Hometown Folks - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics News

Hometown Folks

Letters from American political prisoners

Prison, barsPrison, bars

Prison bars.


Silence is the subtlest penalty of imprisonment. Like most people on the outside, we did not realize how hard it was to get in touch with prisoners until we tried to write to some of them. We sent personal letters to more than 300 inmates in institutions all over the country, inviting them to contribute to this article. Nearly half our letters were returned, some accompanied by tortuously worded forms from prison officials expressing logic that could have come from Kafka. The Federal Correctional Institution — as it is called — at Danbury, Connecticut, advised that “the reason your letter was opened was due to the fact that you failed to place your name and return address on the envelope in which your letter was contained.” The return address was in fact printed on the envelope.

Most prisoners are limited to a list of “approved correspondents” with whom they can exchange letters. Almost always this list is restricted to family, friends, attorneys, and officials of the prison system. If a prisoner lists, say, the editor of the New York Times, the news director of WKCR radio, the US ambassador from Equador or the Pope, prison officials can simply say no.

Regulations vary widely from state to state, but most have in common that they are couched in humanitarian terms while equipped with an escape clause vague enough to allow prison officals to restrict correspondents virtually at will. In federal prisons, inmates are allowed to write to people outside their immediate family only if “it appears that such correspondence will not adversely affect the inmate’s chances of rehabilitation or that it will not be detrimental to the well-being of the inmate or his correspondent,” whatever that means. New Mexico allows acquaintances on the list if “a bona fide friendship exists and the correspondence is for a legitimate purpose.” Censorship of the mail typically is justified on principles equally vague. Texas regulations require that “inmates shall limit their letters to matters of personal interest to friends and relatives.” In New York, a prisoner’s letter can be handed back to him if, as the rule puts it, “You did not stick to your subject.”

When it comes to the press, prison authorities draft rules like men bailing out a sinking ship. Many states — as large as New York and as small as Vermont — simply prohibit inmates from communicating with news media. If a prisoner leaks information to a newspaper without permission he can be punished, whether the information was true or not. Other more “liberal” states allow letters to newspapers and magazines, but censor them. Pennsylvania prison authorities are not permitted to censor inmates’ personal mail (except on a spot check basis), but when it comes to the media, letters “shall be censored” if they are “clearly misleading” or perhaps just “potentially misleading” in the opinion of the authorities.

Recently, journalists in several states have filed suits which may force the US Bureau of Prisons to liberalize its regulations about correspondence and visits with journalists. The Department of Justice is working on new rules, and if they prove sufficient to evade the suit many states may follow their example.

Many prisons censor publications with as free a hand as they restrict correspondence. Oregon bans “publications which excite, encourage and/or promote violence or disorder,” a provision which sounds reasonable enough but which in practice can be used to stop anything from a daily paper on up. In Hawaii, prisoners may not be exposed to “comics, risque magazines or pocketbooks of a derogatory nature.” The man in charge of mail at Wyoming State Penitentiary refused to allow an inmate to receive Rolling Stone or the Whole Earth Catalog because, he said, “You’re here for rehabilitation, not to read about hippies.”

Books prohibited in New York state prisons include the I Ching, Martin Sostre’s Letters From Prison, and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.

The cases which appear here were assembled over a period of three months primarily through the help of the prisoners themselves. Our purpose is to allow them to communicate. They are in no way meant to represent all prisoners; each case is different, and we heard from no one who claimed to speak for anyone but himself.

The very nature of prison regulations distorts the sample. A disproportionate number of the prisoners we heard from were white, middle-class men in medium or minimum-security institutions, where mail regulations are more liberal. Most of them are accustomed to writing letters and are well aware that prison conditions for them are not what they are for some others. For, say, a black man educated in ghetto schools and county jails and now locked in solitary in some federal prison, the obstacles to communication with anyone outside can be almost insurmountable. In a sense, then, these cases represent the luckier recipients of political justice in America.

Few women are represented, partly because of the law’s strange courtliness toward them (prosecutors and judges often let women dope offenders go and jail their men), partly because the draft laws do not address themselves to women, and partly because this society imposes stronger moral sanctions against women in prison than against men, so that each is more likely to feel ashamed.

Nor can we hear from the dead: Anthony Jones, 19 years old, an asthmatic who died after being forcibly administered four heavy doses of Thorazine in a so-called School for Boys in Illinois. Philip Lassiter, a victim of sickle cell anemia at a Virginia prison farm, who screamed in his cell day and night for almost a week before he died. Willie Stewart, a frail 17-year-old boy who succumbed under the harassment of guards before he could complete a one-day sentence at Cummins Prison Farm outside Little Rock, Arkansas. Lloyd Lott, 20 years old, who did time at Parchman Prison in Mississippi, was released, and shot himself when it appeared he would be sent back again.

Who is a political prisoner? For the purpose of this article we have included not only prisoners whose alleged crimes were political in nature but prisoners whose due process was, at some point, warped because of their social or political background. On this matter, Angela Davis, destined to be one of America’s most celebrated political prisoners, says the following in her recent book. 

If They Come in the Morning:

In this country. . .where the special category of political prisoners is not officially acknowledged, the political prisoner inevitably stand trial for a specific criminal offense, not for a political act. Often the so-called crime does not even have a nominal existence. As in the 1914 murder frame-up of the IWW organizer, Joe Hill, it is a blatant fabrication, a mere excuse for silencing a militant crusader against oppression. In all instances however, the political prisoner has violated the unwritten law which prohibits disturbances and upheavals in the status quo of exploitation and racism. This unwritten law has been contested by actually and explicitly breaking a law or by utilizing constitutionally protected channels to educate, agitate and organize the masses to resist.

A deep-seated ambivalence has always characterized the official response to the political prisoner. Charged and tried for a criminal act, his guilt is always political in nature. This ambivalence is perhaps best captured by Judge Webster Thayer’s comment upon sentencing Bartholomew Vanzetti to 15 years for an attempted payroll robbery: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”

During the months that we worked to contact these prisoners, people all over the country contributed their efforts with startling readiness. We owe thanks especially to Keith Stroup of the National Organization for Reform of the Marijuana Laws, to the American Civil Liberties Union, and to Andrea Wyatt, poet, songwriter and founder of the First National Bail Fund of America.

Refusing to Kill

1. The government shall decide who may lawfully be killed and who may not. 2. Anyone who kills someone the government has not said it is all right to kill is guilty of murder. 3. Anyone who won’t kill someone the government says it is all right to kill is guilty of Refusing to Kill. 4. Anyone who interferes with the government in telling its citizens who to kill is guilty too. 5. Anyone who abets or encourages someone who has Refused to Kill is guilty of Conspiracy to Refuse to Kill. 6. Some offenders may choose certain alternatives to killing, such as helping the sick. Some may not. It shall be determined by a panel of men who think the government is right. 7. Penalty. Offenders are to be locked up for the period of time they would otherwise have spent killing.

* * *

Larry Zink burned his draft cards February 13, 1969 at a student-faculty meeting at the University of Nebraska, where he was studying electrical engineering. He asked others to join him; none did. He refused induction, was arrested for burning his card and sentenced under the Youth Corrections Act to “zip-six’, an indeterminate term of up to six years. Last March he entered prison at Springfield, Mo., was transferred to El Reno, Oklahoma (“the cesspool of the federal prison’s youth division,” says Zink), and finally entered the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville, Texas, outside Dallas.

“My reasons for becoming involved with resistance and antiwar activity were more philosophical than political. I could find no value higher than life to justify the taking of another human life. For this reason I felt I could not continue to be silent while this country carried out mass slaughter of human life and the destruction of the Vietnamese culture. . . .”

In all three of the prisons I have been in I have found the idea of rehabilitation to be a cruel joke. The libraries are, for all practical purposes, non-existent. The educational facilities at first glance look fair, but few of the teachers have any college education, much less a degree. . . .I can’t think of a single privilege, whether it be liberal mail rules or honor housing, the main purpose of which is not control of the inmate. Even basic things that one on the street would take as a right, like a little privacy, on the inside must be obtained by playing the sick games and trying not to lose one’s self-respect in the process. . . .”

Although my immediate oppressors are the people in the Bureau of Prisons, I can’t lay much of the responsibility on their shoulders, but must place it where it belongs, on American society. It is the citizens of this country who force the prisons to operate on their small budgets, and their attitude of ‘I don’t want to be bothered with it,’ which allows these conditions to continue. “

As for me personally, I guess it can best be summed up by stating that I don’t regret taking the steps that led me here, and I would probably do it again. . .”

* * *

Karl Meyer has a wife, three children and a 14-year record of resisting federal taxes because their revenue is “overwhelmingly devoted to warfare.” From 1968 to 1970, Meyer paid no tax at all — he filed deduction claims covering all his income — and last April he was sentenced to two years in the Federal Correctional Institution at Sandstone, Minnesota.

“As I was led from the courtroom to begin serving two years. I had only time to wave briefly to my seven-year-old son, William. In the marshal’s lockup I broke down and cried. But this time has not in any way broken down our commitment to respect and defend our life and the lives of others. . .

“I do believe that we should all strive to live in a simpler way. If we work part-time for wages and live on less than taxable incomes, we will have extra time to grow, create and do more things for ourselves, or to offer our work as a gift to people in need of it.

Even if we work full time for taxable wages, but successfully resist collection of the taxes, we should still live simply in order to share our surplus money with others who are in need. I have done this all my adult life and intend to go on with it. “There is one main thing that the government asks of ordinary people to support its military policies: Just go along and pay your taxes. And because that is the main thing asked of us, that’s one thing we will never do.”

* * *

Richard Fox was locked up in Seagoville last October on a “zip-six” sentence for failing to report for his pre-induction physical or for induction itself.

“When I first awakened at age 22, I had dropped out of college, was married and living in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. My wife Mimi and I were living in an old, smoky and magic tipi while the cabin was being built. We had found our way back to a home and a way of living we’d always wanted. Hard work was all it cost us.

“I wrote my draft board and explained that I was a pacifist and why, and that I would leave them alone, and expect the same.

“Throughout the winter tension and friction between the people on the land we shared grew and spread to the local residents. In the spring men came with guns and killed a friend. The land purchase failed, so we left to find land of our own and start again. For two years we moved from place to place, working a while then leaving. . . .

Eventually we worked our way to California and the mountains east of San Bernardino. By this time Mimi was pregnant, so we stayed, and Jedediah was born there in November 1970. In December I received a letter of induction. I remember thinking how clean the snow looked as I crumpled the notice into the trash. “

. . .In February my parents contacted us and said they’d been notified by the FBI that I should turn myself in and apply for CO status. They said that they had to tell where we were living. I said I understood and not to worry, but I did; we had no money and the truck was acting up and Jed was only a few months old. So I drove down the mountain and turned myself in. All my questions concerning applying for CO were ignored. . . 

Six weeks later, agents came and busted me in my parents home in El Paso, where it all had started. . .”

* * *

“My name is Mike McClain. I’m currently serving three years in Seagoville on the charge of mailing obscene matter. After receiving numerous warnings and notices to come and be drafted. I decided it would be keen to let my local draft board know exactly how I felt about their army, so I sent them a graphic picture of my dick.

“Needless to say, they didn’t fid it humorous, and I soon after came home to find two FBI agents waiting with a warrant. The trial was a farce: The judge sitting upon his throne, rather bored, a huge emblem embedded in the wall behind him, and behind the wall behind that, cages holding some of the finest people I’d met. . . . I got three years.

“[At Seagoville] I have felt negative pressure put on my projects to get prisoners together to play music. It really threatens them, because it’s organized, self-sustaining activity that they can’t control short of stopping it entirely. I really enjoy doing it, not so much because I love it and they hate it, but because it is a positive way to maintain my soul, which they try so desperately to take away. That’s all prison can do to you — rip off your spirit. The time in itself would not be so painful. It’s all the other shit you have to contend with: ‘rehabilitation,’ ‘adjusting’ so you’ll no longer be a thorn in society’s side; mental shock treatment, honing down all the peaks and filling in the valleys, shaping you into another helpless ball-bearing for their insane machine. Censored mail both ways, censored books and magazines (Rolling Stone is not allowed in), room shakedowns, uniform haircuts, practiced sameness. . . .

“My woman is waiting outside for me. I miss her. I miss the freedom. I had my music, the peace and brotherhood of my friends, but this must come first. I wouldn’t feel the same if I had split. I’m no martyr, but this is something that had to be done, apparently.”

* * *

Alan Sconzert is doing time in Seagoville.

“I was brought up in a military atmosphere for 19 years. As a junior in high school I was even an alternate appointment to the Naval Academy, but was disqualified because of poor eyesight. Then in my senior year I began to question the morality of the Vietnam war. That summer one of my very close friends burned his draft card. This was a turning point for me. Finally two years later I also severed relations by burning my draft card. . .

“I was arrested in May 1971 for failure to report for induction. From this point on, the entire experience was shrouded in an air of unreality. My court-appointed lawyer had formerly been a consultant for my local draft board. His partner was a former prosecuting attorney for the US who specialized in selective service violations. Both of them had a very difficult time trying to understand the rationale behind my action. Throughout their entire counseling, even during the trial, they attempted to persuade me to seek a conscientious objector’s status. Even the presiding judge said the charges would be dropped were I to return to my draft board and initiate applications for CO. The judge refused to accept my plea of nolo contendere. My friends were not allowed inside the courtroom because they were not ‘suitably attired.’ I pled guilty and was sentenced to two years.”

* * *

A draft board in Minneapolis turned down Seth Peterson’s CO application and a judge sentenced him to probation. The probation officer noted with disapproval that Seth was living with a woman without being married to her, and so sent him to work in another state. After a short time Seth gave it up, returned to Minneapolis and wrote a long letter to his probation officer explaining that he wanted to stay home and find a job there. His probation was revoked; he is now serving time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.

“I waited months for a personal appearance before the draft board and heard nothing. Then I received a letter telling me that the board had decided not to reopen my file because there was no new evidence to warrant a reopening, and also that my order had been postponed until a later date, at which time I was to report for induction. “I have a friend who was present at the meeting during which the board voted whether or not to reopen my file. He said that the clerk called me crafty, cocky and belligerent and said that they should really get me this time. “

. . .The trial began, My attorney started with the idea the the draft board had shirked its duty by not considering my CO form. His point was that since they had chosen not to consider the form, they had denied me all my rights of appeal under Selective Service System regulation. He presented the facts so well that the judge was on the verge of dismissing the case, but the district attorney jumped up and said, ‘Your honor, the defendant is 26 years old, and if we don’t convict him we can’t get him again. . . ‘”

* * *

A Quaker, Wayne Lauser was classified a Conscientious Objector and assigned to alternate service in a Cleveland Hospital.

“Several months later, after much personal searching. I was unable to continue cooperation with the draft. In July 1969 I began a 500-mile walk from Cleveland to Washington, D.C. Along the way I visited, Quaker meetings, speaking of my action. In Media, Pa., my home town, I returned my draft classification card and on August 11, 1969, Steve Burns (another draft resister) and I walked into Melvin Laird’s office and placed our draft registration cards on his desk, along with letters and minutes of support from friends.”

A federal judge in Philadelphia sentenced Lauser to two years in federal prison at Lewisburg. At the sentencing, one witness quoted in Lauser’s behalf a declaration the Quakers made to King Charles II in 1660: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world. The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the Kingdom of Christ nor for the kingdoms of the world. . . “

* * *

Dave Rensberger was classified a conscientious objector by his draft board, but when called for alternate service he returned his draft card instead. He was recently sentenced to three years in Federal Prison at Ashland, Kentucky.

“I believed, and still believe, that the draft violates a man’s relationship with God, in which the course of his life should be determined. Government oversteps its proper authority when it compels a man’s service, whether in the military or in an ‘alternate’ form of service. I suppose you could say I ‘resisted’ the draft: I simply ignored it, actually. Politics had little or nothing to do with the decision. I would ignore the draft in a socialist, Marxist, or Maoist country too.

” . . .The few really bad experiences through which I have passed have served mainly to bring home to me the desperate need for a re-thinking of means of dealing with people given to theft and violence. Prison is not the answer, in any society. Vicious or materialistic men get more vicious and materialistic here, and everyone gets a little crazy — some more than a little.”

* * *

At midnight July 10th, 1970, eight men broke into draft boards in three Minnesota towns. All eight were arrested on the spot by FBI agents who apparently had been tipped off by an informer, but the same night in a fourth community — Wabasha, Minnesota — all the local draft board’s I-A records disappeared without a trace.

Two of the “Minnesota Eight” — Frank Kronke and Mike Therriault — are now out on appeal. Cliff Ulen is awaiting sentencing. All the others are locked in federal prisons, widely scattered to prevent them from conspiring again: Chuck Terchick at El Reno, Kansas; Brad Beneke at Ashland, Kentucky, Pete Simmons at Englewood, Colorado, Don Olson at Springfield Mo., and Bill Tilton at Milan, Michigan. Brad Beneke and Pete Simmons, as minors, were given indeterminate sentences which could run as long as six years. The others all got five years, the maximum penalty for “attempted interference with the selective service system.” This letter is from Bill Tilton, previously vice president of the student body at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis-St. Paul, now doing five years in the federal prison at Milan.

“In vernacular terms, we tried to rip off a few draft boards. . . for all sorts of reasons, political and personal. We wanted to find an impressive and educational way to protest the war and the draft. We wanted to physically injure the war and draft effort. We wanted to help the Vietnamese. We wanted to give the draft-eligible young men in these areas a change to ignore government pleas that they assist in the reconstruction of their own slaughter machine. We were fulfilling a personal need to act on our beliefs. And last but certainly not least, it was fun. (Up until we were busted, of course.)

“Although I fully knew the risk I was taking. I didn’t expect to get caught. I wasn’t into the ‘standby’ type action that characterized the more famous draft-board ripoffs. I’m into injuring and ultimately destroying the American war machine. That will finally be accomplished only by mass actions. “The cadre action we took was an extremely small part of the struggle that must be actively participated in by millions of Americans before it will ever be successful. My going to jail is far less effective a role than the role I would have been able to play had I stayed on the streets and continued large-scale public organizing, but that is not to say that our situation had no positive effect. On the contrary, I think our arrest and trials raised the political consciousness of a great number of Twin Citians. I just think we could have done more had we not gotten caught.

“. . .The people I see around me are not society’s excrement, as Tricky Dicky would have us believe. They are an excellent display of our society’s shortcomings and omissions. Why is it that at least half of these people are black? And a much greater percentage poor? “. . .This is not an Attica or a Tombs. Far from it. We have clean, if crowded facilities. There are four vocational training programs and high school classes for those who qualify. And we see a movie almost every weekend. But that’s just the frosting on the cake, and the cake is made of shit.”

* * *

The nation’s two most conservative draft resisters must be Mr. and Mrs. Robert Muncaster, who live in a big house in Montgomery, Alabama next door to Governor Wallace. Muncaster, a 49-year-old management consultant, is a rigorous believer in the Constitution. When his son Charles turned 18, he forbade him to register for the draft because the war in Vietnam had never been declared by Congress. The war was being “perpetuated by the United Nations,” he said.

Muncaster is now in federal prison for interfering with the draft. His son, convicted of refusing to register, is out awaiting appeal. Mrs. Muncaster, not a woman to stand idle, has been indicated for attacking the two federal officers who arrested her husband. (Allegedly she kicked them in the shins.) She is preparing her own defense, assisted by family friend and retired rear admiral John G.Crommelin, a perpetual office-seeker and prominent Alabama anti-Semite.

* * *

Patrick Salaver is doing three years at Safford for resisting the draft. “By birth I am Filipino, a native of Southeast Asia and all too aware of the imperialistic and racist nature of the war. I am also aware as a human being of the nature of oppression that kills people and their culture — babies, women, old men and all. It is the same oppression that keeps third world people in the ghettos of the cities. . . My crime was not a violent act. It had no victims, other than myself perhaps. My crime was confronting a brutal system that denied me and others around the world the right of self-determination. . .

“This is the 10th year of our participation in the war in Southeast Asia, and it has been clear for some time to many that it was wrong. This being an election year, many politicians will at least say it was wrong. Yet I suspect that many of us will still be in jail this Christmas. . . Set us free.”

Felonious Heritage

1. Any Negro, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Indian or other member of a racial or ethnic minority who conducts, comports, represents or beholds himself to be equal to his betters and who acts or encourages others to act in a fashion consistent with that belief, is guilty of Felonious Heritage. 2. Penalty. Members of minorities are entitled to the same sentences as their betters, if not more so.

* * *

When rioting swept through the black ghettos of Buffalo in the summer of 1967, the cops looked hard for somebody to blame. They found Martin Sostre, bookseller.

Sostre was an ex-convict who had served time at Attica on a dope charge, worked a year for Bethlehem Steel and saved his money, then opened a black liberation book-store in Buffalo’s Cold Spring black ghetto.

The store offered the works of Fidel and Mao, and it attracted attention immediately; within days, FBI agents showed up and questioned Sostre about the nature of his books and why he was selling them. Later some local narcs appeared and asked Sostre point-blank what grim plot the store might be fronting for. Sostre said he was selling books.

When the riots broke out in June 1967, Sostre harbored black people in his store while police tear gas billowed through the streets outside. The store had become something of a center in the black community; black radicals and intellectuals liked to hang out there, browsing and talking. Relations between Sostre and the white cops deteriorated, if that was possible.

On July 14th, Sostre heard loud noises and emerged from the back of the store to find a squad of plainclothesmen and uniformed cops punching aside his assistant, a woman named Geraldine Robinson. One cop produced a package full of heroin and exclaimed, “Aha, here it is! See what we found, Marty.” A group of black children in the store witnessed the bust. They said the narc pulled the package from his coat pocket. Sostre was held on $50,000 bail, later reduced to $12,500. When he protested, his white judge suggested that perhaps Mao or Ho would go his bail.

In Washington, a representative of the Buffalo police department testified that a man he identified as “Martin X,” the owner of a bookstore at Sostre’s address, was responsible for the June riots. This evil bookseller, swore the cop, had taken young children into the back of his store and taught them how to make Molotov cocktails.

In this atmosphere Sostre went on trial. He represented himself, but was not permitted to visit a law library or seek out witnesses. He asked the sheriff’s office to locate the black children who had been in his store when he was arrested; the sheriff said they couldn’t be found. Vincent Copeland examined the case, and in his book, The Crime of Martin Sostre, presented evidence that the Sheriff’s office had made no effort to locate the children.

The prosecution’s non-police witness was a junkie named Arto Williams. Williams had been locked up in the Erie County Jail until the morning Sostre was arrested. Hours before the bust, he had been released without bail. Sostre was convicted and sentenced to serve 30-40 years. Handcuffed and gagged before an all-white jury, he underwent a second trial to verify his previous prison record. In March 1968 he was taken to Attica and immediately placed in solitary for refusing to answer questions about whether he intended to recruit other prisoners into an organization “suspected to be insurrectionary.”

Later, Greenhaven State Prison took over Sostre. There for 372 days he was held in solitary in a 6′ by 8′ cell, allowed no personal belongings, no newspapers, no soap. Every half hour, day and night, for over a year, he was awakened by a guard shining a flashlight in his face from the door. Eventually the ACLU got Sostre released from solitary and transferred to a medium-security prison at Wallkill, N.Y. He filed a $1.2 million damage suit against the state, and in a surprising decision was awarded $13,020 damages and 124 days good conduct time denied him while in solitary. Some of the damages were rescinded on appeal, but a ruling stood that prison inmates could not be punished merely for expressing their opinions and if they were, they could sue officals. But Sostre, 48 years old, is still in prison.

* * *

At age 15, Marie Hill was sentenced to die. The charge was the murder of a white grocery store clerk in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. Marie, who is black, was seized by police in South Carolina and quickly extradited. During a week in which she was permitted neither to reach an attorney nor even to speak with her parents, Marie waived her right to a preliminary hearing and signed a confession. She was tried within two months, on December 17th, 1968.

The prosecution failed to prove even that she had been at the scene of the crime, but based its case on her confession. Marie repudiated the confession — “I had no choice” — but was found guilty of murder in the first degree. Appeals were argued for over two years while Marie waited on death row. Finally the US Supreme Court struck down the portion of North Carolina’s murder statute which prescribed a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for defendants who pled guilty, but death for those who pled innocent.

The state, rather than conduct a new trial, simply commuted Marie’s sentence to life. A new appeal was launched asking for a new trial, but Marie, now 18 years old and a three-year veteran of prison, has instructed her lawyer to give up. She points out that in a couple of years, she will be eligible for parole. She has become, according to her attorney, a model prisoner.

* * *

Early one warm August morning in 1969, an army of New York City police blockaded the 125th Street exit of the West Side Highway and stopped a sedan in which were riding four black men — Ricardo de Leon, Jerome West, Afred Cain and Wilbert Thomas. De Leon, West and Cain were members of the Black Panther Party in Brooklyn, and so far as they knew, their friend Wilbert Thomas was a Panther too.

Instead, Thomas was a police agent, and the car he was driving was owned by the police. The cops pulled a shotgun from a paper bag under the seat of his (their) car and arrested the three Panthers for possession of weapons and more elaborate crimes: The Panthers were said to have been on their way to knock off a Harlem hotel and shoot anybody who gave them trouble. Charges of conspiracy to commit robbery and murder were added.

As a study in how undercover agents work, the case is almost without par. Here is De Leon’s account of how Thomas, the secret cop, witnessed the genesis of the Panther “conspiracy”:

“A couple of days before the bust, Wilbert Thomas went to Harlem with me. We spent most of the time at the State Office Building site, which at the time was a center of controversy between elements of the community and officialdom, having been occupied by people who were opposed to building the S.O.B. We walked through the community, stopped at a bookstore, ate at a restaurant, had a couple of beers at a bar, sipped some ‘bitter dog,’ and rapped with people I knew casually.

“In these wanderings through Harlem, I happened to pass a building where a girl I used to be tight with lived. I checked the crib to see if she was home, and since my shadow was with me, he entered the ramshackle tenement with me. I couldn’t find the girl, so I split.

“The police fabrication took my presence at that place, my knowledge of the neighborhood — I used to live two blocks away — plus a superficial conversation analyzing the role of the slumlords in the deterioration of the area, as a hook on which to string a plot to rob the landlord of rent money and ‘shoot anyone who made a funny move. . . .’

“In the course of ordinary conversation [Thomas] found out that brothers Al Cain, Jerome West and myself had some business to transact in Harlem that Saturday morning. Being one of the few people in the Brooklyn Party with access to a car at the time, he offered to take us there. Then by a series of lies and manipulations he pushed the time of our departure ahead from 9 AM. to 6 AM to make it more convenient for the armed goons of the Safe, Loft and Burglary Squad to be waiting for us.”

“As we came off the West Side Highway, Thomas by prearranged orders slowed down the car and about 40 policemen and detectives converged on us with pistols, automatic rifles, shotguns and machine guns. Shielded by bulletproof vests, police came jumping out the side of the road, out of trucks that had blocked the road, taxis and unmarked cars that had been following us all the way from the time we had crossed the bridge from Brooklyn. . . An awesome thought sped through my mind: ‘This is it, these fucking pigs are going to kill us and I ain’t even got a piece.'”

Despite the passionate arguments of assistant D.A. John Fine, the trial jury wouldn’t buy most of the police story and the three were acquitted of the conspiracy charges. But the sandbagging apparently worked, and the jury hung on the weapons charges when a middle-aged woman juror, according to a fellow juror, exclaimed at the end of two days and nights of deliberation: “Well, they must be guilty of something!”

A second jury convicted the Panthers of illegal possession of firearms. Cain received probation. West got three years, and De Leon, with an old string of assault and robbery charges, drew a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. He has since been indicted in connection with the 1970 rebellion in the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, also known as The Tombs, and is awaiting trial while serving the weapons sentence. He does not seem exactly penitant:

“I am imprisoned, not because I have committed any act that can even remotely be considered ‘criminal.’ My comrades and I were jailed for being revolutionaries. . . “Imprisonment for almost two and a half years has been an invaluable experience, a cram course on the nature of race and class oppression, and the Amerikan system of ‘criminal justice,’ its dual standards and outright corruptions, where the real criminals judge their victims. . . Going through these hells and having a totalitarian system wage war on me and my kind has made me more determined in the pursuit of the goal that made me an ‘enemy of the state’ — revolutionary change in all spheres of Babylonian society.”

* * *

New York Assistant DA John Fine — the same man who came up with the Ricardo de Leon Black Panther “conspiracy” — has produced a new show starring Carlos Feliciano, a 41-year-old carpenter and father of six children, in the role of a sort of Puerto Rican Mad Bomber.

It is an odd bit of casting. When arrested, Feliciano had been working for the same furniture company for 14 years. He was superintendent of the East Harlem tenement in which he lived with his wife and family. In a description of himself written from jail, he said:

“I like to behave responsibly toward my job, my wife and my children. I lived in this place for 12 years. I have no vices: I don’t smoke and I drink Puerto Rican alcohol only when I must treat friends who are visiting me. My greatest pleasure, on the few days when I was not working, was to take my dear wife and children in my automobile — after having filled the trunk with food, preferably Creole such as pasteles, rice with gandules, and so on — always looking for the mountains and lakes far from the city which would remind me of my homeland.”

As a young man in Puerto Rico more than 20 years ago, Feliciano was active in the Nationalist Party and served on the Revolutionary General Staff in the Nationalist uprising of 1950. When the revolt failed he was sentenced to life, and served four years before the supreme court set him free. He went back to his old furniture shop in Mayaguez, but found FBI harassment intense, and when his sister sent him plane fare to New York, he took it.

In the city, Feliciano found the FBI had not forgotten him. Two weeks after he went to work for a furniture shop called London Interiors, the feds visited his employer, warned him that Feliciano was one dangerous Puerto Rican, and gave him the option of firing Feliciano or working for the FBI by reporting Feliciano’s activities twice a month. To his credit, the employer told them to go to hell. Feliciano stayed there 14 years.

“One afternoon when it was already quite dark with below-zero temperature, I was leaving work with another of the employees and upon opening the door I noticed these two agents, six feet in stature, all covered with snow and almost frozen. They followed us to the next block. One of the agents approached me and, after identifying himself, told me he wanted to ask me some questions. Motioning me to one side of the sidewalk, he stated that it was his mission to learn what I was thinking now that I lived in New York. I replied: ‘I think like a Puerto Rican, my home and my rights are sacred and must be respected.’ After shaking hands with me, they left.

“One night when I came home from work I noticed that the door had been opened. All my old letters which I had received from Puerto Rico had been taken out of their envelopes and spread open on one of the tables. It looked like a cyclone had come through the door. That day I had left behind rings, a watch, a portable radio and other valuables, all small and easy to carry, but nothing had been taken. This was not the work of narcotics addicts. . . Later I learned it had been the work of the police.”

When Feliciano became superintendent in his building, FBI agents visited the real estate agent and suggested he be fired. (The real estate agent, a Cuban, refused.)

Late one night in 1963 someone fired eight pistol shots into Feliciano’s bedroom, wounding him in the arm. His telephone mysteriously went dead at the time of the shooting, then came back on a few hours later. Feliciano found eight empty shells outside and turned them over to the police, but no significant police action resulted.

Finally the arrest came, on May 16th, 1970, outside a sporting goods shop in the Bronx, and John Fine went into his act.

Fine told the courts and the press that Feliciano was, in effect, one of the most heinous criminals ever to darken the streets of Manhattan. He was responsible for bombing 35 public buildings in the city, including the public library. When arrested he had been carrying “explosive devices” in his car. He had admitted to membership in Movimento Isquierda Revolutionaria Armada, an armed underground group blamed by police for the bombings. Moreover, Feliciano was affiliated with “an alien government outside the limits of the United States,” which Fine could not identify because “It would prejudice the case.”

Impressed, the judges raised bail to $150,000 in Manhattan and $125,000 in the Bronx (one court for each of the two jurisdictions in which bombs had gone off). Feliciano was locked up, to remain in jail for 16 months.

Fine’s story began to disintegrate at a startling rate. The indictment itself cited only one bombing and one attempted bombing: no mention was made of the the other 34. A transcript of the police interrogation turned out to contain no admissions about belonging to terrorist groups — Feliciano had said only that he belonged to the perfectly legal Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico.

But Fine kept busy. Feliciano, he said, was “involved with the Cuban government” and “was formerly affiliated as an agent for a foreign government. . . whose political philosophy is at variance with that of this government.” At a bail hearing, Fine denied he had ever said anything about all the bombings not in the indictment; moments later he blurted that Feliciano was guilty of them anyway and in fact was so agonized that he was probably going to plead guilty at any moment. “My client has never wanted to plead guilty,” replied Feliciano’s lawyer.

After 16 months Feliciano’s bail was reduced and he was released until his trial, which is about to begin. “I wish to thank all the organizations and persons who so spontaneously and disinterestedly have come to my defense in this chapter of my life. . . At present I do not belong to any particular political philosophy. It is my greatest pride to be a Puerto Rican. . . “

* * *

For nearly 22 years Joseph Romero has been locked up for a robbery and murder committed when he was 19 years old. From his cell in the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo he writes that although he has completed 14,000 hours of training in lithography (the equivalent of seven years on a full-time job) and received high marks in other training courses, has never been apprehened for possession of liquor, narcotics or other contraband in prison, and generally has long proven himself ready to return to society, his parole board annually refuses to release him on the basis of “unsubstantiated accusations that I am a ‘dope smuggler’ or that I am a ‘chieftain’ in the ‘Mexican Mafia’ within the prison social structure.” Romero says he will not be released until he admits these charges to be true.

Romero has been eligible for parole for 15 years. In 1959 he killed another inmate at San Quentin in an incident which a Marin County Grand Jury judged justifiable homicide; he says that despite his acquittal the parole board has used that killing as “a lever” to keep him in. Romero writes that a codefendant convicted along with him was paroled after serving 13 years, arrested nine months later for possession of narcotics, drew two to ten years plus the old life sentence, and yet was paroled again last June. Apparently he was not a member of the “Mexican Mafia.”

“Court action and public pressure are the only things that will help me to secure my release. I have five sisters, a brother and a son. My son returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam six months ago. Without reservations, I want my freedom and I want to be with my family. . . .”

Apparently public pressure had some effect. After writing numerous letters to legislators and newspapers, Romero in January was granted a parole date of April 17th, and in fact is now out on a kind of “temporary” parole under the prison’s Release Upon Approved Parole Plan (RUAPP) program. Prison superintendent Dan McCarthy agreed that Romero had an excellent training record but said it’s nearly impossible to know the reasons behind past parole board actions. “After all he had to go before a different parole board each year,” explained McCarthy, “a different board of 16 people each year.”

* * *

The summer of 1970 marked the waning months of a nation-wide police offensive against the Black Panther Party. The previous December 4th, 300 police had raided a Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, and two days later, Fred Hampton was killed in his bed by Chicago cops. The “New York 21” were arrested in March (charged with a plot to blow up city landmarks, including a botanical garden) and by April police had assaulted Panther offices in New Haven, Detroit, Milwaukee, Dallas, Oakland and San Francisco.

So Curtiss Johnson, Richard Dowell and Fred Clark, Panthers and students at Cuyahoga Community College, could not have been completely surprised when on the afternoon of June 29th, 40 Cleveland cops armed with rifles, shotguns and submachine guns surrounded them in the Panther office at 79th and Rawlings Streets. Bullets smashed the window glass, tore apart a poster of Huey Newton, and chopped chunks of plaster from the walls. When it was over one cop had been wounded in the jaw and one Panther — Fred Clark — had been shot in the stomach and the back of the head.

The ostensible purpose of the raid was to serve Clark (and one other Panther who wasn’t there) with a peace bond, the first such warrant issued in Cuyahoga County in more than 25 years. It had been sworn out on behalf of Thomas Avery, a neighborhood druggist who stood out at the trial as the only prosecution witness not on a police payroll. Avery had gone to the police with a story that the Panthers threatened his life when he refused to contribute toward playground equipment for three empty lots the Panthers had cleared. The police, more than anxious to help, got him the peace bond.

At the trial, Avery admitted that though the bond listed his children as menaced by the Panthers, he in fact had no children. An ACLU attorney present at the time of the alleged threat said it never took place.

The rest of the prosecution was given over to police. The cops testified that they had knocked politely on the Panther’s door, heard “shuffling” inside, and kicked the door down. Inside, they spied a rifle barrel poking ominously out the bedroom door, so they opened fire.

Officer Harry Leisman, who commanded the action, said that when the shooting started he stood outside and pumped submachine bullets in through the windows. The Panthers responded with blazing fire, but in the end the cops were victorious. The evidence in support of this story proved less than adequate. Four weapons were found in the office — two rifles, a magnum pistol and an Ml — but all were still fully loaded. A thorough police search turned up no spent shells; there was some speculation that Clark had swallowed them. No tests were conducted to determine whether the weapons had been fired or whether any of the defendants had fired them. Fingerprint examinations were made; they failed to link the guns with the defendants.

The cop who claimed to have shot Clark said he blew him down with a shotgun when Clark, clutching a smoking rifle, refused to surrender. Clark said that actually the police ordered him out of the bedroom, then shot him in the belly when he opened the door, unarmed. The doctor who treated Clark said a .32 or .38 bullet, not a shotgun slug, had done the job.

A predominantly white, middle-class jury weighed this evidence and sentenced Johnson, Dowell and Clark to three years in the Ohio State Reformatory. All three defendants were in college at the time; none had any prior record.

Officer Leisman, the chief raider, continued in his city’s service until last Christmas Eve, when a woman and a young boy were murdered outside his house. Leisman’s story to reporters was that he had been sitting quietly at home enjoying the holiday when he heard a commotion outside. He ran out to theHometown Folks — Continued from preceding page street. A generous stranger handed him a loaded M14 (which later proved to have been stolen from the military). A man appeared menacingly in the doorway of a bar across the street. Leisman allegedly opened fire, wounding him and killing a ten-year-old boy in an apartment down the block. Then Leisman is said to have walked into the bar and sprayed it with bullets. One woman fell dead.

Leisman is being held without bail, awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder. Johnson, Dowell and Clark, convicted on the testimony of Leisman and his men, are still in prison.

* * *

One of the nation’s more oblique political slogans has turned up on bumper stickers in Houston. It reads, “frijoles,” and it dates back a couple of years, to when Texas governor Preston Smith was running for re-election and got booed off the stage at the University of Texas by a crowd chanting, “Free Otis Johnson.” Governor Smith expressed confusion over the scene. “What do they have against frijoles?” he asked. “I thought they were just beans.”

That story may have brought a smile to the face of Lee Otis Johnson, the most famous political prisoner in the South, but it has done little else for him. He remains locked up in prison, doing 30 years for allegedly handing a cop one joint.

A student at Texas Southern University and field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Johnson was arrested March 8th, 1968 — six weeks after he was said to have handed over the incriminating reefer. Houston police said the delay was necessary to preserve the anonymity of their undercover agent, but a speech Johnson gave at a Martin Luther King memorial meeting two days before he was busted — a speech in which he was highly critical of the mayor and police chief — may have had more to do with it. Houston DA Carol Vance prosecuted Johnson personally. “If in the future we have another white, yellow, red, green or black person who has promoted violence and destruction in this city and he gets caught selling marijuana, I may well choose to try that case,” he explained.

The case attracted widespread attention. The US Commission of Civil Rights referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation. Inquiry was made by Amnesty International, an organization in Dusseldorf, Germany interested in political prisoners. Locally, a Free Lee Otis Johnson Defense Committee was formed.

All this activity offended Lt. M.L. Singleton, head of police intelligence in Houston. “He [Johnson] doesn’t tell you that he and his friends were smoking marijuana, drinking Robitussin and stealing food, that they were trying to get dynamite to blow up major overpasses, power stations, telephone facilities and public buildings,” he said. He failed to explain why he hadn’t booked Johnson and his cough-syrup swigging cronies for all those other crimes.

Recently a federal district judge ruled that Johnson should have been granted a change of venue. He gave the district attorney 90 days to appeal the decision, retry Johnson, or release him. Indications are that Vance will decide on a new trial, in which case Johnson, even if he wins acquittal, might well be in prison for another year. Johnson was interviewed in prison by Michael Adams for the Texas Observer:

“We blacks have built up America. We’re the hardest-working people in the world. From King Cotton through every war to the present we’ve been the backbone of America. But in return, we’ve just had a bite to eat and a cup of coffee. And we’ve had to live in racist towns and work in racist businesses, or buy from white merchants in the black community. Whites have used the income tax, the installment plan, overhead, excise taxes, slum lords and everything else to keep us down. . . .

“In Houston we tried the system. We went to Mayor Welch and tried to talk sense. He was so busy telling us we were communist-inspired and irresponsible that we never did get to talk about real Third World problems. Then they put the police department’s intelligence squad on me. They said all kinds of things, like our agitation was a front for a dope center — that I was going to blow up Houston, with my bare hands, I guess. It was just a lot of talk to inflame the police department against us. They called me a ‘hard core incendiary, a wino, the leader of a hate gang.’ You can’t work within that kind of system. . . .  

“I’m going to get out of here eventually, even if it takes the full 30 years. I’ve kept up with events pretty well, and I’ll be ready to go back to work. I’m encouraged.”

Conspicuous Youth

1. Any child who behaves in an improper fashion and whose parents do not want to take care of him is guilty of Conspicuous Youth. 2. The definition of “improper fashion” shall be determined by adults. 3. The relationship between such a child and the courts should be that of child to parent. Children who fail to recognize this are guilty of being Rebellious. 4. Children have no right to due process, trial by jury, or equal treatment under the law. 5. Penalty. Sentences need not be limited to the maximum allowed for adults. For details, judges may consult the cases below, drawn from an investigation by journalist Lester Velie and from lawsuits filed by the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau.

* * *

Carman Tate has been locked up for most of the past four years, since he was 13 years old. That was the time of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and Carman was arrested and held in a detention center for 28 days on charges of setting fire to some curtains. When he finally got to court, the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.

A court investigation revealed that Carman’s stepfather, a moonlighting Chicago cop, compelled the boy to work late hours in his store and beat him when he objected. Carman frequently was absent from school; when he did attend he sometimes fell asleep in class.

A psychiatrist recommended that both Carman and his parents receive professional counseling. Instead, the judge put him on a year’s probation which required him to observe curfew and go to school regularly. The curfew was broken within four months, and Carman was locked up again. Officials at a juvenile detention center urged that his confinement be continued “because of his possible arsonist tendencies,” though of course he had never been convicted of arson or anything else. He was sent to a high-security state “training school” at St. Charles, Illinois.

Paroled after eight months, Carman went home, got into a fight and was thrown out by his stepfather, the manly cop. “If I can’t be with you,” Carman yelled to his mother, “I might as well be locked up!” He was, first in the detention center and then at the so-called Industrial School for Boys at Sheridan, Illinois.

Sheridan is a maximum-security prison perimetered by guard towers and fences topped with barbed wire. It houses murderers as well as youths convicted of such non-crimes as truancy and running away. Eighty percent of the inmates are black; 80 percent of the guards are white. To maintain order, the guards are fond of administering shots of Thorazine, a powerful tranquilizer the side effects of which include liver and kidney deterioration, impairment of breathing and jaundice.

During the more than two years that Carman Tate has been imprisoned at Sheridan, he has been administered as many as six shots of tranquilizers, a day. He has been placed in solitary confinement for up to 30 days at a time, as much as six months in a row. The Department of Corrections has refused to release him despite recommendations of two psychiatrists that he should be let go. He is 17 years old, and by law he can be kept in prison until his 21st birthday.

* * *

At the age of 10 Terry Wilson pled guilty to petty theft. His parole was revoked and he served nine months in the State Training School for Boys at St. Charles, Illinois, was paroled again for 11 months, broke parole and was sent to Sheridan. He has received the customary Sheridan treatment: solitary confinement for up to 51 straight days, shots of Thorazine, a half dozen visits from an untrained counselor, only a single visit from a psychiatrist. Had Terry Wilson been an adult accused of the same crime, he could have been sentenced to no more than one year in jail. To date, he has been imprisoned in Sheridan for three years.

* * *

Alton Stewart, 15 years old, has a measured IQ of about 75. A psychologist who examined him at age nine reported that his “anti-social behavior related to his borderline intelligence, his weak reality testing, immature perceptual development, and his serious lack of emotional depths.”

Turned over to the Chicago police at age 11 as an habitual runaway. Alton was judged to be a Minor in Need of Supervision and was sent to the Training School for Boys at St. Charles, Illinois. Three times he escaped the school and ran back to his mother. Finally he was transferred to Sheridan.

He has remained at Sheridan for two years, nearly half the time confined to his cell. The institution psychiatrist visited him and recommended that he receive intensive counseling, but in fact his status has been determined by the corrections department on the basis of his “academic progress,” “exercise of self-control,” and “good attitudes toward authority and program.” It is under these rules that Alton Stewart, recognized to be of “retarded to dull normal” intelligence since the age of five, can legally be forced to remain for six more years.

* * *

Julius Addison, 17 years old and now entering his third year in Sheridan, originally was convicted of being a “Minor in Need of Supervision.” This is an Illinois non-crime which applies to anyone under 18 years of age who is judged to be “beyond the control of his parents, guardian or other custodian,” is “habitually truant from school,” or is a drug addict. The law was enacted with the intention of protecting youngsters from being labeled “delinquent.”

At Sheridan, corrections men have protected Julius by beating him and choking him with a towel, “having his ass pumped” with tranquilizers, and confining him to his cell roughly half the time, on one occasion for six consecutive months.

The state law under which this has been accomplished reads in part: “The purpose of this act is…when the minor is removed from his own family, to secure for him custody, care and discipline as nearly as possible equivalent to that which should be given by his own parents. . . “

Getting Caught

Whoever uses dope in such fashion as to enable the police to detect it is guilty of Getting Caught. 1. Anyone found with dope who lacks the financial resources for a successful defense is guilty of First Degree Getting Caught. 2. Anyone who has made a nuisance of himself in the community and who is found to be in the immediate vicinity of a police officer at such time as the officer drops dope to the floor, sticks it in the offender’s pocket or otherwise disposes of it, is guilty of Second Degree Getting Caught, or a violation of the Red-Handed Act. 3. Penalty. Sentencing is variable, depending upon the offender’s attitude, age, color, intelligence, solvency and luck.

* * *

William Jackson, 25 years old, pulled an indeterminate to seven year sentence for allegedly selling marijuana to a 19-year-old college co-ed. The sale allegedly took place in Jamestown, N.Y., December 3rd, 1968, when the girl took three envelopes of grass from the glove box of Jackson’s car. He was not arrested until more than six months later, on June 14th, 1969. Convicted on the girl’s testimony alone, he has served two years at Attica.

“To this day I can’t remember where I was on December 3rd, 1968, and I am totally unable to refute her charges. What were you doing seven months ago at 10 AM?. . . 

“I refused to consider pleading guilty, and retained a local attorney. He did nothing to help me — no motions, preliminary hearing, etc. I queried him about the trial but he assured me that I’d be acquitted. Not knowing the vagaries of criminal law I went along with him. . . I was sentenced to an indeterminate to seven year term. The judge gave me a ‘break’ — I could have gotten 25 years.

“The real reason for my conviction is that a vindictive narcotics squad officer thought I had turned his daughter into a junkie, which she was, and told me he’d get me one way or another, which he certainly did.

“Since my incarceration one of the jurors has contacted my wife and said he was ‘forced into a guilty verdict.’ A lot of fucking good that does me — he won’t make a sworn statement. . .

“It is unlikely I’ll get parole, as I went to federal court October 4th, 1971, and testified as to the brutality and stealing on the part of correction officers and state troopers here at Attica. I wasn’t involved in the rebellion, but viewed it from my window and while on clean-up work. . .

“The major bitches here are the arbitrary parole system — they don’t have to tell you why you got ‘hit’ or what you can do to get their approval so you can be released — and good time. For every 30 days an inmate earns ten days good time. The hitch is that after you’ve earned this time, you must successfully complete the entire period before it’s really given you. If you violate parole — say, stay out past 11 PM — they can bring you back and make you do the whole time again. The parole board also deducts parole days from men as a discipline measure and there is no redress. Few men finish their sentences when they’re supposed to. I know of one man who got a seven and a half to 15 sentence in 1948 and recently went out on parole, still owing four years. . . “

* * *

Wayne Ladd has been in and out of California penal institutions for more than 15 years, as the result of once having smoked grass with two friends. He doesn’t know if he will ever be free.

“In 1956 I was arrested for smoking some marijuana with two other juveniles, with one marijuana cigarette in my pocket. Even though we were all teenagers I was charged with furnishing narcotics to other minors and possession of narcotics. I was sentenced to five years to life for the furnishing charge and one to ten years for possession.

“Here it is, almost 16 years later, and I am still trying to pay my debt for those offenses, which consisted of a total of three marijuana cigarettes. I have been paroled a couple of times and returned again as a parole violator. You can come back and forth from prison this way for the rest of your life; you can’t complete a five year to life sentence and they just keep you on a string like a yo yo. They let you out on parole, and for some little trivial incident, not even a crime, you are brought back to serve X number of years until they are ready to let you out again and put you through the same thing. This can be perpetual; five years to life never terminates. . . “

* * *

Last November, Jay Van Russell was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment after one of the more curious trials in the history of Peoria, Illinois, or anywhere else.

The conviction was for attempting to sell heroin, although no heroin was produced as evidence and the indictment didn’t claim that Russell actually had any. What happened was that two federal undercover agents telephoned Russell at his home and allegedly made a deal to buy some smack. They taped the conversation, and on the strength of the tape got Russell convicted.

The trial brought other strangeness too. Despite defense objections about hearsay evidence, a doctor who supervises a local clinic was allowed to testify that he overheard a patient say, “Here comes the dope man,” when Russell appeared. A federal agent was permitted to tell the jury that Russell sold dope to an undercover man, though that alleged sale played no part in the relevant indictment or in any other.

The District Attorney claimed Russell was “at the heart of the heroin traffic” in Peoria. The jury found him guilty, and federal judge Robert Morgan gave him 15 years plus five years’ probation. He is now in county jail, awaiting the result of a mental test before the sentence becomes final.

Russell, 25 years old and black, has been in trouble with the police since he was 14. In late 1970 he was indicted for alleged possession of marijuana and heroin; the charges were later dismissed at the request of the prosecutor. Recently he was fined $20 for being present in a gambling house. Prosecutors present Russell’s record as evidence that he is a dope dealer; Russell says it shows police harassment.

When busted on the heroin charge, Russell was in the process of suing the city police for ripping up the interior of his car in an unsuccessful search for narcotics. “You see, gentlemen, I sued the city. I have become a victim of prejudice by individuals using the law as an implement of persecution. I have been set up for constitutional protest against authority which has violated the law. I assure you, gentlemen, victims of circumstance can be struck down by biased officials who blatantly violate the civil rights of others. . . “

* * *

In Texas, land of the big dope sentences, Gentry Powell III was caught riding in a truck full of grass and hash. He got 45 years.

The bust came one night a year ago, when police, tipped off by an informer, crouched in the sagebrush near a landing strip on a 4000-acre ranch owned by Powell’s grandfather. As they watched, a light plane landed in the dark and two men loaded its contents into a truck. The cops followed the truck and pulled it over on the highway southeast of Karnes City, Texas. Inside they found David Curlee, Gentry Powell III, 50 pounds of hash and 400 pounds of grass.

Both defendants posted $25,000 bond. Curlee disappeared and remains a fugitive. Powell showed up for his trial last December 13th and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The case is being appealed, but by Texas law those sentenced to more than 15 years cannot get out on appeal bond.

“After serving four years in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, it really brings me down to return to such a country, with so little compassion.”

* * *

Lenny Parker is imprisoned at Terminal Island, San Pedro, California.

“On a hot and dry summer day in 1968 I made a mistake and got arrested at the Arizona-Mexico border with three grams of heroin, in a car. I was a passenger. The judge said ‘Not less than six months and not to exceed ten years,’ so here I am. I was 21 then. I’m 25 now. Three grams could fit in a sewing thimble — it ain’t much, friend. Come 1978, it’s over.

“No sob story here. No tears over spilt milk, ’cause I blew it. But I know I was sent here because of my life-style. . . The three grams was negligible in my book — it could have been two joints like John Sinclair or it could have been a frame like my ex-wife. The narc said she injected the baby with heroin — a six-month-old boy! — and they gave her 20. Change is coming.”

* * *

The case of William “Wild Bill” House who is now in Utah State Prison, resembles hundreds of other busts involving dope dealers — a labyrinth of police duplicity and pleabargaining, topped by a stiff sentence.

“I was arrested for a sales beef because this dude called my house and asked if I had any speed. I said no, but if any came around I would send it over. So I did, but I didn’t take it over [myself]. I didn’t get any money from the dude nor was I anywhere around when the deal took place.

“They arrested me and I bonded out for $2500 on December 19th, 1970. On January 15th, 1971, I was out to a friend’s house and the pigs kicked in the door and put us up against the wall. They stuck a shotgun to the back of my head and told me to run. I didn’t so they began to beat me with it. I never knew they were pigs until about 20 minutes after they stopped beating me. Then they pulled out their badges.

“I was arrested for resisting arrest. They set my bail at $10,000, a little high for me to make, so they kept me locked up till the first of March, when I was to go to trial on the resisting charge. No pigs showed up at my first trial, so the judge knocked the bail down to $3500. I made that and was free. At my second trial on the resisting charge, no pigs showed up and so the judge threw it out. I am filing a suit in federal court on that charge; I sure hope it does some good.

“When I went back to my preliminary hearing on the sales beef they arrested me again in court for another charge to the same dude. I really don’t know where they dreamed that one up, but they did. Back to jail and I made another bond.

“While I was out waiting for trial I was told not to fight the charges, because if I did they would file more until they got me in prison. I was going to fight the charges, but I had run out of money. So I copped to a lesser charge of possession for sale of a stimulating drug. I pled guilty and was sent here for two to ten years. This is my first felony. . .

“This state is a little heavy on the drug scene, real heavy. So if you ever drop out this way, be a little careful.”

* * *

Mike Vernon, 27 years old, is locked up in the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo for escaping from the San Diego County Honor Camp, where he had been doing a year for possession of grass. This is his account of life there.

“Since most of the people in camp were there for drugs or some drug-related offense, and most of them were young, we often performed a weekly ritual. The camp area was abundant with Gypsum Weed, a plant of the mandrake root family which has quite a bit of belladonna in it. A truckload of naive newcomers would arrive on Wednesday, and by Saturday Wally, the brewmaster, would ship up a batch of this mystical potion and serve it as tea. What followed was a weird mystical bummer. Balance is the first thing to be affected. The next is vision, and the other senses follow. The trip usually lasted six to twelve hours. . .

“There were about 85 to 100 dudes in camp, and most of us got high. Members of the three ethnic factions — white, black and chicano — would each go to The Man and inform him of racial tension in the camp. To avoid trouble the staff was quick to hand out tranquilizers and barbiturates. We all would save our issue for the weekend, then all three factions would gather together and fix [shoot up] our pills. This was a practice I acquired after arriving at camp, mostly to counteract the boredom and also because of the lack of marijuana. I never had occasion to shoot any drugs while on the street. . . “

* * *

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies raided James Yazell’s home one night in April 1970, and confiscated 13 ounces of grass and $237 in cash. At the trial the grass appeared; the cash had vanished. Yazell was found guilty of possession with intent to sell, and was sentenced to serve from two to ten years at the California Men’s Colony.

“I have never been a longhair or hippie type. Prior to my arrest I had been steadily employed for a period of five years; owned my own mortgage-free home; and had no prior arrests for possession of marijuana. As a result of being sent to prison, I have subsequently lost my home and the respect of most of my family. Only my sister will write me. The rest of the family has disowned me for my so-called ‘criminal’ act.”

* * *

Every so often a dope case fires the imagination of prosecutors with an almost religious zeal. The slightest taint of marijuana, like the infinitesimal stain of sin Christian zealots hold sufficient to cast a soul into eternal hell, becomes enough to send a man to prison. Jim Mason is a recent casualty of one such crusade.

His ten-year sentence for “possession” of one-40th of a gram of marijuana is being appealed, but folks have been quick to pitch in and help penalize him in the meantime.

“I was arrested for possession of narcotics (marijuana) after being stopped by the Missouri Highway Patrol for not having a license plate on my new car. While I was explaining to a patrolman that I was on my way to the license bureau to clear up the situation, the two people who had been in my car tried to throw away some dope; and the patrolmen immediately arrested all three of us for possession.

On the way to the highway patrol headquarters, the patrolman who was driving my car turned to me and said, ‘You know, I kind of admired them in the Old West. They would have taken guys like you out and hung them from the nearest tree.’ At the headquarters they scraped one-40th of a gram of what proved to be marijuana from my jacket pocket.

“Later that afternoon I was officially charged with the crime, and bail for the three charges — driving with no plate, possession of narcotics, and possession of narcotics apparatus (a roach clip in the shape of a bullet and some matches) — was set at $15,300! I had absolutely no previous police record of any kind. At the time of my arrest I was a college student at the University of Missouri in Rolla. The town, located in south-central Missouri on Highway 66, has a population of about 12,000. Three days after my arrest two more UMR students were arrested, and their bonds were set at $32,500! On the same day that I was arrested, a habitual criminal was arrested for child molestation and his bond set at $5000. Even though his victim had to be hospitalized, the case was soon dismissed when the man’s brother paid court costs. Compare this result to that of my case.

“Immediately after my bond had been set, the prosecuting attorney told me in the privacy of his office that he would forget all about the arrest if I would help him get to some of the big pushers. I told him I didn’t know anything about dope pushers.

“During the third and final night I spent in the Phelps County Jail, someone placed a small pipebomb on a window ledge of the Phelps County Court House. Although this event almost assuredly had no connection with my case, the senile reactionary who dabbles as editor of the local newspaper took it upon himself to crusade against the communist dope peddling termites who had invaded Rolla. I was slandered on the front page for several days until he left the America he loved for a much-needed vacation. . .

“Four days before my trial was scheduled, my attorney called me and advised me that the prosecuting attorney had offered a deal: If I would join any branch of the armed forces, he would drop all charges. I answered that I was a conscientious objector and that if I could perform non-military duty as a conscientious objector, then I would make the deal. My lawyer advised me that this would not be a suitable compromise.

“The day before my trial one of the guys arrested with me had his day in court. He was not a student, and he had a police record. Furthermore he was charged with possession of at least one ounce of marijuana and possession of a needle and other apparatus. His judge, who also presided at my trial, is on court record as opposing any leniency in drug cases. Yet when the defendant pleaded guilty, he was given a bench parole! The reason for this was simple: The sentence was recommended by the prosecuting attorney. In most court cases in Phelps County the judge seems to serve as a rubber stamp for sentences suggested by the prosecutor. In this case the defendant was told by the prosecutor that his only hope was to change lawyers and plead guilty. Fortunately for the defendant the prosecuting attorney knew of an available lawyer; his brother. This course of events seems to be well-traveled in Phelps County.

“But my day in court was much different. In his summation the prosecuting attorney lied and twisted the truth and then asked for the maximum penalty: 20 years. He stated that it was necessary to make an example of me in order to rid the community of dope pushers who were affecting junior high kids. Twenty minutes after they went out, the jury, whose average member was probably well over 60 years old, returned with a verdict of guilty and a sentence of ten years. Later I found out that they had first voted on 20 years, but one juror had held out. . .

“My school grade point average for the fall semester last year was a 3.53 on the four point scale; last spring it came out to 0.02. I was scheduled to graduate last spring, but the forthcoming trial was too depressing to be conducive to studying. Also I have accumulated a debt of $3000 in lawyers’ fees alone. Because of the felony conviction I cannot get a job. I have lost my new car. And this summer I was married; we are expecting a kid next spring.

“But the height of humiliation was reached when I was called back to campus in September to a disciplinary hearing. I was placed on disciplinary probation ‘until such time as I graduate from the University of Missouri.’ The reason given was because it is against university standards of conduct to possess dangerous drugs. No stipulation was made as to where or when the possession occurred. . . In just one semester I went from a candidate for Who’s Who in American Colleges & Universities to a social outcast because I was caught with one-40th of a gram of grass.”

* * *

At the end of a long day in Mexicali, Mexico, four years ago, Daniel Mrazek headed back across the border in a car with three friends. He was, he says, “too stoned to know what was going on,” but his head began to clear when customs agents stopped them, opened an attache case, and found some marijuana seeds. Mrazek’s three friends identified him as the owner of the case. They were set free; he has been in prison all but two months since.

“I was beaten repeatedly by police in the Calexico city jail and forced to live in a tiny cell, with only one blanket and a Bible which I used as my pillow. When my mother finally received word and arrived at the jail two weeks after my arrest, she didn’t recognize me and refused to admit I was her son. It was only then that I was allowed to receive X-rays for my broken ribs. The police said I received these injuries during an earthquake, as I fell off my bed. My cell didn’t even have a bed.

“… California Rehabilitation Center was a total loss for me. I have never to this day used heroin, and there I was, the only man out of several hundred that didn’t use it or didn’t ever care to start. Because I didn’t feel that I had a problem, everyone looked down on me. I remained there for two years.

“After paroling I found a job in Los Angeles. After two months had passed I requested to visit my mother in Yuma. The federal probation department gave me permission, but the state parole department refused. I decided to let the Feds overrule the state and made the trip anyway. As fate would have it, I got stopped by the cops in Yuma for a traffic violation, and back I went. … I was given a sentence of one to ten years in state prison.

“I was 22 years old when I was arrested. Now I am 27 and still in prison. … I often find myself wondering what am I even in prison for. Looking back tells me that I’ve been a fool for penalties like grass seeds. But I am not going to stop myself. I’ve smoked grass for years, and will for years to come. People ask me why, and I let them know where my head is at by telling them it’s a way of life I dig! Even the parole board gets to hear it once a year. …

“Take care brothers and sisters, and don’t let the man put you in the same situation he put me in. Someday the laws will change. But until that day we all have to be cool.”

In This Article: Coverwall


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.