Stanley Un-Caged and Still Un-Daunted

Stanley Cohen speaking to the Shadow, last year after his release from prison. The Shadow is NY’s only underground newspaper. 

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[For more than 30 years, movement attorney Stanley L. Cohen has represented and defended people fighting for their rights and for their communities. This has included political activists, The SHADOW, squatters and homeless on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as the Warrior Society in the Mohawk Nation, Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, extending to Hamas [the Islamic Resistance Movement], Usama Bin Laden’s son-in-law and others accused of terrorism.

As reported in detail in SHADOWs #56 + 57, after failing for more than a decade to stop him from performing his craft, including investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Treasury Department, Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency (NSA), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and federal prosecutors in Virginia, Illinois, the Northern and Southern Districts of New York and Department of Justice (Main), in 2012, the federal government filed indictments against Stanley over his alleged failure to keep “proper” income tax records.

At various times, the government attempted to prosecute Stanley for alleged “Material Support of Terrorism”, “Failure to File OFAC (Office of Financial Assets Control) Forms”, “Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana”, “Money Laundering”, “Structured Transactions” and “Impeding the IRS;”

On April 14, 2014, Stanley reluctantly agreed to plead guilty to “impeding” the IRS. On January 6, 2015, Stanley turned himself in to begin an 18 month jail sentence. After serving 11 months, Stanley was released to a “halfway” house for two months, with six weeks of home confinement. By April 21, Stanley’s sentence is finished.

The following interview with Stanley was conducted by Shadow editors Chris Flash and A. Kronstadt in lower Manhattan on December 24, 2015.]

Shadow: Can you remind our readers of what resulted in your having to serve time in jail?

Stanley: The investigation of me ran more than a decade and started out as a terrorism investigation, when I refused to provide various information about political clients and supporters to obtain treasury department licenses to represent them. Members of the Palestinian community were constantly asked about me and my relationship to Hamas. After about 3 or 4 years, it went to the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] regarding a pot ring that went nowhere, and, after that failed, it went to the IRS [Internal Revenue Service].

Contrary to what the “haters” would have you believe, I was not charged or convicted of income tax evasion. My conviction for “impeding the IRS” is an extremely rare prosecution that is essentially used by the government when all else fails in tax investigations. In sum, it says I fucked with the IRS, but they can’t figure out how. In almost all tax prosecutions, as part of a sentence, the court imposes a dollar amount to reflect the projected loss in tax revenues by the government. In my case, no such sentence was imposed.

Shadow: What sorts of things did you observe in prison? Did they strengthen your political convictions?

Stanley: Absolutely. The futility really hits home when you’re there. 60% of everyone in a federal prison in the United States is either in a low facility or in a camp, which means that 60% of everyone in Federal prison has neither been convicted of a violent felony offense nor poses a risk to the community—yet they’re held at $31,000 per year per inmate, as opposed to being on community-based supervision, whether on probation, supervised release, halfway house, or home confinement, for something like $3,000 per year. Most of these prisons exist in rural America, propping up the economy of rural America. It’s like the Dust Bowl of the 21st century.

Dostoyevsky wrote House of the Dead about his stay in a Siberian gulag for a political offense in the 1880s. Prison America today is very much the gulag in the 1880s in Siberia. I think every federal judge, defense attorney and prosecutor should go to a prison camp for a week or two under an alias just to see what the fuck it’s about. Until you’re there, no matter how well-intentioned and progressive you are, it’s still just an abstraction.

Shadow: Where were you sent?

Stanley: Canaan, in Pennsylvania, just across the border from Sullivan County, in New York. It’s a service camp for the maximum security prison at Waymart, one of the most dangerous facilities in the federal system with 1500 inmates, of whom more than a thousand are doing at least 20 years and the other 500 are doing life without parole.

We were the work camp assigned to it. We cleaned the bathrooms and floors for 13 cents an hour so that they don’t have to pay the guards to do it. There were a small group of white collar guys, who were in on account of hedge funds, pyramid schemes. They were mostly white guys. There weren’t any African American inmates involved in white collar crime because that door is not open to them. In the work camp, 70% were in for drugs. 65% were people of color.

Shadow: Any interesting experiences?

Stanley: One of the problems in prison is that there is a lot of posturing by everyone. Some of them minimize what they do and some of them embellish it. Lots of stories that you hear aren’t true. The white collar guys are notorious liars. They’re hustlers, scammers and thieves, though some of them are good guys who took a fall for somebody else.

I had clients in that prison. I walked in and a guy from Arthur Avenue brought me a sweat suit and said “about fucking time, I been waiting 20 years to see you here.”

I helped two or three guys prepare pro se sentence reduction motions as the Federal statutes changed for drug offenses. One guy got 36 months off his sentence; another guy got 26 months off his sentence. I helped another guy get $14,000 back on a case that he should not have been hit with.

Shadow: So you were a “jailhouse lawyer”?

Stanley: There’s a group of typical white guys in there who are fake lawyers. There was this corporate pension fund guy from Connecticut who had never tried a case or argued an appeal in his life but held himself out to be an expert. He had two or three idiots who worked for him—a pilot in jail because of a pot case and a right-wing tax liberation guy, a real idiot, and they walked around talking shit and acting like they were experts, but they didn’t know anything.

I saw them mangle cases and give bad advice. I heard inmates desperate to keep their families together tell their loved ones on the phone “my lawyers tell me I’m going to be out in 10 days, sell the house,” all on the basis of these idiot fake lawyers.

They were typically upper class 55-year old white guys. They claimed that they didn’t get paid, but over the years, people put money in their commissary and sent money to their families. When they want to get papers in or out, they have to smuggle them through families. There’s also no [attorney-client] privilege, and inmates tell these fake lawyers all kinds of things that they shouldn’t tell anybody. The fake lawyers can get subpoenaed and become witnesses.

There was one inmate who wanted to reopen his case because a witness had recanted, which is a weak argument in court and doesn’t usually get the case reopened. He consulted these fake lawyers, who made an application for the appointment of a court-appointed lawyer, in which they told the judge the name of the witness who had recanted. The judge was forced to share that information with the prosecution, the witness who recanted was arrested, and the inmate’s case was gone.

What I did for people was to sit down and pick their brains and discuss strategy quietly without touching on privileged material.

Shadow: What did you do to keep your mind sharp?

Stanley: My support team on the outside started a blog along with me, called Caged but Undaunted. I did a lot of writing around contemporary issues and actually wrote some poetry. I was helping to continue some litigation outside that I’d begun in the African Union. I wrote a long manuscript about prisons. I was involved with a play being written about me by a playwright from London who flew to Canaan to interview me. I worked as a prison librarian, taught classes, wrote a lot of e-mails and read 100 books.

Shadow: You said that you taught classes?

Stanley: Typically, a class is mandatory for inmates to take, and you get credit for it that accelerates your release. Usually, they are held in the daytime, when they get you out of meaningless work. They could be about anything, gardening, resumés. Those classes would get six to ten people in them. My classes were voluntary, you never got credit for them,

My classes typically had between 20 and 25 guys, a quarter of the camp. I taught classes on political events, current events, the law, government. The first week was on South Africa and the history of the revolution. The second week and third week were about Israel and Palestine. The fourth and fifth week were on the Middle East. The sixth week was international law, the law of war. The seventh week was civil rights legislation and history. Typically, the classes are one hour–my guys used to ask for me to teach two-hour classes.

Shadow: Did you have any guards listening in on your classes?

Stanley: Only once. I was called in by the head of the education department, a cop who was upset because there was a complaint that I was teaching “un-American” things. And I said, “yeah, so tell me what’s ‘un-American’”, and he said, “you know,” and I said, “no, I don’t know.” He said, “well, there are a lot of inmates and guards here who were in the military and who are patriots. He said, “well, I have to run this up the ladder because it could be a problem.”

I got accused of violating the prison rules by one idiot cop because of things I posted in the library for people to read. One was a political prisoner advocacy newsletter that comes out once a month, one was an article from New York Magazine on the use of psylocybin for the treatment of terminally ill and suicidal people, one was a magazine article on whether players should be paid for collegiate athletics and one was an interview with Mumia [abu-Jamal]. I had the stuff on the desk and this idiot came in grabbed it and said “what is this stuff? Contraband.” He was saying that, even though all of it had been cleared by the prison authorities when it came in. When I passed it on to other people it became contraband. Then they shook down my locker looking for other stuff. The cop asked, “this guy Mumia, didn’t he kill a cop”? And I said “don’t know, I wasn’t there.” There were two or three books written by Mumia in the prison library.

Shadow: As far as your ability to practice law, you said [in The Shadow) what you might be able to practice law in spite of the conviction.

Stanley: A committee will look at the body of my work over the course of my 30 plus year career, including my extensive pro bono and human rights work, along with the nature of the charges

I can’t practice law while I’m in a halfway house or under home confinement or supervised release. As much as for any reason, I can’t practice law because there’s no privilege. The issue of my license doesn’t mean anything until I’m all done.

Shadow: Did they revoke your license?

Stanley: No, I was not disbarred, and not even suspended. My status was last marked “pending”. It will be resolved one way or another when I can make it happen.
Shadow: When is it all over?

Stanley: April 21. That is when I’m done with the Bureau of Prisons. Then there’s something called “supervised release” that can run for up to a year, but we’re going to make application for me to be discharged early, around July, so I can move to get my license back. I also have some job opportunities that I want to pursue overseas and in order to do that I need to leave the country. I may do some guest teaching at CUNY while I’m here. I ‘ve been offered teaching positions in both Lebanon and Qatar. There’s a new human rights foundation that has reached out to me about a possible executive director position.

Shadow: What do you really want to do?

Stanley: I’m going to move to the Middle East. I’m going to spend some of my days on teaching, but most of my time on human rights work, in particular, full time around the Palestinian issue. The problem is that I can’t get into Palestine. There are two ways into Palestine, through Israel and through Egypt, and I’m banned from both places.

Shadow: Why were you banned from Egypt?

Stanley: Because I’ve been one of the most outspoken human rights activists who has challenged the military and [Egyptian president Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi with regard to the most recent coup. I’ve been an enemy of the Egyptian government for years–I’ve sued Egypt. In fact, I’ve been warned that if I entered Egypt, I could be the first reported suicide by drowning in the Sinai desert.

Shadow: What are your immediate plans?

Stanley: I plan on becoming an expatriate. I’ve got a huge red white and blue bulls-eye on my back. Now that I’ve got a felony under my belt and I’ve been in prison, I’m incredibly more vulnerable to the machine. So my view is “fuck you, machine, I’m out of here.” I can fight the machine from abroad. That’s my plan. The institutional disease that is America has spread so far and in such an evil way that I have no interest in fighting the fight here.

For 20 plus years, I have lived and worked in the US while traveling abroad 3 or 4 times a year as needed on cases, conferences, and speeches. I will now reverse that, living abroad and returning to the US as needed.

Although I do not expect to continue defending traditional criminal defense cases when if and when my license is reinstated I will continue representing persons on select international “terrorism” cases in the US, commuting from abroad to do so. I also plan on continuing to handle human rights matters against governments such as Israel and Egypt in intentional courts as I’ve done for several decades.

Shadow: Is there an ultimate desire, or are you just going to keep doing what you’re doing until you drop?

Stanley: I’m going to keep fighting the state, whether national local or international. I’d love to play an active role in the establishment of a one-state resolution in Palestine and Israel. If I have played a meaningful role in that, my life will have been worth it.

Shadow: What do you think of the present crop of presidential candidates?

Stanley: I think it’s a total freak show. There’s no difference between a malignant brain tumor and pancreatic cancer. They’ll both kill you.

Shadow: What can we do about the climate of war mongering?

Stanley: In my blog “Caged but Undaunted” I took the position “Declare Victory and Come Home”, based on the Vietnam model. The president should hold a press conference saying that we won, we’ve accomplished everything that we wanted to do, and we’re withdrawing–that we’ve no longer subsidizing surrogate states or conducting active military operations, and that things are going to unfold the way that they are going to unfold. We did that in Vietnam and Vietnam is now a close ally and trading partner.

I have always been a firm believer that we have to stay in the streets, figuratively and literally. I think it’s important to shut the machine down. I think it’s essential to strip our so-called elected officials of the power to wage war and commit war crimes in our name. The way to do that is to go out in the streets and shut this shit down. That covers a variety of ways. Some people are great writers, some people are great organizers, some people are great fighters. There are hackers and Anonymous types who are out there doing what they do. I just think that we’ve reached a crossroads where we are obligated to shut this shit down, and we can do it.

Shadow: Do you have any final thoughts?

Stanley: I’m no different today having gone through 11 months of prison than when I walked in. I’ve done nothing wrong, I have no regrets, it hasn’t changed my politics, my vision, or my thoughts. Was I happy to be in prison? No. It caused tremendous stress and strain to my family, it disrupted political work in a critical period. You follow me since 1969 and it’s been a steady path. I’ve stayed in the street, I’ve been involved in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement and I did legal work for alleged members of the Weather Underground and the BLA. I was also a Legal Aid Attorney in the South Bronx. If I had it to do over again I wouldn’t have changed anything.

I did 11 months in prison, but when you think of people like Mandela doing 27 years, wow. In the 17th year, de Klerk brought him out and told him that if he renounced violence, he would let him out then. Mandela walked back in his cell. It wasn’t until 10 years later that he got out.

“Shit Happens”–that would be a good title for the book.

[For the latest news on Stanley, see . Also see Stanley’s blog Caged but Undaunted.

You may also join him on Twitter - @StanleyCohenLaw 

1 comment:

  1. That was a great read...reminds me of another not to far from these pages!