Sharpton Plans To Fast, Draw Visitors While In Jail He Expects Other Civil-rights Leaders To Call After He Arrives Today. Atlantic County Officials Vow No Special Treatment.

Posted: March 22, 2000

The Rev. Al Sharpton says he plans a lot of reading, a hunger strike, and visits from prominent civil-rights leaders while serving a 10-day jail sentence that begins today in the overcrowded Atlantic County Jail in Mays Landing.

County officials, meanwhile, said Sharpton's treatment would be no different from that given the other 1,003 inmates in the jail, in a nondescript business park about 12 miles outside Atlantic City.

Sharpton, a controversial civil-rights activist who has most recently led protests against police shootings in New York City, was sentenced March 8 for his role in a demonstration against police racial profiling that blocked part of the Atlantic City Expressway during the Fourth of July weekend last summer.

Sharpton, 45, said he would surrender at noon today at the jail, accompanied by Martin Luther King 3d and the four young black men who were shot at by police on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1998.

He said the Rev. Jesse Jackson was planning to visit him over the weekend, during regular visiting hours.

"I'm not looking for leniency," Sharpton said yesterday in a telephone interview from the New York offices of his organization, the National Action Network.

"This keeps the issue of racial profiling out there," he said of his incarceration. "In the middle of my fighting cases like the Diallo shooting and the new case, I have to go to jail for a nonviolent protest of racial profiling. That's what Dr. King and others did to dramatize issues. I'm willing to take that. I could have begged for mercy. I didn't."

Sharpton, an admired leader in his own community who is courted by some national leaders and vilified by others, has led protests against police officers' practice of using racial criteria to determine whom they stop on the highway and frisk on the street. More recently, he has led protests over the acquittal last month of several white New York police officers in the shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

Last week, he was on the front pages of New York newspapers at the side of the family of Patrick M. Dorismond, 26, a security guard fatally shot by undercover narcotics officers who asked the unarmed man for marijuana. Dorismond reportedly was enraged by the question.

Sharpton said yesterday that the Dorismond family had requested that he deliver the eulogy at the funeral on Saturday, which he still hoped to be able to do. He said he was not averse to an early release. "I'm not a jail freak," he said. "Maybe they'll release me to do the funeral."

The 10-day jail term was imposed by Atlantic City Municipal Judge Bruce F. Weekes, who said at the hearing that Sharpton showed no remorse for shutting down the main artery to the barrier island, where the region's only trauma center is located.

He also said that while the cause of protesting racial profiling was noble, Sharpton broke a valid law against obstructing the highway. The judge contrasted that with an act of civil disobedience in which the laws that are disobeyed are themselves improper.

Weekes, a former public defender who was the first African American appointed to serve as Atlantic City municipal judge, has declined to comment further about his sentence. Sharpton had told the judge that he would not pay a fine in the case, and the judge said this left him with no choice but to order incarceration. Yesterday, though, Sharpton said he might have considered some form of community service involving, for example, the city's young people.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said yesterday that he had turned down Sharpton's request for extended visiting hours. Sharpton will be limited to two 30-minute visits on each of three days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. He said extra police would be on hand today to handle any protesters, who would not be allowed to pass through the gates into the property of the jail.

"He will not be treated differently than any other inmate that comes in there," Levinson said. "I am not going to feed into this media frenzy over Al Sharpton. If I were to advise Rev. Sharpton, I would advise him to figure out a way to avoid incarceration. Our facility is built for maybe 450 inmates. We have 1,003."

Sharpton could have put off his jail sentence had he filed an appeal. He declined to do so.

Levinson said yesterday that he was skeptical that Sharpton would go through with the incarceration, based on calls from his representatives, who were concerned about Sharpton's safety and requested some form of protective custody.

"We are planning to place Rev. Sharpton in the general population, unless, of course, there are extenuating circumstances," Levinson said.

Levinson, who took office in January, said he and other county officials had begun a program to do the "bare minimum" to improve conditions at the jail, where inmates must sleep on mattresses on the floor of a day room.

He said Sharpton had jeopardized public safety when he blocked traffic on the expressway. "I am more concerned about Rev. Sharpton's safety in our facility than he was over the general public's safety when he stopped traffic," Levinson said.

Sharpton said his time in jail would only call attention to conditions there. "I'm going to be able to put a spotlight on them. They have so many people in jail, they don't even have the cells to put them in," he said.

Sharpton said he had been in jail three times before for protests, serving five days on Rikers Island, 10 days at the Brooklyn House of Detention, and five days in jail in Albany, N.Y., with folksinger Pete Seeger.

Each time, he said, he found himself sought out by numerous inmates. On one occasion, he drew a crowd with a Sunday sermon.

This time, he said, he would forgo food and drink only water during his stay. "I just feel it's an opportune time to cleanse myself and prepare myself spiritually for the battle ahead," Sharpton said.

Amy S. Rosenberg's e-mail address is arosenberg@phillynews.com

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