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Torture in the US Prison System: The Endless Punishment of Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier, a great-grandfather, artist, writer, and indigenous rights activist, is a citizen of the Anishinabe and Dakota/Lakota Nations and has been imprisoned since 1976. (Photo: Leonard Peltier Defense Committee)

Your visit to one of America's prisons may last only a few hours, but once you pass the first steel threshold, your perception of humanity is altered. The slammed doors, metal detectors and body frisks introduce you to life on the inside, but the glaring hatred from the guards and officials make it a reality. When you creep back into your own world afterward, you wonder what is really happening to the people who permanently languish behind bars.

In June 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons released “Confronting Confinement,” a 126-page report summarizing its 12-month inquiry into the prison systems. The commission follows up the analysis based on its findings with a list of recommendations. Topping the list of needed improvements is better enforcement of inmates' right to proper health care and limitations on solitary confinement. Five years after the report's release and despite its detailed and well-researched studies, inmate abuse continues. More recently, news reports from California's Pelican Bay Prison amplified the need for change, but after the three-week inmate hunger strike ended, the torture of solitary confinement continues nationwide.

More than 20,000 inmates are caged in isolation in the United States at any one time. Originally designed as a temporary disciplinary action, solitary confinement has drifted into use as a long-term punishment. This act of inhumanity is a clear contradiction of the Eighth Amendment. During the Pelican Bay hunger strike that rippled into prisons across the country, a 66-year-old man with extreme medical needs, Leonard Peltier, was forced into “the hole” at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

Nightmarish as it is, what follows is fact.

In 1977, American Indian activist Leonard Peltier was convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier has now served more than 35 years in federal prison. His trial remains one of the most controversial in the history of the American judicial system.

Since Peltier's conviction, overwhelming information has been released confirming extreme misconduct by the FBI and the government prosecution's withholding of evidence and use of coerced testimonies. It is obvious that Peltier, despite overwhelming reasonable doubt, was considered guilty before the trial began. It is now well known that during the time of Peltier's involvement with the American Indian Movement (AIM), the FBI's Cointelpro programs were running secret, illegal tactics to eliminate political organizations of dissent, including the strategic assassination and imprisonment of activists. Cointelpro was officially abolished in 1971, but the illegal tactics it used continue. The political agenda formulated against Peltier did not end with his trial, but persists as he serves his prison sentence. In 1992, Amnesty International deemed Peltier a political prisoner and stated that, “FBI misconduct prejudiced the fairness of his trial.”

Former Bureau of Prisons (BOP) official Bruce Smith served nearly 20 years at Leavenworth State Penitentiary in Kansas. Smith experienced firsthand the wrongdoings and mistreatment toward Peltier during the decades Peltier spent at Leavenworth.

“It's obvious they [the FBI and the BOP] have an agenda out against Leonard. What has happened to him is wrong. See, they have the tendency to know where they want to go in a case, and then build their evidence to that point, and that's exactly what happened to Leonard,” said Smith.

The FBI's “blood for blood” agenda to railroad Peltier has merged its way into the prison system, where, it is noted, he has received inadequate and abusive treatment. Since his incarceration, Peltier has endured several hardships at the hands of the BOP, some of which have been labeled inhumane and immoral.

Currently Peltier is facing serious health issues, including diabetes, hypertension and, recently, symptoms of cancer. Many of these issues have been directly caused by lack of medical treatment and poor nutrition during his imprisonment. But this does not appear to have prevented the BOP from mistreating – or, more specifically, torturing – Peltier.

Since 2009, we have been producing a documentary film exposing the Peltier case.

As filmmakers, we are personally committed to exposing the truth and having an impact in serving real justice. We have accessed archives across the country pertaining to this case and have been in communication with key players on both sides of the story. Our intention is to tell the truth, much of which will be shocking to audiences. The more information we uncover, the more obvious it is that Peltier is an innocent activist, placed in hell because of extreme and illegal FBI actions. What is really shocking is how the mistreatment of Peltier behind prison walls continues even into his old age and as his health declines.

On June 27, the day after the 36th anniversary of the FBI agents' deaths on Pine Ridge, Peltier was abruptly moved from a cell among the general prison population into solitary confinement. The reasoning for the move was hidden from his legal team and supporters for days, and concern for his well-being grew. Nearly a week after, the entire fiasco as to why the prison guards at Lewisburg decided that a 66-year-old man was a major risk to the security of the supermax prison was revealed.

The BOP incident reports linked immediately above do not tell the whole story.

The first charge indicated Peltier received a letter the previous day from a supporter in Scotland that contained a 20-pound note. Peltier had asked the mailroom to send back the enclosed money, but this request was not followed up. He then addressed a letter, including the 20-pound note, to a friend, with the intent to send it out of the prison, knowing that possession of unauthorized money was a violation of prison rules. This violation can only bring up the question: why did the BOP allow the 20-pound note into the prison in the first place, and why did the mailroom not take action when Peltier brought it to their attention?

The second charge relates to dangling wires found within Peltier's cell. The incident report claims that an officer was inspecting the cell when he observed two exposed wires above the top bunk. The guard then pulled on the wires and was shocked with a jolt of electricity. (Who in his right mind would pull on exposed electrical wires?) Even though Peltier was not in the cell at the time, the BOP classified the incident as an “assault.” The report concludes by saying that Peltier was the only occupant in the cell. The BOP did not explain that a cellmate was recently transferred out of Peltier's cell. This inmate was occupying the top bunk, which Peltier cannot access. Nonetheless, he was the one punished.

These miniscule infractions are excuses to punish Peltier, who is now set to serve six months of solitary confinement in a small cement hellhole for 23 to 24 hours a day. The conditions to which he is subjected are horrific. Lewisburg Prison is a notoriously old penitentiary, and the solitary confinement cells are not properly ventilated or air-conditioned. This raises further concerns about Peltier's health as a major heat wave passes through the Eastern United States. Recently, another inmate was moved into the small, isolated cell that Peltier inhabits. The inmates who are forced into solitary confinement are not allowed personal visits or personal items of any kind. In the scorching heat, Peltier has sweated profusely, has been unable to sleep and has lost his appetite. It has been acknowledged that solitary confinement creates new health problems in inmates and can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

This is torture, especially when used as punishment for such minor and questionable infractions.

According to Smith: “What's happening is wrong. Their goal is to make Leonard miserable. They are out for blood because of the deaths of the agents, and they will not be satisfied until they get it.”

It seems that, since Smith's retirement in the 2000's, this agenda has not changed. Peltier continues to be harassed, mistreated and denied proper health care and living conditions. Once the facts are presented, it's quite obvious that from the government's perspective, Peltier is meant to die in prison.

In the United States, where our Constitution opposes “cruel and unusual punishment,” we must ask ourselves what has happened. The imprisonment and harassment of an activist whose guilt is still in question is an outrage to our justice system. Everything pointing to Peltier's guilt has been debunked, to the point that the prosecutors themselves have admitted that they couldn't prove who killed the agents. Now, after 35 years of a wrongful imprisonment, Peltier, an ailing, 66-year-old man, continues to be harassed and tortured in prison. A six month-sentence to solitary confinement could very well be a death sentence. Immediate action is needed before it is too late. This case is contrary to everything America claims to stand for, and until Peltier is freed, this atrocity stains the hands of all of us who stand by and watch it happen.

More information on the Peltier case, his current situation and how to take action can be found here.

For more information about the film can be found