A Political Prisoner’s Journey in the U.S. Prison System
by A. Jalil Bottom (2005)
After the illegal NYC Newkill conviction of killing two police officers in 1975, I was transferred back to San Quentin prison in California to complete the sentence for which I was originally captured on August 28, 1971, in a shoot-out with San Francisco police (it was alleged that my co-defendant, Albert Nuh Washington, and I attempted to assassinate a police sergeant in retaliation for the August 21, 1971 assassination of comrade George Jackson). Once again held in the infamous S.Q. Adjustment Center, locked in a cell between Brother Ruchell Magee and Charles Manson, I received a leaflet from Sister Yuri Kochiyama of the National Committee in Defense of Political Prisoners (NCDPP) informing me of an initiative to build international support for U.S. political prisoners. In response, I wrote an outline to petition the United Nations in support of U.S. political prisoners. I gave the outline to Ruchell, who thought it was very good, and then passed it along to Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt), who also approved. I then rewrote the outline into a proposal and sent it to Yuri for consideration. Unfortunately, NCDPP did not act on the proposal. Then in late 1976, I met a white guy named Commie Mike, and he introduced me to the United Prisoners Union (UPU). He explained that UPU may be willing to implement my proposal to petition the U.N. in support of U.S. political prisoners. A young UPU activist white woman named Pat Singer came to visit me and brought my proposal to the group, which eventually agreed to support this national campaign. The campaign in early 1977 had grown beyond what UPU could handle alone, and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC) joined in the campaign, which was facilitated by China Brotsky. A young lawyer from Amnesty International was recruited to represent the petition at the United Nations, while at the same time UPU and PFOC organized a signature petition gathering 2500 signatures from prisoners across the country. In fact, we had affiliate cadres in state and federal prisons in 25 U.S. states, with communications with prisoners in parts of Europe.
In 1977, the attorney presented our petition to a special subcommittee of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. This was the very first time U.S. political prisoners had a petition submitted and recorded at a United Nations subcommittee pertaining to racism and the conditions of political prisoners in the U.S. penal system. (See: U.N. document E/CN.4/Sub.2/NGO/75). As the petition campaign was being organized, Comrade Sundiata Acoli in New Jersey agreed to assist with organizing a march in support of the petition to the United Nations. The march and demonstration was held in front of the Harlem State Office Building, an initiative that Sister Bibi Angola ensured would be successful. This campaign was responsible for former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young being fired from his post at the U.N. by then President Jimmy Carter. What happened was that PFOC informed me that they knew a reporter who would be in Paris, France, when Andrew Young would be visiting, and asked what he could do in support of our campaign. I suggested the reporter ask Ambassador Andrew Young the single question: “are there political prisoners in the United States?” When Andrew Young answered, “perhaps thousands,” right-wing political forces and the media had a field day rebuking and attacking him, resulting in him being fired from his U.N. post.
“are there political prisoners in the United States?”
This campaign was so successful that UPU and PFOC had communications in prisons across the country. We organized the first demonstration in front of San Quentin on August 21, 1977, initiating the first of what would become a Black August tradition. By September 19, 1977, I was paroled and transferred from San Quentin back to NYC and held in isolation at Rikers Island for 58 days. I was held in isolation because I was supposed to have been transferred to federal authorities in accordance with the stipulations for parole from San Quentin, but instead I was taken to NYC. When NYC/S officials recognized their error, they decided to keep me in NYS, or otherwise possibly lose future custody of me. Eventually, I was transferred to Sing-Sing, enroute to Clinton Correctional Facility for orientation. I stayed at Clinton until December 29, 1977, and was then transferred to Attica.
In the 11 months I stayed at Attica, I eventually inherited the position of chairman of the Lifers’ Committee, an inmate organization working to win lifers “good time” off the minimum sentence for good behavior as is given to all other class of prisoners in NYS. At a community forum sponsored by the Attica Lifers’ Committee, former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark attended and made a presentation. I originally met Ramsey Clark when awaiting trial in the Tombs Correctional Facility; he and his father came on a tour and I made it a point to speak to both of them. One of the things I said to Mr. Clark was to be sure to tell the people the truth about what is happening in this government. At any rate, at the forum in Attica, he remembered that brief conversation and told people attending that he would help me get out of prison. Unfortunately that has not happened, but he has been a staunch advocate of human rights around the world. After the 1971 insurrection in Attica, prison guards were still treating prisoners abusively, as they do now, and eventually I was accused of organizing what had been called “The Attica Brigade”, a group of prisoners allegedly prepared to retaliate against prison guards’ brutality. I was held for 60 days in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), accused of being the leader of the Attica Brigade. The Attica prison administrators sought to keep me in Administrative Segregation after the 60 days was terminated, but when that failed, I was transferred to Auburn. My nine month stay at Auburn in 1979 was uneventful until there was a fight between two prisoners in the Mosque. The prison authorities decided to take the Mosque from the Muslims and make them conduct their Friday prayer in the Christian chapel. The Muslims rebelled and decided to conduct their Friday prayers in the exercise yard. At the time, praying in the yard was against the rules, and for that act several prisoners were transferred out of Auburn. Again, I was accused of being a ringleader of the Muslims, but was not officially charged with a disciplinary report.
I was transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility from Auburn in July 1980. Green Haven was found to be one of the most corrupt prisons in New York State. At Green Haven, I became the Executive Director of the inmate organization Creative Communications Committee (CCC). Essentially, the CCC operated as a lifers’ group seeking to influence and change state penal and prison laws. Initiatives were being organized to win lifers “good time”. Also, under my direction, CCC sponsored a class action lawsuit challenging the clause in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that holds prisoners are slaves of the state. The lawsuit was supported by a petition submitted to the United Nations arguing that the 13th Amendment was in violation of International Laws governing human rights. The CCC sponsored community forums inviting NYS legislators, community representatives, and other notables to discuss issues of penal reform. However, in the three year period from 1977-1980, there had been three escapes from Green Haven; drugs, prisoner rapes, and extortion were rampant in the prison. Members of CCC sought to curtail a number of these activities, especially in terms of preventing gang violence due to drugs and extortions. There was a growing base of support and respect from the prisoners for CCC commitment and work. This was noted in Albany when the chairman of the CCC, Ralph “Ratton” Hall, was permitted to give a presentation to a Legislative Assembly Committee.
When the last escape occurred from the visiting room at Green Haven, the authorities decided to revamp and restrict visiting. The series of new regulations were implemented to restrict visiting and prisoners’ movement in the prison. In response, the various prisoners’ organizations, including the Inmate Liason Committee (ILC) and Inmate Grievance Resolution Committee (IGRC), which had been officially created as a result of the demands from the 1971 Attica insurrection, met to discuss a prisoner response. At the meeting, it was decided to gauge the extent of prisoners’ support for any future action by conducting a one day hunger strike. If the prison population supported the strike, then other decisions would be made to ensure prisoners’ concerns were heard and considered by the prison authorities.
When 98% of the entire prison population did not attend any meals in the mess hall, the next day prisoners met to discuss what issues would be brought to the prison administrators and how they would be delivered. The prison administration and Commissioners from Albany wanted to meet with the prison representatives, first calling the ILC and IGRC reps to discuss the problems. However, the ILC and IGRC members informed the prison administrators that they did not represent the population in the hunger strike, claiming that the various inmate organizations must meet and elect representatives to discuss the issues with the prison administrators. Of course, the ILC and IGRC members had been previously instructed on what to say when called by the administrators, several of them being CCC members. The prison administrators permitted the leaders of the inmate organizations to meet, and it was decided that 40 prisoners would meet with the prison authorities, and I would be the spokesperson for the group.
The 40 prisoners met with the Green Haven executive team and Commissioners from Albany, and I presented the prisoners’ grievances. Essentially I informed them that corruption in the prison administration was the cause for the trouble in the prison, and the restrictions being implemented would cause further upheaval. When the meeting began, we asked that it be recorded and that the tape be played on the institutional radio so the entire population could hear what happened, and know they had been adequately represented. At first the prison administrators refused to record the meeting. I then turned to face the prisoners who were seated behind me. They stood in unison, prepared to exit the meeting. At that point, the administrators relented and recorded the entire meeting; it was played back that evening on the institutional radio. At the conclusion of the meeting, it was negotiated and agreed that there would be no retaliation or transfers for those prisoners who had attended the meeting, especially since the prison administrators had asked for the meeting in the first place.
The next day, the Superintendent of Green Haven was transferred, the prison was placed on total lock down for a general shake-down search, and they began transferring prisoners. Three days after transfers began, guards came to my cell claiming I was being transferred. However, I was assaulted by the 6 guards after I had been stripped naked. After a struggle, I was handcuffed, and they put my pants on. Barefooted and bare-chested, I was moved to another housing block and beaten along the way. Then I was transferred to Down State Correctional Facility, where I was placed in the SHU and given a disciplinary report that I assaulted one of the guards who came to escort me to be transferred.
At the preliminary disciplinary hearing conducted at Down State, I refuted the charges, and the Lt. conducting the hearing changed the charges in order to defeat my defense against the bogus charge of assault. The next day, I was handcuffed and transferred to Comstock Correctional Facility, roughed-up, and placed in the SHU. There I was put in a cell that was completely enclosed with a quarter-inch sheet of plexi-glass covering the front bars. The sheet of plexi-glass has small holes drilled at the bottom to permit air inside the cell. I was kept in that cell for nearly two weeks. In the day time, the temperature in the cell reached 100 degrees in the middle of July. I would have to lie on the ground for hours to get fresh air and breathe. Today plexi-glass covered cells are being used throughout NYS SHU’s.
In Comstock, they completed the disciplinary hearing, in violation of all their rules governing such hearings, and gave me 6 months in the SHU, losing all privileges. I appealed the decision to the Director of SHU in Albany, who summarily affirmed all charges and sanctions. I then filed an Article 78 petition with the courts, and within a month of filing the petition, Albany reversed all charges, making the petition before the court a moot point, and I was released into the general population at Comstock. However, prior to being released to the general population, I was taken out of the plexi-glass cell in the SHU and placed in a regular cell in the SHU. Many of the prisoners were being abused in the SHU, and the guards permitted a snitch trustee to spray a high-powered fire hose on several prisoners. One in particular was a close friend who was crippled as a result of a stab wound he suffered in Green Haven. To protest the abuse, several prisoners decided to go on a hunger strike. After the 5th day, only 5 of us stood strong, and on the 7th day we were escorted to the hospital. In the hospital, guards tried to intimidate one of the younger hunger strikers, and a more seasoned prisoner, the only white guy in the group, jumped in the officer’s face and took the beat-down for this young, Black kid. We were then placed in isolation cells in the hospital, and after the 11th day living on nothing but water, the prison administrators relented, got rid of the trustee, and assured us changes would be made in the SHU. We were then escorted back to the SHU and given a meal with no disciplinary report for the protest. I had spent nearly 4 months in the SHU for having been assaulted by Green Haven prison guards and having been lied to by prison administrators that there would be no retaliation for meeting with them. Subsequently, the 40 prisoners that were transferred filed and won a lawsuit against Green Haven and NYS Department of Correctional Services; a suit called the “Green Haven 40”.
During the Green Haven lawsuit, then DOCS Commissioner Thomas A. Coughlin testified that I was the leader of a prison take-over at Green Haven, that CCC had become a Black Liberation Army front operation, and that I had established BLA cadres throughout the prison engaged in drug sales, extortion, and intimidation to control the prison. Of course, the jury in the Green Haven 40 lawsuit refuted the Commissioner’s allegations, especially after the tape from the meeting, which we had prisoners in the radio room make a copy of and send to a lawyer in the streets for safekeeping, was brought to court and played. This happened right after the Commissioner testified he knew nothing about a tape having ever been made.
While in Comstock, I was able to prevent a riot in the mess hall and was given a commendation. But within the 4 months in Comstock general population, I saw that prisoners were regularly being brutalized by prison guards. This eventually led to a sit-down strike in the prison yard, and, once again, I was accused of being the organizer and ring-leader. I was then transferred back to Auburn, placed in the SHU, and charged with various rule violations. Again, after 4 months in SHU, all charges were dismissed after filing an Article 78 petition in the Court. I was then released to the general population at Auburn, where I stayed for 3 years without incident until transferred in the middle of the day to Clinton Correctional Facility general population. Subsequently, it was learned that I was transferred because someone claimed I was planning an escape from Auburn, which proved untrue. After a 3 year stay at Clinton without incident, I was transferred back to Green Haven, where I stayed for 4 years, becoming the chairman of Project Build prisoners’ organization. During this time at Green Haven, I received another commendation for preventing a riot in the auditorium, and received awards from various prisoners’ organizations for my participation and leadership in programs. Also during the period, I drafted a legislative bill to win lifers good time. The bill was submitted by NYS Assembly representatives, and was adopted by then Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, and submitted to the Committee on Corrections. I taught Black history, trained boxers in the gym, and initiated research for the filing of a lawsuit to win prisoners the right to vote. After 4 years in Green Haven, and before I could complete my research for the lawsuit, I was transferred to Eastern Correctional Facility. But I only stayed 8 months because my co-defendant, Herman Bell, wanted to enter the college master program at Eastern, and DOCS would not permit us to be held in the same prison. So, DOCS made a switch, and he was brought to Eastern from Shawangunk, and I was taken to Shawangunk.
At Shawangunk, I continued to teach Black/African studies, as I had done while at Green Haven. I also established the first Men’s Group in a prison in the entire country. I completed a double-major degree, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, summa cum laud. At the same time, I completed the research on the prisoners’ right to vote and in 1994, I filed the lawsuit in the federal Northern District Court. Yet, Shawangunk also proved to be a prison where guards rigidly exercised their authority, regularly abusing prisoners. Originally, Shawangunk was constructed to be a maxi-max prison to hold the most incorrigible NYS prisoners. Many of the guards maintained that kind of attitude despite the prison operating as a regular maximum security institution. While there, I worked as the clerk in the grievance office, and was able to get a good feel of the atmosphere and sentiments of the prison population. Again, unrest eventually reached a nodal point, and prisoners started a work strike in response to a number of restrictions being arbitrarily implemented after an attempted escape. Once again, I was transferred, this time back to Attica and held in the SHU for 11 days, when charges of leading the strike were down-graded to simply participating in the strike.
While at Attica in 1996, I became the Imam of the Muslim community. Soon into my 6 month stay, DOCS began to implement a statewide policy of double-bunking a number of prisoners due to overcrowding in the sytem. Across NYS prisoners protested this policy, and in Attica, prisoners locked themselves in their cells on a work strike. The work strike, in my opinion, was poorly organized. Because Attica is dived into four sections, with little interaction between prisoners in the different housing areas, it was difficult to organize the strike. Unfortunately, due to the lack of proper communications, some members of gangs supporting the strike would retaliate against prisoners who went to the mess hall to eat, not staying in their cells. This was not a hunger strike, and it could not be expected that prisoners without food in their cells would stay in their cells and not eat. As the Imam of the Muslims, I asked for several representatives of groups to come to the yard to resolve this problem, essentially to stop the prisoner on prisoner violence. The position of the Muslims was that we would support anything that the majority of prisoners decided to do to protest the double-bunking policy, but we were not going to engage in prisoner on prisoner violence to enforce the strike.
In the prison yard, with a number of prisoners, I explained that no one could prevent a prisoner from going to the mess hall to eat, unless they intend to feed those hungry prisoners. Because I was vocal and adamant about this position, prison guards in the gun towers took it upon themselves to interpret that I was instructing prisoners on how to conduct the strike. Once again, I was taken to the SHU and given a disciplinary report of leading a prison strike. At the hearing, I was found guilty, and given 2 years in the SHU. I appealed the sanctions to Albany, which modified them to 9 months, and I was transferred to Elmira Correctional Facility SHU.
Elmira SHU is essentially a sensory deprivation cell block, where for 23 hours a day a prisoner is held in a cell completely enclosed by concrete walls with the exception of a small door opening facing a wall. The only time a prisoner sees another person is when he is going to 1 hour recreation or to and back from a shower 3 times a week. Food is served through a tray opening in the door. Speaking to another prisoner has to be through a crack at the bottom of the door; however yelling to other prisoners is not permitted, and if caught doing so it could result in additional time in the SHU. During the 9 months spent in SHU, I was able to complete the editing of my book, We Are Our Own Liberators!, with the assistance of Bonnie Kerness. I also worked with Herman Ferguson and the New African Liberation Front (NALF) lobbying the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to reopen COINTELPRO hearings. After 9 months in SHU, the Deputy Superintendent of Security personally gave me an ultimatum: either go into a double-bunk cell in the general population or remain in the SHU. I laughed at him, but he told me to give him my answer the next day. After consulting a very close friend of mine who was in the SHU (he was permitted to sweep and mop during the day), I was advised that the policy had been fully implemented, and many prisoners were asking to go into double-bunk with their friends. He explained that I needed to get back in direct communications with family and friends on the streets, and that my own isolation in SHU would be for nothing. I agreed to be released, and after one week in Elmira general population, one morning at 3 a.m. I was awakened by guards and transferred back to Eastern Correctional Facility.
I stayed at Eastern this time for 3 years, teaching prisoners computer literacy, and in 1997, with the support of Herman Ferguson and my dear comrade Sister Safiya Bukhari, founded and initiated the Jericho ’98 March on the White House. This campaign brought over 6,000 activists and supporters of U.S. political prisoners to Washington, D.C., which forged into existence the Jericho Amnesty Movement. The time spent in Eastern was without incident, and on May 6, 1999 at 4 a.m., I was awakened and transferred back to Auburn. No reason was given, but within 6 months at Auburn I was placed in the SHU subject to confidential informant statements that I was organizing a strike. Originally, I was being held in administrative segregation pending charges, and when the confidential informant’s statements proved unreliable, my personal property was searched. Hence, they found some literature pertaining to explosives that had been sent to me in the mail while I was in Eastern and was permitted to receive. In fact, the cell has been searched two other times and the literature was not seized. But this time I was charged with having contraband literature and kept in SHU for 90 days. While in the SHU, prisoners throughout NYS were protesting the implementation of the death penalty without providing “good time” for lifers. These were called the “Y2K strikes”, allegedly being organized from Sing-Sing prison with the assistance of outside activists. As a pre-emptive measure, I was taken out of the population by Auburn prison administrators to prevent the possibility of a strike at the premier prison where prisoners’ labor produces license plates. After 90 days in the SHU, I was released back into the general population, and continued to be confronted with harassment by prison guards. Ironically, the Deputy Superintendent of Security who gave me the ultimatum at Elimira was promoted, and is now the Superintendent at this prison, so you can imagine …
I have now been in Auburn for 6 years, and for 3 of those years I was the chairman of the Lifers’ Committee. In that position, I facilitated the teaching of a Sociology class, and submitted several proposals to the prison administration including raising funds for the victims of 9/11, the establishing of a parenting class for young fathers, and a pre-release program to prepare prisoners for parole. Presently I am facilitating a poetry class and a legal research and discussion class. Having twice been denied release on parole, although scheduled to appear before the parole board in July 2006, I am challenging the parole denial in the Court via an Article 78 petition. Also, I continue to litigate the prisoners’ right to vote lawsuit that is on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, with oral arguments calendared for June 22, 2005. Plus, I have two other legal matters pending in the Court, while at the same time, I continue to seek the means to build progressive support for U.S. political prisoners through the Jericho Amnesty Movement.
This is an abbreviated history of my 3 decade experience in the U.S. prison system. To be more detailed would result in a voluminous biographical journey that I am not now prepared to write. However, I sincerely hope what is here elucidated offers insights as to what this political prisoner has suffered and endured. I am certain many others have more horrendous experiences indicting inhumane prison conditions, abuse, and brutality underscoring what happened in Abu Graib by American prison personnel in Iraq.
Yours in continued struggle,
A. Jalil Bottom
a/k/a Jalil A. Muntaqim