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Nelson Mandela

6 Dec

“In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.”
Nelson Mandela, 1994


Like so many of us, I am greatly saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela. I suppose that he was “ready” to die, but when it actually happens, the sharp feeling of loss seizes me.

I just read a great tribute to Mandela at  I hope you get a chance to read it.

I admire Mandela for his persistence in struggle, for his commitment to non-violence and reconciliation with his enemies, for his courage in telling the truth, for his incorruptibility, and for his uncompromising dedication to social justice. I hope we all can take this opportunity to learn from him, among other things about how to deal with one’s “enemies” with compassion, not hatred.

In keeping with the theme of this blog,  I learned with the help of Wikipedia about what Mandela experienced in the 60s and 70s. Almost those entire decades and more, he was imprisoned at Robben Island, 210px-Nelson_Mandela's_prison_cell,_Robben_Island,_South_Africaconvicted of four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. (Rather than getting the death sentence, he and his co-defendants received life in prison.)

He remained there for the next 18 years, imprisoned in a damp concrete cell measuring 8 by 7 feet, with a straw mat on which to sleep.Verbally and physically harassed by several white prison wardens, the  prisoners spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being reassigned in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry. 220px-RobbenIslandSteinbruchAMandela was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses, and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyesight.At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings.Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, Class D, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mail was heavily censored.

The political prisoners took part in work and hunger strikes – the latter considered largely ineffective by Mandela – to improve prison conditions, viewing this as a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. ANC prisoners elected him to their four-man “High Organ” along with Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, while he also involved himself in a group representing all political prisoners on the island, Ulundi, through which he forged links with PAC and Yu Chi Chan Club members.Initiating the “University of Robben Island,” whereby prisoners lectured on their own areas of expertise, he debated topics such as homosexuality and politics with his comrades, getting into fierce arguments on the latter with Marxists like Mbeki and Harry Gwala.Though attending Christian Sunday services, Mandela studied Islam.He also studied Afrikaans, hoping to build a mutual respect with the warders and convert them to his cause.

His mother visited in 1968, dying shortly after, and his firstborn son Thembi died in a car accident the following year; Mandela was forbidden from attending either funeral.His wife was rarely able to visit, being regularly imprisoned for political activity, while his daughters first visited in December 1975; Winnie got out of prison in 1977 but was forcibly settled in Brandfort, still unable to visit him.

From 1967, prison conditions improved, with black prisoners given trousers rather than shorts, games being permitted, and food quality improving.


Some enlightening facts about and quotations from Nelson Mandela:

In 1986, former Vice President Dick Cheney, then a congressman, voted along with 179 other members of the House against a non-binding resolution to recognize the ANC and call on the South African government to release Mandela from prison. The measure finally passed, but not before a veto attempt by Reagan.

In 2000, Cheney maintained that he’d cast the correct vote.

In 2003, Mandela made several statements against the invasion of Iraq. “If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace. Because what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries…..”

“…there is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like.”

“If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.”

Mandela wasn’t excised from a U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008, when  President George W. Bush signed a bill removing him. Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were on the list because of their fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime, which gave way to majority rule in 1994. 220px-ApartheidSignEnglishAfrikaans

When Mandela was asked about his future plans, he replied,

“I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife. But the problems [around the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003] are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it’s difficult to say no.”



“While there is a soul in prison ….”: Amnesty International, by Maria

19 Oct

Biography:  Maria is currently involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, which works within State Prisons, and with Homeboy Industries, which encourages young people to transform their lives for a more purposeful and successful experience.


 “While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”  Eugene Debs, Socialist labor leader

In the early ‘70s, I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles area. I had the opportunity to meet both Ginetta Sagan1 and Joan Baez in Palo Alto at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, which Joan had earlier established. Joan was a strong supporter of Amnesty International2, and she inspired me to become involved too. Together with other teachers, I established an Amnesty chapter at our school as a response to Amnesty’s campaign to increase its numbers here in the U.S.


Ginetta Sagan

Joan Baez

Joan Baez

Some of our foreign students were aware of government atrocities in their own homelands, so about 10 to 15 students wanted to get involved. We got together weekly to write letters to the prisoners to whom we were assigned. Knowing that we were the only persons in the world who were acting on these prisoners’ behalf, we took our responsibility seriously.


One of our assignments was a doctor in Chile, who had been arrested for his involvement with the medical clinics set up by Salvador Allende3.We were given the name of this doctor, and address of the location of his prison, as well as the information needed to communicate with General Pinochet directly. We were given specific guidelines to use in our letters so as not to offend Pinochet but rather to enlist him in the cause of freedom and justice for all citizens. The Chilean people couldn’t do this work, of course, because it was too dangerous. So our work was paramount to the release of the prisoners we were assigned.

Of course, we never received a response from either Pinochet or our prisoner. It was important though that we kept on writing these letters, as, we were told, there reaches a point where the mail coming to Pinochet becomes overwhelming, and he fears that these letters demonstrate that many people are aware of his atrocities. Eventually he will have no alternative but to release the prisoner in order to deter the world community from calling for his own demise.

I don’t recall just how long we continued this weekly letter-writing, but after a year or so we were able to get him released. We were informed by Amnesty International that the guards simply came to his cell one day and announced that he was now a free man. And I recall that he did come to America following his release  and somehow he communicated to us his gratitude for our help. It’s a bit hazy now though after over 40 years.


1. Ginetta Sagan helped found Amnesty International here in the U.S. She was a political prisoner in Italy during the 1940s while working with the northern Italian resistance movement. She was covertly taken from a movie theater one night and tortured relentlessly for her humanitarian views.

While imprisoned and scheduled for execution the next day, a prison guard threw her a loaf of bread. As she broke it open, she discovered a match clip in which was inscribed “coraggio,”  the Italian word for “courage.” The next day she was freed by several prison guard defectors.

In the 1950s she came to America and in the early ‘70s to the West Coast. Her intention was to spread the Amnesty International movement here, with the help of folksinger Joan Baez. During the next few years, as Joan spoke passionately about the work of Amnesty International on her concert tours, they were instrumental in increasing the number of chapters in the U.S. to 75,  with over 70,000 members. [Source: Maria]

2.Amnesty International is a humanitarian movement which works for the release of “Prisoners of Conscience” throughout the world. The way Amnesty International works is that a chapter is given the names of three prisoners each in different areas of the world. These activists have taken actions against their government, and as such have been determined to be “criminals” by the State.

A specific chapter of Amnesty International is the only one working on these prisoners’ behalf. The goal is to get them released. This is done largely through letter-writing campaigns targeted at the governments and prison officials in the affected countries. Letters are sent to the prisoner as well, to show that he has support. These letters are written weekly, and in the language of the country, if possible.

Letters received from America are seen as having the greatest impact in foreign countries. [Source: Maria]

3. It was the assassination of Salvador Allende, the social democratic leader of Chile, which led to the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Many of the citizenry who had supported Allende were imprisoned and tortured. [Source: Maria]


Inside Chino Men’s Prison in the ‘60s and ‘70s, by J. S.

29 Aug

J. S. was an educator for many years and now actively supports children’s and young adult literature and literacy. Cooking is a passion of hers.

In the late 1960s to early 1970s I was a frequent visitor to Chino Prison – the California Institution for Men. The husband of a good friend of mine was the recreation director there, and the first time I went there it was to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Yep!…you read it right – the LA Phil – directed by a very young Zubin Mehta. Joe (my friend’s husband) had been a jazz musician in his earlier years, and he had a lot of connections in the music industry. So in his position as recreation director for the prison, he was able to bring incredible entertainment to “his guys,” and when someone notable was scheduled to perform, Joe and his wife would invite me to join them for the show. Over a couple of years I had the great pleasure of seeing the Count Basie Band; B.B. King; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and several lesser-known local musical groups. And I got to meet the players also – what a deal! I still have an autographed black and white photo of B.B. King from when I met him after his appearance at Chino.


[Note:  California Institution for Men (CIM) is a male-only state prison located in the city of Chino, San Bernardino County, California. It is often colloquially referenced as “Chino.” Source: Wikipedia]

The first time I went to Chino, probably in 1969 or ‘70, I was amazed at the whole “vibe” of the place. Aside from the very tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire that surrounded it, and aside from the need to show ID and open your purse to the guards at the reception area (this was during the pre-electronic scanning era), you felt more like you were on a college campus than at a prison.

The shows were held in the gym, and it was amazing to me to see so many young (and a few older), well-groomed, handsome men of all races milling around, chatting and joking with each other. I couldn’t help but wonder what they done to put them in this situation. Everything was very friendly and relaxed. Other than the fact that they all wore the prison uniform of jeans and blue work shirts and that there were always guards in uniform walking around, you almost forgot that you were actually in a prison.

The California Institution for Men at Chino opened in 1941, the third state prison to be built after San Quentin and Folsom. It had been designed as the first minimum security institution – a “prison without walls” – for the least serious and seemingly nonviolent offenders. Most of the inmates there had been convicted of things like possession of marijuana, embezzlement, being accessories in serious crimes, or (according to them) they had been “framed.” They lived in different “units,” which were actually dormitories – not cells – and they basically had free access to all parts of the “campus” (which is what it was called then) during the day as they moved from different jobs to group or individual counseling sessions to meals to the gym or the library or the TV room or the basketball or baseball courts. The basic premise seemed to be rehabilitation – giving the inmates skills and positive feelings that would better enable them to return to normal life upon their release and hopefully to never become incarcerated again. There was a bed check each night, and they’d better be there at that moment – or else! They pretty much always were.

On one of my visits for a show, Joe introduced me to one of his inmate assistants – a young guy named Ernie – tall, handsome, soft-spoken, with a great smile. We spent a lot of time together talking and listening to the music, and when the show was over Ernie asked if he could write to me. I agreed, and so began some sort of a “relationship,” which started through letters and occasional phone calls and which developed into regular visits that continued for a couple of years.

I began visiting Ernie at Chino regularly on Saturdays or Sundays, and sometimes both. The 40-mile drive from my house in L.A. didn’t seem like that big of a deal because a) I was younger (!); and b) the freeways were waaaaaayyyyy less crowded than they are now!

After parking the car I had to go through the reception area, where I presented my ID, had my purse and all containers checked, was given a visitor’s badge and then sent to the visiting area. The visiting area was a vast lawn surrounded by buildings and trees, which contained many picnic tables, a playground for kids with swings, slides, etc., and some fast-food vending machines along one side. At first we would just get chips and sodas from the machines, but that was not making me very happy, so I decided to bring a picnic meal each time I came. (I have always loved to cook and prepare food!) These would consist of different sandwiches, salads, homemade chili or beef stew in a thermos when the weather was cooler (in those days there was an actual winter when it was cool), maybe homemade cookies or delicacies from my local bakery. Needless to say, Ernie got very spoiled food-wise!

We would sit at the table and eat and chat about many things: our lives, our families, music, TV shows, sports, and occasionally politics or the news – which weren’t his favorite subjects. There was minimal opportunity for any kind of physical contact – a quick hug when I came and left and maybe a bit of hand-holding. The guards were always there, and often we saw them approaching couples who were getting a bit “carried away,” and saying, “OK – break it up!”

Ernie would point out different guys to me and tell me what they had done to end up there. These included several well-known jazz musicians and a couple of famous TV actors who were there because of drugs, some major “Mafia” kingpins, and several older guys who had been convicted for various “white collar crimes.” He would occasionally introduce me to some of these folks; everyone was friendly.

There were families – moms with kids of all ages – enjoying picnic time or playground time with their dads. That was heartbreaking for me. On one hand I was glad the moms and kids could spend time with the dads, but on the other hand it was just so sad that it had to be there, even though the surroundings were seemingly quite pleasant. I wondered what effect it had on the kids and how things would play out for them in the future.

There wasn’t a huge gang presence like there is in today’s prisons. Everything was racially integrated, and everyone got along. There were some “bad eggs,” of course, but they were given the opportunity to straighten up or else they were sent to Quentin or Folsom where things were a lot tighter. There didn’t seem to be a feeling of tension at all.

When I read or hear about what is going on in California prisons today, I am appalled. The idea of rehabilitation seems to have been thrown out the window, and the recidivism rate is ridiculous. And the three-strikes law has placed a lot of men in prison for the rest of their lives, adding to the overcrowding problems.  I’m not sure what the answer is, but my memories of Chino in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s make me believe that they had the right idea then, and that today something is terribly wrong.