JOHN SINCLAIR BEHIND BARS
INTERVIEW WITH LENI SINCLAIR
Sun; We'd like to know what life is like in prison for John; very few people know what it is like being in there every day, and we know that the conditions that he faces in prison forced John to file suit against the warden of Jackson Prison and the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Leni: Well, really nobody knows except John himself, what it's like being in there, locked up 24 hours a day behind bars. Anybody who was with John a lot and visiting him 3 times a month I can give a little discription. John is at the present time being held in a place called "blue hole", which is a special block in Jackson that they call "administrative segregation. " It's not the hole, but it's not the regular prison population, either. Bluehole card prisoners get out on yard priveleges one hour a day, but it's a special yard, segregated for these special prisoners. John is especially watched by prison authorities. He can only correspond with ten people, and all of his incoming and outgoing mail gets censored and potocopied. Copies of his correspondence get sent to the State Attorney General's office and who knows where else; the FBI, state police, whoever is interested in what John is writing can get copies pretty easily.
SUN: What indication do you have that his mail is sent to the attorney general's office or invaded?
Leni: Well in his answer to the suit that we filed against the warden of Jackson and the Corrections Department, the assistant attorney general, Mullaney, cites references from John's correspondence that he could only have gotten by seeing it. Also, myself and Dave Sinclair went up to the Corections Department one time to complain about the treatment that John was getting and we were shown a file that contained some copies of letters that John had written to me that I had never received. And while John was in Marquette the prison officials left xerox copies of some of his letters in one of his books by mistake. All that is part of the evidence in the suit.
SUN: So basically, John doesn't have contact with the other prisoners in Jackson. . .
Leni: No. ln his special segregation ward there are 12 or 14 other prisoners, and all of them are locked up in their own cells like John, except for the one hour yard-time and during meals. John has reported that if he goes out in the yard and some other prisoners, young brothers who can hang out in the regular prison yard, try to have a conversation with him through the fence, they get arrested and put in the hole for trying to communicate with him. They're holding him in segregated confinement so he doesn't have any contact with the regular prison population, because they're afraid of him.
SUN: What is the situation with visiting John?
Leni: John gets three visits per month from family and three friends who are on his approved visiting list. These three friends are Gary Grimshaw, David Fenton, and Frank Bach. They finally let him have visitors other than his family only after he filed that suit. Legally, under the law, under their own prison regulations, they're supposed but they denied John that right for over a year and a half. The visits are ninety minutes long and they're horrible. They're just awful. Approaching Jackson prison is just a down; the place looks like a concentration camp from miles away. . .
SUN: It looks like a school with barred up windows.
Leni: Yeah, Jackson claims to be the largest walled prison in the world. It's surrounded by this huge wall with a huge gun tower right in the middle, and smaller towers spaced along the wall. In Jackson prison there are about five thousand inmates, all men. OK, we drive up to the gate and there's an officer who asks you the number of the person you are going to see - just the number - you don't even have to say the name. You just give the number and drive into this parking lot, park, and walk across their landscaped lawn and into the lobby. At the information desk you show your ID and say who you are and who you want to see. Then you sit down and wait until they call you, which sometimes takes a long time. When you're finally called you walk through two sets of sliding, electronic bars. . . after you walk through the first one you have to take out everything in your pockets for their inspection. Then they search the men. Nobody can take anything inside the prison, except if you have a baby you can take in one bottle and one diaper. You can't take any notes and you can't give the prisoner anything. If you're the wife of a prisoner you can kiss him at the beginning of a visit, but the guards are instructed to watch closely while you kiss so that no illegal substance gets passed through that act.
Then you go into the visiting room, which consists of two long tables that are divided in the middle by a higher ledge. You always have to keep your hands on your side of the table. All the prisoners sit on the other.
It's really awful to have kids in there. When Sunny and Celia visit there's nothing for them to do, and they sure don't like it in there. They pick up the vibes and just freak out. Celia won't stay in the room for more than five minutes. Sunny really loves being with John. She loves him so much that she just jumps up and down when she sees him on the other side of the bars. Then she just won't stop holding on to him. I know what they'll think about that place when they grow up, can you imatine? Especially when thinking about when Sunny asks "Why is John in jail" and you say "for smoking dope" and she sees people smoking dope every day--you might say that's a contradiction she can't figure out. There just must be some evil people who thought that one up.
When John comes to visit they call him out of his cell and before he comes into the visiting room he gets searched, often stripped. He sits down and we talk for 90 minutes and barely get started with all there is to discuss. Then the guard comes and takes him away, and he gets searched again on the way back to his cell.
SUN: When do you go to see John?
Leni: Usually we go as soon as the new month comes; the next visit will be November 1, and there will be two visits left after that. We try to space the visits out so there isn't a whole long period between two visits, but usually John gets so frustrated not being able to talk to anybody that he'll want us to come all in the first week.
SUN: Could you tell us more about the prison suit?
Leni: Oh, yeah. They've treated John differently than most of the other prisoners every since he was sentenced, and they are still doing that. In some areas they've lightened up a little bit, like on who could visit, but only after we filed the suit. John brought the suit against Warden Perry Johnson of Jackson and against the Michigan Department of Corrections for violation of his civil and constitutional rights. The assistant attorney general to Frank Kelley in the state of Michigan, Mullaney, filed three separate motions to dismiss the suit. These motions to dismiss are really incredible because they're not even written in standard legal language; the dude is making fun of John. As legal documents they are terrible, they are a disgrace to the state of Michigan. We printed some excerpts from them in one of our issues of the SUN and some people in Lansing who saw them thought that it couldn't possible be true--they thought that we made up these fictititous motions to make a joke. The motions have to be seen to be believed.
Anyway, the Judge in Federal district court in Detroit who is handling the case is John Feiken. I was at one of the hearings where the state filed a motion to dismiss in front of the judge. It was just incredible. Mullaney had a stack of newspapers and books this high, all the stuff I sent John in the last two years that they would not let through. There was a copy of Abbie Hoffman's Woodstock Nation, a copy of Count-Down One, a copy of the History of America by Bill Hutton, copies of the Ann Arbor Argus, the Berkeley Tribe. Mullaney went through these things page by page and told the judge why the prison couldn't allow them in. Some of the pages had things about marijuana in it, you know. Mullaney said they couldn't let in a recipe for marijuana cookies, because that's advocating an illegal act. The state says that they have a right to keep literature out of the prison that is of a revolutionary nature, what-ever they mean by that. For instance, in Jackson prison they let books in by Lenin, Marx, Engels and a whole bunch of other people, but they have totally banned any works by Mao, so they are making apolitical decisions that they have no right to make.
Judge Feiken refused to throw out our suit, and there will definitely be a trial. So right now the prison officials have been following their own rules a bit more. In the past they've denied lawyers the right to go visit him. John sends emergency letters to his lawyers and the prison keeps the letters laying around their office for about two weeks before they finally send them. Things are somewhat better now, but much of this weird stuff still goes on. About a month ago, out of nowhere, out of the clear blue sky all my letters started coming back saying "Violation of prison regulations -- enclosures not permitted." Well, I usually sent John clippings that he would be interested in, just general stuff that he has to know. Sometimes it's about music, about what's going on out here, or about similar court cases. Then all of a sudden they just decided well, we've had enough, and they started sending all my letters back. You can imagine what happens to John when this happens. He's just sitting in his cell and he's used to getting a letter from me every day or so, and he just flips out. He doesn't know what is happening -- he thought thought maybe I stopped writing to him or something. He just doesn't have any information about what's happening (other than his AM-FM radio which it took us months of red tape to get to him) on the outside other than through these letters, cause the visits three times a month are just enough to start talking. He's really dependent on his letters, and they know this. We think they do this kind of thing on purpose, for harassment.
They say that John can get a subscription to the SUN, but when we sent it in to him they didn't allow it -- because it had stories about George Jackson and Angela Davis in it. Here's a funny thing that happened a while back. In the prison newspaper, the SPECTATOR, they reported they were changing the dress regulations due to the changing nature of fashions in society and would now allow prisoners to wear bellbottoms. So I bought him a pair of levi bellbottom pants and sent them to the prison. They came back with a note saying "bellbottoms not allowed. " So I called up the mail department first and asked how come these pants were returned. They said the regulations say bellbottoms are not allowed. So I said I just read in the Spectator today that they allow tator that they allow bellbottoms now, and the guy said lady, you don't believe everything you read in the newspapers, do you? So I talked to the assistant warden and he said well, a rule is a rule and that was a misprint and bellbottoms are not allowed. So I said cool and I got the pants back and took them to the lawyer to use as evidence of special treatment in the suit.
John said he saw about 5 or 6 other prisoners inside the prison walking around in bellbottoms. So I talked to the warden and he said well, you know, we don't allow bellbottoms here but prisoners can wear flairs. I said what are flairs? He said well, they're like bellbottoms but we don't call them that, we call them flairs. So if you bring bellbottoms in and leave them at the desk and call them flairs John can get them. This is how incredible things get there, and John HAS TO LIVE WITH THESE PEOPLE and be constantly under their control.
SUN: Could you run through a chronology of what's happened at the various prisons John's been held at in this state?
Leni: Well, the judge sentenced John to 9 1/2 - 10 years to be served in the southern Michigan prison at Jackson or at any other institution that the corrections department sees fit. After he was sentenced John was shipped off to Jackson and put in quarantine. Prisoners are supposed to stay in quarantine for about six weeks where all kinds of tests are run on them to see where they would fit best, what kind of job they should be assigned to as prisoners, etc. Well, John was in there for a couple of days when he heard rumors that he was going to be shipped to Marquette. Usually Marquette is reserved for prisoners who have gotten into trouble in other institutions or have to serve a long time, like 50 years to life. They don't usually send people right after they're sentenced to Marquette, so it was really surprising that after 3 weeks, before he was even done with quarantine, they shipped him up to Marquette. We couldn't figure it out except the warden said in the newspapers that John had started to organize and pass around a petition and that he was a threat to the institution, so they were shipping him to Marquette. That was a total lie and Perry Johnson has admitted to us that it was. He claimed he never said that and the newspapers made it up, but he has never publicly apologized for it. That petition he was talking about was started by some other inmates. John never saw a copy and didn't even know of its existence. It was passed around by all the brothers and said Free John Sinclair! Everybody knew about John and really sympathized with him for getting such a rotten deal.
So they shipped him up to Marquette, 750 miles away. In Marquette he was OK, he was up there for about a year. He had to work in the laundry eight hours a day sorting dirty under wear and that was a drag, they wouldn't give him a job as a clerk because they didn't want him to have access to a typewriter, because they said they didn't like the kind of stuff that he was writing. So he studied a lot and talked to other prisoners in there, most of whom were black. The black inmates started an organization called the Society for the Advancement of Educational and Rehabilitative Opportunities, which was started with the purpose of asking the prison administration to institute a black studies program at Marquette, along with all the other programs they had which didn't teach anything but white man's history. The prison just denied that request without saying anything so the prisoners just got mad and planned a strike. John was never a part of their organization and did not take part in making the decision to strike in any way. He knew some of the people involved and talked with them in the yard once in a while. The prison guards rounded up all of the leaders of the Society and locked them up in the hole. They figured these black prisoners couldn't possibly do all this organizing by themselves, they must have somebody white to lead them! ! So they claimed John was the leader of this planned sit-down strike to get the black studies program, and put him in the hole, too. A couple days later the Marquette 11, as they call themselves, were shipped to different institutions all over the state. John and three other other brothers were sent to Jackson; the three brothers were put in Jackson's general population almost immediately, but John was kept in segregated confinement, where he remains today. They've never brought any criminal charges against John for this activity -- they're acting totally arbitrarily and illegally.
Now Marquette Prison has a black studies program that was started by the administration, but it seems that anytime some progressive changes go down in any prison the first people that advocate it have to go to the hole for it and have to suffer.
John remained at Jackson for quite a while, until December when he was transferred to the Wayne County Jail awaiting the CIA Conspiracy trial. The trial hasn't happened because it got tied up in the US Supreme Court since the government admitted tapping phones without a court order.
When the trial was supposed to start Federal Judge Damon Keith in Detroit ordered Pun and John not to cut their anymore until after the trial, so that they would have the same appearance as they did when this alleged crime was supposedly committed. So John and Pun had to let their hair grow. It really drives the Jackson prison administration crazy cause John's hair is just getting longer and longer now , and he's even growing a beard. His hair is down to his shoulders, and when he walks into the visiting room it's not like an inmate walking in -- he looks like a visitor. They've tried to cut John's hair on numerous occasions. Once he went to the hole for it. They said we'll give you an ultimatum, by Friday you have got to get your hair cut. John argued that he couldn't cut his hair, because he was under a court order by a federal judge not to, and if he did it could mean that his identity couldn't be established and he could get wrongly convicted and serve five years in the federal penitentiary. The prison officials tried to cut it anyway, and John refused to let them. So they put him in the hole for not obeying their orders. Then a lawyer went up there to verify it to the prison administration that there was a court order that prevented them from cutting his hair, and if they didn't follow that then they could be held in contempt of court and fined. So they left John's hair alone, but they're using that now as another excuse to keep John in segregated confinement. They say now that he's not in there for any other reason except having long hair. If it wasn't for his long hair he could go to the trustee division. But John can't cut his hair because there's a court order against it, so actually they're punishing him by being in segregation because he has a court order from a federal judge -- it really gets bizarre.
They're uptight because there are a lot of other young brothers in Jackson who are asking them everyday well, if Sinclair has long hair, why can't we. There is a real movement going on to liberalize the hair rules which is just a reflection of the changes going down in the whole culture.
When John got back to Jackson he complained of having backaches all the time because of the old mattress he was sleeping on. They took him to the hospital ward, which is one isolated cell where he couldn't talk to anybody for 5 days and no doctor came to see him. He didn't know what was happening -- he was locked up without any contact with reality or the outside. During these five days there was a big strike in Jackson almost all of the inmates took part in it, it was beautifully organized, totally non-violent. The strikers were asking for higher wages. The prisoners still get 15 or 25 cents a day for making license plates, the same as they made 35 years ago. That's hardly enough to buy cigarettes or anything, and they work hard for it. They demanded a minimum $1.00 a day for the work.
The strike fell apart eventually, but while it was going on John was in the hospital and he heard on the prison radio-earphones about this strike. Then he heard Perry Johnson on the news talking about who caused the strike, and he said the main troublemaker is John Sinclair, leader of the White Panther Party. John just flipped out -- he didn't know anything about it.
The only violation of prison rules that they ever charged John with officially was at Jackson, and that was for typing up copies of the Black Panther Party 10-point program and ideology for some brothers. During the disciplinary hearing they admitted that they never enforced this rule against anybody else, and that the material John typed up was legally admitted into the prison. They were just looking for another excuse to keep John locked up and away from everyone else.
SUN: What is a disciplinary hearing?
Leni: It's a kangaroo court inside the prison and the people who are present at it are the Deputy Warden and prison guards; they're the judges. John doesn't have any right to have an attorney to defend him. That's how they punish people who they regard as "troublemakers."
SUN: How does the warden at Jackson treat you when you talk to him.
Leni: Well, he's weird. He appears very nice, simple and cordial but then behind your back he does things just really to mess with John and try to make it as hard for him as possible. Some really perverted people are running these prisons. They're overcrowded, everybody in jail is talking about a riot. In every prison in this country it's just a matter of time before something breaks out because the conditions are just intolerable and dehumanizing. People inside prison have been going along with it because they know any kind of rebellion or any kind of attempt to organize for better conditions would just be brutally repressed, and nobody is into self-destruction. But now that a lot of people on the outside are becoming aware of the medieval conditions that still exist in prison the prisoners will start moving for better conditions themselves. They are installing special sharp-shooters at Jackson in case anything breaks out, and it's really really scary and it's really scary to think about what just happened to George Jackson and at Attica, and then to think about John and how much they hate him.