Death sentence for marijuana offense

By Mark Harrison, TNC contributing writer

Visiting the supermaximum security prison in Youngstown, Ohio was a deeply troubling experience for Senator Hagan (D-Ohio). As the senator walked through the corridors with other members of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, caged men screamed out at the sound of their voices, begging for an opportunity to communicate with another human being. "It's absolutely the scariest place I have ever been in my life. I don't want to coddle prisoners, but I'm not sure whether this type of punishment is good," said Hagan in published reports.

Richard Armstrong, 59, is one of these lone prisoners who lived in cells the size of a small parking space for 23 hours a day; even eating and showering alone. One hour a day is allowed for exercise in an 8' by 10' room with a six-inch by four-foot, wire mesh vent that provides the only fresh air prisoners ever breathe.
Prosecutors believe the inmates deserve exactly what they get, and spokesman for the state, Joseph Andrews, agrees, "None of our inmates are here because they didn't sing in the choir. The people at the supermax prison are the predators of the system, the guys who have attacked inmates or guards, the people who need to be separated from the rest of the system," Andrews is reported to have said.

However, the visit by Senator Hagan was prompted by 160 letters from prisoners who claimed they were locked under supermax status for reasons that were never revealed, or were subjected to excessive force by the prison guards (over 350 reports of force used by guards in just 18 months in a prison of 504).

The prison visit was part of a legislative inquiry that ultimately revealed 120 out of 504 prisoners were found not to be of supermax status. Richard Armstrong was among those who posed no threat to other inmates or guards. But because the prison had no checklist that says who goes there non-violent inmates were subjected to these extremely austere conditions that makes punishment at the state penitentiary in Youngstown so severe. Human Rights Watch attorney Jamie Fellner believes these prison conditions are inhumane for most prisoners and may only be justified for very few individuals. But solitary confinement had become routine at Youngstown.

Richard Armstrong was among the 120 inmates who were unjustifiably locked under supermax status. Armstrong was not a murderer, a rapist, and had no history of violence, though he was implicated in prison riots over 30 years ago. His original conviction was for transporting Mexican marijuana in the 1960s. Then he tried to smuggle drugs into prison. As a result of the investigation, Armstrong has since been transferred from the supermaximum facility at Youngstown to the maximum-security prison in Lucasville where he is now waiting to die.

"I continue to deteriorate from this awesome illness," writes Armstrong. "My weight is down to 101 pounds. I believe my mind remains clear, and it is my hope that I write with ringing clarity because it may be there will not be many more strokes of the pen for me. I have taken chemotherapy treatments in the past, but I have decided not to let the Ohio Department of Corrections keep me alive."

Richard Armstrong has been given a death sentence, though death is not the punishment handed down by the sentencing judge. Barring a miracle, he will die in prison for a marijuana conviction that occurred during the presidential administration of LBJ during the Vietnam War when he was a young man in his twenties and the Beatles were making their debut. Richard Armstrong was not a dangerous criminal, and certainly today in his cancerous infirmity, would pose no threat to public safety if he were allowed to live his final days in freedom. Justice is not being served by caging him until he wastes away into lifeless emaciation.
His continued incarceration serves only one purpose: in his own words, "to reinforce the blatant political hypocrisies of the War on Drugs". Armstrong compares the injustices that he is suffering, so that politicians can appear tough on crime, to our nation's shameful period of history in slavery and the labor struggles against capitalist barons of the western world. He remains hopeful, however, not for justice in this lifetime, but in the next.

"Future generations will look back and see and understand the shame and guilt of this political hypocrisy, and in doing so, they will look upon us with compassion and with favor. After reading the Razor Wire, I write with a new found strength and belief that history will absolve us, the tens of thousands, who are imprisoned under the guise of the War on Drugs," concludes Richard Armstrong

Are these people eligible for a compassionate release?

I am a 69 year-old woman who is incarcerated at the Federal Prison Camp in Phoenix. My attorney is Joseph Abraham, Jr. I am a mother of 12 children and a grandmother of 39. I have been in prison since 1988 and I have four years left on a 17 year, 6 month sentence. I lost my husband in 1993, two weeks after I had open-heart surgery, a quadruple by-pass. My health has been failing considerably. I have glaucoma and high blood pressure. - Claudell White

My name is Roy Smith and I am an inmate in Colorado, and was told I have Hepatitis C. They tell me that it costs too much for them to give me treatment for it. I have lost my wife and kids from this. I don't have any friends; no true ones, anyway. I get one or two letters a month from my family and make twelve cents an hour. Right now it is hard on me. I sold drugs for six months, and they gave me 94 months of time. I just about have three years in right now. I was reading in the Razor Wire about how Larry Bolain died November 23, 1999. I pray that I don't die in here. If you get to hear from his wife, tell her I'm praying for her and her family. I'm praying for all the moms that are locked up. I read about them in the May/June issue with the moms on the front page. I cried when I was reading how they have been taken away from their kids. If you get to hear from them, give them my love and prayers and address.
God bless you all, - Roy Smith

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