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From the Editor

Welcome to the first issue of PLN for 2014. If you have not donated to our annual fundraiser, please do so now; it is not too late and we need your support to continue our advocacy work on issues like the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, for which we do not get foundation funding.

Former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars for seeking to overthrow the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, died on December 5, 2013 and has been eulogized extensively. Ironically, many of those now singing his praises were less than helpful when he was incarcerated on Robben Island. President Obama attended Mandela’s funeral, yet for decades the U.S. supported the South African apartheid government. And, of course, the CIA was instrumental in helping the South African secret police – the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) – capture Mandela in the first place. Amnesty International mourned his death, yet Amnesty never recognized Mandela as a prisoner of conscience during his 27 years of captivity because he supported armed struggle against apartheid.

In ending apartheid in 1993, the South African ruling class gave up a little but kept a lot. Although apartheid was dismantled, the lives of the poorest South Africans did not change much. As an article in this issue of PLN by former U.S. political prisoner James Kilgore notes, there were fewer people held in South African prisons under apartheid than are currently incarcerated now: “According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, in 1992 – near the end of apartheid – South Africa had 104,790 prisoners and an incarceration rate of 285 per 100,000 population. As of August 2013 the nation had 156,370 prisoners at a rate of 294 per 100,000 population.” Such is the cost of democracy and freedom.

When the South African police murdered 34 striking miners on August 16, 2012, it was under the auspices of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC); accordingly, the massacre met with little protest locally or internationally. I was in prison in the 1980s when a delegation of South African bankers returned from meeting with ANC representatives and one of them told a reporter, “We can do business with the ANC.” After that, I concluded the days of apartheid were numbered. South African capitalism is stronger than ever thanks to Mandela, just as poor South Africans are poorer, more repressed and incarcerated than ever.

But this is what modern-day regime change looks like. While Mandela was roundly lauded upon his death, those not so fortunate, like Steve Biko, did not even get the luxury of a prison cell. Biko was beaten to death in September 1977 by members of BOSS. Today, political prisoners like Abimael Guzmán languish in solitary confinement in Peru after 21 years in captivity for leading a national liberation movement. In the United States, political prisoners like Mutulu Shakur, Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, among many others, have been held in prison for decades after being convicted of armed struggle against the U.S. government. If President Obama were that concerned about political prisoners he could free some of the ones held in federal prisons, starting with Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera and those confined in the Guantanamo Bay military concentration camp in Cuba.

This month’s cover story on Scandinavian prisons serves as a reminder that the U.S. police state and retributive criminal justice system are not the only models of social control. While there are undoubtedly prisons in other parts of the world that are “worse” than those in the United States, it is worth noting that as a general rule it is not a deliberate government policy in such countries to treat people poorly and cruelly as part of a punitive system, whereas the U.S. spends billions of dollars to do just that. No other nation imprisons as many people for so long as we do in America, the land of the not-so-free with liberty and justice for some – mainly those who can afford it.

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