“My son has been in prison all his life...”

May 26, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


A national strategy meeting was held in New York City in April to plan for the October Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration. Revolution/revcom.us talked with participants at the meeting, including families of those in prison, parents of those who have been killed by the police, and others active in the struggle against mass incarceration. The following, which is one of those interviews, is with a woman who has a son who has been incarcerated for decades and participated in the Pelican Bay hunger strike in 2013.


Talk about how your son first ended up in prison.

I am the proud mother of a prisoner advocate, an advocate for prisoners. They call them prisoner attorneys. How this came to be was, this was in California and this young man was going to school and he was an honor roll student. After school he worked at a cleaners and on weekends he worked on Venice Beach flipping burgers, he was 14 and a half. And they were doing a what-you-call-it, a sweep in Venice of the Latin American youth and the African-American youth. And it happened to be in the summertime and I think some boys had taken a lady’s purse and my son happened to be in the area. So when they were doing the sweep they just swept him right in and he went to Youth Authority. And even in Youth Authority he was helping other young Latin American and African-Americans with their education. He would teach them basic math and he would take them up into algebra, trig and some of them even calculus.

In what year did this happen?

Around 1976.

And what was he charged with?

He was charged with being part of a gang and... They may have charged him by reason of association and I found out at that time through other people in the community, that whatever community where they picked up young males, especially Black or brown, they put them in a gang module, like a section in the Youth Authority or in the prison. They’re called modules and then they put on their record that they’re in a gang. So I didn’t know at the time, but they said there were Crips in Venice and they also said for the Latinos there was some gang. And most of these youth that they picked up were actually just school children, in junior high or just beginning high school. So I’m thinking he’s going to get out of there. But he actually finished high school in there.

How much time did they give him? They just kept him in there?

They kept him in there until he was like 19 or 20.

So you’re saying, they just swept him up.... and they kept him in there for the next five years?

Yes. They started the record [on him] when he was at school. A security guard at school was selling drugs and that security beat up one of my son’s friends.... The security guard knocked the guy down and then my son jumped the security guard and that started his record off. But when the security guard and the police took him to jail, they called me and I said, hey, why is my son at the police station and they said, well he had some kind of altercation at school. So they allowed me to come bring him home. But that started off a record.

This little altercation—this was before the sweep?

Yeah, this was before the sweep. He was taken for standing up for his friend because the security guard who was a big grown man had knocked him down... But my son already knew that this security guard sold drugs at the school so he didn’t have any respect for this supposed to be law-abiding person doing that.

This is a lot like what we’ve been talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, altercations or fights like when we were kids we got sent to the principal's office are now things that kids are getting arrested and sent to jail for...

Yes. And I know for a fact that they have had policing officers in the schools—because my son is now 52 years old. He’s been in prison all of his life—the whole time can only be comparable to one year that he’s been out of prison since he was 14 and a half years old. The whole entire time.

So he’s 52 years old now and he’s been in prison basically since he was 14 years old.

Yes and unfortunately there’s a lot of young promising brown and Black youth, that are so promising that could have helped America very, very much. We know that he would have been a professor simply because my oldest son is a private contractor, a builder. He’s built condominiums overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica and Malibu. And my daughter, his sister, is a social worker with two masters degrees. And he was the one who made the best grades. These are the ones they put into their system. And I’m a retired nurse and teacher.

Here’s this child that gets into their clutches, their system. How is it that he ends up never getting out?

Basically how they wind up never really getting out is because first of all, they start them with the number and second of all...

What do you mean by that? A number?

When you go to see them [in prison] you have to know their ID number. They have, I think it’s like a five-digit ID number. Then second of all when they take children that young wherever they live at, the police know what gangs used to be there, are currently there, or whatever. So they put them in that gang, even if the child is not in that gang they typecast them and that’s like letters to the number that they’re in that gang. OK, the gangs are considered criminal, ok. So that’s one way they can keep them in there.

Then another way they can keep them in there is that if another prisoner wants to get out, all they have to do is say that one of these youth is now a part of the jailhouse gang.

So in other words, they finger the person...

Yeah, but we also found out that since they don’t tell your child or your young male or your husband or your brother, whosoever in there who fingered them, then we found out that they can do that themselves and say someone fingered them. In other words the police can just say someone fingered them.

And then another way that they can keep them in there as long as possible is that—we know for a fact that there are security guards in the jails and some sheriffs and some police that bring in contraband. OK, if the prisoners are caught with contraband they can get two strikes. OK, maybe they already had two strikes so they can get three strikes. Anyway, we know of prisoners who have gotten two strikes inside the jail.

Now we also know that nobody can bring in contraband. They’ll try to say that family members or friends or whoever can visit them bring in the contraband. But we know way better than that. Because they have to go through such X-ray machines and such metal detecting machines and such everything. And you can’t even send them a birthday card or a Christmas card that has foil or little sequins or anything like that on it or even a letter. And you can’t always send certain things in a letter because they’ll never even get the letter or if you write certain things, or they’ll get the letter so late. And of course our family never having anyone in jail that we knew about we had no way of knowing about all these things until we started questioning other prisoners and also questioning other families and seeing how much money they had to pay and that the system would take half the money they were sending in to the prisoners and making them pay ridiculous amounts at the canteens or even that we can send a box once a year and we have to pay outrageous amounts. And parents got together all over the Untied States and family members got together because they weren’t even letting them have—we had to fight to see that they would get enough soap to bathe in....

He’s been in solitary for how long?

Eight years. But when he was in the other jails they would always throw him down in the hole too. So probably, I’d say over half of his life he has probably been in solitary, aside from this last eight years in Pelican Bay.

Did he participate in the hunger strike at Pelican Bay?

Listen, he was in the very first hunger strike 20 years ago, they didn’t even put that one in the media. But that was the first hunger strike and I think that was the one where I went on the media to ask the CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] to let them have basic things that our tax dollars are paying for that they shouldn’t have to buy, just basic things. And he was part of the one in 2011. And what happened in this last one is that they took 51 out of Pelican Bay and sent them to Folsom Prison near Sacramento. And then the reason they didn’t force-feed him was that he had a heart attack. My son has always had a weak heart. He had the heart attack when they sent him up there. They force-fed the other ones I guess.

What happened with his heart attack?

We’ve had guys die on the hunger strike before.

But what happened to your son?

They didn’t do anything. They didn’t care.

Did they put him in the hospital?

No. They don’t really care. I don’t think his heart attack was so major, because maybe if it was major they would have either just let him die or they would have put him in the hospital. Sometimes they just let people die, that’s no problem with them. Because other people have died. And they say a lot of times in a hunger strike the reason a person dies is because there is not enough nourishment to feed the heart. But my son has always had a heart condition.

But anyway, when I went to see him in September, remember the hunger strike started on July 8 and ended approximately two months later. So then he had the heart attack around the first of September. So I didn’t get to see him until December. Oh, and he had lost 50 pounds in the hunger strike. When I saw him, he did not tell me, his wife told me and he made his wife swear she wouldn’t tell me—about the heart attack. So then I couldn’t even ask him about it because I couldn’t give her up, you know what I’m saying. Because he thought that would just kill his mom.

Does he know that you’re involved in this whole struggle?

Oh yes, yes. He is the reason why I am in this struggle. Because two and a half years ago when I was working for a Christian school, he sent his wife a letter and a flier and she called me and told me about it....

Does he get Revolution newspaper?

Oh yes. He has gotten it and they stopped it for a while, but they started it back up again.

I have one of the letters [from him] where he was congratulating me when I first got into this. [The flier] was about the Geneva Convention and bringing attention to the United Nations about solitary confinement. This was about two and a half years ago and it called on people who were aware of that, legislators, leaders. And I did contact Ms. [congresswoman] Waters about it and I did contact another person about it in Los Angeles, a councilman. I never got a reply back, there was a meeting in front of the State Department in downtown Los Angeles. The attorneys that we met there at the United Nations, they were excellent. I was happy to say there were two channels there, I think one of them was Channel 7. My daughter tried to come, she couldn’t find it. But my oldest son came. And believe it or not my son [in prison] saw his brother on television. So he wrote me a letter of congratulations and he said, mom, I’m so proud of my family standing up for all the prisoners. He never relates to himself. He always relates to all of them. He said for standing for all the prisoners and for standing up for human rights and civil rights. Because I’ve been a human rights and civil rights worker all the way back to the '60s.

His wife and I both asked him to not be in this last hunger strike because we knew about his heart and we knew that in the very first hunger strike that he did 20 years ago that it weakened him down very badly and also with the one in 2011. So we begged him not to. But they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.

And then he was so proud—whatever gang leaders were inside of the prisons as well as the ones who were on the outside—that they agree [to] not have any racial [hostilities]—of coming together in peace, and not in war and not in any kind of criminal activity. He was very proud of that.

What are your thoughts on the October Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration?

The October Month of Resistance is not only an excellent idea, but absolutely necessary!  I say the whole month is important, and October 22 has to be a mass march all over the U.S. against solitary confinement, against the school-to-prison pipeline, against police brutality and all the police murders.  I've recently found out that October 22 is when human rights and community organizations have kept that date for years... have kept that date to make aware to society the genocide that is happening right up under our noses, in the form police killing people and incarcerating our youth, men and women—especially people of color.  The month of resistance is about putting a stop to all of this oppression.

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