Mens et Manus in Prison
ESG Seminar (SP274):

Political Prisoners:
Personalities, Principles, & Politics

US Political Prisoners?
Susan Fraker with Vern E. Smith in Atlanta and Elliott D. Lee in New York

July 31, 1978, p. 23

Are there political prisoners in the US? During the trial of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young whipped up a controversy when he told a French newspaper that there are "hundreds, maybe thousands, of people I would categorize as political prisoners" in the US Young later said he did not mean to equate political freedom in the US and the Soviet Union. But he did not retract his statement about the number of U. S. political prisoners - even though he never said exactly what he meant.

Apart from his timing, Young got into trouble precisely because the term "political prisoner" means different things to different people. Some argue that it should include the civil-rights activists who were jailed in the 1950s and 1960s - including Andy Young* - or those who practiced civil disobedience to protest the war in Vietnam. Others apply the term to poor blacks who are denied bail or who receive stiffer prison sentences than whites who commit similar crimes. The Russians have singled out Johnny Harris, an American black convicted of murdering a white prison guard. However, Aryeh Neier, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that to characterize everyone who may have received unequal treatment by the US justice system as a political prisoner is to debase the term. "Political prisoner," he says, should be reserved for those truly persecuted for their views: "There are a lot of people imprisoned unjustly but I can't think of anyone I would call a political prisoner." *Last week, James Earl Ray - the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King - charged that he, too, was a political prisoner and called on Young to help him. Young was on the balcony with King when he was shot.

The main group that attempts a broader classification is the London-based Amnesty International, which lists eleven American "prisoners of conscience" - all black men convicted in the South. AI bases its definition on the U. N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a bill of rights that covers everything from free speech to fair trials. Some case histories:

THE WILMINGTON TEN. In 1971, Ben Chavis, a field organizer for the United Church of Chirst's Commission for Racial Justice, went to Wilmington, N. C., to help quell violence resulting from court-ordered school desegregation. During a night of rioting, a white-owned grocery store was burned to the ground. Chavis, eight other black men and one white woman were charged with firebombing the store. In 1972, they were convicted and sentenced to a combined total of 282 years in prison - one of the stiffest sentences ever imposed in North Carolina for arson in which on one died.

In 1976, one of the three young witnesses against them recanted his testimony and the others followed suit. They claimed that they had been coerced and bribed by prosecutors. Civil-rights leaders and politicians requested a new trial or a gubernatorial pardon.But a superior-court judge refused to grant a new trial, and last January, Gov. James Hunt declined to pardon the ten, though he did approve slight reductions in the sentences of the nine still in jail. Since then, one more of the ten has been paroled. The eight remaining are on AI's list.

THE CHARLOTTE THREE. Three activists were sentenced to long prison terms in North Carolina after their 1972 conviction for burning the Lazy B Riding Stable, which was a target of protest because it refused its services to blacks. They were convicted with the help of testimony from two witnesses who had criminal records and whose testimony conflicted. Both witnesses received immunity from prosecution for their admitted participation in the stable fire, as well as $4,000 from the government to help them "relocate" after thier testimony. One of the Charlotte Three has been paroled. The other two, James Grant, a chemist, and T. J. Reddy, a poet, remain free on bail pending a decision by the Supreme Court to review their case. Defense attorney James Ferguson claims the convictions were part of "a campaign to get black activists off the streets in North Carolina." But Richard League of the state attorney general's office says racial politics is not an issue.

IMARI OBADELE. Obadele heads the Republic of New Africa, a black separatist group. In 1971, police and FBI agents raided an RNA house in Jackson, Miss., with warrants to arrest four men. One policeman was killed and an FBI agent was wounded in an ensuing shoot-out. Obadele was not in the house but police arrested him nearby and charged him with murder. After seventeen months in prison, he was released, and the charge was dropped. But Federal authorities arrested Obadele again, charging him with conspiracy to assault a Federal officer. Witnesses at the trial testified that they heard Obadele, on an earlier occasion, tell the policeman who was slain in the shoot-out that he would "be ready" for the police if they came to the RNA house. Obadele was convicted and is serving a seven-year sentence.

JOHNNY HARRIS. Amnesty International does not include Harris on its list of prisoners of conscience because he "was arrested for crimes that are not political," says a spokesman, Larry Cox. "His is more of a civil-liberties case." In 1971, Alabama police picked Harris up in connection with a service-station holdup. He was charged with rape and two counts of robbery in that incident, and the station manager also identified Harris as the robber in a break-in he said had occured ten days earlier. Although police had no record of the first holdup, Harris was jailed and spent eight months in prison without even a bond motion in his behalf. He eventually accepted what he says he thought was a deal to plead guilty to the rape charge in return for police withdrawal of the robbery charges. Instead, his new lawyers say, Harris signed five documents that turned out to be separate life sentences on each of the original charges.

Harris went to prison, and in 1974, he and four other inmates were charged with murdering a guard during a prison riot. Prosecutors admitted that there was no evidence tying Harris to the guard's death, but they contended he was an accessory to the death because he participated in the riot. Harris received a death sentence, which is under appeal. Tass, the Soviet news agency, calls him a martyr for the civil rights of black Americans.

HANDFUL: Harris's situation is clearly different from the cases on AI's list. He never was a civil-rights activist. At most, he was a victim of racial prejudice and his own poverty - not a dissident jailed for his political views. They key question is whether the others were singled out because of their activism, then jailed on trumped-up charges. If so, they might fairly be termed political prisoners. But it is doubtful that there are more than a handful of such people in American jails.

Last modified on Saturday, April 5, 2003 at 12:52:50 PM EST