BY NAOMI CRAINE
FORT MADISON, Iowa - "This is a tremendous victory," said Mark Curtis following the decision by the Iowa Board of Parole to release him from prison. "I always knew this day would come, but it wouldn't have happened without all the people who wrote letters, showed up for parole hearings, sold pamphlets about my case, and campaigned for my release."
Curtis has been imprisoned for more than seven years on frame-up charges of rape and burglary. In a hearing at the Iowa State Penitentiary here November 21, the parole board announced that Curtis will finally be released. The board set December 7 to begin the paperwork for his parole; Curtis will be released from jail some weeks later.
The frame-up of Mark Curtis began in March 1988. In the midst of a fight against the arrest of 17 immigrant workers at the meatpacking plant where he worked, Curtis was arrested by the Des Moines, Iowa, police. A longtime union activist and member of the Socialist Workers Party, Curtis was beaten and falsely accused of attempting to rape a Black teenager. He was railroaded to jail in a September 1988 trial.
Curtis has won broad support during the years among unionists, farmers, fighters for social justice, and many others. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, some 500 letters urging the parole board to release Curtis poured into the office of the Mark Curtis Defense Committee in Des Moines. The Des Moines Register called the case an "international cause celebre." Excerpts from a few of the letters appear on page 7.
"This decision by the parole board reflects the pressure generated by the length of time Mark has served, his continued political activity behind bars and refusal to buckle to the attacks of prison authorities, and the international campaign waged on his behalf," said Mark Curtis Defense Committee coordinator John Studer to a meeting of more than 20 supporters in Des Moines following the hearing.
A small delegation of Curtis's supporters was permitted by prison authorities to attend the hearing. This included his mother, Jane Curtis; his wife, Kate Kaku, who works as a steelworker in Chicago; his attorney William Kutmus; Hollywood director Nick Castle; Kitty Loepker, a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 67 in Granite City, Illinois; Frankie Travis, a member of the United Paperworkers International Union in Decatur, Illinois, who has been locked out at the A.E. Staley plant there; defense committee coordinator Studer, who is a member of United Auto Workers Local 270 in Des Moines; and Hazel Zimmerman, member of the National Treasury Workers Union and secretary- treasurer of the defense committee.
Reporters from the Des Moines Register and the Militant also attended the hearing. Three of the five parole board members were present - Robert Jackson, Joanne Lorence, and Walter Saur. For prisoners with good "risk assessment" ratings, three members of the board are sufficient to approve parole.
Curtis began by thanking the board for hearing his case, and for taking the time to read the hundreds of letters supporting his parole request. Studer had presented to board members another 15 letters that had come in the two days before the hearing.
He then introduced the members of the delegation. Answering a
question from Lorence, Curtis explained that for the last three
months he has been working in a vocational program in upholstery,
one of the few programs available in the prison. He told the board,
"I've always worked and had steady jobs. I've worked in meatpacking,
in aircraft production" and other industries. Curtis noted
that he already had three job offers in Chicago, and asked to
be paroled to Illinois.
`Sparkling' record in prison
"You've been with us [in prison] for seven years," Lorence told Curtis, "and aside from one incident you have had a sparkling record. What happened there?"
In August 1994, Curtis was charged by prison authorities with assault on another inmate. He explained that the incident was "relatively minor, with no injuries." In a prison trial, Curtis was severely sentenced to 30 days "in the hole" - solitary confinement - and a year in lock-up for this.
Lorence noted his time in lock-up was reduced slightly for good behavior. After being released from lock-up "you had the opportunity to transfer to John Bennett [medium security prison] but chose not to," Lorence said. "Why was that?"
Curtis explained he had inquired about returning to Bennett from the maximum security prison, but it had not been clear when he would be able to. "In the meantime, the upholstery job came up and I took it to get back to work outside my cell with other people."
"The issue is whether or not Mark Curtis is a good candidate for parole," attorney Kutmus told the board, after reviewing Curtis's plan for parole in Illinois and presenting letters he has received offering jobs. "An important question is how long he has served - over seven years." This is nearly a year longer than the average for prisoners with similar sentences. Curtis "has had considerable punishment," Kutmus continued. "And as you characterized it, his conduct has been `sparkling.'
"Mark has had community support from the beginning, and once he is released he will be working. He's ready for parole right now," Curtis's attorney said.
Kutmus noted that Curtis has the best possible "risk assessment" by the prison's scale. Lorence agreed, and told Curtis, "You have put a lot of time in, and have not been a problem for the institution."
Board member Saur said "the victim's family is no longer adamant" that Curtis remain in prison. Keith and Denise Morris, the parents of the young woman Curtis was accused of attacking, had been at previous hearings and spoken against Curtis's release. They did not attend this time.
Saur specifically noted that Curtis had served the required time under Iowa law on the sentence for sexual abuse. Since the summer of 1993 he has been in prison solely on a burglary charge that was tacked on weeks after his arrest. That charge raised the mandatory sentence on Curtis's conviction to 25 years.
"I like that you have a parole plan and will be under supervision," Saur said. "I would recommend that you be paroled to Illinois on December 7." The other board members present concurred. The delegation who had come to support Curtis broke into smiles and applause.
Saur said that it could take up to a couple of months after December 7 for Curtis to actually be released, since it involves an interstate parole. Curtis asked if there was anything he could do to expedite the procedure. Gesturing to the delegation of supporters, Saur replied, "I want to make something clear. These people are not why you're getting out. They've helped, but you've done it. Don't count on these people, or more letters, to do anything."
Prison guards led Curtis, who gave a thumbs-up sign, back to his cell without an opportunity to talk with his supporters. On his lunch break a couple hours later, however, Curtis was able to speak on the phone with most members of the delegation and others who had been waiting outside the prison to learn the results of the hearing. Curtis reported "a lot of hugs and handshakes" from other inmates, as word about his parole quickly spread.
By the time members of the delegation returned to Des Moines from
here, the defense committee office was buzzing, with activists
calling the media and contacting supporters of the defense effort
to get out the good news. Among the first calls was one to the
Leonard Peltier Defense Committee in Lawrence, Kansas. Native
American activist Peltier has been in jail on a frame-up conviction
stemming from the deaths of two FBI agents in 1975.
`Put victory at service of others'
That night many local supporters turned out to a meeting at the Forest Ave. Library in Des Moines to hear a report on the victory from defense committee coordinator Studer. Reporters from two TV stations and the local news radio station came as well. The story received prominent coverage on the night-time news broadcasts and in the next day's issue of the daily Des Moines Register.
"We view this as a victory," Studer said. "First of all, a victory for Mark, for his perseverance and for the example he set in continuing to work with others in struggle. This is a victory as well for the thousands who supported Mark, who kept writing letters and telling others about the case until this had enough weight, together with Mark's conduct, to win his release.
"Mark's intent is to put this victory at the service of others
fighting for justice, from Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal,
to the workers fighting against union-busting at Caterpillar,"
Parole was not automatic
"People get paroled all the time. What makes you think his parole reflects some particular thinking on the part of the board?" one TV reporter asked Studer.
"This has never been a `normal' case," he replied. "It's been political from the beating he got by the police, who called him a `Mexican-lover, like you love those coloreds,' to the way the board denied him even a hearing for the last three years."
Previous parole hearings reflected that. At hearings in 1991 and 1992, the board argued that Curtis should attend the Iowa prison system's "Sexual Offenders Treatment Program." This program requires inmates to "own their crime" - that is admit guilt - which Curtis refused to do.
In 1993 the Iowa legislature changed the law so that the board was no longer required to give inmates even 20 minutes a year to present their requests for parole. Refusing to meet with Curtis in 1993 under stipulation of the new law, the parole board said that Curtis must go to Oakdale, a special prison facility for psychiatric evaluation, before his parole could be considered. Officials at Oakdale refused to admit him, however, stating that "no psychiatric issues" were involved in his case.
In August 1994, two months before his case was scheduled to be reviewed by the parole board, Curtis was accused of assaulting another inmate and thrown into punitive lock-up for 11 months. With Curtis in lock-up, the board again refused a hearing. By this year it "had become indefensible to keep him in prison," Studer told the reporter. "More people than ever were asking, `Why is he still there?' "
The widely publicized tapes of racist Los Angeles cop Mark Fuhrman
and the exposure of widespread frame-ups, corruption, and brutality
by the police in Philadelphia also helped convince a growing number
of people to support Curtis's fight for parole in recent months.
Continuing defense tasks
"We're now getting close to the finish line," Studer said to the supporters gathered in Des Moines. He outlined the heart of the remaining challenges ahead of Curtis and his supporters.
"We need to make sure the word rapidly gets out about this stage of the case, to the media and to the thousands of people around the world who have backed Mark's fight over the years," Studer said. "The aim of the defense effort all along has been to win Mark's release and to exonerate him in the court of working-class public opinion, including from the platform of the court of law." He invited those present to help send a large mailing on the victory and call other supporters the next night at the defense committee office.
Defense committee supporters had a lot to add to Studer's report. An additional reason for Curtis's release, Norton Sandler noted, was that "the longer this went on, the more the world changed." He pointed to the increasing number of workers from around the world who now live throughout the Midwest. "From the beginning Mark's case was tied to the struggles in meatpacking, and to the defense of immigrant workers at the Monfort packinghouse."
Maurice Peret, another Curtis supporter from Des Moines and a member of UAW Local 270, noted, "They tried to break Mark, but he grew politically in prison. He wrote for the Militant and communicated with other fighters all over the world." Curtis was elected to the Socialist Workers Party National Committee in 1994 and has actively served on that body since.
Max Exner, a retired professor from Iowa State University in Ames, said, "The ruling powers think they can use a case like Mark's to make an example to intimidate other workers. But that's been turned on them, with the example Mark has set."
"When the parole board said the hundreds of letters supporting Mark didn't count, you could see their noses grow longer," commented Larry Ginter, a farm activist and longtime Curtis supporter. Ginter was part of a delegation who met with the parole board September 7 to request that Curtis be granted a parole hearing. "I think it was the international fight that won this victory."
"We must above all remain vigilant," Studer summarized. "Mark is still in prison in Fort Madison, and we want to speed the day he walks out." Supporters of the defense effort around the world "need to make sure any attempt to delay his release is met with a response, including even more of these letters.
"Finally, we will need to raise money to see through the final stage of this fight," he said. This includes covering the ongoing legal costs related to initiating Curtis's parole, which the state will maximize as a final act of vindictiveness and test of Curtis's support.
`I had to stick with him'
FORT MADISON, Iowa - "I first learned about Mark's case at the rally to defend the Swift 17 on March 12, 1988," explained Hazel Zimmerman, secretary-treasurer of the Mark Curtis Defense Committee, as we prepared to attend Mark Curtis's parole hearing. The Swift 17 were meatpackers from Mexico and El Salvador who had been arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a factory raid. Several had applied for amnesty. "I felt betrayed [by the arrests] because as a government worker I had assured callers that they would not be prosecuted if they applied for amnesty."
Zimmerman met Curtis, another Swift worker who had just been beaten and framed up by the Des Moines police, at that rally. "At first I supported him because no one deserves to be beaten by the cops like he was," she said. "Then I came to believe in his innocence, and I had to stick with him. I never believed we would still be fighting this nearly eight years later."
Many of those who attended Curtis's hearing and the celebration meeting in Des Moines afterward were longtime supporters like Zimmerman. Others, such as Daniel Aguillar, a worker at the Monfort packinghouse in Des Moines, formerly Swift, had recently learned about the case. "I support him because he stood on the side of the workers, of the immigrants," said Aguillar at the support meeting in Des Moines. "That's what we need."
Larry Ginter, a hog farmer from Rhodes, Iowa, and activist in the American Agricultural Movement, explained that his group supported Curtis from early on. "I appreciated that Mark wrote about the struggles of working farmers in the Militant," Ginter commented.
Dannen Vance, a member of the International Association of Machinists
from Peoria, Illinois, who waited outside the prison during the
hearing, said that like many supporters he first heard about the
case from a co-worker. "I was stand- offish at first because
I thought it was a rape case," he said. "I watched the
video The Frame-up of Mark Curtis and then read the transcript
of the trial. I realized not just that Mark was not guilty, but
that I needed to speak up about it."
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home