“We have a holier-than-thou” attitude in the United States about human-rights violations abroad, said Bart Carhart, a student organizer of the new Amnesty International chapter at the University of Southern Maine. “But [within our country] we’re probably just as responsible for human injustices as in many other countries.”
He was referring to the American and Maine prison systems, the subject of the opening session of USM's Human Rights Week. Running though Friday, April 4, most sessions have an international flavor, with discussions about Tibet, Burma, and Guantánamo Bay. (For the schedule, go to www.peaceactionme.org/amnesty-international-usm-human-rights-week.)
On Monday at the Woodbury Campus Center, 25 students and others viewed the 1974 documentary film Attica, about the 1971 prisoner rebellion at the overcrowded Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. A thousand mostly African-American inmates took over part of the prison and held 38 white guards hostage — all 383 Attica guards were white — and demanded an end to “slave labor,” uncensored communication with the outside world, the rights to political activity and free religious practice, and better food and medical care.
While negotiators tried to arrange a peaceful end to the confrontation, Republican governor (and later US vice-president) Nelson Rockefeller ordered police to storm the prison. They killed 31 prisoners and nine guards in a hail of gunfire. The film shows guards beating surrendering prisoners.
Former federal prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur of Brunswick, who spoke after the film’s showing, said the widespread establishment of solitary-confinement “supermax” prisons began in part as a response to the Attica uprising — as places for prison activists and “jailhouse lawyers.” Supermaxes, he said, have had a “profound impact” in tamping down the prisoner-rights struggle. He called prisons “the front line of class war” and of “white supremacy.”
He asked of human-rights proponents, “What of torture in this country? . . . Everything that’s happened at Guantánamo has been exported from American prisons,” including the use of solitary confinement — whose isolation is a gnawing pain like hunger, he said. Levasseur did 20 years, largely in solitary, for blowing up corporate offices in a campaign against South African apartheid and US-government-sponsored Latin American terrorism.
At the USM session, David Bidler, of the Portland-based prisoner-rights organization Black Bird Collective, said his group has collected 500 signatures on an anti-torture petition that eventually will be submitted to the Portland City Council. It asks that torture be outlawed in Maine prisons, including the “prolonged periods of isolation” at the Maine State Prison’s 100-man Supermax or Special Management Unit.
The prison conditions the Attica inmates rebelled against aren't “ancient history at all,” Levasseur said — they are still the norm.