To free the land, you must first free your mind...


This is a conceptual platform for the expression of ideas and issues initiating discussion and action. The communiqué's are my perceptions, opinions and vision about contemporary issues/causes, people I admire & respect, and my goals for the future. My main focus is on the Chahta People by sharing our past to plan for the future today!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Free Will - the power to change the world!

 As human beings, we are predisposed to making mistakes in our lives, I've made my share as each of you have. The watermark upon our character is what have we done to learn and rise above our errors? We are shaped by our life experiences, but we bear the responsibility to choose the type of person we want to be. We can make efforts to eliminate our racism and negative bias's, but there is little we can do to eliminate it in other people than to share information. Those individuals will have to make up their own minds.

In 1982, while serving a 12 year sentence for burglary (second conviction) I had been transferred to McAlester for my participation in a "barricade riot", we had taken over the dormitory of the East Cell-house at the Granite, Oklahoma prison, and I was sentenced to 90 days on "The Rock". This 50 man unit was a prison within a prison, divided from the main prison by a wall that enclosed us. While I was there, I began a self-study of law and prison policies. I discovered that as Native prisoners we still had rights, and that there have was a federal court ruling that ordered Oklahoma prison officials to allow group meeting for cultural, spiritual or religious activities. It also ordered that we be allowed to possess, beads, fans, drum and feathers, along with other items consistent with the practice of Native American religion, or spirituality.

In learning about the policies, I found that the officials in charge of "The Rock" were in non-compliance with their own rules. I learned how to file administrative complaints and began filing. I learned that in using the "system", I was documenting a pattern of policy violations and that if any retaliation was taken against me, I could show from the record what led to it. I hadn't anticipated that my actions would literally have me kicked out of a high security disciplinary unit. About a week before the completion of my 90 days, I learned that the captain of "The Rock" told the classification committee to get me out of there because he was tired of doing paperwork! For every administrative complaint I filed, it was sent to him from the Warden's office to address. Apparently, he didn't like being caught not doing his job, and I saw the success in my actions.

After I was placed in general population, I was sitting in the yard when I made a conscious decision to reclaim my freedom. Did I try a prison break? Technically - no, I've been accused of it on more than one occasion, but what I did was make a choice that I would no longer be manipulated or threatened into silence. I broke down the walls that had kept me captive in a society that demands conformity. I gave life to my words, and backed them up by my actions. There are no chains, cells or force that can contain this power, unless we choose to allow it.

I began advocating for the rights of Native prisoners, and for the most part the officials ignored our cultural and spiritual concerns. Some of the Indian prisoners felt that I was doing nothing but making it harder on the rest of us, and that I should drop it and just do my time.I knew that my words and actions would have negative consequences, such as disciplinary actions, denial of parole and severely piss off prison officials. Out of the seven and a half years I was imprisoned, I spent about four years behind the "Walls" and the rest of the time I was shuffled from one prison or another. Most of the wardens didn't want me at their prison.

In December, 1985, there was a major prison takeover, which the media described as a riot. I was there and it was a takeover in protest of the deteriorating conditions of confinement. During the course of this takeover, some guards were severely injured, taken hostage and some destruction. Within weeks, the state legislature convened a special session to determine the causes of the riot, as they persisted in calling it. They ignored that the facility that was doubled beyond capacity, that the food was in shortage, at times inedible, or the lack of meaning jobs or activities for prisoners to occupy their time with. Instead, they blamed this incident on long hair and headbands. They reasoned it caused a rebellious nature in prisoners, so their solution was to ban the wearing of long hair and headbands.



It may be surprising to some people that a few case workers, and guards, told me about the intended policies to force us to cut our hair. One prison employee secretly provided me with the "Draft - Oklahoma State Penitentiary Plan of Action", which included that detail among many other planned policy changes turning the OSP into a lockdown facility, based upon the standards established at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, IL., after a serious incident there in Oct. 1983. These employees felt that they had been placed at risk by the warden and his inaction leading up to the takeover, and it was wrong to blame it on long hair, especially when they understood it was important for Native people to wear their hair long, and I was the "Indian jailhouse lawyer".

In Feb. 1986, I secured a restraining order against prison officials from forcibly beating us up and cutting our hair, if we refused to comply with policy. I had already exhausted the administrative complaint procedures, and prepared an application of injunctive relief. The policy had not been made official yet, and when a friend who was also an attorney went to see the judge about my petition, it was either coincidence of destiny that the judge was in his office watching the news when the warden held a press conference. In his statement to the media he announced that all prisoners would have to cut their hair or it would be done by force - no exceptions. This occurred on a Friday evening, and when the judge saw this he told my attorney that he would be issuing a restraining order first thing Monday morning. I heard about this through the grapevine on Friday night, so when I went to my job in the prison law library, my supervisor told me that I needed to go to the barber shop and get a haircut. I told him that just because it was policy didn't make it right and that I needed a little bit of time to type up an affidavit to as to why I was refusing to cut my hair. He tried to convince me that it didn't mean anything and I might as well cut it. My supervisor, was Choctaw, but was not raised with traditional values or principles. I explained to him prior court decisions dealing with the right of wearing long hair. He held a blank look until I advised him that I was expecting a restraining order from Judge Layden, "How do you know that?" he asked. I said call him and find out.

Instead, he called the Classification Supervisor, and then told me that he would be coming down to speak with me. I kept getting told that throughout the day, but he never came. On Tuesday morning, I received a delegation of prison officials consisting of the deputy warden of programs, the security major, classification supervisor and the officer in charge of prison mail.  Policy, mandates that legal mail is not to be opened except in the presence of the prisoner it is addressed to. They opened it to inspect it for "contraband", and handed it to me. I quickly read it and the held it out to them. They asked me what was I going to do now. I said I was going to file a motion to certify us as a class action so they couldn't cut any Indian prisoners hair. By that evening, my case was the news of the day all over the state.

I'd like to say we won the case, but the judge ruled against us in 1987, he did so because the prison officials implemented a process to exempt prisoners from this policy for religious reasons. The prison officials may not have even done that, but during the course of this litigation, someone discovered a letter written from the director of the corrections department which stated that the Native American religion was in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood regarding my concern of not being permitted to form a Native cultural group. This did not sit well with the Native people everywhere, and the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission became involved in my case.

The human rights commission later presented me with a human rights award in 1987 for my actions in defending the rights of Native prisoners. I believe that the corrections department had been notified about this and it led to my being transferred out of maximum security and then later being paroled after serving seven and a half years on a twelve year sentence for burglary and knowingly concealing stolen property. Most prisoners with good behavior can be paroled after about three years on a similar sentence, but I had turned down parole hearings, choosing to remain in prison to continue fighting this case.

Nuchi Nashoba, Chahta actress, accepted my award from thegovernor of Oklahoma with my mother in attendance.
After receiving this award, a prison warden told me that in today's society, I would never be successful with long hair. It is a subjective opinion and I guess it has its place, but who has the right to determine for me what is success? After being paroled, I was asked to speak at numerous events on prisoners rights, I was invited to testify before congressional committee's, and I've worked with many human rights organizations. I've traveled to the United Nations in Austria and to the country of Columbia as a human rights delegate. I've served many times as a national spokesperson for Leonard Peltier, a political prisoner in the United States, and have organized numerous events and demonstrations.

When I went to prison, I blamed the government for our problems, but today through my experiences and the realizations it has brought forth, I know when I point fingers, I have fingers from my own hand pointing back at me. If we see a problem, what are WE going to do about it. As I sat in my concrete tomb of "The Rock" studying law, I saw that complaining to others to resolve the problems we were confronted with wasn't doing any good. I needed to address it in the most constructive way I could. And when I made the choice to change my life, that is when things happened.

Please understand that there are consequences to our actions and that we must be prepared to deal with it. Freedom isn't free and we will pay a price, don't wait until you have nothing left to lose to make a stand or we will spend a lot of time fighting to regain what we have left now. Through our actions we will create our destiny, so we must be aware of who we are and where we want to go. There is power in one person who can free their mind to begin freeing the land and the people, it only takes one to start moving forward against a mountain of injustice.

(Copyright © 2010 by Ben Carnes. All Rights Reserved.)