History of Those that Struggled

by Sehu Kessa Saa Tabansi

Greetings to the Revolutionary Workers and Laborers!

There once was a time in Pennsylvania when Revolutionaries bought their revolutionary movement behind the prison walls onto the plantations. Such was the case of elder Alvin Joyner and a group of revolutionaries known as such out of Philadelphia. Who, once behind bars in captivity, joined together with other convicts in Philadelphia county prisons D.C. (the Detention Center), the Creek (House of Corrections), and the notorious Burg (Homesburg) later known as the Terror Dome to future generations.

It was in the year 1972 that Alvin Joyner, Donald Daud, William Russel, and Richard O.J. May Berry, the latter who is a white prisoner, joined the coalition of black prisoners to form the International Prisoners Union. The International Prisoners Unions at the same time of 1972 was defined as a unincorporated association of prisoner membership then confined in the Philadelphia County Prison System. This coalition of prisoners of diverse backgrounds, races, and religion as well as political beliefs and goals formed to fight the repression of then Mayor Frank Rizzo, the superintendent of the county prison system and the county and state governments as whole (the Oppressors) of the poor and downtrodden.

The International Prisoners Union attacked

  1. improper disciplinary procedures and punishments on the prison plantation
  2. denial of adequate medical treatment
  3. lack of outdoor exercise
  4. overcrowding cell space
  5. inadequate heat
  6. insufficient lighting
  7. poor ventilation
  8. excessive vermin
  9. rodent infestation
  10. restricted visiting privileges
  11. inadequate dietary facilities.

These prisoners, on behalf of the union of prisoners countywide, were subject to conditions of unreasonable censorship of mail, restricted reading privileges, brutality and neglect.

This was the sentiment and vibe of the prisoners of the time as a whole collective. These four men served as vehicles for masses of prisoners that began to expose the dire conditions a year earlier in 1971.

In a landmark finding by a three judge panel — Spaeth, Smith and Williams — five weeks of hearing testimony on the infamous county prison Holmesburg, then one of the worse in the entire country, revealed deplorable conditions and rampant violence of rape and mayhem as the norm under orchestrated overcrowding. The published opinion comprised a lengthy 264 pages in February term 1971, finding both Federal and State Constitutional Violations.

The Court of Common Pleas found that it could protect personal rights based off the Civil Rights Act 42 U.S.C. & 1983 of 1964 in Jackson v. Hendrick et al plaintiff class action entered into decree based on violations of federally protected rights NO. 71-2437 Docket. The prisoners in the class of action of Gerald Jackson et al v. Edward Henrick, the warden over the prisoners in 1971-72, were moving on the gains of prisoners in 1971 in Bryant v. Henrick which was another leading Pennsylvania decision where the Pennsylvania court found “petitioners have been imprisoned in overcrowded, poorly equipped, wet, badly ventilated, and verminous cells.” The court noted inadequate medical care, threat of assault sexual and physical brutality and overall living conditions on the plantation.

Holmesburg prison was found to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment. There was Bryant v. Hendrick (1971) and Jackson v. Hendrick (1971) that led to the International Prisoner Union v. Mayor Rizzo in 1972.

The evidence in Jackson was 3,189 pages alone.

While these actions were taking place in 1971, on the county governmental level there was a larger statewide movement beginning in 1970 which would be fought for five years until 1975, resulting in entirely another consent decree. Civil NO. 70-3054 was filed Eastern District PA. Nov 4th 1970. It was certified a class action on October 20th, 1972. This case is unique and relevant to Pennsylvania prison history.

We are talking about 7 years before the U.S. Supreme Court heard Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners Union, argued April 19th, 1977. The men and women in the Pennsylvania prison system statewide united in the Imprisoned Citizens Union v. Governor of Pennsylvania Milton Shapp. This was a diverse group across race, gender, religion and political views. There was Herbert Lagnes, Jr., Milton Taylor, Jack Lapinson, Macky R. Choice, Harold X. Brooks, and for the women, Caroline Coefield, Thelma Simon, Audrey Mason, Sharon Wiggins, et al.

The Imprisoned Citizens Union of 1970 arrived in the era of national and international liberation movements. It was a time of prisoners fighting for their rights in spite of racist, biased courts. The period was a national struggle as well on the West Coast. In 1970 and 1971 were the untimely assassinations of Jonathan (killed August 7, 1970 at age 17 outside Marin County Courthouse in California) and George Jackson (killed August 21, 1971 at age 29 at San Quentin Prison) among many others because of their politics and revolutionary commitments.

This gave rise to the East Coast movements, culminating in the renowned Attica Prison Uprising of September 1971, the aftermath of which changed the way the state dealt with prisoners for at least two decades. While Pennsylvania would have its share of rebellions here and there, primarily between the 1975 Consent Decree of the Imprisoned Citizens Union and prisoner organizations in local prisons from 1975 to 1995 and the coming of the future first appointment to Homeland Security Tom Ridge, there was a collectivity to the way the old timer prisoners stuck together.

Since the ex-Naval officer and Governor Tom Ridge launched his career raiding Pennsylvania prisons in 1995, and his initiating the legal proceedings to revoke the Imprisoned Citizens Union Consent Decree of 1975, which the state was successful in doing thanks to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1995 Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, the PA prison plantations have lost all the progressiveness of widespread solidarity, unity and collective struggle based in revolutionary politics. The “us vs. them” mentality has been replaced with “us vs. us” and “them vs. us” too, but never “us vs. them” as a class.

In 1970, 1971, 1972 we began with men and women standing up. From 1995 to the present we have witnessed a rapid deterioration. But recent events may symbolize a change underway. There has been the triumph over the law that silenced Mumia on the East Coast. A victory so far for revolutionary Elder Maroon Shoatz now placing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections on trial for decades of torture in solitary, on the heels of the California prisoners once again like in 1970 and 1971 setting the pace for all prisoners across the nation to admire and salute.

Revolutionary Elder Mumia Abu-Jamal is bringing the prisoners’ health care crisis to the forefront on big business, for-profit contracts of medical service with the state that decreases prisoners’ medical needs. A new generation is at the vanguard, such as Saleem X. Holbrook, challenging the state’s censorship program.

Knowing the history of those that struggled before you on these plantations is not about lawsuits and the courts being a solution to the problems**, but rather a lesson on how Black Panthers and Black Liberation members and other revolutionaries brought revolutionary politics into the prison. Such as Sunni Ali, a.k.a. Alvin Joyner; and Maroon a.k.a. Russell Shoatz; and members of the Nation of Islam. They used their skills to bring about a union of prisoners in various prisons to challenge the system on various levels.

Together we will stand, divided we will fall. Prisoners, stand up and unionize!

Sehu Kessa Saa Tabansi

Footnotes

**Russell Maroon Shoatz settled his lawsuit for $99,000 and a guarantee that he would not be put back in the hole based on his prior disciplinary record. The settlement victory was made possible by the solidarity movement outside prison, as well as the activism of Maroon himself.

  • On September 20, 2016 Arthur Cetewayo Johnson won a preliminary injunction in District Court ordering the Department of Corrections to remove him from solitary confinement, where he had been held for 36 years.
Advertisements