In 1969, little did Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald know that his commitment to social justice would result in a fate some argue is worse than death.
California’s ultra-conservative prison system, whose roots are both conscious and unconsciously entrenched in a racist tradition, has exacted a dear price from Romaine Fitzgerald by making him pay with more than fifty years of his life.
Eligible for parole since 1976, Romaine Fitzgerald, who also carries the political weight of being a former member of the Black Panther Party, has been denied an opportunity to get out of prison while most prisoners with a similar offense have long been released.
It’s also worth noting that contributing to the poor quality of the prison system is the absence of a powerful social justice movement that can provide the type of moral and material support that proved effective during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. This decline in activism has contributed to a prison population that is less socially conscious, making Mr. Fitzgerald’s release even more uncertain.
To date, Romaine, a stroke victim with partial paralysis, has consistently been denied proper housing in an appropriate medical facility. The California Department of Correction’s refusal to place the aging Fitzgerald in a medical facility deprives him of his human right to safety. One would think that they would at least house Romaine with inmates in his age bracket. With the threat of COVID-19, the prison population is currently on lockdown, placing Fitzgerald, who turned 71 this year, in an even more vulnerable situation.
During the summer of 2019, the prison’s increased pressure on Romaine Fitzgerald came on the heels of legal inquiries about his case and a public petition drive, where thousands of California residents called for his release. This public call for his release made Romaine even more visible to prison authorities, and predictably, in October 2019, the seventy-year-old political prisoner became the victim of a physical assault, when in front of the prison guards, Romaine’s 22-year- old cellmate attacked him in a common space of the prison. The housing of a youthful gang member in Chip’s cell seems grossly incompetent and appears to be designed to set Chip up for a rule violation, which could then be used to deny him parole.
According to the prison guard’s account of the attack, Romaine’s new cell mate knocked him to the ground after approaching him from behind. The circumstances grew even more bizarre after this same guard, who witnessed Chip being assaulted, ordered the attacker to lay down on the floor beside Chip within arm’s reach. Momentarily unconscious from the powerful blow to the back of his head, Romaine, obviously dazed, sat up and swung his prison-issued cane at his attacker. This feeble attempt at self- defense had no impact on his assailant. Again, the prison authorities demonstrated gross insensitivity in handling this matter when they punished Chip by temporarily transferring him to a prison near San Diego, and then returning him to Lancaster, only a few weeks later.
This incident, and others like them, may well be used by the parole board as excuses not to grant Romaine parole. For example, Romaine had been found guilty of possessing a cellphone, which he used to communicate with family and friends. Also, prison authorities might suggest that Romaine is not eligible to go before the parole board because he, at the strong urging of a former attorney, decided to forgo a parole hearing in 2017. The attorney and the parole board did not inform Chip of his rights to a mandatory hearing. These hearings, granted by the state legislature, were designed to free long-term elderly prisoners with health issues who pose no unreasonable risk to society, and who had been imprisoned as youthful offenders.
The prison authorities and Chip’s lawyer at that time advised him that his previous cell phone violation (his second) would guarantee him a parole denial and subsequently counseled Chip to forego his hearing and wait five more years until his next scheduled date. They reasoned that the parole board would likely call him back early if his record stayed clean for a year. A year has long since passed and Chip finds himself victimized yet again.
Prison authorities have also claimed they suspect Romaine of being involved in prison gangs. However, according to their own records, this claim has never been substantiated. For some reason, prison authorities lump politically conscious inmates in the same categories as violent gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, and from their standpoint, all these groups are out of control and therefore deserve additional scrutiny and punishment.
These and other excuses might be used as evidence that Chip has not been adequately rehabilitated and deserves to spend even more time in prison. Few conscientious people would agree with such logic, but this is the struggle in which we find ourselves and we must do more to support the release of an elder who has paid his debt to society many times over.
Described by some officials as a model prisoner and a positive force inside the prison, Mr. Fitzgerald has been eligible for parole for 44 years. Despite his eligibility for parole, prison and parole board authorities have refused to administer justice in this case. It also seems not to matter that Mr. Fitzgerald, who sometimes requires the use of a wheel chair, is currently an elderly stroke victim in need of consistent medical care. Rather than do the right thing by granting him parole, the California Department of Corrections appears to be seeking a distorted sense of victory by effecting the slow death of Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald behind bars.
With the coronavirus now spreading throughout the state’s prison system, Correctional authorities’ desire to see Chip experience an agonizingly slow death could now be on the fast track.
We can’t let this happen! 51 Years is Enough!
We who believe in freedom cannot rest!
We request that you do the following:
Call, tweet, email and write:
California Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street Suite 1173
Sacramento, Ca. 95814
Insist Romaine Fitzgerald be given decent medical care.
Let the Governor know you expect them to follow the rule of law and release Romaine Fitzgerald from prison, particularly following California legislation applying to long term youthful offenders in poor health.
Circulate the website petition to California residents/particularly on Twitter and Facebook.
51 Years is Enough!