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Jun 01, 2013
keywords: shu, hunger strike, solitary confinement
From Prison Focus 40
Compiled by Kim Pollak, from letters and interview of PBSP prisoners.
While some feel like rolling participation is sufficient, others are adamant that there must be no part-timers, but only full-time participants straight through to the end. In the end each individual has to take their own health into consideration when making this personal decision.
Some individuals believe a Hunger Strike is too passive. Others feel that a non peaceful approach is harmful to the movement. Hunger Strikers are encouraging men who are angry and want a more aggressive approach of protest to remain peaceful. Otherwise, one man emphasized, the system will use the violent protest to justify more violence and oppression.
One of the reps, despite his reservations, agreed to support the HS in order to maintain solidarity with the other reps. Among other things, he is worried about the health of older participants. He stated that the main emphasis should be on “sentiment, perception & maintenance of SOLIDARITY.” Other prisoners also stressed the importance of having a common vision and solidarity on the way they address the issues.
One of the men we spoke with explained that he is participating on behalf of the youth coming behind. He does not want kids who are the street right now to end up going through this stuff. “I’m dying a slow death,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else to be up here.” “We’re in the 8th inning,” he continued, “The 9th inning is in July.”
Another stated, “I am not trying to be here with the ‘worst of the worst’. What does that mean? Define it.” Why, he asked rhetorically, are there men who have been in the SHU for 15 years who have never received any violations?!” Therefore, he explained that he is 100% behind the upcoming protest and feels that it’s been a long time coming. Despite everything, he explained, “we all keep a cool head and move forward with the peaceful.”
One man with whom we spoke expressed confidence that the Hunger Strike will be successful. In 2011 they were directed to do anything to end the Hunger Strike, and they did, primarily with false promises. This time, this particular inmate believes that CDC will have to sign the decree (agree to the 5 demands) and will not be able to stop the strike without doing so. He believes this will happen before the end of August.
It has been reported that the Pelican Bay mainline is preparing for a work strike, as well as those at Corcoran. Prisoners from the San Quentin Adjustment Center also plan to participate, as well as prisoners all over California. One man spoke of the impact it would have if prisoners all over the country make their demands and participated in hunger strikes simultaneously.
Men are reporting that people are more determined to go for 30 days this time. One man stated a potentially sad truth, “people will die, and that may be the only way.” Several prisoners have expressed their feeling that “Potty Watch” is one of CDC’s worst practices and thinks it should be addressed in the HS demands.
One man with whom we spoke stated his sentiment that the men need to push even further and go for longer. He told us that he knows men who, despite poor health, are getting ready to participate. “If these guys die, it’s important people know it’s because CDC won’t change.” He feels there needs to be non - CDC oversight, ensuring that each prison meets its responsibilities throughout the protest.
One man stated that they have been receiving some small privileges (ie: pull-up bars). He continued to explain with disgust that the CDC acts like that is what they want. But rather, he stated emphatically, “we want out of the here; to shut down the SHU.” “You can’t better a place that is specifically built to break people.”
One inmate explained that he is anxious for the HS to begin. He wants it to happen and be done with, but, he explained, he made peace with it awhile back. Another plans to approach the HS as a spiritual fast. He will observe Ramadan, which begins July 8 this year.
About six months ago, a man who’d had a quadruple bypass was being denied his meds, he tells me. This man eventually went on a one-man hunger strike because of the denial of his meds. While at COR, one man reported that he did not eat for five extra days after the strike had officially ended because no one told him the strike had been called. He ended up spending time in ICU
In regards to the HS one of the reps saw a memo stating that inmates who drink ensure will be off of the HS. People need to be aware that ensure is not a liquid and consuming it is will end one’s participation in the HS. This is a no solid food strike. Vitamins, kool Aid, hot chocolate are liquids. Ensure is nutritional and considered a food. C/O’s should not be allowed to confiscate vitamins or beverages. During the last HS the medical receiver actually provided vitamins to some HS participants. There is concern about the confiscation of vitamins and kool aid. “If they [c/o’s] are taking these items, the medical receiver should be provided with a reason as to why.”
Men are consistently reporting that harassment and repressive tactics have intensified. C/Os are being increasingly “creative with their write-ups.” Men are being threatened with, and sometimes receiving, 115’s for “talking loud”. Prior to the HS in 2011, they didn’t “sweat the small stuff.” On the contrary, sergeants are currently pressuring C/Os to issue write-ups for anything.
Men report that CDC is changing rules and increasing regulations in preparation for the Hunger Strike. They are, for example, cutting the space permitted for personal property down to 6 cubic feet. He explained that when the HS begins they can inventory property and store the property that they confiscate more easily as it will take less space. At Pelican Bay the prisoners who participated in the 2011 hunger strikes received 115s for doing so. Those who plan to participate in future peaceful protests expect to receive 115s for their involvement and endure other forms of retaliation by prison staff. Many prisoners are still moving their 602s through the first three refusals. One man submitted 602 petition challenging a 115 from the previous HS, however after his 602 was filed they changed it to a different 115, reporting that he incited a riot. One prisoner with whom we visited stated that he has fi led many 602s since the 2011 Hunger Strike because “nothing has changed.”
It was reported that staff tried to validate 2011 Hunger Strike participants from the mainline as retaliation for their participation.
Cell raids have reportedly increased dramatically. They are now commonplace. The 6-square-feet rule which was essentially ignored in the past, is now being strictly enforced. Food and other items are frequently confiscated. The men have been told, “We know you guys are stacking up for the Hunger Strike.” The men at Pelican Bay expect guards to take away canteen items during the protest. One inmate explained that the escalated tactics of intimidation are due to the fact that CDC is “worried about losing their grip.”
Prisoners have been told by the c/os that they (CDC) “is not going to do anything” and that the Hunger Strikers “will die here.” In response to that attitude, one of the reps at Pelican Bay emphasized the need for those on the outside to apply pressure to prison officials and federal receiver regarding policies and responsibilities that CDR are required to follow. They must be held accountable for meeting medical requirements. CDC, he stated, has a responsibility to every prisoner.
The overall consent seem to be that The Agreement to End Hostilities has been effective. Tactics used to separate the men from their communities are deliberate. However, prisoners are consistently expressing optimism and enthusiasm about the agreement. They attribute the c/os’ escalated tactics to its efficacy. Men are making statements such as, “people are abiding by it, they put their differences aside for everyone”.
One rep stated that “Individual differences may still come up. It is important to be careful of the ‘knuckleheads’ and watch out because c/o’s will use other inmates to stir up dissension.” He emphasized that “violence is not the way in 2013. It is not our first option. [We must] litigate and be smart; only nonviolent peaceful protests... The Agreement to End Hostilities is concrete. All racial entities are sincere about it... and want to see success.”
Jun 01, 2013
keywords: shu, solitary confinement, human rights
From Prison Focus 40
In 2011, thousands of California state prisoners engaged in a hunger strike to end long term solitary confinement and to demand changes to the way that prisoners are assigned to these torturous units, known as SHUs (security housing units). The corrections department (CDCR) agreed to make changes, which it rolled out in November, 2012. CDCR’s public relations strategy is to persuade lawmakers, judges and the general public that its new program is a vast improvement. However, the new program keeps most of the objectionable elements of the old program and adds some new elements which make it even worse.
The Step Down Program: a new way to perpetuate long term solitary confinement: Under the old rules, the only ways to get out of the SHU were to “parole, snitch or die”, or be found “inactive” as a gang member or associate (a rare finding). The new policy offers a new way out: the Step Down Program, a 4-step program which takes a minimum of three or four years. The first 2-3 years are spent in solitary confinement, with no education or other programming. The prisoner is required to demonstrate “progress” by, among other things, filling out workbooks showing changed attitudes. The one workbook we have seen is condescending and judgmental. Whether a prisoner progresses to the next step is a discretionary decision; a prisoner can also be sent back to an earlier step. As a result, release from the SHU is still a discretionary and arbitrary decision of prison administrators; lifetime solitary confinement remains possible.
Coerced secret evidence: alive and well: The hated “debriefing” program remains alive and well under the new rules. Under this program, a SHU prisoner can get out of the SHU by confessing his/her own gang involvement and identifying other prisoners’ gang involvement. This information is used to place other prisoners in the SHU or retain them there. Targeted prisoners are not entitled to know who has named them, or the specifics of the accusation. It is almost impossible to defend oneself against secret charges.
Guilt by association: alive and well: Under the old policies, prisoners were assigned a six year SHU term for simply being affiliated (as a member or associate) with a prison gang. The prisoner did not have to break any prison rule. Prisoners were validated for possessing art work or political readings, signing a greeting card, exercising with other prisoners or saying hello to another prisoner. Under the new rules, this same evidence can be used to prove a prisoner is a member, and membership alone justifies a SHU term.
New disciplinary program: association evidence becomes cite-able behavior: Under the old rules, possessing certain artwork or literature was used as evidence of gang association. Prisoners and advocates objected, saying that SHU placement should only be for gang behavior. CDCR’s responded in its new program by labeling such evidence as gang “behavior” in its new rules. Guards can now cite prisoners for rules violations for possessing these items and punishment can be imposed. Citations for serious rules violations (115s) can extend prisoners’ SHU term and harm their chance of being paroled.
Widening the net: Under the old policies, a prisoner could be placed in the SHU for affiliation with any of seven prison gangs. Under the new rules, any grouping of three or more prisoners can be added to the list as a “security threat group”, membership in which can result in a SHU term. The coining of this new provocative term, with nuanced reference to terrorism, is deeply troubling; the expansion of the SHU-eligible population is of grave concern.
Rubber-stamping: alive and well: Although CDCR has inserted a new stage of review for SHU placements, this review is still within the confines of the prison system, where the dominant culture is to rubber-stamp the gang unit’s decisions. CDCR has not changed its culture. Publicly and internally, CDCR still considers SHU prisoners to be “the worst of the worst” and continues to justify the SHU’s torturous conditions as necessary for the “safety and security of the institution.” Independent oversight is necessary to curtail CDCR’s excesses.
Re-evaluations of current SHU prisoners: shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic: As part of the resolution of the 2011 hunger strikes, CDCR agreed to re-evaluate the SHU placement of current SHU prisoners, using its new criteria. CDCR is reviewing associates first and reports that over half of its initial reviews are resulting in assignments to general population. This reclassification is a huge victory and is proof of the unfairness of the old SHU policies, but is no proof of fairness of the new policies. While we celebrate each prisoner’s return to general population, there is no guarantee that these prisoners will not be returned to the SHU in the future. Meanwhile, each prisoner’s SHU cell will immediately be filled by another prisoner. CDCR has no plans to reduce SHU beds.
Too little has changed for California prisoners under CDCR’s “new and improved” gang management policy. Other strategies would be more successful in addressing the concerns about prison gangs. In 2012, SHU prisoners themselves issued a call to end hostilities between prisoner groups, which has resulted in reduced prisoner violence throughout the prison system. Expansion of educational and vocational opportunities inside all prisons, as the prisoners are demanding, would reduce conflict and stress. We call on all people of good will to support the prisoners’ demands.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Jun 01, 2013
keywords: shu, hunger strike
From Prison Focus 40
There are different ideas at different prisons and among individuals regarding the upcoming peaceful protest. There are those who feel that rolling participation is sufficient and others who are adamant that there must be no part-timers, but rather all should participate straight through to the end. They believes participants need to be all in or all out. One inmate stated that there are individuals who believe a Hunger Strike is too passive; “not big enough.” He believes that those individuals are “obstructionists”. [Name withheld] lost 30 and 40 pounds during the 2011 Hunger Strike. Of course each individual has to take their own health into consideration.
One of the men we spoke with explained that he is participating on behalf of the youth coming behind him. He does not want kids who are on the street right now to end up going through this stuff. “I’m dying a slow death,” he said. “I don’t want anyone else to be up here.” “We’re in the 8th inning,” he continued, “The 9th inning is in July.”
[Name withheld] emphasized the need for those on the outside to apply pressure to prison officials and the federal receiver regarding policies and responsibilities that CDCR are required to follow. They must be held accountable for meeting medical requirements. CDC, he stated, has a responsibility to every prisoner.
One inmate explained that they are changing rules and increasing regulations in preparation for the Hunger Strike. They are, for example, cutting the space permitted for personal property down to 6 cubic feet. He explained that when the HS begins they can inventory property and store the property that they confiscate more easily as it will take less space. They also expect guards to take away canteen items during the protest.
One man with whom we spoke said that he is feeling good about the Hunger Strike. He is anxious for it to begin. He wants it to happen and be done with, but he explained, he made peace with it awhile back. One inmate reported that his asthma medication was taken away after the last hunger strike, and to this day, he has never gotten it back.
While speaking about the Hunger Strike, one prisoner stated, “I am not trying to be here with the ‘worst of the worst’. What does that mean? Define it.” Why, he asked rhetorically, are there men who have been in the SHU for 15 years who have never received any violation write ups?! He is 100% behind the upcoming protest and feels that it is a long time coming. He feels good about the way it is coming together and did not think that it would receive the attention that it is getting. Despite the increase in provocations and violation write-ups as the Hunger Strike approaches, this man stated that “We all keep a cool head and move forward with the peaceful.”
One prisoner with whom we spoke believes that if people in the Special Needs Yard stop working their jobs, CDC will suffer from the loss of SNY work-related money.
One man with whom we spoke expressed confidence that the Hunger Strike will be successful. In 2011 CDC were directed to do anything to end the Hunger Strike, and they did, primarily with false promises. This time, this particular inmate believes, CDC will have to sign the decree (agree to the 5 demands) and will not be able to stop the strike without doing so. He believes this will happen before the end of August.
It has been reported that the mainline is preparing for a work strike, as well as those at Corcoran. Prisoners from the San Quentin Adjustment Center also plan to participate, as well as inmates at several (all?) of the other prisons in California. One man spoke of the impact it would have if prisoners all over the country made their demands and Hunger Strikes took place all over the country simultaneously.
Hunger Strikers are encouraging men who are angry and want a more aggressive approach of protest to remain peaceful. Otherwise, one man emphasized, the system will use a violent protest to justify more violence and oppression.
An inmate explains that people are more determined to go for 30 days. He believes that people will die, and that may be the only way. He said that during the last HS C/Os searched his cell, removed any food, telling him, “You want to kills yourself, fine...” He, and other men, were told by the c/os that the C/Os are “not going to do anything” and that the Hunger Strikers “will die here.” Regarding the upcoming HS, he feels that this time the men need to push even further and go for longer. He knows men who, despite poor health, are getting ready to participate. “If these guys die, it’s important people know it because CDC won’t change.” He feels we must put on pressure for independent oversight.
One man stated that they have been receiving some small privileges (e.g.: pull-up bars); :the prison thinks - or acts - like that is we they want. We want out of the here; to shut down the SHU. You can’t better a place that is specifically built to break people.” He hit that one on the nail!
It was reported that staff tried to validate 2011 Hunger Strike participants from the mainline as retaliation for their participation. Past Hunger Strikers received 115s for their participation in this peaceful protest. Some inmates appealed those write ups. Those who plan to participate in future peaceful protests expect to receive 115s for their involvement and other forms of retaliation by prison staff. Others were relocated from Pelican Bay to Corcoran after the strike. Some men expressed concern that there may be forced feeding this time.
Jun 01, 2013
keywords: shu, hunger strike, agreement to end hostilities
From Prison Focus 40
“A Small Body of Determined Spirits Fired by an Unquenchable Faith in Their Mission Can Alter The Course of History”- Gandhi
Greetings Brothers and Sisters,
History teaches us that unity is strength; that the collective will of a people expressed toward a common goal often results in that goal being realized. This should indicate to us all the vital nature of preserving unity of purpose within the protest movement, and within the movement to abolish domestic torture units in particular (solitary confinement units, SHUs, super-maxes, etc). Protest movements in the U.S. are often formed out of necessity because the U.S. state and the oppressive, exploitive methods it uses against the people who stand in opposition to, are one and the same, sharing a mutual interest in repressing a specific segment of society or reaping some material benefit from their exploitation. In the case of indefinite sensory deprivation confinement and mass incarceration in general, we find both an oppressive and exploitative dynamic.
The unemployed area, a necessary component of surplus labor value expropriation in the U.S. capitalist arrangement (wage slave system) is key to a process we can call underdevelopment. In the U.S. such underdevelopment is targeted and contained, for the most part, in poor and minority communities, where no viable place in the mainstream economy is available to these segments of the population. They must resort to the underground economy to survive. These survival activities, be they service based (narcotics, prostitution, illegal gambling, etc), or predatory (robbery, extortion, identity theft, etc) are all “against the law.” Exposing those forced into the underground economy to imprisonment being the predatory capitalist state that the U.S. is, corporate and political interests from across the industrial spectrum, saw an opportunity in this, reminiscent of the old southern prison bond system, only in this case it was not the profit that could be made from exploiting prisoner labor, but the profit that could be made from each prisoner representing a portion of the publics’ [sic] tax dollars which could be expropriated (taken) by a new joint venture of industry and labor aristocracy (prison guard unions and administrators) on an ever-expanding industrial scale.
With the cooperation of the politicians, who overnight created a new and powerful constituency which only required them to parrot the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric to harness such powerful lobbying and polling resources, law enforcement and judiciaries who would, of course, see an expansion of power and privilege of their own, as legislators enacted ever more intrusive laws broadening the net and widening the gavel for potential citizens daily lives to be intruded upon by the ‘rule of law’ - and more of their tax dollars. The prison industrial complex was born, forming a sixty four billion dollar oligarchy of corporations, and the state that tendrils extend well beyond that meager dollar amount annually.
As the U.S. became the most populous prison population on earth, those subjected to those contradictions, prisoners, resisted, some becoming advanced socio-economic and political activists, who sought to actively resist the social evil of the P.I.C. The state and its corporate masters saw no distinction between these and other groups of prisoners that formed within these environments, and when pitting them against each other did not work the concept of the supermax was born, a place where those who would not submit to the prescribed role of oppressed man would be sent to, subjected to, experimental psychological torture techniques until they “paroled, debriefed or died.” These units were even more lucrative than the expanded prison yards sprouting up like mushrooms across the rural areas of the nation, their very concept and purpose requiring a more robust infusion of tax payer dollars, and giving rise to an interest to manufacture the fantasy of the “worst of the worst,” while simultaneously media access and independent oversight, but capitalism, with its imperative of “unending growth” is, as always, unsustainable, and the prison industrial complex is no different.
As contradictions of its own explosive expansion collided with the limits of U.S. socio-economic capacity, the prospect of eternal damnation in these torture units finally burned away the miasma of disunity affecting the thousands of men and women consigned to these torture units, leaving only their mutual interests behind. Finding its organizational expression within the Pelican Bay D-Short Corridor collective and its unity of purpose in the historic “Agreement To End Hostilities” the movement to these torture units which began so many years ago when the U.S. government replaced Alcatraz with Marion, has not reached its highest form with this national coalition.
But, as most may realize, the unity of our coalition and thus its’ very purpose is under constant assault, everything from political immaturity to cointelpro-style attacks, challenge our resolve every day. As such, we feel it important to have a discussion about the most fundamental aspects of unity and how adhering to them will not only preserve our purpose, but ensure our circuit. Unity is based on dialogue and commitment; dialogue which is egalitarian and open in its inclusion, yet productive and efficient in its outcome. We should dialogue regularly at all levels around those points which we seek to unify on and from that common ground, commit to those actions and ideas which will most effectively realize our purpose.
Unity does not require uniformity. Coalition building is all about people from different walks of life, politically, socially, sexually, culturally, economically, educationally and geographically coming together to realize a shared value. In this case, the very basic human right that we should all be allowed is to live free of torture. Unity is a broad enough concept to encompass differing opinions and perspectives without it fracturing into a factualism which can be exploited by our collective opposition. This is why dialogue is such a vital component of unity. The views and perspective of those we are waging struggle with are important, and bilateral communication is the cornerstone of conflict resolution. If unity is based on its purpose, it will be difficult to encounter a dispute which cannot be resolved through dialogue. Commitment to a course of action, and to one another, is often as powerful as the unity itself.
Power concedes nothing without demand and actively seeks to destroy opposition to its authoritarian dictates. Commitment to remain unifi ed is a form of unilateral political discourse all its own, which demands that he oppressive power bend - or break.
As July 8th approaches and principled people across this nation and abroad prepare to take up this struggle with us, we should all be comforted by the victorious win underlying our unity of purpose. As we speak, hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay have gripped international attention, yet right here on U.S. shores, over 80,000 men, women and yes children, are languishing in identical conditions, in SHUs, supermaxs and Ad Seg units, from Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi to ADX and Oregon State Prison - solitary confinement.
There is only one force which has any hope of abolishing this inhumanity in the U.S. once and for all: The Unity of Purpose of Principled People Like You and Us.
N.C.T.T. - COR-SHU
Michael Zaharibu Dorrough D83611
4B-1L-43, PO Box 3481, COR CA 93212
Kambui Robinson C82830
4B-1L-49, PO Box 3481 COR CA 93212
J. Jeshima Denham J38283
4B-1L-43 PO Box 3481 COR CA 93212
Jabari Scott H30536
4B-1L-49, PO Box 3481 COR CA 93212
Jun 01, 2013
keywords: shu, torture
From Prison Focus 40
Debating the Obvious
When people are so conditioned to being deceived by those in power that they can’t see or accept the obvious, you know they’re the victims of a highly effective system of mass brainwash. The whole debate over whether solitary confinement in U.S. prisons amounts to torture is a case in point.
As a victim of solitary confinement for nearly two decades, I have extensive experience with the condition and have written on the subject for a number of years.(1) Only recently has the general public been prompted to take notice of the issue on a broad scale – this as a result of thousands of California prisoners going on hunger strikes for weeks during 2011. One of the main issues they were protesting was the long-term abuse of solitary confinement, especially at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.
The resultant waves of public opposition to solitary and its obviously torturous and mentally injurious effects, has prompted officials to come forward with rationalizations and asinine debates over whether solitary constitutes torture.
Officials played the same games to downplay and rationalize the torture of Arab detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, etc., during the scandal that followed wide exposure of photographs showing U.S. soldiers torturing and abusing detained Arabs in 2004.
Those “debates” involved the U.S. Attorney General and Justice Department lawyers, under George W. Bush, maneuvering to redefine “torture,” so that such obvious and well-recognized methods of torture as waterboarding, electroshock and all manner of psycho-emotional torment were deemed something other than torture.
During 2009, those tortures “legalized” by the Bush administration were acknowledged to be torture and formally banned by the Obama administration, whereupon the Bush torture memos were released for public scrutiny. However, all the lawyers and military and CIA interrogators who participated in those tortures were granted immunity from prosecution, even though Lawrence Wilkinson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, testified before Congress that many detainees were outright murdered by the military as a result of being shot, beaten, suffocated or drowned. But everyone knew long before all this that what was going on was torture. Just like everyone knows it about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. To those in power it just boils down to playing the game of denial and evasion, to divert public outrage and treat the masses as if they are stupid children, while officials’ crimes and their victims’ sufferings continue.
As this article is intended to demonstrate, that solitary confinement constitutes torture is simply not debatable. Indeed, officials know it’s torture and use it deliberately for this purpose.
One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s favorite principles to invoke when determining whether particular conduct violates the Constitution is whether that conduct conforms to the “evolving standards of decency of a maturing society.” In fact the courts tend to rationalize and downplay such horrendous historical practices as chattel slavery, lynching, oppression of women, etc. on grounds that they reflected Amerika at its less mature stages.
If that is true, then conduct deemed heinous and offensive over a century ago is certainly even more heinous and offensive in today’s more “mature” Amerika.
In this context, solitary confinement was deemed over a century ago to be not only an appalling form of torture but also terrorism. Its use prompted mass protest movements across Europe and Amerika. In Amerika the earliest solitary confinement was implemented in the 1790s at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, where prisoners were confined in total isolation with only a bible. Under these conditions they were expected to rehabilitate themselves making penance for their crimes; from which came the name “penitentiary.” The condition was then institutionalized in Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s.
However, the Supreme Court found by the late 1800s that solitary confinement produced a different result, which generated mass protests, resulting in reversing laws that authorized it. As the Court stated, even the laws that authorized solitary recognized it to be a particularly severe and terrorizing condition. In overruling one such law and recognizing the destructive and torturous effects of solitary, the Court observed:
“A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal were not reformed, and in many cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of subsequent service to the community. It became evident that some changes must be made in the system... and it is within the memory of many persons interested in prison discipline that some thirty or forty years ago the whole subject attracted the general public attention, and its main feature of solitary confinement was found to be too severe....
“The statute is very pertinent to the case before us, as showing, first, what was understood by solitary confinement at that day, and, second, that it was considered as an additional punishment of such a severe kind that it is spoken of in the preamble as ‘a further terror and peculiar mark of infamy’ to be added to the punishment of death. In Great Britain, as in other countries, public sentiment revolted against this severity, and by the Statute of 6 and 7 William IV. Chapter 3, the additional punishment of solitary confinement was repealed.”(2)
This U.S. Supreme Court ruling, that overruled laws authorizing solitary as cruel and unusual punishment, was made in 1890.
Among those involved in the 1800s mass protest movements against solitary confinement, which the court mentions, were such prominent writers and thinkers as Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Both toured the Philadelphia Penitentiary, and in the 1840s Dickens wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to
be immensely worse than any torture of the body.”(3) A century
later, in 1940, the Supreme Court referred to “solitary confinement” as one of the techniques of “physical and mental torture” on a par with “[t]he rack, the thumbscrew” and “the wheel,” used by governments to coerce confessions.(4) It also recognized those most frequently targeted with such torture “have almost always been the poor, the ignorant, the numerically weak, the friendless, and the powerless.”(5)
More precisely, the torturous effects of solitary confinement were given scientific study by the CIA and military, in efforts to refine its application as a deliberate torture technique. This was exposed by Alfred McCoy, in an exhaustive exposé following and in response to the 2004 military/CIA torture scandal mentioned above.(6) McCoy revealed that this method of torture was studied and refined as part of a $1- billion-a-year CIA torture research and development project, spanning from 1950-1962. One of the earlier experiments was conducted, under CIA contract, by Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University, where he found that psychosis and severe mental breakdown could be consistently induced within 48 hours by cutting a person off from external sensory stimulation, which is, in effect, what solitary confinement does.
As acknowledged by Craig Haney, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a study: “There is not a single published study of solitary or super-max-like confinement in which non-voluntary confinement lasting for longer than ten days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic breakdowns and suicidal thoughts and behavior.”
Another CIA torture researcher and expert on sensory deprivation, Dr. Albert Biderman, reported that the result of sensory deprivation is not unlike physical torture: “the effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved, or deprived of sleep.”(7) As pointed out in my previous articles on prison torture (see footnote 1), the CIA embodied the findings of its experiments and studies in sensory deprivation in its “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” torture manual, where it acknowledged:
1. the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress;
2. the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects;
3. the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli, and
4. some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusion, hallucinations and other pathological effects.
Meanwhile, despite the findings of the Supreme Court over a century ago, officials went on a binge reinstating solitary confinement (sensory deprivation) in prisons and units across Amerika beginning in the 1970s, with the result of courts finding the same torturous results and mental damage as did the Supreme Court in 1890. One of the earlier and most publicized findings were those based on studies by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian, of prisoners held in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison.(8) Grassian, who’d long studied and written on the effects of sensory deprivation in solitary confinement,(9) found that out of 50 Pelican Bay prisoners he examined, 40 showed psychological injury as a result of solitary. However, the courts declined to find solitary unlawful, reversing the Supreme Court’s findings of a century before. In the Pelican Bay case the court said:
“[T]he conditions of extreme social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation found in the Pelican Bay SHU will likely inflict some degree of psychological trauma upon most inmates confined there for more than brief periods.... [But] we are not persuaded... that the risk of developing an injury to mental health of sufficiently serious magnitude... is high enough for the SHU population as a whole, to find that current conditions in the SHU are per se violative of the Eighth Amendment with respect to all potential inmates”(10)
Officials’ responses were to consistently block all avenues of legal challenge to the revival of solitary torture. Grassion’s findings in the Pelican Bay suit prompted Congress, the very next year, to pass a provision into law under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, banning prisoners from bringing lawsuits for psychological injury unless they could show the challenged conditions caused a prior physical injury.(11) In essence all branches of government wound the clock back over a century to reinstate and “legalize” solitary torture and block its victims’ ability to challenge it, which is what prompted California prisoners in 2011 to stage a massive starvation campaign for relief from abuses, especially solitary confinement.
Known Torture Unknown Damage
As I’ve pointed out in a recent article, studies show solitary confinement actually causes brain damage of the sort found in people who’ve suffered physical head trauma serious enough to be knocked unconscious.(12) Even mainstream reports are coming forward with revelations of solitary confinement causing physical injury such as visual loss:
“Many inmates experience a degeneration of distance vision. They are rarely more than a dozen feet from a wall, and with nothing far off to focus on, their eye muscles atrophy.”(13)
This validates my own observation in a report I wrote over two years before this finding, of witnessing “prisoners’ visual impairment at an unprecedented level” in super-max prisons I’ve been confined to.(14)
“Almost everything in today’s psychological research about the effects of solitary confinement, it turns out, had already been documented by the end of [the 1800s]. The U.S. largely foreswore the practice, and with few exceptions solitary confinement vanished for the next eight decades.”(15)
And while officials know solitary is torture and causes psychosis, there are no studies or clear diagnoses of the peculiar mental disorders it causes, nor what care to give its sufferers.
“In its 1999 study, the Justice Department cautioned that virtually no information exists on the effects of long-term solitary confinement....
“Brian Nelson was one of the first prisoners to be released after an extended stint at Tamms [a super-max prison in Illinois], and his parole agreement required him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Nelson says that Tamms officials told him, in so many words, that they wanted to know whether they’d created a monster. The first psychiatrist Nelson saw had no idea what to do for him; neither did the next nine. The 11th diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and told him that, after a dozen years in solitary confinement, he was doing well. At that point, Nelson was barely able to leave his mother’s basement. Some months later, he was invited to address a meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Before a rapt audience of mental health experts, he described his experience at Tamms. After the talk, he asked clinician after clinician whether they could help him. The response was the same each time. ‘No,’ they said, ‘but can we study you?’
“Such widespread ignorance of the effects of solitary confinement is striking, given that the United States pioneered the practice nearly two centuries ago – and that the experiment was decisively proved inhumane by a century’s worth of data.”(16)
So it is beyond question that solitary confinement is torture and one of the most painful and injurious forms. Officials and mental health professionals know this, and have known it for centuries. Yet today, with its widespread practice exposed to the public, they wish to play word games, pretending it to be debatable whether it is indeed torture. They’ve played this game recently in the media, in Congress and before the United Nations. The reason being they do not wish to end the practice, just like with the U.S. military’s torture of detainees, which was the point of their passing laws (in Congress) and interpreting laws (in the courts) that in effect legalized solitary confinement by blocking its victims from legal redress.
The debates are but the games of a fascist government hiding its foul designs behind rhetoric and lofty words. The people should not be fooled nor placated by such official lies and semantics. It took a movement of the masses to abolish the practice over a century ago; it will take no less today. As I’ve previously written:
“After World War II, Germans who lived in communities near Nazi concentration camps were taken on tours of them. Many were shocked and appalled to discover the brutalities and tortures that were taking place in their own backyards, and swore they’d have opposed it if only they’d have known.”(17)
Well, those who’ve read this can’t claim ignorance of the torture occurring in U.S. prisons. And those in government who claim not to know are simply lying, which is what those in power in a capitalist-imperialist system are wont to do. A first step toward changing this system and its evils is to not blindly accept their lies.
If the masses of people recognized solitary confinement as an unacceptable inhumanity almost two centuries ago, it makes no sense that if this is now a more mature society, it’s not, at least, as unacceptable today. It’s not even debatable. Join the struggle to stop the torture!
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
1. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Amerikan Prisons Are Government Sponsored Torture,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 21, no. 1 (March 2007); Johnson, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika,” Socialist Viewpoint, vol. 11, no. 2 (March/April 2011); (the version printed in Socialist Viewpoint is a condensed version, the original full-length article can be read at www.rashidmod.com); Johnson, “What is the Meaning of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike,” Serve the People, no. 15 (2011), also San Francisco Bay View, vol. 36, no. 11 (November, 2011), pp 1, 16; Johnson, “ Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confi nement Units,” Rock, vol. 2, no. 4 (April 2013), also San Francisco Bay View, vol. 38, no. 4 (April, 2013) p. B10. All of these articles can be read at www.rashidmod.com.
2. In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168, 170 (1890).
3. Charles Dickens, American Notes, (1842) (New York: Fromm International, 1985) p. 99.
4. Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-38 (1940).
6. Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
7. Ibid at p. 33, quoting from Albert Biderman and Herbert Zimmer, eds., The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1961), p. 29.
8. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995).
9. Stuart Grassian, M.D., “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” 140 American Journal of Psychiatry (1983), p. 11; Stuart Grassian and Nancy Friedman, “Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement,” 8 International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (1986) p. 49.
10. Madrid v. Gomez, at p. 1265 (emphasis in original). This court refused to find solitary unlawful torture although it admitted that “many, if not most, inmates in SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU.” And concluded, “[t]he psychological consequences of living in these units for long periods of time are predictably destructive, and the potential for these psychological stressors to precipitate various forms of psychopathology is clear cut.” Another federal court also admitted, “isolating human beings from other human beings year after year or even month after month can cause substantial psychological damage, even if the isolation is not total.” Davenport v. DeRoberts, 844 F. 2d 1310, 1313, 1316 (7th Cir. 1988).
11. 28 United States Code, Section 1997e(e), which states: “No federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” A similar standard was created and added to block lawsuits against the federal government by prisoners under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 United States Code Section 1346 (b) (2).
12. Op cit., note 1, “Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide....”
13. Jeff Tietz, “Slow Motion Torture,” Rolling Stone (Dec. 6, 2012) p. 64.
14. Op cit., note 1, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika.”
15. Op cit., note 13, p. 63.
17. Op cit., note 1, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika.”