Against the U.S. Government
A True Story by Eddie Griffin
I was a star witness in the Abel case cited below. In November 1984, almost immediately upon my release from prison, I was flown to Alton, Illinois to give testimony in the case.
The People’s Law Office of Chicago brought in twelve seasoned of the best in civil rights law. They were the law partners who won the Fred Hampton murder lawsuit and exonerated many Black Panthers. But in court, the government brought only two lawyers.
My testimonies would end in tears… tears of joy… and tears from the warden who had held me incommunicado for the government.
The courts recognized that we, as prisoners, had a right to an attorneys, and attorneys and their legal aides could not be denied access to their prisoner client.
o Abel v. Miller 904 F.2d 394 (1990)
Dismissed federal prison officials’ second qualified immunity appeal, for lack of jurisdiction, and limited the number of qualified immunity appeals available to defendants.
o Abel v. Miller 824 F.2d 1522 (1987)
Recognized a prisoners right to attorney access and a paralegal’s right to be free from retaliation for the exercise of her First Amendment right to speak out publicly about prison conditions and to litigate to change those conditions; rejected prison officials qualified immunity defense, and remanded for a new trial on retaliation claims.
o Abel v. Miller 681 F.2d 821 (1982)
Reversed order denying injunction, ordered Marion federal prison officials to lift bans on attorneys and paralegals’ access to their prisoner clients and found that there was an insufficient factual basis for having imposed bans.
Our work in Carbondale had also brought us in contact with prisoners at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. In 1972, there was a work stoppage at Marion, which led to the segregation of over one hundred protesting prisoners. We filed a suit, Adams v. Carlson, which challenged this segregation. We were inspired by the strength of the prisoners, particularly Rafael Cancel Miranda, a Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoner who at that time had been imprisoned for early 20 years for the attack on Congress in 1954. We finally won Adams on appeal, and the men were released from segregation in early 1974. During this period, two new law students, Ralph Hurvitz and Lee Tockman, joined the office and quickly became immersed in the Marion work.
Much of our energy was being channeled into prison work. We fought against behavior modification units, later named “control units” both in the federal and the state systems. We became involved in the challenge to Stateville’s Special Programs Unit (SPU), which ultimately, along with Adams, established in the Seventh Circuit the right to due process before placement in such control units. In the wake of the Adams decision, the Marion authorities converted the segregation unit to a control unit, and we filed a second suit, Bono v. Saxbe, which challenged that unit, and which became another piece of protracted litigation as the Bureau of Prisons developed their draconian maxi-maxi penology and offered it as a brazen defense to their unconstitutional conduct.
In September of 1979, the international struggle to Free the Five Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoners culminated in victory when the sentences of four were unconditionally commuted and they were released. Andres Cordero had been released the year before because he had terminal cancer. 3,000 people greeted the freed patriots in Chicago, 10,000 in New York, and 25,000 jammed the airport in San Juan for their triumphant return home. Also in September, we joined with Lewis Myers and Chokwe Lumumba in filing a Freedom of Information Act suit on behalf of Imari Obadele and the Republic of New Africa. This suit ultimately compelled the production of documents, which exposed the FBI’s efforts to destroy the RNA.
Jan, with the assistance of Michael and Dennis, continued the office’s commitment to federal prisons, the Puerto Rican prisoners of war, and political prisoners. This work included litigation, and work with Amnesty International, congressional committees, human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the various Marion committees. Some of the major issues which were taken on were the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project from the prison, the imposition of a complete and permanent lockdown at Marion, and the opening of a new political prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky. Dennis and Michael obtained injunctive relief, and then Jan joined them in obtaining a jury verdict against Marion officials for the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project. Subsequently, Jan, Michael, and a team of lawyers from Washington and New York obtained an injunction which prohibited the Bureau of Prisons from placing women in the Lexington High Security Unit on the basis of their political beliefs and associations, an injunction which was later overturned by the Court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Another crucial part of this work was Jan’s tireless traveling to Marion, Lexington, and various other places across the entire country in order to visit with clients in these cases, with other political prisoners, and with the Puerto Rican prisoners of war.
The People Law Office writes:
…the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project from the prison, the imposition of a complete and permanent lockdown at Marion, and the opening of a new political prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky. Dennis and Michael obtained injunctive relief, and then Jan joined them in obtaining a jury verdict against Marion officials for the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project.
It was during this period at Marion that we met Puerto Rican political prisoner, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Republic of New Africa President Imari Obadele and Republic of New Africa citizen Akinshiiju Ola, Crusade for Justice leader, Alberto Mares, Black Liberation Army prisoners, Herman Bell, Sundiata Acoli, Gabe Torres, Native American prisoner Leonard Peltier and many others.
Eddie Griffin Commentary
Historical Note About the Marion Prisoners Rights Project
The Project was incorporated by Southern Illinois Law School by Professor Jim Roberts. There were only two board members at the time of its incorporation in 1976 or 1977. Besides Professor Roberts being on the board, a prisoner and jailhouse lawyer by the name of Eddie Griffin was also a board member.
My job inside the prison was to collect prisoner grievances, teach them how to petition for redress, and, when denied, turn the case over to Professor Roberts and his law students.
The People Law Office was directly connected with the National Committee to Support the Marion Brothers (NCSMB), and the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, organized by Angela Davis. I was appointed by the prisoners above to work on the NCSMB Steering Committee. I was a member of the prison think tank known simply as “The Collective”, masterminded by Akinshiiju Ola, Black Panther-Republic of New Africa POW.
FOOTNOTE: Akinshijui China Ola was released from prison, along with many of the political prisoners between 1979 and 1984, under the Jimmy Carter leniency plan. He went the work for the Guardian newspapers and later a magazine. He died several years ago still trying to free our fellow Marion Brother Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement (AIM). I have also pleaded Peltier’s case, and the case of BLA Herman Bell, both of whom remains imprisoned.