From My Archives — Of Prisons [10/13/2012]

On March 28, 1998, President Clinton accompanied Nelson Mandela on a visit to Robin Island, where President Mandela had been incarcerated for 18 years.  It was in this setting that Bill Clinton expressed amazement that Mandela had emerged “without having his heart turned to stone, without giving up his dream……”

Even as they viewed the bleak six-by-six-foot Cell No. 5 with only a bucket for a toilet, Clinton mouthed appropriately selected verbiage that while everyone faced unfairness and cruelty, “…99.9% of the people will never have a challenge like the one Mr. Mandela faced…”.  He followed by pointing out that how one’s outlook on life after the type of experience which Nelson Mandela endured “…is beyond the control of anyone else…”.

Perhaps the most telling remarks which emerged from Bill Clinton’s lips was how fundamental goodness and courage and largeness of spirit can prevail over “power, lust, division and obsessive smallness in politics.”

By his own admission, Nelson Mandela is on record as saying that next to a release, his greatest demand was for a good diet, proper clothing outfit, bed and mattress, newspapers, radios, bioscope [movies] and better family contact.  This is recorded in a letter addressed to the Minister of Justice, dated April 22, 1969.  These then, represented items of hardship throughout the early years of imprisonment.

How does this contrast with the experiences of one incarcerated in that bastion of freedom, the United States, whose citizens grow up with the belief in a system of checks and balances?  The case of Jonathan Pollard is not only revealing but should disturb every thinking citizen.

Arrested on November 21, 1985, Jonathan Jay Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment on March 4, 1987.  The crime?  According to the records, he pleaded to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. 794, the transmission of national security information to a foreign government.  Mr. Pollard’s conviction was not even based upon that portion of 794 that is predicated on an intent or reason to believe that harm to the United States would result from his conduct.

One can only wonder how it is possible that in a democracy one can be charged with a sentence that not only does not reflect the crime, but be subjected to a harshness bordering on the medieval and well beyond its calling.  Consider then, Pollard spending the initial 10 1/2 months in a prison cell at the Springfield [Missouri] Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, the first of which he was kept naked.  This “medical center” houses mentally unbalanced criminals.  Only through the efforts of Rep. Lee Hamilton [D-Indiana] was Pollard transferred out of this establishment.  In fact, in a letter to Mr. Hamilton, Federal Director of Prisons, Michael Quinlan acknowledged that Jonathan Pollard was not in Springfield for treatment and that he was the only sane inmate of a federal prison to receive such treatment.

In Springfield, Pollard, occupying a nine foot by six foot  cell, was subjected to the inhuman screams of patients analogous to the sounds emanating from Dante’s Inferno.  He shared a single shower with other inmates on the ward and by the time he gained permission to use it, the shower had the appearance of a latrine.  According to Jonathan Pollard, the undesirable choice of smelling like an animal seemed preferable to “stepping into AIDS-infected fecal matter.”  Add to this the many attempted suicides he witnessed where individuals attempted to cut their own throats from ear to ear and the lack of sleep, it is difficult to envisage the fortitude he displayed in enduring these appalling conditions.

However, the most difficult situation he confronted involved a commode which backed up with concerted regularity.  This had the effect of inundating his cell with organic matter of a vile indescribable nature.  Pollard has described how the smell was so overpowering that on several occasions he had to don a makeshift gas mask, which he fashioned out of toilet paper, rubber bands, and a large Styrofoam cup.

Transferred to the K Unit at Marion maximum security prison, Jonathan was held, for the most part, in solitary confinement. It has been said of this prison that the officers who operated the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow could have elevated their perverse ideas from the staff at this facility.  Amnesty international, generally reluctant for its readiness to criticize the Unites States, has openly condemned Marion.  In an early 1990 Newsweek article about America’s prisons, David Ward, a University of Minnesota professor said of the prisoners in Marion’s K Unit: “They are there for symbolic reasons – to show what the Federal government can do if it really gets angry.”

Marion Prison is notorious for housing some of society’s most dangerous criminals, including Mafia don John Gotti and former Colombian cocaine kingpin, Carlos Lehder.  It was in this environment that Pollard was held for more than six years in solitary confinement in an underground prison cell with temperatures ranging in the summertime, between 102 and 107 degrees.  He spent 23 out of every 24 hours in that cell where the heat and humidity were often so intense that he could neither exercise nor even breath properly.  For the one hour a day, the guards permitted him recreation, Jonathan Pollard was  placed either in a small indoor space or in a confined area  outdoors surrounded by high concrete walls.  In many ways, he preferred not having any view of existence outside  the prison since  scenes of trees and grass  aggravated his desire for freedom.  During this period, Jonathan was only permitted four personal telephone calls each week, exclusively to immediate family members and his visitation rights were highly restricted.

During the late 1980’s, Jonathan  Pollard was subjected to such treatment as having himself spread-eagled against the wall while his testicles were squeezed, his tefillin [phylacteries] split open by overzealous guards, served spoiled kosher food and his kippah [head covering] thrown to the ground. This Gulag type scene, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition or 18th century Ukraine actually occurred in Marion.  On June 21, 1993, Jonathan Pollard was moved from Marion to F.C.I. Butner, a medium security prison in Butner, North Carolina, where “inmates are put to work”.  He is no longer in solitary confinement, but he is also not exactly in paradise.

Much has been documented on the subject of the obvious injustice, unfairness and total lack of proportionality of Pollard’s sentence.  What has been lost in all this is the unprecedented harshness and cruelty which has been inflicted upon him.  How does one explain how a life sentence, albeit totally incorrect, allows this form of behavior beyond the actual sentence?  And how should one interpret the motivation?  How should one judge President Clinton’s refusal to release Jonathan on humanitarian grounds given his reaction to Nelson Mandela’s prison conditions in contrast to Pollard’s?  The same Clinton , who had had been visibly disturbed by “Schindler’s List”, which portrayed a man who violated his country’s laws to save Jews, moved by Mandela who also violated his country’s laws on behalf of his people, cannot look mercifully on the actions of Jonathan Pollard despite the glaring parallels.

We are once again approaching the 60th anniversary of the execution of Shlomo Ben Josef, the first Jew to be executed since the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt of the second century.  His crime?  An act of frustration in the face of an Arab campaign of murder in which 250 innocent Jews had been brutally killed, including women and children.  To be sure, Ben Josef killed nobody in the bus of Arabs from the village where the murders were resident.  When British Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald was confronted by Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky, he had this to say; “Unruly elements must be taught a lesson to keep them quiet.”

In other words, Ben Josef’s sentence had little to do with the act, but the British intended to make an example.  In more recent times, we have heard the same thoughts expressed towards Jonathan Pollard by no less than the President himself asserting the “need to deter every person who might ever consider such actions”, and yet, apparently it is politically incorrect to suggest that anti-Antisemitism is a factor in a history of injustice and unfair treatment towards a Jewish prisoner.

In summary, much is known about the disproportionate severity of Jonathan Pollard’s sentence while the cruel and harsh treatment he has endured has been lost in an overall assessment of a situation which hardly squares with theories on the virtues of the world’s leading democracy.

The question has often been raised as to whether  Pollard is an American Dreyfus.  It is true that the former was innocent whereas the latter admitted his guilt.  Beyond this singular difference lies a remarkable similarity.  Both shared a Jewish identity.  Neither were traitors nor did they harm the country of their citizenship.  Dreyfus was falsely accused in the place of the acknowledged traitor, Colonel Esterhazy.  From all accounts, Pollard was blamed for crimes committed by Aldrich Ames.  Dreyfus was freed through the efforts of one extraordinary individual, a non-Jew, Emile Zola as a result of one newspaper article entitled “J’accuse”.  Pollard has had many  “Zola’s” who did not have to flee the US and Pollard has yet to be released.

In any event, the Pollard and Dreyfus cases are so similar that every decent US citizen needs to be concerned as to whether respect for human rights is not the privilege of all.

Alex Rose is a Member of the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel,/AR


June 2, 1995 NY Daily News: Sydney Zion – Did Pollard take the fall for damage done by others ? Both  Aldrrich Ames and Robert Hassen were found guilty of compromising a large number of US spies in the USSR resulting in death of at least 13. They have been incarcerated for life with no possibility of parole.

January 2, 1999 Washington Post :Justice and Jonathan Pollard by Angelo Codevilla, Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Lasson – all distinguished law professors – “There is ample evidence that Pollard is being punished for a crime he didn’t commit and is being  dis-proportionally punished for the one he did.”

June,2003 Moment Magazine:”The Truth about Jonathan Pollard” by John Loftus, a former Justice Department Attorney. “Pollard did not have special ‘blue stripe clearance”’ as did Ames and Hassen. Consequently he was limited to access documents which could justify the incredibly  harsh sentence he received.

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.