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Political Prisoners in the United States

NCJ Number
New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement Volume: 18 Issue: 1-2 Dated: (Winter-Summer 1992) Pages: 63-90
J L Taubner
Date Published
28 pages
This article defines "political prisoner," examines the political prisoners of America's past, determines how many political prisoners there are in the United States today, and examines whether or not three individuals who have been labelled as political prisoners fit this article's definition.
The author adopts a modified version of Amnesty International's definition of a "political prisoner." A political prisoner is defined as "one who is detained for his or her beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language, or religious creed, regardless of whether the individual has advocated the use of violence and includes those detained without trial or prosecuted as a form of persecution." A review of America's history reveals a number of political prisoners. These include individuals from the Revolutionary War period through the anti-draft movement in the 1960's. Political prisoners are typically identified by the way in which they were "railroaded" into convictions on the basis of questionable facts so as to protect the public from radicals whose ideas threatened the current notion of democracy. Current cases of political imprisonment, according to the author's definition, include Leonard Peltier, an American Indian convicted for the murder of two FBI agents in 1977; Elmer Pratt, a member of the Black Panther Party, who was convicted of a murder in the course of a robbery in 1968; and Susan Rosenberg, a self-proclaimed anti-imperialist "revolutionary," who was convicted in 1985 of conspiracy, firearms offenses, and possession of false identification documents and sentenced to 58 years imprisonment. In the first two cases, the author argues that the defendants were convicted based on evidence manufactured by the government; and in the third case, the sentence was far beyond the usual for the offenses involved. The author argues that the government's motive for the unwarranted convictions and the harsh sentence was the intent to punish and incapacitate persons who held radical political beliefs. 199 footnotes