The following message from Native American leader Leonard Peltier, who has been in prison for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit, was read at the Feb. 16 prison justice conference.
I want to commend you for attending this important conference, and for your good work to build a movement to expose and deconstruct the policies, practices, and abuses that are resulting in an overwhelming imprisonment of poor people, youth, and people of color. In the history of this country, episodes of racism and human rights abuses have played out in different ways, all of which are condemned in hindsight, with many wondering how such abuse could have been allowed. Whether it be genocide of First Nations peoples, slavery, segregation, COINTELPRO, or Japanese concentration camps, few Americans today would say that any of these were right and just.
I believe people will look back similarly on the era we are in now and condemn mass imprisonment. It must be, by far, the most alarming of human rights abuses occurring in this country. It is you, the enlightened, devoted, and committed who can and will lead the way to change. And I believe that this change must lead not only to prison reform, but to a different kind of society where racism and oppression have no home.
Today’s prisons are little more than warehouses for society’s dispossessed, undesirables, and dissenters. The move is away from rehabilitation, and toward complete dehumanization, isolation, and long term imprisonment. No longer are educational courses offered here in Leavenworth and in Kansas state prisons. Officials even restrict a prisoner’s access to books. In prisons across the country, phone and visitation rights are being steadily whittled away, making contact with our loved ones and support systems nearly impossible, and causing bitterness and hopelessness to increase dramatically. Our contact with the outside world is diminishing, and there is no serious avenue to report abuses. A major portion of the population is locked up, completely and purposely isolated, so that there can be no public oversight or scrutiny, or even knowledge of how we are treated.
I say this to encourage you to vigilantly call for change. We behind bars are only a fraction of those hurt by this. The impacts of long term imprisonment ripple out to family members and their communities, and can impact generations. I want you to know how important your work is.
So, I thank you for having the courage and strength to say enough is enough, and to demand: Schools for our youth, not prisons! Drug treatment for drug abuse, not criminalization! Respect, dignity, and an end to poverty in our communities, not racism and degradation! My hope for justice and for all of our futures exists because of you.
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,