Political Prisoners in the U.S. Are No Better Off Than Anywhere Else

In the American justice system, even when a prisoner is not sentenced to be executed, the bureaucrats of the U.S. Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons still have extra-judicial ways of making sure a politically-targeted prisoner will die in jail.

This is a recent example, when Kathleen Kenney, general counsel for the Bureau of Prisons, informed the husband of a 73-year old woman who is dying of cancer that her request for “compassionate release” was denied because her “health is improving… she does not present circumstances considered extraordinary and compelling… at this time.”

That is what Washington attorney Kenney wrote, without apparent irony, to Ralph Poynter, whose wife is incarcerated at the Carswell Federal Medical Center at the Naval Air Station in Fort Worth, Texas.  Kenney’s letter countermanded the April 26 recommendation of the prison warden that Stewart be released.

How Does A Washington Lawyer Practice Medicine in Texas?  Badly. 

According to Poynter on lynnestewart.org, “This claim [by Kenney] is at once cynical and false. Lynne Stewart’s cancer continues to spread in her lungs. She remains in isolation as her white blood cell count remains so low that she is at risk for generalized infection. She weakens daily.”

Lynne Stewart is 73, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a librarian, and a lawyer (disbarred by her conviction).  She has spent most of her 32-year professional life representing clients who might otherwise have been unprotected from the justice system.  She has had cancer for several years. It has metastasized.

The United States case against her is also a cancer, and it too, metastasized.

In the 1990s she represented Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as “the blind sheikh,” in his defense against terrorist conspiracy charges.  Rahman was convicted in 1995 and is now serving a life sentence.

Stewart continued to represent him in appealing his conviction, but she agreed to follow “special administrative measures” imposed by the Justice Dept.  These measures are bureaucratically imposed conditions that, among other things, allowed the government to monitor Stewart and her client without regard to attorney-client privilege.  Stewart acknowledges she sometimes violated these special administrative measures, but the Clinton administration chose not to bring charges against her for those violations.

9/11 Changed the American Legal System, For The Worse   

In its deep panic of overreaction to 9/11, the Bush administration first indicted Stewart in 2003.  Those charges were dismissed.

Within months, the Bush administration re-indicted her, and publicly proclaimed her guilty.  Attorney General John Ashcroft went on the David Letterman Show to announce the indictment, charging her before millions of viewers with conspiring to provide material aid to terrorists.  There was no one there to defend her.  In ordinary circumstances, Ashcroft’s behavior is a serious violation of legal ethics, but he was never sanctioned.

In 2005, after a nine-month trial, Stewart and two co-defendants were convicted.  She faced a sentence of up to 30 years.  She was already undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  Judge John G. Koetl, saying he did not want to impose a death sentence, gave her 28 months.  Stewart commented that she could do it standing on her head.

Judge, a Cousin of the President, Ignored His Conflict of Interest 

Nevertheless, Stewart appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, where one of the judges was related to the President.  As the Center for Constitutional Rights reported it:

Judge John Walker, George W. Bush’s first cousin, sits on that court. His family made their fortune selling munitions during WWI. He wrote that the 28 months was ‘shockingly low.’

Judge Koeltl [had been] given his orders. The seemingly kindly boyish-looking jurist about whom it was said that he walks to work and looks after an elderly mother—not exactly a sadistic old lady killer—then reversed himself and on the same evidence nearly quadruped the sentence, putting a seventy-year-old grandmother on chemotherapy away for ten years and two years’ probation after that for good measure.  [emphasis added]

Lynne Stewart has been a federal prisoner since November 19, 2009.  She appealed again to the Second Circuit, which upheld her conviction and the re-sentencing that it had ordered.  She has not appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her Thousands of Supporters Include Alice Walker, Richard Falk, Cornel West

In April of this year, Chris Hedges wrote:

Lynne Stewart, in the vindictive and hysterical world of the war on terror, is one of its martyrs. A 73-year-old lawyer who spent her life defending the poor, the marginalized and the despised, including blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, she fell afoul of the state apparatus because she dared to demand justice rather than acquiesce to state sponsored witch hunts.

And now, with stage 4 cancer that has metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones and lungs, creating a grave threat to her life, she sits in a prison cell at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is serving a 10-year sentence. Stewart’s family is pleading with the state for “compassionate release” and numerous international human rights campaigners, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have signed a petition calling for her to be freed on medical grounds.

Bureau of Prisons Has A record of Showing Little Mercy

In November 2010, Human Rights Watch published a report, taking the U.S. to task for how seldom it grants any prisoner a compassionate release.  Stewart asked for one anyway. The Bureau of Prisons showed her no compassion.  Officially, and without  credible explanation, the United States has expressed its preference to see a political prisoner suffer and die in prison, all because she didn’t take the government’s special administrative measures seriously enough.

This is the government we have now, with an opposition party howling for it to be more horrible still.  There was a time when it was thought that justice should be done, and justice should be seen to be done.  Now it’s apparently good enough that what the government alleges to be justice just be seen to be done harshly. We’re Americans, we don’t do compassion.

Or as Michelle Malkin, articulating state-assimilated heartlessness, put it in early April:

The jihadists’ favorite American lawyer, Lynne Stewart, reportedly has stage-4 breast cancer. Her radical friends — ranging from the ‘Party for Socialism and Liberation’ and ‘Workers World’ to Pete Seeger, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal — want her freed from jail. There’s only one decent response to the Lynne Stewart Fan Club’s criminal-coddling demand: No, hell, no.

Is there an American Voice Any More?  And Whose Is It? 

This is not the way attorney Kenney would put it, surely.  And it’s not the way Attorney General Eric Holder would put it, or President Obama.  But Malkin’s voice is their voice  all the same, praising the things they do, in a voice turned up to high screech.

That may be the dominant voice of our day, but it is not the only voice possible.  Other possible voices include Lynne Stewart’s on June 25, reacting to the denial of her compassionate release and telling her “friends, supporters, comrades”  on her website:

I know we are all disappointed to the marrow of our bones and the depths of our hearts by the news that the Bureaucrats, Kafka like, have turned down my request for compassionate release….

The letter from [attorney Kenney] is flawed, to put it mildly. Both factually and medically it has major problems. We intend to go to court and raise these in front of my sentencing Judge Koeltl. At the first sentencing he responded to a query by one of the lawyers that he didn’t want me to die in prison — we’ll see if he can now live up to that….

In the meantime, once again, I grieve for my children and grandchildren who love me so much and had such great expectations of enjoying life together again in our beloved NYC and not just trying to, in the prison visiting room. My Ralph, too, whose dedication and love are only exceeded by the work he does on my behalf — but he is a born fighter and although he hurts, it all comes more naturally to him.

“I have been fortunate to have lived a charmed life,” she wrote from prison on a recent occasion, grateful for her parents, her children, her husband, and concluding:

I have enjoyed good friends, loved cooking, had poetry and theater for a joy. I could go on and on BUT all of this good fortune has always meant only one thing to me—that I have to fight, struggle to make sure EVERYONE can have a life like mine. That belief is what will always sustain me.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.