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Criminal Justice System Unfair to Radical Activist

By Jon George

"Toiling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail, An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail."

Bob Dylan, Chimes of Freedom

In 1978, Ed Mead said, "I feel a lot of interior conflicts. One side of me feels the need to stay here and build programs; the other side of me feels I'd rather get the fuck out or be dead. I'm in prison now because I tried to help prisoners." It's now 15 years later, and Ed Mead has decided he wants out.

Ed Mead is a prisoner in the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, and he has just spent more than 17 years of his life serving time for his political beliefs and the actions they led to. Ed took up arms against the state, and the state will neither forgive nor forget, suspending the justice it claims to serve in favor of its ongoing persecution of radical activists.

Ed's first experience of prison life came at age 18, when he was sentenced to three years for burglarizing a cigarette machine. He spent the decade of the '60s passing in and out of similar institutions, paying his dues for similar crimes. That is, until the late '60s, when he taught himself law and underwent a political awakening soon to be experienced by a generation of Americans on both sides of the bars.

His legal efforts were rewarded with the sincerest form of flattery as actual attorneys began to copy his briefs. And his work on behalf of other prisoners put him in touch with the only other people who seemed to care about those locked up--political activists. As he says, "I got to thinking about it until one day I didn't identify as a criminal anymore. I identified as a radical." This conversion pushed him into further action. Objecting to inhumane conditions and guard brutality, he participated in a series of prison strikes, prison and prisoner-support committees, a protest at the American Correctional Association convention, and fund-raising for the Attica massacre survivors.

In 1975, he joined the George Jackson Brigade, designed to support prisoners from outside the walls by directly confronting the criminal justice system. The group's name was taken from a radicalized black convict in Soledad, framed for attempting to escape, and murdered by guards in 1971. The Brigade's first act was the bombing of the Olympia, WA headquarters of the Department of Corrections. From '75 - '78 the group carried out close to 20 politically motivated bombings against oppressive or exploitative targets. Care was taken to target only property, not people.

On January 23, 1976, Ed's active role in the group came to an end during an attempted robbery of the Pacific National Bank in Seattle. The expropriation of funds for the revolutionary movement ground to a halt as police attacked the building before giving the Brigadists a chance to surrender. One of Ed's comrades was killed by a police bullet in the back, another was hit in the face. Ed was captured after returning fire.

During his subsequent 17 years in prison, Ed continued his struggle for better prison conditions. He has led work strikes and hunger strikes, produced prison newsletters, filed civil rights suits on behalf of psychiatric prisoners, and worked tirelessly to educate, organize and progressively change the prisoners themselves. These efforts include attempting to desegregate the mess hall of the infamous Marion penitentiary, starting Men Against Sexism to stop prisoner-on-prisoner rape, as well as homophobia and gay-bashing, disseminating legal information to prisoners, and serving as legal advisor to Native Americans seeking freedom of worship during their incarceration. Somewhere in the midst of all this he also found time to earn a college degree in computer systems.

After years of putting his own life on the back burner, Ed feels it is finally right for him to concentrate on securing his own release. He has asked me for help. Since I agree with him, I in turn am asking you. I have little doubt but that I'm facing a tough audience. Most of you reading this probably have mixed feelings--hopefully a little admiration for his work in prison, probably condemnation for the actions that put him in there.

I'm not going to claim that Ed is innocent, a path chosen by many political prisoners who believe in the world view I just alluded to and thus see lying as simply one more means of struggle in a war where all methods are condoned. I will tell you, however, that Ed has never admitted to participating in a Brigade action besides the robbery attempt, nor has there been any evidence that he was, or any charges brought against him for such actions.

My argument for his release will not be that he is a model prisoner who has completely reformed, although an excellent case exists should I have chosen that approach. His last infraction was over seven years ago, he has no history of violent crime, he has educated himself, improved himself, and no longer advocates those tactics.

In fact, Ed is not even asking for immediate release--he simply wants his sentence reduced to the time remaining on his attempted bank robbery charge. And in the interests of justice, the request should be granted.

Contrary to the spirit of the law's guidelines, as well as to cherished legal and moral principles, Ed Mead is facing two life terms in prison for first-degree assault. In Washington state, first-degree assault is a crime that usually results in an offender serving under five years in prison, and that's if someone is actually hurt. But Ed, because he had the temerity to resist the police, has one of the longest sentence in state history under such a charge.

These two life sentences cannot be tied to the severity of his crime (for no one was injured) and we are, therefore, led to the conclusion that his outrageous sentence was politically motivated, a means of revenge against a man opposed to precisely the sort of prison abuse he now faces.

What makes his disproportionate sentence unjust? First, it is a hallmark of democracy (as well as any political system that claims to be fair) that we have equality before the law. Rich and poor alike are supposedly subject to criminal penalties; even those in power are not above the law. Secondly, equality under the law means that the lives and rights of the average citizen are not to be valued any less than those of the wealthy. We've moved beyond the wer-geld of the Teutonic tribes in which the severity of the penalty corresponded with the social position of the victim, not the seriousness of the actual criminal act.

Equality before the law is itself derived from a larger concept sacred to democracy and free societies; the equality of the people themselves. And this, when combined with the logical truism that equals should be treated equally, leads us to the unsavory but inescapable conclusion that the Washington parole board just isn't playing fair.

If the average amount of time served for a injurious assault is under five years, then the only rational explanation that exists for Ed's sentence (predicated upon actions that had no harmful result) is that the lives of police officers are being valued more than the lives of you and me. By tying Ed's sentence to who his victims were and not what he did to them, the state has violated its very reason d'aitre, namely to preserve our rights across the board.

It should come as a slap in the fact to every resident of Washington (and indeed the nation) that those charged with protecting us place a higher premium on their own skins, and use their power to see that this disparity becomes a legal maxim.

However, this is not the only way in which the principle of equality is being shattered. Ed is also being singled out for his political beliefs. Since Ed's initial sentence cannot be reduced under the law's structure, his goal of having time limited to what is left on his bank robbery charge depends on his being paroled from the two life sentences. And being considered for parole depends to a large extent upon the perception of "rehabilitation" held by the parole board. And the perception they have of Ed has been clouded by political prejudice.

Evidence of Ed's "rehabilitation" is voluminous. He has educated himself, devoted his time to bettering the prison population and the prison experience. He has also changed his attitude towards type of political violence he was engaged in, now deeming it ill-fitted to the time. While some are no doubt skeptical about such self-proclaimed conversions, it should be mentioned that this shift in thinking has been noted by, and his request for parole to his federal detainer endorsed by, no less important collection of people than his counselor, unit team, the prison's review committee and prison warden. And these are the people who have actual contact with him.

The parole board, however, continues to rely on a psychological review done in 1976, shortly after his arrest. This review (which Ed refused to participate in) came to the conclusion that Ed was a violent revolutionary. And it is this characterization of Ed's political beliefs which the Board had tenaciously clung to, never bothering to examine Ed's actual conduct, only his ideas that they feel should be locked up for life.

But by this act, the Parole Board violates the First amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and thought. Singling Ed out for parole denial because of his earlier beliefs is the same as penalizing him for them. Thus, the state says it is words, not actions, which mark one a criminal for life. And yet another egregious error is done to this man whose only goal was to make life a little better for those with no voice of their own.

Ed deserves to be treated like any other person. He has done the crime, and done enough time, and he should come home.

We now turn to the last remaining objection to Ed Mead's release. It is not an objection put forth by the state, but one prominent in the minds of those people who have the collective power to sway the outcome of this appeal: you and me. Accepting the fact of disproportionate sentencing, some might say that the answer is not paroling Ed, but making sure everyone facing similar charges receives equally harsh sentences.

After all, even though former president Bush pardoned those who financed and equipped Nicaraguan terrorist groups, it does not follow that we should or now have to pardon all others locked away for actions of armed struggle. On the contrary, it could be argued, we need to put a stop to these pardons and paroles so there's stiff sentences across the board.

Fine, I'm in full agreement with the premise on which this sentiment is founded: namely, disparities in justice should be an impetus for increased vigilance, not an excuse to let everyone go unpunished. But what is justice? And are prison sentences, however long, capable of restoring the breach in the moral fabric which is crime?

Essentially, there are three competing and interconnected theories of punishment. Does Ed's sentence, or even the concept of prison itself fall under any of these?

The first theory says that justice should be compensatory; its goal is for the offender to compensate the victim to the tune of the crime. In Ed's case, no money was ever taken and no one (other than his comrades) was actually hurt. Under this scheme, it is hard to see why Ed would be sent to prison at all, and certainly no reason why he should be there now.

A second version of criminal justice is rehabilitation. Somewhat ironically, the offender is locked away not for what they have done, but for what they might possibly do in the future. Prison functions under this scheme both as a warehouse for people who remain a threat to society, and as a place for the incarcerated to "better" themselves for their eventual return to the loving arms of the community. As discussed last time, Ed would deserve his freedom under this scheme as well. Whatever threat he posed to wealthy peoples' property has dissipated, and his time was spent staying abreast of today's technology. In addition to this, it should be noted that leftist political prisoners in America have the lowest recidivism rate of any other class of convicts. And given the rates for other prisoners, one has to question if prison ever aids in rehabilitation or only puts up barriers of isolation, alienation and brutality.

By now, some of you are probably rolling your eyes. To you, rehabilitation is a bleeding-heart pipedream. For you, justice means "and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This may come as a surprise, but I agree wholeheartedly. So let us assume a retributive model. What is Ed actually serving time for? Since he didn't actually succeed in doing anything, more than 17 years in prison seems a little outlandish. Once again, Ed seems to have been punished for nothing.

But if we move beyond strict retributive theory, we come across a variant that says one can be punished for what one attempts to do, with the punishment corresponding to the intended crime. In the case of the bank robbery, no one disputes what was attempted. But by now the government has stolen far more of Ed's life than the amount of money he intended to steal, and it has had to spend over a half-million dollars to do it (a minimum of $30,000 per year for 17 years).

Leaving aside the sentence for bank robbery, which Ed isn't contesting, we come to the slightly sticker problem of the assault charge. Ed claims he was shooting to secure a negotiated surrender. While some may doubt this, it is clear that the state interpreted the action as a simple assault rather than an attempted murder--lending credence to Ed's claim. If this is still not enough for the bloodthirsty, I have to ask you, in all seriousness, how nearly two decades of abuse and isolation can ever be equated with the few seconds of terror experienced by the police; how the window of injury that those police looked out of for a brief moment can justly be opened for the rest of Ed's life in the violence-ridden prison system. This isn't retribution, it's exponential torture.

As for the rest of you: since we can never be sure what was in Ed's mind as he was firing, it is impossible for us to accurately judge the intent of his actions in order to assess it for retributive purposes under intent theory. We are therefore compelled to consider only the results. And the results were: whatever was attempted, was stopped. We are thrown back upon the conclusion that Ed should be released.

Thus, through all the permutations of justice, we reach the same inescapable conclusion. But this conclusion does not become manifest at the point of one's awakening to its force. This conclusion, fought on the field of thought, must now be extended to the plane of reality. Because Ed's freedom will not be won by judicious reasoning, only by public pressure. And it takes more than one person to apply the sort of pressure needed.

So please, if you agree with me about Ed Mead's predicament, for any of the reasons I've stated, lend a hand by writing or calling the governor, asking for his release to the federal detainer. Help Ed to get this part of his life behind him and start to do some good on the outside; where we need him so badly--and where he deserves to be.
Governor Mike Lowery
State Capital
Olympia, WA 98504

(206) 753-5000

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