Satpal Ram-in jail for 14 years
'Prison made me a revolutionary'
SATPAL RAM is the victim of one of the longest running cases of injustice in Britain today. He is entering his fourteenth year in jail. Satpal says, "Even though we've had the Lawrence inquiry no one is looking at those victims of institutional racism who are in Britain's prisons because of racist police and courts." HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE visited Satpal to talk to him about his case and his politics.
INJUSTICE HEAPED upon racism has made a revolutionary out of Satpal Ram, despite the best efforts of the British state to crush his spirit. The Asian from Birmingham has endured countless savage beatings and psychological torture from prison officers. Since his conviction in 1987 he has been in virtually every prison in Britain. The Home Office has moved him 59 times to date in an effort to break him.
Satpal is now in HMP Full Sutton high security jail outside York. Yet Satpal is not, and never has been, a danger to anyone. He continues to be a victim twice over-once at the hands of the racist who attacked him, and secondly at the hands of the racist British state. Twenty year old Satpal was eating in an Indian restaurant in Lozells, Birmingham, when he was set upon by a gang of racists. He was verbally abused, physically attacked and glassed in the face and arm. His main attacker died after he refused treatment for two stab wounds struck by a terrified Satpal with the knife he carried for his work as a warehouseman. Satpal's trial was a gross miscarriage of justice. It took place in the aftermath of the Handsworth "Uprising" of 1985 where local people had fought in the streets against the racist police.
Many in the establishment thought that black people needed to be "taught a lesson". Satpal was sent down for murder. When Satpal was sentenced in 1987 he was given a "tariff" of ten years in jail. When New Labour's Jack Straw became home secretary in 1997 he could have set Satpal's release in motion. Instead he left Satpal at the mercy of the prison Parole Board. The board says that Satpal has not been "rehabilitated" because he rightly refuses to admit that he is a murderer. They want to keep Satpal locked up until he admits his "guilt". Satpal's lawyer Gareth Peirce, who has handled many injustice cases, including the Birmingham Six, is gearing up for a new Parole Board hearing. Peirce is also submitting evidence to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, set up to re-examine miscarriages of justice. Satpal is now 34 years old. He says, "There are things I miss from the outside world-fresh air, the ability to walk down the street, to be able to cook a meal."
How he has endured his torment is difficult to comprehend-but he has. Satpal talks about how it became routine for prison officers to torture him at will, year in, year out. He tells of ten officers rushing into his cell. He tells of the kicks and stamps, of his hands cuffed behind his back, his body contorted as the blows rained down on him. He tells of his "four or five years spent in segregation", incarcerated in a room "the size of your bathroom", with no human contact, eating and shitting in the same space, listening to the cries of fellow prisoners being beaten up.
"At times I've felt very low," Satpal admits. But he has never given up. He has used his time to educate himself politically and gather an impressive campaign for justice around him. "I get 70 or 80 letters a week from all over the world," he says. "At the moment there are not enough hours in the day, replying to letters and preparing documents." Left wing bands such as Asian Dub Foundation and Primal Scream have taken up Satpal's cause and visit him regularly. "Once Bobby from Primal Scream said he was going to visit me and it got in the newspapers. The prison said that he couldn't come. So I said, 'If you don't let him visit, I'll get the band to do a gig in the prison car park.' They backed down and Bobby visited."
Satpal recounts how prison officers would beat him and then slap a disciplinary charge on him to cover their brutality. Then he would be sent to the prison governor for his "trial"-or "kangaroo court", as he describes it: "They would say, 'Name and number.' "'Satpal Ram, E94164.' "'How do you plead?' "'I do not recognise this court. I am a political prisoner.'"
The experience has radicalised Satpal. "I'm a changed person. When I was young I was aware of the rise of the National Front in the 70s and the riots, but I wasn't political. Now I have a clarity. Prison gives you plenty of time to reflect." Satpal lists political thinkers he has read-Marx, Che Guevara, the US civil rights leaders, south African black consciousness leader Steve Biko, Malcolm X. He has a particular admiration for George Jackson, the US Black Panther who was executed by prison guards in San Quentin jail in 1971. "Mumia Abu-Jamal. You can see why they want to execute him," Satpal says. "For the first time I have a TV in my cell. I watched the riot in Seattle and I saw a Mumia banner. I thought, 'Yes'!"
Satpal has nothing but contempt for New Labour. "They all said they'd help me in opposition. But now they are in government?" He shrugs his shoulders. Satpal says that the New Labour government has moved so far to the right "they've abandoned socialism". For Satpal, Jack Straw is a hypocrite talking about human rights but passing the Asylum Act and trying to scrap the right to a jury trial. Satpal's defiance should be an inspiration to us all.
"One time a prison officer lowered the flap on my cell and said, 'Go on, hang yourself.' "'Me, commit suicide?' I said. 'The only suicide I believe in is revolutionary suicide'." Satpal was referring to the writings of American Black Panther leader Huey P Newton.
Newton wrote in 1968 of his experiences of solitary confinement in a US jail, saying, "Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible. When reactionary forces crush us we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death." Satpal's determination meant the prison officer went off with his tail between his legs.
- Demand the Parole Board release Satpal.
Write FAO Usha Prashar, The Parole Board, Abell House, John Islip Street, London SW1P 4LH
- Letters to Satpal Ram E94164, HMP Full Sutton, Moor Lane, Stamford Bridge, York YO41 1PS.
Or e-mail him at [email protected]
- Free Satpal Ram campaign, PO Box 23139, London SE1 1ZU