Thursday, February 09, 2012

A very moving description of a recent visit with Mumia Abu-Jamal who is now in general population

By Johanna Fernandez.

Comrades, Brothers and Sisters:

Heidi Boghosian and I just returned from a very moving visit with Mumia. We visited yesterday, Thursday, February 2. This was Mumia's second contact visit in over 30 years, since his transfer to General Population last Friday, Jan 27. His first contact visit was with his wife, Wadiya, on Monday, January 30.
Unlike our previous visits to Death Row at SCI Greene and to solitary confinement at SCI Mahanoy, our visit yesterday took place in a large visitor's area, amidst numerous circles of families and spouses who were visiting other inmates.  Compared to the intense and focused conversations we had had with Mumia in a small, isolated visiting cell on Death Row, behind sterile plexiglass, this exchange was more relaxed and informal and more unpredictably interactive with the people around was more human.  There were so many scenes of affection around us, of children jumping on top of and pulling at their fathers, of entire families talking intimately around small tables, of couples sitting and quietly holding each other, and of girlfriends and wives stealing a forbidden kiss from the men they were there to visit (kisses are only allowed at the start and at the end of visits). These scenes were touching and beautiful, and markedly different from the images of prisoners presented to us by those in power. Our collective work could benefit greatly from these humane, intimate images.
When we entered, we immediately saw Mumia standing across the room. We walked toward each other and he hugged both of us simultaneously. We were both stunned that he would embrace us so warmly and share his personal space so generously after so many years in isolation.
He looked young, and we told him as much. He responded, "Black don't crack!"  We laughed.
He talked to us about the newness of every step he has taken since his release to general population a week ago. So much of what we take for granted daily is new to him, from the microwave in the visiting room to the tremor he felt when, for the first time in 30 years, he kissed his wife.  As he said in his own words, "the only thing more drastically different than what I'm experiencing now would be freedom." He also noted that everyone in the room was watching him.
The experience of breaking bread with our friend and comrade was emotional. It was wonderful to be able to talk and share grilled cheese sandwiches, apple danishes, cookies and hot chocolate from the visiting room vending machines.
One of the highlights of the visit came with the opportunity to take a photo. This was one of the first such opportunities for Mumia in decades, and we had a ball! Primping the hair, making sure that we didn't have food in our teeth, and nervously getting ready for the big photo moment was such a laugh! And Mumia was openly tickled by every second of it.
When the time came to leave, we all hugged and were promptly instructed to line up against the wall and walk out with the other visitors. As we were exiting the prison, one sister pulled us aside and told us that she couldn't stop singing Kelly Clarkson's line "some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this." She shared that she and her parents had followed Mumia's case since 1981 and that she was overjoyed that Mumia was alive and in general population despite Pennsylvania's bloodthirsty pursuit of his execution.  We told her that on April 24 we were going to launch the fight that would win Mumia's release: that on that day we were going to Occupy the Justice Department in Washington DC. She told us that because she recently survived cancer she now believed in possibility, and that since Mumia was now in general population she could see how we could win. She sent us off with the line from Laverne and Shirley's theme song - "never heard the word impossible!"- gave us her number, and asked us to sign her up for the fight.
We're still taking it all in. The journey has been humbling and humanizing, and we are re-energized and re-inspired!!
In the words of City Lights editor, Greg Ruggiero:"
"Long Term Goal: End Mass Incarceration.
Short Term Goal: Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!"
--Johanna Fernandez

Friday, February 03, 2012

Beccaria - A Poetry project in Philadelphia, PA

About this project

Beccaria is a chapbook of poetry which brings awareness to the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The chapbook is a compilation of the art and poetry of murder victims' family members, current death row inmates and exonerated death row prisoners. The first printing of the chapbook was funded through a Leeway Art and Change Grant. This project is to fund the second printing and will be available for purchase and available for the first time to prison inmates by May 2012.

The Leeway Foundation site states the intention of the chapbook "is to make a powerful artistic statement that could potentially encourage those that read it to consider whether the death penalty truly serves the needs of victims or the community at large."
Read a review of Beccaria here

Beccaria contributers:
Delbert Tibbs, David Keaton, Mary DeWitt, Reginald Lewis, Jan Williams, Devon Williams, Elizabeth Johnson, Hasan Shakur, Aja Beech

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Help Stop the Execution of Hart Turner

For more information, please contact:
Jim Craig, Louisiana Capital Assistance Center
 636 Baronne Street, New Orleans, LA 70113
Contact the Governor:
The Hon. Phil Bryant
Governor of Mississippi 
Phone: 601.359.3150

At the request of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the MS Supreme Court has set the execution of Edwin Hart Turner for 6 pm on February 8.  Hart is on death row for killing two men at a Mississippi gas station in 1995.  He had no prior criminal history.

            Just six weeks before the crime, Hart was released from a three-month stay at a mental institution after his second suicide attempt in five years.  Upon release Hart felt “upbeat” and those around him were hopeful that he was finally recovering from the mental disturbances which had plagued him since childhood.

           He wasn’t.  Hart’s behavior grew increasingly bizarre and manic.  He attributed his new energy to the Prozac prescribed by the hospital but said that he “could not sleep because his mind was going too fast” and that he “couldn’t think right” or “make a complete sentence in his head.”  A few days before the crimes, Hart broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for hours – “shift[ing] back and forth many times from ‘I am not a bad person’ to ‘I am a bad person,’” before eventually falling asleep fully clothed, awaking the next morning with no memory of what happened.

           Hart’s mental disturbance wasn’t surprising given his background. Though Hart was a “considerate and affectionate boy” who would “hug you when he saw you,” he was raised in an environment of abuse and trauma.  His family tree was littered with mental illness – his grandmother and great-grandmother were each committed to the State Hospital at Whitfield on numerous occasions.  Hart was raised by alcoholics who fought in his presence and threw furniture at each other constantly.  Hart’s mother attempted suicide twice, and when Hart was twelve his father was killed in a dynamite explosion that his family has come to believe was actually suicide.

           Hart’s own struggles with mental illness began early – his mother took Hart to the hospital on two occasions when Hart was fifteen, reporting that he was “acting funny,” and Hart told doctors he was having trouble sleeping and his generally good grades were falling. Throughout adolescence, Hart was repeatedly hospitalized for what was called “agitated depression.”  At 18 Hart attempted to kill himself with a rifle.  The barrel of the gun slipped enough to spare his life, but the bullet blasted through his face leaving him permanently disfigured.  From then on, Hart wore a towel wrapped around his face to hide the scars, which he never removed, choosing even to leave the room to eat or drink rather than expose his face to his family.

           Five years, and several unsuccessful treatments, later, Hart slit his wrists.  He was hospitalized and treated for an impulse disorder.  Hart was discharged then readmitted pursuant to court order, diagnosed as having a major depressive disorder and personality disorder, and prescribed Prozac.  Hart’s Prozac dosage was quickly doubled.  Then Hart was again released, reported “feeling so good,” and defied orders to attend outpatient appoint­ments.  His mania deepened.  Hart acted erratic and impulsive, and even stripped off all his clothes (and his face-shrouding towel) and danced in a local bar.  Six weeks after his release, Hart, who had no prior criminal history, shot and killed Everett Curry and Eddie Brooks, in an irrational and impulsive crime.  Hart, dressed in his tell-tale face towel and thus immedi­ately recognizable to the residents of his small Mississippi town, was well-off financially after his father’s death and had no particular reason to commit the robberies and homicides.
           Hart was immediately arrested and tried for capital murder.  The jury deciding Hart’s fate heard simply that he was depressed, that his depression was “well-controlled” at the time of the murders, so the killings could only be explained by the fact that Hart simply “lacked moral brakes.”

           In the 17 years since Hart’s trial, legal technicalities have blocked the courts from  taking evidence and squarely deciding the question of whether Hart suffered from a mental disorder which impacted his capacity for judgment and/or was able to control his conduct at the time of the crime.  At the same time it scheduled Hart Turner for execution, the Supreme Court refused to order an official medical exam to determine his mental condition and report to the Court.

  Numerous mental health experts have reviewed the case and have reached the conclusion that Hart was suffering from a severe mental disorder at the time of the crimes which would have impacted his moral and legal culpability.  These experts agree that at the very minimum, Hart’s history demonstrates the need for a searching mental health review.  They point to a laundry list of facts that merit further inquiry:

           * Hart’s own documented history of mental disturbances, bizarre behavior leading up to the offense, and repeated hospitalizations throughout adolescence for impulsiveness, agitated depression, and suicidal thinking and actions.

           * Hart’s family history of mental illness, including a grandmother and a great-grandmother who were institutionalized with diagnoses of schizophrenia, prevalent addiction in the family, and suicide attempts from both parents.

           * Hart’s documented history indicative of traumatic brain injury, including being unresponsive and potentially anoxic at birth, hospital treatment on at least three occasions for head injuries, battles with substance abuse including gasoline huffing as a young teenager,  a shotgun blast to the face and head, and an 18-point drop in performance IQ (from 108 to 90). At the time of his offense, neither PET scans nor fMRI were in wide use, or used on Hart.

            * Hart’s exposure to traumatic events during childhood, including witnessing intense physical fights between his parents, his father’s horrifying death and his mother’s threats to beat him if he cried about it.  Hart has never been evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

           * Developments in the treatment of mental illness since 1995 which demonstrate the danger that anti-depressants (like Prozac) may actually compound mania when prescribed to individuals with bipolar disorder.

           Without intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court or by the Governor of Mississippi, Hart Turner, a man suffering from a life-long, hereditary and crippling mental illness, will be executed by lethal injection on Wednesday, February 8, 2012.  Please help!