Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The Pen is Mightier Than The Sword

By John Adams

I'm a prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla; Washington. I've been incarcerated for more than a decade. In 1984, 1 began studying the law while fighting for my life after stabbing another inmate to death. Eventually, my criminal law studies lead me to civil litigation and my legal work consists also of challenging prison conditions and bringing damage claims against prison officials. Through all my years of "hands on" experience, petitioning the courts for redress, I can tell you with confidence: "The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword."

The other day, I had received an unexpected surprise in the mail, Convictions Magazine, Volume I, Number 4. While reading the magazine, I ran across "Convictions Chronicles", on page 26. There is a short section titled "1991 Marked By Prison Uprisings." While reading about the eight prison uprisings in the United States and other parts of the world, I felt sympathy for the victims of the uprisings as well as anger toward the prisoners who participated in the uprisings, who played the game the swine's way.

At the Washington State Penitentiary, certain inmates brought suit against the Governor of the State of Washington and various officials of the State of Washington Corrections System, alleging that the conditions at the penitentiary amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Among the conditions attacked by the inmates were overcrowding, inadequate medical care, increasing violence, the continuation of a lockdown, insufficient and poorly trained guards, improper classification of inmates, torturous conditions in isolation, segregation, and protective custody units, inadequate physical plant, and inadequate vocational, educational, and recreational opportunities. United States District Judge Jack E. Tanner found that the penitentiary was constitutionally deficient in a number of areas and awarded broad injunctive relief.

The District Court found high levels of violence at the penitentiary, both among inmates and between inmates and guards. In the two years preceding the District court's opinion, eight inmates and two guards were killed.

There was a pattern practice of brutality and harassment by prison guards. It was encouraged by peer pressure among the guards and facilitated by indifference on the part of the administration. The prison guards were inadequately trained and supervised.

The level of violence was caused by overcrowding, idleness, deterioration physical plant, inadequate medical care, and "other conditions." The prisoners were suffering from psychological deterioration, which created an atmosphere of fear, anger, and frustration in the prison.

Prison officials imposed three lockdowns to curb violence.

Prison conditions were so deplorable and tension between the guards and inmates so high, one prisoner had to be taken to the hospital for examination of injuries caused by a guard's insertion of a night stick up his rectum.

Since Hoptowit v. Ray, 682 F. 2d 1237 (9th Cir. 1982), several law suits have been filed by prisoners challenging prison conditions at the penitentiary and injunctive relief has been awarded for the prisoners. Two of the most notable cases are Tribble v. Gardner, 860 F. 2d 321 (9th Cir. 1988), and Wetmore v. Gardner, 735 F. Supp. 974 (E.D. Wash. 1990).

In "Convictions Chronicles", Edward Koren, Staff Attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, stated, "It's inevitable that prison uprisings are going to happen until we can change our policies with respect to prisons and the way we treat prisoners." I couldn't agree more!

One of the reasons you are confined under such atrocious conditions is the failure of all of you to exercise your constitutional right of access to the courts, Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821; 97 S. Ct. 1491 (1977); to change "our policies with respect to the way they treat prisoners."

Tearing down the prison, destroying state property, taking guards hostage, killing each other, killing your captors and rioting fuels a vengeance and increases tension between the prisoners, guards and the prison administration. Fueling a vengeance angers the soul and leads one farther away from resolution.

Until you can set aside your animosities and pessimistic attitudes and participate in a "quiet" demonstration by petitioning the courts which will have a say concerning the conditions under which you are incarcerated, you can expect to remain confined under brutal and dehumanizing conditions.

The pen is mightier than the sword!

[Editor's Note: While we like to print articles from readers, such as the above, we want folks to note that views such as that expressed by Mr. Adams are a bit myopic. The courts are a part of the problem, not the solution. Although we can in some cases get the judicial system to relieve the more excessive pressure inflicted by the boot on our collective necks, the courts are not about to actually remove that boot. Look at all of the litigation filed by such cases as Hoptowit, and you will see that those cases which have not been directly reversed (as Hoptowit was) have been substantially gutted by other rulings. The solution lies in long term organizing, both inside and out, for more just form of social order.]

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login