Tag Archives: teachers

“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.

AmnestyLogo

 “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

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.

Prisoner

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.

Notes:

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]

 

Advertisements