Lifelong fighter for prisoners’ rights: Hugh Ray Lyons Jr., presente!

Hugh-Lyons-mugshot-article-excerpt-from-The-Newsweekly-of-Indianapolis, Lifelong fighter for prisoners’ rights: Hugh Ray Lyons Jr., presente!, Behind Enemy Lines
In this clipping from the Indianapolis newsweekly Nuvo is the mugshot, withheld from the trial, that should have exonerated Hugh Lyons. Not only is he 6-feet-5-inches whereas the attacker described by the victim was 5-feet-11-inches, but he has a beard, and the attacker had none. Like so many Black prisoners, Lyons was convicted solely because he was Black.

by Victor Wallis

My long-time friend Hugh Lyons died a year ago, on Dec. 30, 2019. I wonder if any of you remember him. He never made national news but was an important leader of local prison struggles in Indiana from the 1970s through the 1990s. During the years spanning his prison-time – three separate terms between the early 1970s and 2001 – he was also known as Muata Obafemi Enaharo; he reclaimed his original name around the time of his final release.

Hugh was born in 1951. I met him in 1974, shortly after his release from his first sentence, which was for a trivial offense. I had been teaching in Indianapolis since 1970 and had been anxiously following the course of the socialist government in Chile that had been elected that same year. I met Muata along with two other recently released prisoners through a comrade who came to a meeting I called to organize protest actions against the US-supported military coup of September 1973 that overthrew the Chilean government.

That was a period of widespread revolutionary ferment in US prisons, inspired by the Black Panther Party, George Jackson and the Attica rebellion. Muata and his friends – one of whom, amazingly, had been released early in order to “relieve” the prison of his organizing activity – wanted to form a Marxist study group. Adding two colleagues of mine from the university, the six of us met weekly for several months in early 1974. During the following winter and spring, I joined with the three ex-prisoners and two labor activists to produce a monthly newsletter called The Real Deal which reported on human rights violations at the nearby Pendleton “Reformatory” (now “Correctional Facility”).

Muata was at that time involved with the African Liberation Support Committee and gave public talks on its behalf. I invited him to address one of my classes. He was an inspiring speaker, with a deep voice, a commanding presence, sharp insight, measured delivery and a lively sense of humor. 

A year later, however, he was back in prison, at Pendleton. The conditions leading to his re-incarceration are best conveyed in his own words (from the text of a call he issued within the prison to organize a prison labor movement):

“We recognize that the basic reason for our being held and dehumanized – or the basic contradiction to our humanity – is the fact that we were and are poor. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are in prison for committing economic crimes, crimes against property. These crimes are directly tied to the economic conditions in society and the availability of jobs. Those of us who commit them do so not because we are sick but because there aren’t any jobs and we must eat; we must live.”

I struggled to learn. I had to learn first how to read to learn new and different things, instead of reading to confirm strongly held views. I had to learn to release my anger in manners not constructive or destructive but just to let it go. I had to learn how to help people with no expectation of gift or reward. And how to be critical without fear of physical assault.”

I started visiting Pendleton while we were working on The Real Deal. The visiting room was the size of an auditorium, filled with round tables that could comfortably accommodate up to five people. In those days, a visitor did not need advance approval and could call out two prisoners at once for the visit – policies that seem almost unimaginable today.

I mention the physical layout because one of my most vivid memories of Muata was an occasion when, without prior warning, from one corner of the visiting room, he captured for several minutes the attention of all the 100+ people who were present. His voice filled the hall with his articulation of the prisoners’ grievances.

The other thing I should say about my visits with Muata is that he projected an infectious vitality. He was alert to the outside world, often telling me things about it that I didn’t know. The visits lifted my spirits.

Muata was free for a few years beginning in 1979. I remember that he came to my home that year when I invited friends to a screening of – ironically – “The Battle of Chile,” of which I had a 16-mm. print on loan so that I could review it for the radical film journal Jump Cut. Sometime after that, however, he left town, moving to various places around the country, and we lost contact.

I did not see him again until I learned that he was back in Pendleton, this time convicted – falsely, as I later learned – of a robbery that had taken place in Indianapolis in early 1984. It was a classic case of his being targeted because of his skin color even though his other traits – including some discernible in a mugshot [shown here] that the police withheld during trial – in no way matched the description given by the victim.

What made this conviction especially vicious, however, was that it triggered a “habitual offender” or “three strikes” law, leading to a sentence of 35 years, of which he would have to serve approximately half. An attempt in 1992 to get him post-conviction relief, based in part on disclosure of the suppressed photo, was rejected by the deciding judge.

In his review for Socialism and Democracy of the 1998 book “The Celling of America,” Muata described himself as “someone who has been fighting prisoners’ rights battles in Indiana since the time, over 20 years ago, when prisoners’ outgoing mail was routinely pre-censored; who once helped formulate a plan to sue every major jail in the state for lack of recreational facilities, law libraries or proper medical screening; who fought to block sheriffs from operating jail commissaries as private businesses; and who has struggled to bring educational programs of critical thinking into the prisons.”

Muata was always at the forefront of the discussions challenging all of us to think more critically and more profoundly.”

His educational work reached a high point in 1987 when, in collaboration with a Purdue University team put together by my friend Willie Ney, he organized a 10-week seminar at Pendleton on “Revolutionary Movements in the African Diaspora and Central America.” As Willie describes it, “during the two-hour period that we had weekly with 20 inmates with Muata as a key facilitator I never felt so liberated and electrified. There was a sense of hope among the small cadre of participants even though there were inmates with decades ahead of them in that old fortress of Pendleton. The final paper for the course was focused on Liberation Education and I’ve never seen such profound academic and transformative work displayed in the essays submitted. It was as if that two-hour period was a sacred space for all of us to share in a voyage of transformation … Muata was always at the forefront of the discussions challenging all of us to think more critically and more profoundly.”

Underlying Muata’s work was a lifelong commitment which he described to me in a 1995 letter: “I by becoming a communist at 19, placed myself in a position that was within and without my culture. Those within the anti-subservient portion of Afrikan-American culture include Nat Turner, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Henry Highland Garnet, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. And me! There is no need to record a single name from the other side.

“I became a communist to help foster a sense of rightness in the spirit of rebellion then sweeping the community that is Amerika. I struggled to learn. I had to learn first how to read to learn new and different things, instead of reading to confirm strongly held views. I had to learn to release my anger in manners not constructive or destructive but just to let it go. I had to learn how to help people with no expectation of gift or reward. And how to be critical without fear of physical assault.”

Another remarkable achievement by Muata during those years was his writing of a screenplay. “Black Yank” depicts the traumatic experience of an African-American soldier returning to the US from France at the end of World War I – having fought on behalf of the US government but then being subjected to the most unalloyed expressions of racism when he got home.

After the judge rejected Muata’s post-conviction relief effort, several friends and I petitioned the Marion County prosecutor for a sentence reduction based on Muata’s extraordinary educational work and his plans to pursue a college degree. In that connection, with the help of a mutual friend, I asked the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Haskell Wexler to give his evaluation of “Black Yank.” Wexler wrote that the screenplay “shows exceptional talent,” adding: “In his writing Hugh Lyons shows a high level of professional skill. Beyond that, and the reason for this letter, Mr. Lyons’ writing is sensitive and compassionate.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, the prosecutor was deaf to such considerations, and the prison years dragged on. By the time Hugh got out, his health had been permanently damaged, condemning him in his last years to an endless round of medical crises. With his strong underlying constitution, however, and with the support of his loving daughter Lona, he maintained his lively interests and his buoyant spirit to the end.

Victor Wallis is the author of “Red-Green Revolution” (2018), “Democracy Denied” (2019), and “Socialist Practice” (2020). He can be reached at zendive@aol.com or 411A Highland Ave. (#321), Somerville, MA 02144.