Escape at Dannemora

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Watching the first episode of Showtime’s new series Escape at Dannemora was a de ja vu experience. The small town of Dannemora, tucked away in the far northeast corner of New York State, had been invisible to the public eye until June 6, 2015 when two inmates escaped from the town’s principal employer, the state penitentiary, Clinton Correctional Facility.

Clinton_correctional_facility,_Dannemora,_NY,_2007

Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannamora, NY

How I learned of Martin Sostre

It was during the weekly Wednesday evening programs and visits with inmates at Dannemora that I learned about the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre. Martin, who had owned and operated a radical black liberation bookstore in Buffalo, NY, insisted on his innocence, claiming he was a prisoner of conscience framed by a police set-up. Before his transfer to Dannemora from Attica, Martin he had filed and won the human rights court case — Sostre v. Rockefeller — that ruled against the routine practice of rectal searches following prisoner visitations with family and friends. Transferred from Attica to “New York’s Siberia” Dannemora, Martin continued to refuse all visitations. He was held in solitary confinement without access to anyone beyond the prison walls. A campaign for Martin’s release and pardon was happening without the benefit of direct access to Martin.

Martin Sostre and the Book of Revelation

No book of Christian scripture is more egregiously abused than the last book in the New Testament. The Apocalypse of John (Book of Revelation) is read as though it were a palm reader or a crystal ball. It wasn’t. Its author was a prisoner of conscience held by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos. It was then, and is now, a work of social criticism expressed in the strange apocalyptic literary genre of its time. It’s not about the future. It’s about now.

The new series on the escape from Dannemora takes me back to my time with the inmates and guards within the prison walls, and the published sermon that came from that experience. Below are excerpts from the sermon at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York inspired by a prisoner of conscience named Martin Sostre and a fresh reading of The Book of Revelation through the eyes of the oppressed. The sermon “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom,” was published soon after by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

“Worship and Resistance” links the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre’s imprisonment in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility with the witness of faith by the prisoner of conscience in his own kind of solitary confinement on the Isle of Patmos. Dannemora is its own kind of island, known by inmates across the State of New York Correctional System, as “New York’s Siberia” — “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom”

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

+++

William Stringfellow

William Stringfellow

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.” –William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
+++
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

Meeting Martin Face-to-Face

Martin Sostre

Martin Gonzalez Sostre

Sometime following the sermon at Gunnison Memorial Chapel, a Dannemora guard informed us during the Wednesday visits with prisoners that Martin had been transferred temporarily to the Federal Detention Center in lower Manhattan, NYC, as a witness in someone else’s trial.  Unlike the state system, there are no body searches after visitations in the federal system. Martin would be free to accept visitors.

As a “man of the cloth” it fell to me to attempt a face-to-face visit on behalf of the committee working for Martin’s release. I drove the eight hours to lower Manhattan,  put on my clerical collar and presented myself to the kindly woman at the Detention Center reception desk as Martin’s pastor, hoping that 1) the prison officials would be unaware that Martin was not a Christian, and 2) Martin himself would accept the visitation from a complete stranger who claimed to be his pastor. A description of the experience just before the face-to-face visit appeared previously on Views from the Edge. Click “Robert” Who? for that part of the story.

The Release of Martin Sostre

In December 1973 Amnesty International put Sostre on its “prisoner of conscience” list, stating: “We became convinced that Martin Sostre has been the victim of an international miscarriage of justice because of his political beliefs . . . not for his crimes.” In addition to numerous defense committees in New York State, a Committee to Free Martin Sostre, made up of prominent citizens, joined in an effort to publicize Sostre’s case and petition the New York Governor Hugh Carey for his release. On December 7, 1975, Russian Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov added his name to the clemency appeal. Governor Carey granted Sostre clemency on Christmas Eve of 1975; Sostre was released from prison in February 1976. Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon. — Wikipedia.

Worship and resistance are two sides of the same coin.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 16, 2018

Mom! Stop treating me like Martin!

Elijah doesn’t like being confined. He’s screaming for release from his swaddle!

Maybe Elijah already knows about Martin Sostre held in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, and the warden who allowed him only one hour of freedom in the prison yard . . . or about the 2016 prison revolt when the Dannemora inmates refused to return to their cells from the exercise yard.

“Mom! Stop acting acting like a warden! I love to drink and stuff… but I’m not a fetus anymore! I need some exercise! And stop calling me Elijah; my name is Martin!”

Perhaps the swaddle is to little Elijah’s mind what solitary confinement was to the protesting Martin: a violation of the human rights to the free exercise of speech and bodily movement for the purpose of allowing the warden . . .  or the Mom . . .  to sleep securely through the night.

But there’s a big difference between the two. When Martin Sostre made a lot of noise, Marin was confined to his swaddle while the warden slept soundly miles away.  When Elijah – or is it Martin? – protests every hour or so through the night –“Mom! I’m not a fetus anymore!”– his mother is crying in the same cell.

Elijah smiling in swaddleThis morning their roles have switched. Elijah’s sleepless mother is a weary protester; the well-fed rioter is sleeping happily in his swaddle.

  • Shared against prison regulations by an adoring grandfather in Chaska, MN, May 28, 2017.

 

 

 

Frame Up! Remembering Martin Sostre

Video

Yesterday Views from the Edge published several posts re: the case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre. Today we post this documentary film that jars the memory and human sensibilities. Martin Sostre speaks on camera about the recanted testimony of Arto Williams and the Erie County Sheriff Department frame-up. Sortre’s appeal was denied in March, 1974.  Seven months later The Christian Century published the sermon “Worship and Resistance: the Exercise of Freedom”; 20 months later New York Governor Hugh Carey commuted his sentence.

This story is especially useful for younger generations whose experience may lend to the belief that the concerns that led to Black Lives Matter are of recent origin.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 2, 2017.

“Robert” who?

Portrait_of_Martin_Sostre-1446413395m

2002 Portrait of Martn Sostre by Jerry Rice

Ordinarily we meet people face-to-face with a handshake. Sometimes we “meet” them over the phone. Sometimes we meet “friends” on FaceBook.

This is a tale of a different kind of meeting with a man named Martin and another man named Robert who seemed to know me, though I’d never heard of him and never heard from him again.

I met Martin Gonzalez Sostre face-to-face after a guard at Clinton Correctional Facility at Dannemora, New York confided that the internationally famous prisoner-rights advocate held in perpetual solitary confinement beyond the reach of visitors was being transferred temporarily the next day to the Federal Detention Center in Lower Manhattan (NYC) for purposes of testifying as a witness in another prisoner’s trial.

THE TRIP TO THE FEDERAL DETENTION CENTER

Two days later I make the eight-hour drive from our home in Canton, NY to New York City, unsure whether Martin will agree to see a stranger – an unknown Presbyterian minister coming to visit his Anarchist Muslim parishioner!

Entering the newly-opened Metropolitan Corrections Center, it feels like stepping into a different world.  At the reception desk, the clerk asks my business.

“I’m here to visit Martin Gonzalez Sostre.”

“Do you have an appointment?” “No.” “What’s your relation to the inmate?” Pointing to the clerical collar I’ve worn for just this reason, I answer, “I’m his pastor.” My heart leaps and my stomach does a flip-flop. What if Martin doesn’t play the game? What if he says he doesn’t have a pastor, that he’s a Muslim, and that whoever it is in the waiting room is a fraud? What happens then?

TWO HOURS BEFORE: A CALL FROM “ROBERT”

Before going to the Federal Detention Center I had stopped by the NYC office of New York United Ministries in Higher Education (NY/UMHE) to say hello to three campus ministry colleagues in New York City. I had never been to their office before.

While visiting with Dave in Dave’s office, the receptionist spoke through the intercom. “There’s a call on line 2 for Gordon Stewart.”

“There can’t be,” I said. “No one knows I’m here.” “Well, the call’s for you. They asked for you by name.”

I took the call, thinking perhaps my family was trying to reach me about a family emergency, hoping against hope that my colleagues at the NY/UMHE office might have some contact with me. It wasn’t my family.

“This is Robert ________. I’m calling to ask your help. I’m calling from Riker’s Island . . . . ”

My mind quickly becomes an atom smasher. No one knows I’m here. I’ve never stepped foot in this office. How does an inmate at Riker’s Island know I’m here? How does he know to call this number? How does he know my name? How does anyone know I’m here? Who’s playing with my head and why?

“Robert” is calling me – an unknown campus minister from Northern New York – for legal assistance?

THE VISIT WITH MARTIN

By the time I arrive at the Federal Detention Center, I’m more than a little anxious; the possibility that Martin might reject the visitation increases it.

They lead me into the prisoner visitation room – a long hall of small booths with glass between the visitors and the inmates in front of them and glass on either side of the booth that separates adjacent visitors while allowing the guards full visibility of every interaction.

I take my seat in the visitation booth and wait. One by one the inmates descend a metal staircase to my far left. How will I know Martin? I know him by reputation only as a man with a sense of dignity, but I’ve never seen a picture. How will he know me?  He doesn’t know me. How will he know which visitor is his? I hope the clerical collar is enough.

A man comes down the stairs. His posture is erect. His head shaved. This is a man of self-respect. His appearance resolute. His eyes searching. When he sees the collar, he makes his way down the corridor to the glass booth. He looks me in the eye, smiles broadly, and   puts his right hand up to the glass! I place my left hand against the glass to “meet” his, a different kind of handshake.

He picks up the phone. I pick up mine. “How you doing, brother!” he says. “Thanks for coming. Everything we say here is monitored. . . . It’s so good to see my pastor!” We both smile, acknowledging the coded communication. I bring him greetings from the group in Northern New York who are working publicly for his release by the Governor. We talk about his well-being, his hopes, and whatever messages he wants carried back to his other unknown and un-named friends. The visit is short. When the time is up, he puts his hand up again on the glass. I follow his lead. “Keep the faith,” he says, with a smile. “We will. I promise. Peace!”

Sostre remained in prison until his sentence was commuted in 1975 by Governor Hugh Carey amidst political pressure from Amnesty International and dozens of Martin Sostre Defense Committees throughout the country. Of all Sostre’s contributions to the prisoners’ rights movement – establishing the constitutional rights of prisoners, fighting for access to legal materials, and establishing unions and advocating a minimum wage – his greatest contribution was to understand the relationship between state repression and prisoner radicalism. As he wrote following the Attica Uprising in 1971: “If Attica fell to us in a matter of hours despite it being your most secure maximum security prison-fortress equipped with your latest repressive technology, so shall fall all your fortresses, inside and out. Revolutionary spirit conquers all obstacles.”13

THE PRISON INSIDE AND THE PRISON OUTSIDE

During the eight hour drive home from the visit with Martin, I sensed again that there was a very thin line between the maximum security prison-fortress equipped with its latest technology and the one outside the walls.

Dannemora prison

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Martin was transferred back to Dennemora and solitary confinement. He kept the faith inside. His Defense Committee kept the faith outside.

I never learned who “Robert” was. But I learned that “Robert” is never far away from the telephone. Nor is the dignity and courage of Martin. In the surveillance society, only fear commits us to solitary confinement; courage releases us.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 1, 2017 (April Fools Day) – no joke!

Yesterday’s NYT reports a class action law suit on behalf of three death row prisoners at Angola State Prison in Louisiana that would overturn the state’s solitary confinement practices as cruel and unusual punishment.

What the Book of Revelation was REALLY about

No book has been more abused and abusive than the Book of Revelation.

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Gunnison Memorial Chapel, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later pardoned.

Martin Ramirez Sostre. inmate held in solitary confinement, later granted clemency by NY Gov. Carey..

Below are excerpts from a sermon preached at the Gunnison Memorial Chapel of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY inspired by Martin Sostre and re-reading the Book of Revelation. The sermon was published by The Christian Century (March, 1974).

The first half of the “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom” introduces the hearer/ reader to the case of Martin Sostre’s resistance as a political prisoner incarcerated in solitary confinement at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY, known as “New York’s Siberia” or, as the inmates refer to it, “the Hell Hole of the New York Prison system”.

It was during my weekly Wednesday evening program and visits with prisoners there that I learned about the case of Martin Sostre, held in solitary confinement in resistance to dehumanizing prison practices, and joined the campaign for his pardon.

Excerpts from “Worship and Resistance: The Exercise of Freedom:

“Incarcerated on the Aegean Island of Patmos, a penal settlement of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D., was a political prisoner named John. He wrote a political-religious manifesto declaring open resistance to the Roman Empire. The Revelation to John – the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible – is the earliest extant Christian tract deliberately and openly directed against the pretensions of the world’s greatest power. In the Revelation to John, resistance to Roman power and authority is so inextricably bound together with worship of God that they constitute two sides of the same coin. Worship and resistance are the twin sides of faith’s freedom to celebrate God’s gift of life. The unity of resistance and worship is expressed with notable clarity in the passage where the fall of mighty Babylon occasions a celebration in heaven. The destruction of Babylon is joined to the salvation of the world itself and is the sign of God’s power and righteous rule over the nations. Only those who profit by Babylon’s wealth, power and injustice have reason to mourn her fall, while those who have ‘come out of her’ – who have disentangled themselves from her oppression, corruption and imperial claims – have cause to worship God and sing joyful hymns of praise.”

….

“Babylon is the state or nation in its presumption to be God. Babylon is any state, nation, or constellation of principalities and powers, which attempts to rule as final judge of persons and nations. Babylon is any such power – in any time or place – which makes its people subjects, calling them into idolatry of the nations, and any state or nation that persecutes its prophets of righteousness, peace and justice while rewarding the aggressive supporters and the silent ones who acquiesce. America is Babylon.”

….

“Envision once more a visit to Clinton Correctional Facility. Remember the disorienting sensation of having left everything familiar on the other side of the wall, the feeling of walking out of a real world into a nightmare, the shock induced by the size of the walls and the presence of the guards – strange and terrifying.

“But the closer one gets to the prison reality, the more one comes to realize that it is not so strange, that it is simply a more exaggerated and visible form of our own everyday reality in the face of death. Here on the outside, the walls are not visible, but they are much higher. Out here the guards do not stand poised with machine guns, but they are real and far more powerful – the guards our own fears provide.”
….
“Then I heard another voice from heaven ssying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…’” (Rev. 18:4 RSV).

A commentary will follow soon on my experience of visiting Martin during the time he was transferred to the Federal Detention Center in NYC where he was held as a witness in someone else’s trial. Prior to that visit, none of us in Northern New York had been able to meet with Martin because of his refusal to see visitors on the principle that the rectal “searches” required before and after visits violated his human rights.

NY Governor Carey eventually issued a pardon.