Highlights Of The Struggle

Reports From Campaign Chapters Around The Country

By: Julien Ball, Rebecca Kurti, Crystal Bybee and David Russitano

By Julien Ball

The Chicago chapter of the CEDP has had two main focuses over the past couple of months: our campaign to win justice for victims of police torture under former Commander Jon Burge and our outreach to Illinois death row prisoners and their families. Hoping to take advantage of recent publicity surrounding a $19.8 million settlement to Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson--police torture victims who were pardoned in 2003 after each spending more than 15 years on death row for crimes they did not commit--we initiated a rally to call for new trials for torture victims still incarcerated in Illinois prisons.

The rally, held on Valentine's Day (Feb. 14), featured a number of co-sponsoring organizations including Black People against Police Torture, the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Men and Women in Prison Ministries, the National Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, 8th Day Center for Justice and Voices for Creative Non-Violence. We called on Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to "have a heart" and work for new trials for torture victims. Madigan was granted jurisdiction over the torture cases in 2002 and has the power to grant immediate evidentiary hearings to all of the victims, but she has not taken this step for any of them. About 50 activists braved the cold to attend, and a delegation featuring exonerated torture victim Harold Hill and family members of torture victims delivered an open letter to Madigan signed by nearly 200 people. An aide to Madigan met with us and told us she appreciated hearing our concerns, but we won't rest until Madigan acts on them. We recently co-sponsored a public forum on police torture and the death penalty with the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago, and we are planning another action on May 14.

The chapter has also prioritized outreach to death row prisoners. Since former Governor George Ryan cleared out death row before leaving office in 2003, 15 people have been sentenced to death. We have begun writing to death row prisoners on a regular basis, and chapter members have visited death row twice, once in March and once in April.

We also have been finding new opportunities to conduct outreach at schools and churches. Thanks to a grant from the Fire This Time Fund, we have lined up appearances at several schools and after-school programs for Illinois' first exonerated death row prisoner Darby Tillis, who is an accomplished speaker and blues/gospel musician. Meanwhile, our prisoners' family and friends' network will be speaking about our work at the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

New York City
By Rebecca Kurti

The NYC chapter of the CEDP launched its Prisoner Letter Writing Project last December. Over the holidays, we brought together campaign members, former prisoners, family members of prisoners, and community groups to write holiday cards to over 100 prisoners in the New York City area. Since our state no longer has the death penalty, we wrote to prisoners who had been death notified or are serving life in prison without parole (LWOP). We have been reaching out to prisoners sentenced to LWOP as part of a broader strategy that questions LWOP as a legitimate alternative to the death penalty. Helping to expose the inhumane conditions faced by LWOP prisoners is part of building a movement that keeps the focus on the real problems within the system, instead of demonizing prisoners as beyond redemption.

The Prisoner Letter Writing Project is our way of reaching out to long-term prisoners in New York. Our letters described our activism and our organization. We also asked our brothers and sisters behind bars to tell us about the reality of LWOP when they wrote us back. We also asked prisoners to help put us in touch with friends or family that may be interested in working with us.

Over thirty prisoners responded and were later sent a copy of the New Abolitionist. Quite a few prisoners were interested in this organizing project, sending us the names of family members to contact. Many of the prisoners' letters also told stories of the injustices they faced in their criminal cases as well as brutal prison conditions, notably the lack of access to adequate mental health services.

Mumia Abu-Jamal sent the Campaign a beautiful hand-drawn card. Texas prisoners Kenneth Foster and Gabriel Gonzales of DRIVE sent solidarity greetings. Their individual struggles are an inspiration to all those who are engaged in the fight against the racist death penalty and criminal injustice system. Through this new project, we hope that LWOP prisoners in New York can also take inspiration from their struggles.

The prisoners' family members are being contacted, and we are now getting to know the prisoners and their cases. We plan to take this issue of LWOP to the public by making a fact sheet about LWOP, soliciting quotes from LWOP prisoners for a "voices on the inside" flyer, and doing a Live From Death Row event, where these family member can have the opportunity to tell their stories.

Exonerations, shoddy defense, and blatant courtroom racism remain issues in LWOP cases, as they are in death penalty cases. Insuring that prisoners' will die behind bars, forcing them to live without hope, and ignoring their ability to change is no less cruel than the death house. These are the common themes that arise as we speak with prisoners and their families about their cases and lives.

Bay Area
By Crystal Bybee and David Russitano

In recent months, the Bay Area chapters of the CEDP have been focused on working with prisoners and family members, as well as other anti-death penalty and prison-issue groups.

We were able to participate in a number of key events. The San Francisco chapter attended a teach-in about Mumia Abu-Jamal at the ILWU Local 10 hall, organized by the Mobilization to Free Mumia. More than 20 groups were represented at the meeting. We are involved in the coalition and helping to plan future events for Mumia. We also planned a great fundraiser for Troy Davis, featuring Martina Correia, Troy's sister. Money was raised and we were able to hear from Martina what the struggle for Troy's life is like and how we can help.

We participated in a conference at San Francisco State University on March 1st, the culmination of an art exhibit called "Criminal" featuring a 10-foot by 12-foot portrait of Stanley Tookie Williams among other works. Attended by approximately 300 people, the conference included a keynote speech by Angela Davis and workshops on a variety of prison issues. The CEDP had a great table and led a workshop on the death penalty. The conference brought together groups fighting the criminal injustice system, such as Critical Resistance, as well as a large number of SF State students. 

In conjunction with the conference, we also held a Live from Death Row event featuring California death row prisoner and artist James P. Anderson, who called in from San Quentin. The event capped a yearlong study of the prison system by the Intersection of the Arts, who were essential to the success of the event. As James called in, pictures of his art were projected on a large screen on the stage. Around the theater we spread paintings by James, Kevin Cooper, Richard Tully, and a drawing by Eddie Vargas, all of whom are currently prisoners at San Quentin. James spoke on a wide range of topics, captivating the audience, most of whom had never been to a Live From Death Row.

In addition to participating in and hosting events, we have continued our on-going chapter building and coalition work, including the Family and Friends Network. We are receiving responses from our Christmas card writing party. Many of the prisoners appreciated that we had many people work on the cards together and were delighted to know that our organization is so involved. Some would also like to become pen pals and we need more CEDP members to work with these prisoners so their voices can reach broader society. The Oakland chapter is also involved in a coalition in Alameda County with other anti-death penalty organizations.

We are still waiting to hear back from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to find out if CEDP member and death row prisoner Kevin Cooper will be able to receive an en banc (full panel) hearing, after he was denied relief in December 2007. After the Supreme Court ruling, California executions still remain on hold temporarily, but we need to be prepared for a restart of the machinery of death.