The Eighth Amendment in the US Constitution prohibits, among other things, cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners. This prohibition is the grounds for a lawsuit filed by federal inmate #89637-132, Leonard Peltier, who is considered by many worldwide to be a political prisoner. In 1977, Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the deaths of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and remains incarcerated to this day, despite the fact that all evidence in his conviction has been debunked and proven fabricated.
Peltier has endured many hardships during his incarceration, but perhaps the most shocking and cruel is the inadequate medical treatment he has received at the hands of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The medical mistreatment affecting Mr. Peltier began in the early 1990s. Peltier had suffered from tetanus, and, consequently, from one of its known side effects – lockjaw.
It wasn’t until 1995 that Peltier was referred to an oral surgeon by a dentist in the Leavenworth, Kansas US Penitentiary. Not soon thereafter, Peltier was transferred to a medical facility in Missouri where, in the first months of 1996, he was finally treated. It would take more than three surgeries to get Peltier to be able to chew and open his mouth to a certain extent. At one point, Peltier’s mouth was frozen open by thirteen millimeters. Peltier’s medical records clearly show that he was not supposed to return to Leavenworth until he was able to chew. Instead, Peltier was returned before he could successfully open and close his mouth. The premature transfer resulted in an enormous public outcry from his supporters worldwide. In addition, Peltier himself filed a lawsuit claiming that the BOP had violated his right to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit was dismissed along with his subsequent appeal.
Peltier has also faced medical mistreatment with regard to his diabetes. It is common knowledge in the medical field that if more than one person uses the same electronic diabetes test kit, the results can be somewhat inaccurate. Peltier, now in his sixties, asked for permission to get his own testing kit. He was denied his request. This denial resulted in a massive uproar by Peltier supporters. Many, including myself, called the prison (Lewisburg USP) where Peltier was and still is incarcerated, demanding that he be allowed to have his own testing kit. We went as far as to offer to buy it for him, but our offer was also denied. It was only after a significant period of time had gone by, calls to the warden had been made and numerous other proactive actions had been taken that the BOP finally permitted Peltier to have his own private testing kit.
Last year, Peltier began experiencing symptoms synonymous with those of prostate cancer. Due to his family’s medical history, his new illness became an immediate cause for concern. After being urged by Peltier’s attorneys to address these symptoms, the BOP finally agreed to perform a standard blood test in June of 2010. It took four months to get the results to Peltier. As it stands now, there is a chance that he may have prostate cancer. The cure rate is known to be high only if the patient was diagnosed early in the stages of the cancer itself. Peltier first began to see warning signs just over a year ago, but since it has taken the “powers that be” over a year to fully look into his condition, his health may now be in serious jeopardy. This negligence, combined with the extreme medical neglect he has experienced in the past, only furthers the position of those that have long held that this six-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee should be released immediately.
According to Dr. Norma Bowe of Kean University, who holds a Ph.D. in community health policy and has worked for many years teaching college level health education courses to inmates in New Jersey’s state prisons, “There are standards of practice for care, and waiting a year when a person is symptomatic does not meet those standards. A delay of four months in the processing of lab tests in cases of prostate cancer can result in an increased chance of metastasis. Delaying these tests is nothing short of negligence.”
On the other hand, it should be noted that not everyone within the BOP has been spiteful to Leonard Peltier. In the course of the vast research for our current film, “Wind Chases the Sun,” we were able to contact various prison officials who have come to know Peltier over the past thirty years and have witnessed firsthand the mistreatment of inmates behind prison walls. Retired BOP official Bruce Smith acknowledges the wrongdoings toward Peltier within the correctional system. “There is no doubt that Leonard has received inadequate health care in prison. I’ve witnessed it,” said Smith. “I have seen inmates let die because they have not been properly treated.” Ultimately, the root of Peltier’s health problems, according to medical professionals within the BOP, stems from lack of treatment.
Bruce Smith worked at Leavenworth Federal Prison for nearly twenty years and speaks fondly of Peltier. “It’s a crime that this guy’s in prison. He could be doing so much more for his people on the outside,” said Smith. Smith said one of his most notable memories is of the day Peltier abruptly stopped a riot in the making between the Native American and African-American inmates. This act of peace, according to Smith, is one of the many admirable and noble actions Peltier frequently carried out. “I think the world of Leonard and pray he gets out,” said Smith.
Another BOP official, now retired, who asked that his name be withheld, concurred with Smith’s position. With regard to Peltier’s incarceration, he suggested, “The FBI is out for blood because their agents were killed. If he ever does get out, they’ll never leave him alone.” The retired officer added, “I’ve had the opportunity to view Peltier’s case files, and I too think he was set up. He doesn’t deserve to be in prison.” This is a reality Peltier has learned to accept; however, despite the grim outlook, Peltier and his millions of supporters worldwide refuse to stop fighting for his freedom. This battle will continue to be extremely difficult and may even seem unwinnable to some. In addition, Peltier’s situation is further complicated by his current health status.
Former BOP Officer Smith concludes, “What’s wrong is wrong and what’s right is right. What is happening to Leonard is wrong.”
Learn more about the case of Leonard Peltier.
Official press release by the Leonard Peltier Defense Offense Committee.
Please learn more about the current film production at “Wind Chases the Sun: The Leonard Peltier Story.”