts about his claims that he was never in a gang. Various prison officials, shyster lawyers, and newspaper reporters have spread that malicious lie.

Yet like Keith LaMar, because Todd Ashker refused to lie down and be a compliant prisoner, and because he actively showed solidarity with other prisoners and helped them to claim their rights as human beings instead of debriefing, the state of California launched a vendetta against him.

Unlike Keith LaMar, however, the California authorities didn’t even have to go through the charade of an unfair trial against Todd Ashker. They just committed him to solitary confinement, first in Folsom Prison and then in the infamous SHU of Pelican Bay, by an administrative edict they call “validation.”

Bomani Shakur (Keith LaMar) Lucasville 5 in shackles
Bomani Shakur (Keith LaMar) – in shackles
There is a crucial difference between Keith LaMar and Todd Ashker, however. Keith LaMar faces execution if he does not get the right to “discover” the evidence that was held back from him by a cheating prosecution. In Ohio they currently try to kill one man a month by lethal injection and Keith will continue to live what the sociologist Erving Goffman called a “social death,” confined in his 8-by-10-foot cell without human contact, until they finally take him to the death chamber, place him on the gurney and pump poison through his veins.

The last time Ohio did this, just a month ago, it took them 26 minutes to kill their victim with an untested concoction of chemicals. Dennis McGuire “gasped, made snorting sounds and repeatedly opened and shut his mouth” until he finally, mercifully, succumbed.

Keith LaMar faces execution if he does not get the right to “discover” the evidence that was held back from him by a cheating prosecution.

This is what Keith LaMar will face unless he either wins his case in his last appeal, soon to take place in Cincinnati, or a judge gives him the right to review the evidence the state withheld and pursue a fairer trial. Even if he wins in his legal proceedings, though, Keith LaMar will face the same future as Todd Ashker: execution by solitary. He will grow into an old man in his condition of social death, until age or possibly disease does the job that the state of Ohio wanted, but was not allowed, to do. That is a best case scenario!

Yet, as Keith LaMar relates in his riveting book, “Condemned,” he like millions of other indigent prisoners around the United States faces one last injustice: lack of access to legal counsel in whom he has trust. The indigent prisoner must take who he gets for lawyers. They may be good; they may be bad. But they will always be overworked and underfunded.

And the result is a litany of poorly written briefs that are cut-and-pasted from one client’s case to another’s, failure to submit briefs on time and failure to submit briefs at all – possibly with the lawyers’ insistence that they are “acting in the best interests of the client.” The last chapter of “Condemned” is a heartbreaking account of a man caught up in such a vortex, being pulled down by forces outside of his own control, losing faith in the people he most needs to trust, facing the possible inevitability of execution for something he insists that he did not do.

I should not end on a low note, however. For the thread that runs throughout “Condemned” is a most amazing theme of discovery and redemption. Somewhere along the way, over decades of injustice, solitary isolation, kangaroo courts, alienating legal relationships, violence against guards and violence by guards against him, Keith LaMar “finds himself.”

He is put to the test and he refuses to tell a lie. He will not give up his soul in order to save his skin. He discovers love in some remarkable people outside of prison who show kindness and support for him but, most of all, in fellow inmates such as Jason Robb, his closest friend, who, like him, faces execution because he refused to snitch on other prisoners.

Somewhere along the way, over decades of injustice, solitary isolation, kangaroo courts, alienating legal relationships, violence against guards and violence by guards against him, Keith LaMar “finds himself.”

Keith finds his personal answer to “man’s search for meaning,” as Victor Frankl puts it: Know yourself, be true to yourself. He has taken chances and perhaps risked losing friends by insisting that he must tell his full story, including some episodes that do not reflect well on himself.

That full story is beautifully told in “Condemned,” from the 1993 Lucasville uprising, through the trial, through early isolation and then into the giant new supermax outside of Youngstown, Ohio, a prison that was built to house Keith LaMar and the four others who were unjustly condemned to die after the Lucasville uprising.

Read this book. You’ll begin to understand why men and women insist on coming together to understand and help each other. They do it even at the risk of their lives and their physical freedom. Yet in doing so they become truly free.

Keith LaMar, Bomani Shakur, found himself in that darkest of places, that inhumane invention of the greatest superpower in the world: the supermax prison. In early 2011, he and Jason Robb and Siddique Abdullah Hasan – African-American, white, Muslim – launched a hunger strike for the right to touch their families and friends on open visits.

They won. The word spread to the SHU of Pelican Bay, to Menard Correctional Institute in Illinois, across the country where this cruel practice of supermax isolation remains. Todd Ashker heard the call, as did Arturo Castellanos, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, Antonio Guillen and 30,000 others.

Read this book. You’ll begin to understand why men and women insist on coming together to understand and help each other. They do it even at the risk of their lives and their physical freedom. Yet in doing so they become truly free.

Denis O’Hearn teaches sociology at Binghamton University in New York and is the author of “Nothing but an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation.” He can be reached at denisohearn@gmail.com. “Condemned,” published by CreateSpace, is available on Amazon for $12.93.

Help release ‘Condemned’

Activist and Bomani supporter Ben Turk writes: “You can help us get a first batch of books together, and secure your copy by donating to this indiegogo campaign (http://igg.me/at/KeithLaMar/x/600177). If we can raise $880, that’ll buy us 250 books for events and outreach to media outlets, bookstores and other folks who need to get their hands on a copy ASAP!

Host an event

“We’re still waiting for the date for oral arguments on Keith’s final appeal of the death sentence. But we don’t have to just wait, we can use the time we have now to plant seeds of a national mobilization that could pressure these judges and lawyers into a favorable decision that should build momentum toward the general amnesty we seek.

“Please take a minute to think about communities you could share this information with: your school, church, book club, friends and family. Hosting an event is easy, and you don’t have to be an expert on the Lucasville Uprising, because one of the prisoners who was there will be able to call in and answer questions. Whether you’d like to do a film screening, a reading from ‘Condemned’ or anything else, we’d love to make it easy for you. We can lend you a stack of literature to have on hand during the event, set you up temporarily with an approved phone number for Keith, Hasan or Jason to call in to, and get you a copy of ‘The Shadow of Lucasville.’”

Just contact Ben and he’ll make it happen: 614-704-4699 or insurgent.ben@gmail.com.

Message from Bomani

I’m reaching out to inform you all that I finally finished my book, “Condemned.” My case will be coming up for oral arguments sometime in the near future.

My hope is that after reading my book you will feel compelled to join me in my efforts to stay alive. More than that, my hope is that I can somehow use what has happened to me as an illustration of what can happen to any poor person in America.

In a real sense then, this book isn’t just about me or about what happened to these men after a prison uprising. It’s about all of us. What happened to me can happen to you. Especially if you are poor. Especially if you are a minority. Especially if you are alone … or at least feel that you’re alone.

Writing this book and talking to various people around the country, I’ve learned that I am not by myself in this struggle and my hope is that in sharing this book with you all, that you all will come away with the same feeling: that we’re not alone. We’re not divided.

Really, contrary to what those in power would have us believe, there are more of us than there are of them. If we’d just turn around and look to the next person we will see that. We will also see that it is only when we have compassion and understanding for each other that we can do something about the pain and struggle that we are all engaged in.

I hope that you can get this book and share it with your friends and family, and that we can meet again soon and talk about these things.

Peace,

Keith Lamar (Bomani Shakur)

 

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