Update: October 10, 2:45 p.m. ET
Colorlines has learned that Herman Bell was moved to Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, on October 6 and is being housed among the general population. Advocates also say that assault charges against him have been dropped.
Herman Bell, a 69-year old political prisoner, has been imprisoned since 1973 for the killing of two New York City police officers. Bell, who was a member of the Black Panther Party at that time, plead not guilty at trial and stated that witness coercion and prosecutorial misconduct led to his conviction.
On September 5, he suffered an unprovoked assault by up to six guards at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. According to Bell, guards punched him in the face, slammed his head into the concrete floor three times, pepper-sprayed him in his face and mouth, and kneed him in the rib cage. He sustained two broken ribs. Three weeks after the attack, his vision remains blurry and he suffers from headaches and dizziness.
Bell, who has not had a disciplinary infraction for over 20 years, was charged with assaulting prison staff and has been placed in solitary confinement without sufficient medical treatment. Advocates are calling for Bell to receive adequate medical care, to have the disciplinary charges against him dropped, to be returned to general population, for the officers who assaulted him to be fired and for the reinstatement of family visits. Bell had been scheduled to begin a three-day visit with his wife around the time of the beating. It would have been their first in over 2 1/2 years. Here, Bell’s daughter-in-law, kihana miraya ross, reflects on how vital visits are for both Bell and their family.
Herman Bell is the best man. Yes, he is a political prisoner. He is an activist. He is a tireless soldier in the fight for justice. He is all of those things. But he is also a husband. He is a father. He is a grandfather. He is my children’s grandfather—a grandfather they have only had the opportunity to spend time with in prison visiting rooms.
When the girls were young, they would wait anxiously in the Eastern Correctional Facility visiting room for their “gandpa,” as they used to call him, to come out. As soon as they would see him, they would try to dart over to him, fighting for lap time. I would literally have to hold them back because Herman had to check in at the desk before he could sit down with us. As soon as came over, I would sneak in my hug while the girls were tethered to his legs. When he would sit down, he would prop both girls on his knees and talk to them about what was going on in their world—allowing them to establish some sense of normalcy in their relationship. Where kids on the outside might ask their grandpa for an ice cream cone, the girls would request something sweet from the vending machine. He would always oblige.
As the girls have gotten older, their grandpa has moved prisons. At Comstock, the prison where he recently suffered an unprovoked assault by multiple guards, the visiting rooms are constructed in such a way that there is always a 2.5- to 3-foot table between visitors and prisoners. We have to reach over the table to attempt hugs and kisses—never quite being able to embrace completely.
Even so, as young women ages 12 and 16, my daughters still eagerly wait for their grandpa to come out. As soon as Herman sits down, Sage goes and gets a bunch of napkins and a pencil. She begins drawing little lines for the game formerly known as hangman. Simone, quite the budding feminist, tells a story that exemplifies patriarchy to get her grandpa’s reaction, preparing to lovingly school him if necessary. They talk about their classes, friends and extracurricular activities. And then, as if they are toddlers again, my daughters ask their grandpa if they can get something sweet from the vending machine.
We live thousands of miles away from Comstock; seeing Herman is only possible through the support of the Rosenberg Fund for Children’s Attica Prison Visit program. So in those long stretches between visits, there are the phone calls. Calls are where Herman finds out about the trees we’ve planted and the houseplants we’re nursing. When I first moved into my new house, Herman asked me to walk him through the layout, to tell him where we built the bookshelves and where the plants live. It was our way of having him over— of showing him our “new digs” as he called it. We paint pictures of our lives for him so that he has something tangible to hold on to in his world. We talk of not “if” but “when” he gets out. We talk of buying a big house and living together as a family—of porches in the summer and Jack Daniels-spiked lemonades. That’s how we hold on until our next visit.
My favorite times with Herman are when he’s in the mood to tell stories. He never asks, “Do you want to hear a story?” Rather, he suddenly transports the girls and me from the bleak visiting room to a summer in Mississippi or a rainy San Francisco day. Herman’s stories don’t really have a beginning or an end. We just somehow find ourselves inside them until I notice Herman glancing at the clock. Then we are back in the visiting room, and it’s nearing 3 o’clock, and we’re figuring out how to squeeze in the last little bits of everything before it’s time to say goodbye. Then there’s the lump in my throat. My daughters squeezing hands under the table. Me whispering to them, “Wait,” so that they remember not to cry until grandpa can’t see us anymore.
Then the guards yell, “Visiting is over.” Despite the barrier of the table, we hug. We hug again. We begin that goodbye, where he goes one way and we go the other. He turns around to wave again. We wave. We blow kisses. I throw up a power fist and he throws it right back. We get one last glance and then he’s gone. The iron door shuts and the tears push their way down our cheeks.
kihana miraya ross is the daughter in law of political prisoner Herman Bell and mother of his two beautiful granddaughters. This piece is written as the author’s elderly father in law sits in solitary confinement, after having been brutally beaten by guards.