Another Opinion by Shirley Cloyes
I first met Susan Rosenberg in May 1988, when I was the associate publisher, about to become the publisher, of Lawrence Hill Books. The year before I had edited and published Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur, the former Black Panther known as Joanne Chesimard. Assata's autobiography had met with a lot of critical acclaim, but also with a lot of controversy since she had made a daring escape from prison in 1979 and been granted asylum in Cuba. When I became the recipient of harassment on a grand scale from the U.S. government, Assata's lawyers, including Susan Rosenberg’s attorney, Mary O'Melveny, came to my aid.
At the time, Susan, a well-known political activist in the anti-Vietnam War and Black liberation movements, was serving a 58-year-to-life sentence for stockpiling weapons and explosives, an offense that would have, and should have, carried only a five-year prison sentence under US law. Even though the U.S. government would eventually acknowledge that Susan had never harmed or killed anyone, she nevertheless received this excessive sentence based on the belief that she was part of a left-wing conspiracy responsible for the 1981 Brinks' robbery in Nyack, New York, in which two policemen and a security guard were killed. She received this sentence even though in 1985, just a year after she was jailed, the government would dismiss the Brinks' conspiracy charges against her. In effect, Susan was being punished for an act for which she had never been tried and for which she bore no responsibility on the basis of her involvement with people and organizations opposed to U.S. government policies at home and abroad.
In 1988, I was well aware of the arbitrary ways in which the U.S. government had historically responded to people it labeled a political threat. But I was only beginning to learn about the inhumane conditions that Susan and a few of her sister activists, Alejandrina Torres and Silvia Baraldini, had been subjected to. When we met, Susan had already spent four years in jail, two of them in an infamous high security unit that had been built underground in the Lexington, Kentucky, prison for men and that had been designed specifically to break the will of political prisoners. Five women lived in a windowless, all-white concrete building, virtually a living tomb, subject to sleep deprivation and harassment, with bright fluorescent lighting and surveillance 24 hours a day. They were frequently shackled and strip-searched, and they were repeatedly told that the only way they could leave the unit was to renounce their political beliefs and associations.
After a campaign led by Amnesty International and the ACLU's Prison Project closed down the Lexington High Security Unit, Susan was transferred to the county jail in Washington, DC, and coincidentally the annual convention of publishers and booksellers was about to take place in our nation's capital. Mary, Susan's lawyer, said, "I think that you and Susan will like each other. I will arrange for you to meet."
I don’t remember a lot about what Susan and I discussed in a two-hour visit that day more than twenty years ago, but I do remember what has been enduring for me about her: her sensitivity to injustice, her integrity, and her spiritual magnitude. Her respect for human life was so remarkable in the face of what she had undergone in close to two years of solitary confinement and in the face of the contempt for human life that pervades our prison system.
What would also remain etched in my mind in the years that followed—years in which Susan and I would exchange ideas and our visions of the world in visits on the inside and while I was working for her release on the outside—was my astonishment at the failure of many people who had experienced the turbulent political and social atmosphere in America from the 1960s to the 1980s to empathize with what underlay the road that Susan and some other women and men in our generation had chosen to tread.
To this day, the majority of Americans don’t believe that the United States has political prisoners, when in reality we have always had them—beginning with the people who were locked up for violating slavery laws, to pacifists during wartime, to the heyday of the liberation movements of the 1960s through the 1980s. In those latter years, America was on the brink, and the environment for dissidents was closer to the "dirty war" in Argentina, the Apartheid system in South Africa, and Chile under Pinochet’s military junta. This was the environment that was formative for Susan, and with the publication of her exceptional memoir by Kensington Books, we have a timely opportunity to reexamine it.
Many Americans do not realize that during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, thousands of young people were sent to prison simply for resisting the draft or for their involvement in the struggle of African Americans and other people of color for political, social, and economic justice. Beginning in the 1960s, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover carefully orchestrated a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO to intimidate, defame, and imprison political activists, especially African Americans. Martin Luther King and thousands of less well known civil rights activists were the first targets of COINTELPRO.
Years later, Susan would become a target as well—vilified by the media for a crime she did not commit, plastered on the FBI’s most wanted list with a “shoot to kill” order, forced underground, and ultimately imprisoned for sixteen and a half years, with her appeals denied again and again until she was finally freed through presidential pardon by Bill Clinton in 2000.
We are very fortunate that Susan Rosenberg emerged to tell this story, along with another, intersecting narrative in 20th century America: The crises of the 1960s would lead in the 1980s to what is nationally recognized as a lock-them-up and-throw-away-the-key mentality in response to our country's social problems. Even though the crime rate has fallen 25 percent since the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing (initiated with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984) has kept people in prison longer and longer, the majority for nonviolent crimes. Since Susan was jailed, the number of people in US prisons has increased more than 500 percent. Today America incarcerates more people, both in number and percentage of our population, than any other country in the world. Almost 2.3 million Americans, roughly one in every 100 adults, are in prison. Seventy percent of the prison population is nonwhite, poor, and more and more are women.
In An American Radical, Susan gives a human face to this tragedy. While she was moved across the country from prison to prison, she not only continued to believe in the power of committed people to change America, she lived it.
Once she was released into the general population for the first time in the Danbury, Connecticut, prison in 1994, she taught an AIDS awareness class to inmates and developed an innovative curriculum for women on HIV/AIDS that is now used throughout the Bureau of Prisons.
And, most important for all of us, she used her considerable skills as a writer, winning four PEN awards while she was behind bars, to bear witness to the lives of women on the inside, explaining why the majority of them are also deserving of freedom.
With the publication of American Radical, Susan helps us to think more deeply about the choices that our society has made, and in the process, she calls us to a better future.
Shirley A. Cloyes, March 2011
See H. Bruce Franklin, Prison Literature in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) for a comprehensive discussion of the continuity between slavery and the incarceration of political dissidents in the United States.
See The Sentencing Project’s 2011 report at www.sentencingproject.org.