On May 20th the Human Rights Coalition, a group comprised of prisoners’ families and supporters held an event both to celebrate the release of their new pamphlet “BURIED ALIVE!” (see Rob X’ article Control units: High Tech Brutality elsewhere in this issue) as well as a public kick off of a new campaign to fight the use of solitary confinement in US prisons.
After screening a powerful documentary contrasting life in a Control Unit with that of prisoners in a therapy-centric prison experiment, a panel discussion convened. Former political prisoner Masai Ehehosi spoke first, addressing some of the gradual steps necessary towards prison abolition: “it’s not just about opening the prison gates.”, we need to create a place to live where we don’t need prisons or control. Masai’s group Critical Resistance walks the talk of prison abolition. The New York chapter of CR has been actively working on building alternatives to police and prisons in the Brooklyn neighborhood where their office is.
To put prisons themselves into some context historically, Carlton Payne, a psychologist ran down some statistics on the growth of prisons in the US. From the first prison in 1683, it took till 1995 for the prison population to reach a million. Just ten years later that number has doubled and still grows. Today US prisons hold 2.3 million prisoners, a number higher than any other country in the world. Prison lawyer Angus Love filled in with more history. The Eastern State Penitentiary was built in Philly as a humanitarian experiment by Quakers and the Pennsylvania Prison Society (ironic in that both groups were representing at the forum as opponents of the same Quaker inspired hells). When Eastern State turned out to be a living hell, it yielded to the “NY System” and subsequent, all systems deemed failures only to be replaced by units even more repressive than the previous. The construction of the Supermax (short for Super Maximum security) prison in Marion, IL in 1983 gave birth to a new form of prison, the Control Unit. The Supermax attempts to create a system of total control over every microcosm of life. Marion, from it’s inception as a Supermax, housed a number of captured anti-imperialist US Prisoners of War and Political Prisoners (most of whom had not shown themselves to be any significant threat to the prison order). It was clear that political repression was part of this package. Today new Control Units are springing up across the country, many run by for profit corporations. In Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg), one of the most severe forms of isolation in US prisons, Payne saw serious psychological impacts on prisoners. Loosing all power over one’s environment and self, in desperation prisoners instinctively use violence as a way to regain some semblance of control. With virtually no stimulus, prisoners in isolation find themselves turning apathetic, their cognitive functions clinically decreasing and lacking stimulation become delusional, hallucinating. And with usually no target for the resulting rage, the violence often turns inward resulting in severe depression. “We are creating monsters”. Payne stressed. (see Belly of the Beast column next page) Another panelist, Luqman Abdullah, spent 5 years of his prison time in solitary confinement. His presentation was a needed jolt of rage for the often sleepy radical community in Philadelphia. Luqman put emphasis on urgency of the situation. “We need to organize and get our brothers and sisters out!” Prisoners ,including Luqman, in his days at Greene, are sent to the hole regularly for crimes as basic as having being recognized as possessing leadership skills, helping other inmates out with legal issues or attempting to teach other prisoners to read and write. Luqman himself spent time in the hole for crimes as trivial as teaching another prisoner elementary geography. Teresa, the daughter of Black Liberation Army prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, stood on a chair as she gave an update on her father. Clearly recognized as dangerous by the state, Maroon has been in prison for the last twenty years following a shootout with police in Cobbs Creek park. Despite never having had write ups for bad behaviour while in prison, Maroon is still kept segregated from other prisoners. After suffering from severe harassment by a particularly abusive guard (see Maroon’s article last issue), a campaign by family and supporters led not to the removal or disciplining of the guard, but to his transfer out of the Control Unit to, of all places, a cell on death row, a place where he apparently feels better off. Further pounding home the level of brutality in US prisons, was HRC member Dwayne Howard. Having spent time in the hole for petty infractions like making wine, Dwayne testified from his own experience in lockdown to the conditions laid out by Payne: depression, loss of memory, spiritual and emotional breakdown. Threats made to other prisoners while in the hole never amounted to anything once prisoners were back in general population. Everyone knew those in lockdown were losing their minds. One of Love’s clients at SCI Greene, who was paralyzed, couldn’t make it to eat or leave his cell. Guards punished him by collaring him with a dog leash. Greene, by the way, is by no coincidence the same prison where Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Grainer worked and apparently practiced before torturing Iraqis overseas. Another client of Love’s was strapped naked to a chair in isolation, another visual that we may find more familiar in the Iraqi context than locally. Once the panel opened up for questions, by far the most to the point was by a man from Sierra Leone who asked what the left, the NGOs and Civil Society are doing; why are people in this country so blind when there are these Abu Ghraib’s right here? Questions the entire room, mostly radicals either supporting prisoners or working against prisons no doubt have asked themselves too. Luqman responded angrily and pointedly: ”Every time I hear about Abu Ghraib, it burns me up!” The media had covered abuses at SCI Greene back in 96. Amnesty International included it in reports, the New York Times has covered it, but the left for the most part wasn’t bothered. “In Rockview prisoners were chained to their beds naked. Why are we talking about Abu Ghraib when guards are abusing our brothers at SCI Fayette. It’s the same guards abusing people in America! They don’t want the truth, even some of those activists who come in there don’t want the truth!”
This piece appeared in an issue of the Philadelphia anticapitalist newspaper the defenestrator.