Skip to content

What It’s Like Being a Political Prisoner

December 10, 2013

BY HERMAN BELL

Excerpted in the 2014 Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar: certaindays.org

Physically, I feel like I did when I started this prison journey in 1973, but mentally and spiritually, I have traveled far. The authorities today watch me as close as they did back then; it has been the way of things since my imprisonment; back then, nobody quite knew what to make of me or what to expect.

I maintained a kind and respectful disposition toward everyone. I kept to myself. I am quiet and was just being myself. The snitches (the known ones, anyway), the bandits, the tough guys, the individuals with dirt on their name, were all there. They kept their distance, and I kept mine. In jail, you mind your own business and choose your own company; that way, you live and let live. However, I have extended myself on occasion to help someone I know get out of a jam; and every time I did, my gut told me it was the right thing to do. For the most part, though, I have never had a problem with people in jail. I get along with people. In fact, some of these guys think of themselves as looking after me; they tell me everything, some of which I smile or nod approval at; others I shrug indifference at or advise them to leave alone. And these guys are always up to something. They keep what they know they ain’t supposed to be doing from me. Throughout this prison journey, regardless of what jail I’m at, these guys have treated me decently and with respect. Still, lest we forget, every tub has to stand on its own bottom.

Back in 1973, every day when we went to court, the authorities drove us down city streets with their sirens screaming, heavy weaponry, and a show of force like we were prize trophies. Throughout those tedious months of trial, far more of them sat in the courtroom than spectators or our supporters.

That we were guilty of the charge (police homicide) was a foregone conclusion—that we didn’t think right and we didn’t act right. And the fleeting glances public employees gave us when in our presence implied that we were too “hot” to look at and were destined for a place they feared to go, that somehow we were dreamed up from the nether regions by some twist of fate and have no place in this god-fearing, law-abiding, Christian world. So how could they see and understand our historic fight for freedom and social justice!

The court proceedings went as the authorities had planned. I likened it to the lyrics from a Bob Dylan song: they smiled in our face and killed us with kindness. The first trial resulted in a “hung jury”; the second one resulted in a 25-to-life sentence; and so, again, my journey behind these prison walls.

I started out with the feds, as I had a 25-year sentence with them, and since I had also a life sentence to do in New York, after doing five years, the feds later paroled me to New York. But when on my way to feds, an odd thing happened. Three Black U.S. marshals were escorting me to USP-Marion, and as we deplaned at the airport in St. Louis, Missouri, a detail of White U.S. marshals arrived and volunteered to take me to USP-Marion, since they “so happened to be going that way.” My escort refused to let them take me; it precipitated an altercation; service weapons were drawn, and the arriving marshals backed off. The head marshal sitting on the back seat with me as we drove from the airport remarked: “You know what that was all about!” I looked him in the eye and smiled.

On my arrival at Marion, the prison administration locked me in their infamous behavioral modification “control unit” and kept me there for two-and-a-half years. And I suffered like everyone else in there, some of whom were jailhouse lawyers and political detainees. I didn’t see the sun for six months. Kept out of the open air for so long, when they finally let me outside, the spring breeze brushing against my skin felt painful from the sensory deprivation I had sustained. I’ve had trying experiences in their control units—recurring bouts of claustrophobia, little to read, frequent exposure to tear gas, loneliness, isolation, and never was I told when I could leave. I’ve had a trying experience there! Yet, they say: the race goes not to the swiftest, but to those who endure. The feds paroled me to NYS in 1979.

Since my arrival in New York, my whereabouts have been constantly monitored from the state’s Central Monitoring Office, which determines where and for how long I am locked at a prison; it dispatches its own team to move me wherever I have to go.

I see prison as the parlor of graveyard; being here as long as I have is as close to being in hell as one can imagine, and the power the guards wield exacerbates the conditions. If by the way you walk, talk, respond to commands, or if the look in your eye displeases them—all of which is subjective and too often racist—you made their day. This applies to people working here who come alive when they punch their time clock; the authority they wield is intoxicating, a dream come true. Yet, to be fair, not all of them are power-drunk. Some of them neither abuse nor mistreat prisoners (we are all helpless in here, you know!). These workers I regard as having been loved by their parents and well brought up. It’s inevitable, though, that the longer one works here, the more callous and mean-spirited he becomes. Power corrupts, as they say, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A tremendous number of people have been imprisoned since the ‘70s. They are young, mostly from Black and Latino communities, and are largely the offspring of crack-addicted parents and of “babies having babies.” They are likely self-raised because of their parents’ addiction; and babies are incapable of raising their own babies. Nothing exists in a vacuum; all things are connected. The social movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s was powerful, and the Black community featured prominently in it before massive amounts of crack cocaine suddenly appeared in the hood, which devastated Black communities and set the stage for the criminalization of Black youth and Black mass incarceration. Black people are the least favored in the nation, and Black oppression is significant to continual racial and social divisions in the U.S.

Recall that after the U.S. Civil War, southern states sought to re-enslave free Blacks through punitive “vagrancy laws,” and “convict leasing.” Blacks deemed unemployed were declared vagrants and were jailed with an onerous fine and bail imposed. Unable to pay this fine or make bail, a Black was sentenced to work it off for the county or for whomever paid his bill. This went for decades under brutal and horrid conditions. A legal ordinance re-enslaved Blacks back then; today, “stop-and-frisk,” drug possession, mandatory sentencing laws and the like serve the same purpose.

Since Black imprisonment is associated with “hot-button” issues like war on drugs, violent crimes, zero tolerance, and mandatory sentencing, their punishment seemed not so racist or draconian at all. Tell a lie long enough, and people will believe it.

As might be expected, mass incarceration has also affected social consciousness inside prisons. Prior to this huge inflow, older prisoners had long established a code of conduct that enabled them to co-exist among themselves and confront the conditions of their imprisonment. It was common to hear well-reasoned discussions of history, law, and science on more than one tier on the block and out in the yard. College books in classrooms and school libraries were commonly found on tables and windowsills in the prison wings, which strongly suggests the focus and intent of those confined. Thus, mass incarceration did to the prison population what crack cocaine did to the Black communities.

What’s it like being a political prisoner? From the inside looking out, I have seen what a leadership void has done to the Black community after the murders of Malcolm X, Dr. King, and the demise of the BPP. Leaders are not born to lead; leaders emerge from the masses. We know leaders by what they do; leaders are doers, not sayers. Practice is the criterion of truth. So what are the qualities of a leader? I regard love, courage, respect, care and concern, a sense of responsibility as qualities that manifest in a leader. The historic subjugation and oppression of U.S. Blacks cannot be paved over by apologetic words and the election of a few Black faces in high office. The oppressive social climate that prevailed in the community before my imprisonment in 1973 has not abated. Blacks are killed with impunity: the police “stop-and-frisk” and arrest at will; we fill the prisons and have the highest unemployment rate in the nation; public schools are failing.

What’s it like being a political prisoner? It’s knowing I represent more than myself; that I am an advocate of freedom, justice, equality, and self-determination. Therefore, whatever I do must be reflective of those principles. If you are faithful to your principles, people will take notice, even those who oppose you; people will even gravitate towards you out of respect; they may even assist you now and again. Prisoners view me in a light that’s different than the light they view other prisoners. I am respected not so much for the person I am as for the life I choose to live; but if a political prisoner is well-liked, prisoners will often defer to his judgment, even protect him; and that’s a critical responsibility of leadership. Therefore, I am mindful of what I say and do. What I do is far more persuasive than what I say. So I advocate to them the virtue of self-reliance, academic and vocational education, the virtue of strong family ties, building an economic base for ourselves (collective economics) and community self-defense.

I have taught Black history, mentored young men, and developed civil programs. In 1995, some friends and I founded the Victory Gardens Project (VGP); we organized progressive individuals and groups to learn how to grow organic produce and distributed it “free” in poor communities throughout the northeast—in Maine, Boston, New Jersey, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Harlem and the Bronx. (For ten years we did this.) At each stop, we fed at least 180 families. In the year 2000, another group and I published a calendar called “Certain Days”; you can find it on the internet. This calendar supports U.S. political prisoners and is replete with historical dates and relevant information about the Black Liberation struggle. It’s sold to people on the streets, and it’s hot! A portion of the sales is withheld for reproduction; the rest of it distributed to groups that do real community-support work. It serves the People. I urge you to buy it.
I have been to the parole board five times and have been denied five times. I am 65 years old now. The parole board says the denials are based on the serious nature of my offense. The offense refers to the militant stand they convicted me of for defending my community. The parole board, comprised of ex-police and prosecutors, regard my offense as a senseless, premeditated, unprovoked, criminal act against lawful authority. That lawful authority has a history of discrimination against Black people, a history that sanctioned the importation and sale of Black flesh; enforced vagrancy laws so that Blacks could be arrested, fined, re-enslaved and leased out as free convict labor to property owners and commercial businesses. It legitimated Jim Crow laws, racial segregation and denial of Black civil and human rights, turned a blind eye to White mob violence, Klan murders and acts of intimidation. Though the years have changed, the violence and targeting of Blacks for control and domination goes on.

To regard the unremitting cruelty and degradation of Black people as an expression of White hatred and contempt of Blacks misses the point entirely; it’s an undisguised expression of White desire to control and profit from Black oppression. Unfortunately, this attitude of White power and authority over Blacks remains largely undisturbed in U.S. society.

In spite of that, the Black struggle of the ‘60s and ‘70s signaled a turn-around. The cogent words of a fellow prisoner, Brother Daharibu Dorrough, expresses it succinctly: “There is simply no way that people are going to continue to allow themselves to be subjected to the constant assault on their humanity. The disrespectful, degrading, dehumanizing get-down that is directed at us at some point has to be responded to . . .”

What’s it like being a political prisoner? It’s recognition that freedom ain’t free

Advertisements
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: