Message from Chuck Turner from behind bars for the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Day 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I regret not being able to be with you physically; however, I am certainly with you in spirit. Let me begin my reflections by commending the organizers for continuing to keep the focus on the horrible tragedy that occurred when Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for a crime they did not commit. Fortunately, the work of activists over decades finally resulted in Governor Dukakis acknowledging the truth and clearing their names. However, this important work does not eliminate the fact that their lives were taken by a criminal justice system seeking revenge rather than justice.
As we gather together today to acknowledge the tragic error of the government of that era in their unwillingness to seek justice, the question we must answer is what are we doing to stop the reoccurrence of such governmental injustice today, whether lives are being physically ended or destroyed through incarceration. What good does it do to call attention to the tragedy that occurred to Sacco and Vanzetti, if we do not organize to stop the present day governmental victimization of our brothers and sisters.
The reality is that as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we are in an age of prosecutorial terrorism, operating at a more vicious and virulent extent than ever before in the history of this country. While it does not attract the attention that was focused on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, this terrorism is taking place in the courts of this country every day at every level of government: county, state, and federal. Quietly and systematically, our government through its prosecutors are incarcerating an ever increasing percentage of our people.
Let me give you some statistics that will help you appreciate the extent of this hidden cancer that is slowly but surely destroying the soul of a country where allegedly the power is in the hands of the people. In 1975, there were approximately 500,000 people of all races in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Today, there are 2.3 million. Estimates are that over a million of them are black. Do the math, brothers and sisters. Over the last 35 years, the number of our people in jails and prisons has almost quintupled, grown by almost 500%. Today, we lead the world in the percentage of our people of all races as well as of color who are incarcerated.
There are many factors that have led to this obscene growth in imprisonment. Among them are the War on Drugs with its disproportionate incarceration rates for those selling crack rather than cocaine and the imposition on judges of mandatory minimums that take away a judge's ability to fit the sentence to the circumstances of the crime. When you look at the numbers of young men and women, particularly of color, who have been taken off the streets over the last few decades, you have to raise the question whether this prosecutorial terrorism's hidden objective is to rid the streets of those who would challenge an economic system that is not working in the interests of the people, especially the young people of color.
Please read ?The New Jim Crow: The Mass Incarceration of African-Americans in the Age of Color Blindness? by Michelle Alexander, a distinguished attorney, who exposes the fact that this growth rate can't be justified by blaming it on the character of those who have been arrested. Also, please read ?Three Felonies a Day? by Harvey Silverglade, a prominent Boston defense lawyer, who paints a picture of a criminal justice system that has no controls on the actions of its prosecutors, resulting in indiscriminate prosecutions.
As we look for causal factors, we cannot ignore the political use of 9/11 to give prosecutors even more power through the Patriot Act and similar laws to prosecute and imprison those viewed as enemies of the state. In the beginning of this year, prosecutors in Minneapolis issued subpoenas targeting those who had been active in defending the rights of Muslims who were being accused of terrorism. A few weeks later, a sister from Minneapolis reported at a Cambridge rally that she and others were going to resist what they saw as a governmental witch hunt by ignoring the subpoenas. I am not sure what has happened but these are the kinds of struggles that our people are facing every day that need to be spotlighted and supported.
I was told that at a hearing at Boston's federal courthouse for Tarek Mehanna, who is being prosecuted for ?terrorism?, some of his supporters were told by an FBI agent that they should be careful since they might be prosecuted under the new law that allows the government to put those found guilty of aiding terrorists in jail for up to fifteen years. Think about the implications of such a statement by a government official. Wasn't he saying that in this so called land of the ?free and the home of the brave?, where a person is allegedly innocent until proven guilty, you could be put in jail for daring to support the accused?
I could share with you my two and a half year experience with the Justice Department that resulted in my three year sentence to the work camp of USP Hazelton, in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. However, in order to give people an up close and personal view of how the government implements a frameup, I have written an eight part series that you can find on SupportChuckTurner.com. Until I came to USP Hazelton, I viewed my case as a poster child of prosecutorial terrorism. After talking to those here at this work camp with only 130 men, I see my situation duplicated many times with stories even more bizarre and horrifying than mine.
As activists, we must move beyond the definition of the problem. We have to identify and take appropriate action to end the problem. It is clear that we need to build a movement. While it would be wonderful to have a network of national organizations with units in key cities and towns in each state, we are a long way from that formation. We are at the stage where those of us who are outraged at the injustices we see being committed in the name of the criminal justice system, speak out and demand justice. In that spirit, I urge you to consider these three action steps:
1) Write Attorney General Holder:
In your letter, share the story of someone who has been unfairly imprisoned on a federal level and ask him to investigate it. If you don't know someone in that situation, ask your friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. to identify someone in whose behalf you can write. If they do, ask them to write a letter in addition to yours. Also, ask the Attorney General to work with President Obama to draft legislation that will make it legal for prosecutors to be criminally charged as well as civilly sued for misconduct.
Right now prosecutors are above the law. We all know the saying: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believe that if prosecutors could be criminally charged and civilly sued, they would begin to discipline themselves. Right now there is no risk for misconduct and potentially there are great rewards in terms of reputation and career advancement. Even Presidents can be impeached. We have to make prosecutors accountable for their actions. Therefore, we need this type of legislation immediately.
Please send a copy of your letter to Chuck Turner, PO Box 190251, Roxbury 02119 so we can trace the volume and the issues involved.
2) Write Governor Duval Patrick:
Follow the same steps except focus on a person incarcerated on the state/county level. My understanding is that similar to federal prosecutors, there are no consequences for state/county prosecutors who engage in misconduct. So ask Governor Patrick to work with the Attorney General to create legislation that will make state/county prosecutors accountable for misconduct. Also, send me a copy of your letter.
3) Contact US Attorney Watch:
US Attorney Watch is an organization operating in Boston that is attempting to raise consciousness by making the public aware of the injustices that are taking place in the Massachusetts federal court system. The evening before I was incarcerated, they held a speak out at Northeastern University where I and others were able to focus on historical and present day injustices. They can use your help so please contact them.
Let me close with the thought that every civilized society must have an effective criminal justice system to discourage those who would abuse the rights of their fellow citizens and prosecute those who choose the path of abuse. However, if the principle of justice is not the guiding spirit of the system, the system itself becomes the instrument through which justice is denied. We owe it to future generations to put justice into our criminal justice system. Let us begin by demanding that we require prosecutors to be accountable to the principle of justice rather than to their own political and career goals and aspirations.