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A Prison Spotlight

An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country

By Susan Rosenberg; foreword by Kathleen Cleaver
Citadel Press, 2011

With a prison population approaching 2.5 million, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world,imprisoning more people per capita than decidedly less-than democratic states such as China, Burma, Zimbabwe, you name it. Yet unlike these and other autocracies, in the U.S. there are no political prisoners … officially. Advocates for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, and Óscar López Rivera, to name just a few of the more famous political radicals imprisoned in the U.S., would disagree. Some even consider Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks conspirator, to be a political prisoner. And in a time of economic upheaval and financial chicanery, the National Whistleblowers Center has even contested that the imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld, whose revelations resulted in the banking giant UBS forking over $780 million in fines and helped the IRS to recover some $20 billion in otherwise lost revenue, must be considered a political prisoner until he is granted clemency. Still, the government denies these prisoners such a mantle, claiming instead that they are held on weapons and explosives charges, murder, drug trafficking, tax fraud, and other misdeeds.

Susan Rosenberg seeks to dispel the myth that there are no political prisoners in the United States, for she was once their sister behind bars. In 1985, Rosenberg, a vehement civil rights activist and political radical who opposed the war in Vietnam, was sentenced to 58 years on charges of possessing weapons and explosives, the longest sentence for such a crime ever to be levied. It was a time when radicals of all stripes—Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, advocates for Puerto Rican independence, the Weathermen—were being rounded up and locked away, if not forced into exile. “I felt that we lived in a country that loved violence and that we had to meet it on its own terms,” Rosenberg confesses in her new memoir, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country. “This is why I was moving explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike with Tim Blunk,” her co-conspirator, who was also given a lengthy prison sentence. According to Rosenberg, at the time she and Blunk had no specific target in mind; en route to a storage facility, their motivations were shaky, intending only to stockpile the weapons for a future use against some (empty) government or corporate facility.

An American Radical is an emotional and illuminating glimpse of the experiences of a political radical who got caught by the very system she passionately opposed. Rosenberg writes:

And so, in keeping with all my beliefs, I pursued a path that seemed to me a logical step beyond legal protest: the use of political violence. Did that make me a terrorist? In my mind, then and now, the answer is no. I say this because no act in which I was involved ever had violence against persons as its object or consequence. The point was not to kill or maim innocent people, nor was it to create fear and terror. It was to underscore the demands of people in motion who were organizing against the system. It was to attack the structures of power that contributed to the death and destruction of people resisting U.S. intervention. It was to stop the U.S. war machine. I believed that legal protest alone could not always confront power.

The federal government may not have considered Rosenberg a political prisoner, but her punishment (and that of her like-minded prison mates) indicated that her political actions and motivations were worthy of special treatment. To wit: the presiding judge at Rosenberg’s trial cited her political ideology as the reason behind the 58-year sentence, which at the time was sixteen times the national average for the same crime.

Aside being handed an extraordinarily lengthy sentence, Rosenberg was repeatedly singled-out for unusual punishment. She began her stint at the newly constructed High Security Unit in Lexington, Kentucky, where, among other indignities, she lived in isolation (rather than in general population), was under 24-hour camera surveillance (including in the showers), and was allowed outside her cell to exercise for only one hour per day. She was also subject to sensory deprivation, a technique often equated with torture.

The harsh conditions Rosenberg and two other female political radicals faced in Lexington garnered much international attention. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International decried her conditions, and a documentary film, Through the Wire, exposed the unusually cruel treatment. Because of these outside interventions, a federal judge ordered the unit closed and the prisoners transferred. Rosenberg’s harsh treatment did not end there, though. All told, she would spend ten years in isolation at various prisons, each with its own set of beguiling and harsh rules and conditions.

Thus, An American Radical chronicles Rosenberg’s movements from one prison to another as she serves her sentence, a journey that provides fascinating insight into the machinations of the prison system (“wardens never walk alone, just as they never eat food prepared by prisoners”), prisoner-correctional officer relations, and the dispassionate bureaucracy of the Bureau of Prisons. Rosenberg also sheds light on the female prisoner experience (from sexual abuse by COs to inmate bonding), the AIDS epidemic that swept the prison system as it also exploded in society proper, religious experiences behind bars (both uplifting and demeaning), as well as the day-to-day ennui of the prisoner’s circumstances:

[Overall], life was a repetitive round of work, control, television, people wasting time by screwing around, and then finally “scamming.” Unfortunately, people reverted to behavior that they knew from the street because there were no programs—no schools, no sports, no interventions to provide alternatives. There was only punishment for infractions.

Tackling such an array of issues and experiences in a prison memoir, however, requires the writer to maintain a tricky balancing act between describing the day-to-day nightmare of prison life and exploring her own fragile psyche during the experience. Rosenberg provides only hit-and-miss, in-depth introspective musings on her philosophical and psychological states of mind. She, for example, ticks off a number of writers and philosophers whom she devoured: Gramsci, Primo Levi, Arendt, Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Faulkner, Henry Miller, Dante, Shakespeare, and even the I-Ching. But exactly what these authors inspired, or what she thought of their work and opinions, is missing. The list of authors does seem to reveal Rosenberg’s tendency to lean on her Jewish roots for guidance through dark times. At the moment of her arrest in the storage facility, for example, Rosenberg’s mind leapt from images of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Nazi concentration camps. Under interrogation she reveals that her own relationship to Judaism was “irrevocably changed.” “Calling me a kike, this Jew hating,” she thought, was the “beginning of my captured life.” Still, what precisely she learned from the hardships of her forbearers receives little more than superficial treatment.

Yet, at times Rosenberg does offer arresting glimpses into her mind-state:

Anger was a source of energy for me, and I had lots of things to be angry about. I believed that to stop and admit the effects—to acknowledge them even to myself—would open me up to a psychic invasion by the authorities, and I could never let that happen. So by keeping the external conditions primary in my mind, I did not look beneath the surface of my own psyche. I could never get to the internal demons that propelled me.

Those internal demons are also, unfortunately, kept from the reader, who is largely denied the chance to get inside Rosenberg’s head, if only for a brief, voyeuristic moment.

Despite these shortcomings, An American Radical is an essential addition to the prison memoir and radical political genres. Rosenberg’s memoir is a call to action for, at the very least, the reformation of an inhumane system and, at the extreme (as Rosenberg now advocates), the complete abolition of the prison system.

The author is at her best when she highlights the dehumanizing practices of prison wards and experiences of the prisoner. The erosion of the prisoner’s sense of self begins the moment she is convicted of the crime. This conviction, the prison “jacket,” sticks with her until the day the prisoner leaves (or dies in) the prison. The jacket is an identifier, as far as the system is concerned, of the individual “frozen in your worst, most extreme, bizarre, or out of luck moment.” The jacket is impossible to unzip:

Everything in prison returns you to the moment that you committed your crime and reinforces the incident that landed you there … Because the crime and its severity are frozen in time, this ensures that the prisoner is her crime. Because you cannot undo the events that have occurred, you are reduced to the greatest mistake of your life, or the most extreme behavior of your life.

From there, the erasure of the individual continues: “Our beige uniforms were the same color as the walls in the visiting booth. We were beginning to blend into the concrete,” she records. With each loss of right or privilege, Rosenberg is “stripped barer and barer, and the world became smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, my very being diminished. Many times it drove me to utter despair because I was experiencing the loss cell by cell, emotion by emotion, and memory by memory. And to feel that is enraging. I felt I was being destroyed bit by bit.”

In reading An American Radical, one can’t help but consider, for example, the plights of the aforementioned Leonard Peltier or Bradley Manning. As to the latter, activists, intellectuals, and organizations like Amnesty International, have called for an investigation into the cruel and unusual treatment of Manning, whose handling, which reportedly includes, among other things, isolation, forced nudity, and sleep deprivation, may violate statutes against torture which, among other conditions, includes “the administration or application … of … procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.” Of her early experience under similar conditions at the shuttered Lexington, KY High Security Unit (HSU), Rosenberg confesses, “I was even then losing the ability to distinguish between the repression that was directed against me in the HSU experiment and the wall of ice I was building between me and feeling anything at all. I was clamping down on my own self and my own feelings in order to repress myself rather than succumb to the Bureau of Prison’s repressive tactics.” In response to a U.S. Attorney’s question on the effect the unit had on her, Rosenberg answered: “’I feel that my humanity is diminished.’ I was crying, because all of this was so difficult, and I was ashamed at my reduced capacity to act as a full human being.”

One can draw a line from Rosenberg’s experiences in Lexington to the similar conditions of Manning’s treatment today. That Amnesty International has also declared his conditions deplorable enhances the case against the government’s handling of the alleged leaker. The U.S. may not recognize the existence of political prisoners in this country, but they sure do punish those with anti-government motivations, and they do so with severity.

Over time, Rosenberg distanced herself from her past and her radical contemporaries. From her cell, she watched on CNN the evolution of the world that she once knew, in some instances toward the better, but never so under the direction she once advocated, that is, by way of violent, socialist revolutionary action. During her prison tenure, the Berlin Wall fell, the Velvet Revolution unfolded in Czechoslovakia, Northern Ireland reached a peace deal with England, civil wars fizzled in Central America, apartheid ended in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most famous political prisoner of all time, became a free man and then leader of his country. Rosenberg was simultaneously heartbroken and inspired:

…The idea of an alternative world based on socialism and the collective was slipping away, and at the same time I was in awe. Socialism and revolution had failed, but millions of people were demanding—and gaining—greater freedoms, economic and political justice, and above all peace … Now I began in earnest to rethink not only my beliefs, but also my whole ideology, the very framework that had driven me to act all through my adult life.

And rethink she did. “The world had not developed as I thought it would,” she admits, “and the idea of radical change, however enticing, seemed almost impossible.” By the mid-1990s, exhausted by life behind bars and faced with a world that moved on while she languished in her prison jacket, Rosenberg receded from her passionate, militant positions, eventually renouncing violence as a political tactic. In 1997—thirteen years into her sentence—Rosenberg appeared before a parole board and laid her cards on the table. By now, she was sorry for her criminal actions:

I tried to put my life within the context of the historical period when many Americans thought they could change the world and end war and racism and poverty. I tried to distinguish between my core values and my embrace of the use of political violence. I stated that I now rejected the use of violence. I meant all that I said.

Finally, on January 20, 2001, after sixteen years and three months in prison, Rosenberg was granted executive clemency by the departing president, Bill Clinton.

Some may contend that the harsh prison conditions served to “set her straight,” but Rosenberg ferociously denies the argument: “…Rehabilitation is a myth that allows fine, upstanding citizens to think that people are put in prison only for their own good,” she writes. “But that justification is merely a mental safety valve to justify the continuing brutalization and destruction of the most marginalized populations in our country.” Most Americans don’t see the cold penitentiaries that dot our landscape, but these prisons cast very dark shadows on our society nonetheless. Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical is a burning candle that illuminates one of this country’s darkest phenomena.

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Shaun Randol is the editor in chief of The Mantle, an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.