‘I’m in hell’: Indigenous Nations activist Leonard Peltier says of his prison conditions amid COVID

Despite the fact that it’s a crime that he’s even in federal prison, Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier is begging for help amid a COVID-19 surge keeping prisoners on unending lockdowns and without booster shots. 

“I’m in hell,” Peltier said in a statement to HuffPost, “and there is no way to deal with it but to take it as long as you can.”

Peltier, 77, has been locked-up since 1975, making him the longest-serving political prisoner in U.S. history. He suffers from diabetes and an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He says the current conditions in his high-security facility in Florida, include lack of phone access, regular showers, fresh air, and healthy food

“Left alone and without attention is like a torture chamber for the sick and old,” he said about his imprisonment in USP Coleman I.

According to Peltier’s attorney, Kevin Sharp, Peltier, along with 1,335 inmates at the facility, have been on lockdown since Jan. 11 and those on his cellblock have yet to receive their COVID-19 booster shots—long after the six-month mark. 

“In and out of lockdown last year at least meant a shower every third day, a meal beyond a sandwich wet with a little peanut butter — but now with COVID for an excuse, nothing. No phone, no window, no fresh air — no humans to gather — no love ones [sic] voice. No relief,” Peltier wrote. 

There are currently 153, 855 inmates currently in federal prisons, and although there are records regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, there are no records regarding booster shoots. 

Health experts have said since the start of the pandemic that inmate conditions are a potential petri dish for the spread of the virus as people are physically unable to separate themselves from one another.

Since the start of his decades-long incarceration, Peltier had denied being involved in a shootout with two plain-clothed FBI agents over a pair of stolen boots at the South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The shooting left two FBI agents dead and a Native American named Joe Stunz, who was shot in the head by a sniper bullet. His murder has never been investigated. 

The FBI quickly focused their investigation on prominent members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who were camping on the property at the time. They’d been invited there by the Jumping Bull elders, to protect the Nation from the extreme violence on the reservation at that time. Peltier was an AIM member. 

Peltier’s trial was a joke. First off, the FBI agents were tied to a goon squad, something that was never introduced in court. Additionally, information about a bullet ballistics test that would have exonerated him, was also never introduced. 

Peltier was initially convicted of first-degree murder, but even though that conviction was later thrown out, his sentence was upheld for aiding and abetting a murder. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Reynolds, who upheld the conviction, and the federal Appeals Court judge who rejected his early appeals, have both since called for his release along with a plethora of high-powered names—Pope Francis, The Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Marlon Brando, among many others.

“I write today from a position rare for a former prosecutor: to beseech you to commute the sentence of a man who I helped put behind bars,” Reynolds wrote in July. “With time and the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

Peltier’s entire testimony was given from people who had been threated or intimidated by the FBI, and they have made sure that he will never see the light of day.

Peltier had a chance for release in 2009, but it would have meant admitting to the murder of two FBI agents, and he refused. His parole was then denied. 

“Whatever punishment was meant to be meted out to Leonard has been done. It’s done,” Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva told HuffPost. “The fact that he has held to his innocence shouldn’t be a reason to deny this. He has been consistent about his position from the beginning ― from being arrested to incarcerated to this day.”

Peltier’s attorney Kevin Sharp told the Tennessee Lookout that his client’s release all comes down to politics and fear of retribution from the FBI. 

“In order to get clemency, you have to get the FBI on board. They have an inherent conflict. You have to get the U.S. Attorney’s Office on board. They lied to get him in prison. They have an inherent conflict. They’re not going to say, ‘Oops, sorry,” Sharp told HuffPost. 

Former President Bill Clinton considered clemency, but after surviving his own impeachment hearings, he wouldn’t have wanted to step out and go toe-to-toe with the FBI. Then former President Barack Obama was given Peltier’s case for review and he refused to oppose the FBI. Even former President Donald Trump considered the case but ultimately punted it. 

Peltier’s last chance for clemency is from President Joe Biden. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions supporting his release and with Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet Secretary, leading the Interior Department, there’s a sliver of hope to save Peltier from dying in prison. 

Haaland has been a vocal advocate for Peltier’s case, along with Petuuche Gilbert, president of Indigenous World Association; Norman Patrick Brown, who was among one of the young persons who survived the June 26, 1975 shootout; human rights advocate, Eda Gordon; and Lenny Foster, Peltier’s Spiritual Advisor of over 30 years who is Board member of the International Indian Treaty Council and American Indian Movement.

Even Reynolds has pleaded with Biden to grant Peltier clemency as a step toward healing  “the broken relationship” between Native Americans and the U.S. government.

“I urge you to chart a different path in the history of the government’s relationship with its Native people through a show of mercy rather than continued indifference,” he said. “I urge you to take a step towards healing a wound that I had a part in making.”

In October, Grijalva led 10 House Democrats in a letter to the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland beseeching him to expedite Peltier’s release and grant him clemency amid his deteriorating health, his age, and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Where are our human rights activists? You are hearing from me, and with me, many desperate men and women! They are turning an already harsh environment into an asylum, and for many who did not receive a death penalty, we are now staring down the face of one! Help me, my brothers and sisters, help me my good friends,” Peltier writes.

To learn more about Peltier’s case, go to Leonard’s Defense Committee’s website www.whoisleonardpeltier.info transcripts and other archival material.