By Eric Louie with Beth Seligman, J.D.
Occupy Oakland led a national day of support for prisoners at one of the most notorious incarceration complexes, San Quentin.
The Monday rally, falling on the President’s Day holiday, drew some 700 people throughout the afternoon to the residential Marin County neighborhood of older homes outside the entrance. Banners and information tables were set up including one where attendees wrote messages on pink and yellow cards that will be sent to prisoners. They included, “Unless all of us are free we are all imprisoned,” and “Stay Strong.” Many who attended the rally had suffered from illegal arrest, targeting, or imprisonment for their participation in Occupy Oakland.
A line-up of passionate speakers, including some who have been locked up before, victims of the prison-industrial complex in the United States which houses 25% of the world’s prisoners but has only 5% of the world’s population (according to the New York Times) spoke on multiple topics related to the prison system: reform for California’s three-strikes sentencing law, the mental punishment of solitary confinement and support for prisoners going through hunger strikes for better conditions. According to Prison Legal News the kind of torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq that the American public was so outraged about, is common-place within U.S. prisons.
One of the speakers had been sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of sixteen. The United States is the only country in the world with youth offenders (below the age of 18 at the time of offense) serving life without parole sentences, according to Human Rights Watch, and they face sexual and physical abuse, lack of educational opportunity, and isolation. Lack of education is one of the strongest predictors of criminal activity with sixty-five percent of US prisoners being high school drop-outs. Yet the U.S. spends $9,644 per student compared to $22,600 per prison inmate, according to the Broad Foundation.
Other speakers included members of the San Quentin Six, prisoners who faced charges after the 1971 shootings that killed Black Panther George Jackson along with guards and other prisoners. According to a 1998 interview with Luis Talamantez, who was acquitted of all charges related to the prison uprising and released from prison,
“George Jackson had long been marked for death by the prison system and by the government’s counter-intelligence program or COINTELPRO during an age when revolutionary leadership and fighters around the country and around the world, both outside and inside prison, were being assassinated. These were the years when there was an active government effort to eliminate leadership. It happened with AIM [American Indian Movement], with the Panthers, with the Puerto Rican freedom fighters. COINTELPRO never went away and still surveils today.”
Many people believe that Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and multiple others are political prisoners of the United States. Shane Bauer, one of the three Americans captured by Iran in 2009 while hiking, talked about the hunger strikes and denial of family letters in his time there.
“The Occupy movements needs to permeate the prisons” he said.
Activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose death sentence for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer was recently changed to life in prison, talked about Occupy’s involvement against the prison industry in a taped message.
“It was not an especially radical cause,” he said. “But it came at the right time.”
Police presence was heavy, with freeway off-ramps and streets near the prison closed. Parking was also restricted. Busses that brought demonstrators from both Oakland and San Francisco had to stop almost a mile away. Officers from multiple cities and the California Highway Patrol circulated around the area, with helicopters and correctional officers keeping watch. The event ended with a march out. Organizers encouraged attendees to pick up their trash and use to portable toilets brought in for the event.
Elsewhere in the country more than a dozen other events were planned. Many were at prisons and jails, including large cities like Los Angeles and New York to small ones like Fresno and Eureka.
Eric Louie is covering the Occupy movements for The Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America Local 39521.
This piece was first posted at OccupySF.org.