Incarceration Nation

Herman Bell Under Attack

Weeks after guards attacked him, political prisoner Herman Bell is being denied family visits

By kihana miraya ross, Introduction by Akiba Solomon

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, pled 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 two-and-a-half 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 he 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 two-and-a-half to three-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 three 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. 

Update from Herman Bell

Thanks to a lot of work by a lot of us, Herman Bell has been transferred to general population in Shawangunk C.F.

Herman was also informed that the charges against him are being dropped. You can write Herman at the new address (bottom of the message). 

Before Herman got the news he sent the following message to us:

September 27, 2017

My dear brothers and sisters,

Thank you for the outpouring of cards, letters, healing-love and energy that you sent me in response to the unprovoked brutal assault on me by New York State prison guards at Comstock, New York—a  vicious slap aside the head from behind and shoved to the ground. I protected myself as best as I could. I sustained multiple kicks, punches to the face and eyes, repeated head slams into concrete, and two cracked ribs. They tried to bury me with raining blows, not knowing that I am a seed.  But the burning pepper spray sprayed into my eyes and mouth is what did me in—and yet, here I am.

Now I know why visitors bring flowers and candy to the hospital. I was immediately sent, however, not to a hospital but to the Box for “assault on staff,” so the cards and letters and love you sent me were my flowers and candy. You did great! I was astonished, not by the outpouring of your support, but by the enormity of it.

People are coming together and are standing up. They are finding that they are not entitled to the rights and freedoms they think they have as Americans. Instead of the consideration Americans—many of them voters—deserve; they are ignored by authoritarian and elected officials. They lack healthcare, suffer from unrestrained police violence, mass incarceration, lack a living wage, experience poverty and homelessness, and suffer from a toxic environment. People are standing up against these injustices, insisting that their demands be respected and addressed. The social injustice, jackboot repression, racist attacks, discrimination, wealth disparities, unemployment, lack of affordable housing (the list doesn’t just end there), creates waves of fierce discontent which are gaining steady momentum, becoming a full-blown cleansing tsunami, the force of which is irresistible.

And that force is you, the People, coming together and taking a stand. My flowers and candy is your outpouring of support for me, our political prisoners, the mass incarcerated and the voiceless.

To write each of you (I’ve literally received hundreds of letters) a personal “thank you” at this time would be impossible. So, I send this “thank you!” instead. 

Thank you! I thank you deeply one and all for the empathy, outrage, love and support you’ve expressed in the face of the assault on me. May our resolve to produce social change remain unshakeable.


Color Lines, September 29, 2017

Write to:

Herman Bell #79C-0262

Shawangunk C.F.

P.O. Box 700

Wallkill, NY 12589-0700