Rights of the Condemned

By David Lee, SCI Coal Township

What follows is an excerpt from a longer article written by David Lee in response to an editorial by Dom Giordano that appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News on October 15, 2014. In Giordano’s own editorial, he vigorously voices his support for the ‘Silencing Act.’ – a reactive, unconstitutional piece of legislation that was introduced this fall by PA Representative Mike Vereb following a remotely delivered commencement speech by Mumia Abu Jamal for Goddard College. The bill, which passed both the PA House and Senate overwhelmingly, is currently being challenged in the courts on several fronts.

Recently I read the article written by Dom Giordano in the Philadelphia Daily News (10/15/14) in reference to the radio broadcast of Mumia Abu Jamal’s commencement address for Goddard College. In response to this program Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Vereb has introduced legislation to further reduce the first amendment and human rights of those of us imprisoned in Pennsylvania. It appears as if Mr. Giordano has been living in some sort of twisted fantasy world over the last thirty years of the massive prison build up in the United States. I say this because there have been many informative and insightful books written to cause a fair-minded person to understand why first amendment and human rights are so germane, even for those of us who have been convicted of crimes and condemned in the eyes of those unable to view our situation with an unbiased mind. Many people who have unfortunately been convicted of crimes are actually innocent, but due to many disadvantages presented to impoverished and politically disconnected criminal defendants in this country, thousands of people languish in prison. Many of these condemned souls are here because of reasons not of their own making. Again, many books have been written to prove this point, however, some people just refuse to open their eyes to this agonizing truth.

Books like Convicting the Innocent (by Brandon Garret), No Equal Justice (by David Cole), The New Jim Crow (by Michelle Alexander), Race to Incarcerate (by Marc Mauer), Final Report of the Pennsylvania Supreme Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine (by Joel Dyer), and Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right (by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer) are just a few which have explained how ineffective legal representation, as well as economic, political, class, and race related issues have distorted the pursuit of justice. Ergo it is vitally important for those of us condemned (in the eyes of prejudiced people) to maintain our human right to voice our pain. Mr. Giordano also suggests that every time that Mumia Abu Jamal speaks that it revictimizes Mrs. Maureen Faulkner, the widow of slain police officer Danny Faulkner. Well, if he is going to be honest then it is safe to suggest that there are many instances in which she is exposed to painful issues by people not in prison. Do you silence those voices too? Moreover, listening to the broadcast commencement address at Goddard College is optional; people who do not wish to listen, do not have to listen. Furthermore, Mumia has maintained his innocence throughout the entire process, and many facts have been presented to suggest that he is in fact innocent. But due to political reasons those issues are not given the same considerations that a police officer would get if he/she were even charged with killing a Black man. Additionally, what about Mumia’s family – do they count? They are subjected to painful rhetoric as well, but who is speaking about their pain?

Now let us look at this situation from a reverse standpoint: what if a police officer had killed Mumia and 33 years later this officer was presented with an opportunity to speak on the radio. Does any honest person believe that this would raise an issue for Mr. Giordano? Would he care about how Mumia’s family felt about the program being aired with the police officer responsible for killing Mumia? Does he care about all those family members of the thousands who have been convicted of crimes and have spent years, even decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit, before being found to be innocent and released? Or the thousands who are innocent, but sadly lack the resources to prove their innocence? Or the thousands in prison for taking deals because they’re afraid of being over-prosecuted by overzealous and uncaring prosecutors. These victims do not count in the minds of those working to smash the voices of the wretched beings in the nation’s prisons whose real crime is mere underdevelopment and poverty.

I guess only a certain class of victims is deemed to be essential in the eyes of Mr. Giordano, and those who support his parochial-minded positions. The pain which our families must endure while reading his asinine opinions do not mean anything because they obviously do not fit within the class of special victims. In addition, he mentioned issues of our first amendment rights possibly being represented in court battles by organizations like the ACLU; however, these issues are much bigger than that because we’re talking about our human rights, our God-given rights to decent and humane treatment, and the right to voice our anguish. But in American society, it is always a safe bet to vent your absurdity on the most vilified and powerless segment of this country: prisoners! We, for the most part, are powerless to fight back. Sadly, in the minds of some people, it is okay to further trample upon our human rights because we’ve been condemned and demonized by those who view us as not in the special class of human beings.

Also in the minds of the same people, if you are someone who reads the works of people like the late Howard Zinn, then you are being indoctrinated and are trying to run down the country – WOW! So you cannot even read books that Mr. Giordano considers to go against his narrow views without being vilified as well. Of course the students at Goddard College are not intelligent enough to determine if they’re reading something of value. I guess they’re not allowed to have a voice either, because might just disagree with some of Mr. Giordano’s nonsensical rants. It appears as though the students at Goddard College have been condemned by some people in this country the same as those of us trapped in prison. Condemned for going to college and daring to challenge themselves to think outside of the box presented by Mr. Giordano. It is amazing that Mr. Giordano does not even feel any compassion for the family of the late Professor Howard Zinn. Again, I guess you have to be in a special class to possess feelings, so it is okay to disparage Professor Zinn and not care about how his family might feel. I guess Professor Zinn’s crime was that he wrote history books with the viewpoint of the people of this nation whose voices have been crushed by the powerful. I cannot help but to cogitate in regards to how Giordano might feel about all the Black men being killed by cops around this country. Are the cops allowed to have a voice and to go onto the internet and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend themselves and to elevate their standard of living in the process? Are these takers of human life deemed worthy of having a voice? Accordingly to some people, only certain types of people accused of killing someone are allowed to speak. We the condemned masses filling up the nation’s prisons have no such rights. We must be silent while we’re being persecuted because some people might get upset with us for challenging their lunacy.

I am an impoverished Black man who has spent close to three decades in prison for a crime I did not commit and my human rights are stepped on every day of my existence in Pennsylvania’s cages of despair and agony. I could care less about Mr. Giordano’s foolishness, but he seems to represent enough people to force me to speak on this issue. We prisoners and our families can ill afford to allow people like this to just continue to walk over our rights to live as human beings. We must organize our voices too! We have a right to voice our pain! I do have compassion for those who have lost loved ones to senseless violence, but placing innocent people in prison does nothing to assuage your pain. Justice cannot be about throwing people into these cages and allowing them to just waste away. And if we’re going to speak about victims, what about all those victimized by the criminal justice system, some of whom have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Do we have any say in this matter?

Most of those able to overturn their cases do so through DNA evidence, but what about those of us who do not have DNA evidence available to prove our innocence? What about all those people who have been time barred by unjust laws and cannot even raise vital issues in court? We must understand that we too have rights, and we must continue to organize and fight in order for our rights to be respected and honored. We cannot continue to allow venomous people to silence us due to our status. We must exercise our voices at every possible opportunity because we have no other weapons available to us. We must resist attempts of anyone who wishes to further strip us of our humanity. These are our God-given rights, and we must protect them with a profound passion, or lose them due to others’ fears and insanity.