Chicago Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike and Torture in U.S. Prisons
Taking inspiration from the courageous actions of the California prison hunger strikers, who came together across racial and other dividing lines from within the depths of the most dehumanizing and degrading conditions, and recognizing the moral imperative to take urgent action commensurate with their heroic stand, I took the lead in organizing a Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike & Torture in U.S. Prisons, held in Chicago on August 4, 2011. Sponsored by the Chicago and Evanston Chapters of the World Can’t Wait and the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, and endorsed by the Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the Forum brought together a broad range of people deeply concerned about and actively involved in opposing torture in U.S. prisons.
After opening the Forum with a discussion of the background of the hunger strike and the prisoners demands, including situating the prisoner’s actions in the context of the explosion of mass incarceration in the U.S., several panelist spoke.
Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has been engaged in litigation to change conditions at Tamms, Illinois’ supermax prison which was directly modeled on Pelican Bay, since the day it opened. He began by describing the massive increase in the prison population in the U.S. since the 1970s, with the United State’s current prison population of nearly 2.5 million literally off the charts – an incarceration rate never seen in the history of the world. He explained that the prison population in the U.S. is not linked to the crime rate: the crime rate has dropped since the 1990s, while the prison population has continued to explode. As one stunning example of the racist nature of the system of mass incarceration imposed by the rulers of the U.S., he compared the rate of incarceration of adult Black males in the U.S. and apartheid South Africa, a regime universally condemned as one of the most racist in the history of the world. The U.S. currently incarcerates adult Black men at a rate that is over five times higher than apartheid South Africa!
What are people in prison for? Contrary to what many might believe, Mr. Mills explained that, “people in prison are not there because of murder, rape and mayhem. People are in prison because of drugs. That’s what happened in the mid-70s – people didn’t go out and start killing more people, the federal government followed by the state governments cracked down on people who possess drugs and they all went to prison… Not surprisingly, it’s also not racially neutral. Whites use drugs, just like everybody else – whites don’t go to prison… If police concentrated the same resources on college campuses as they concentrate in public housing projects, you’d have a lot more young white college-educated men in prison.”
Mr. Mills then went on to describe the horrendous conditions in California and Illinois prisons, supermax and SHU conditions in particular. He showed photographs of “group therapy” in California SHU, where prisoners sit inside phone-booth size cages: “This is mental health treatment in California. They put you in these little cages, and this is called ‘group therapy.’ The therapist out there gave up, he said ‘I can’t treat men like this,’ so he brings a guitar in… and plays, at least gives them some music to listen to during therapy session. That’s mental health treatment in California. They’re the luck ones. If you try to commit suicide in California you get moved to a suicide bed, but there aren’t enough of them, so you sit there in these cages, for hours and hours and hours and sometimes days. And in at least one case… someone died in there. Standing in a pool of urine and vomit and blood, when he sliced his arm waiting for a suicide bed in a cage.”
After further describing the conditions in Tamms, he talked about receiving video tape as part of their legal case challenging the conditions there; the tape recorded the cellblock, and they timed the number of minutes that a prisoner actually spends talking to someone at their cell door. The average prisoner got about 45 seconds a day of “face-to-face” contact with someone, through their cell door.
Professor Stephen Eisenman spoke next, with a presentation called “Tamms Supermax and Solitary Confinement: A Ten Point Indictment.” Professor Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, the author of several books including The Abu Ghraib Effect, and a prison reform activist with Tamms Year Ten who regularly publishes criticisms of the ‘penal state.
Professor Eisenman began by recounting the history of the use of solitary confinement in the U.S, which was rarely used as punishment until the opening of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829 and has been rarely used ever since – except for the last 25 years. Prisoners in Eastern State were kept in small cells for 23 hours a day, with one hour out for solitary exercise in an adjoining yard. Meals were served through a slot in the cell door, and there was no possibility of physical or even visual contact with other prisoners – whenever prisoners left their cell they were hooded. A similar, though somewhat less severe, regime was developed at the same time at Auburn Prison in New York.
But, as Professor Eisenman described, “The efficacy and morality of solitary confinement was soon challenged. Within a few years of opening, Eastern State was condemned by prison reformers for increasing recidivism rate and causing prisoners to become insane. Inhumane conditions become subject of international notoriety.” And by the end of the 1800s, even the U.S. Supreme Court condemned the use of solitary confinement. Until Alcatraz D Block opened in 1934, solitary confinement remained very rare, and even very rarely used in Alcatraz until it closed in 1963. Between 1963 and 1983, no federal prison had solitary confinement as its main operative function. Then in 1983, the federal prison at Marion, Illinois established a permanent lockdown and six years later the first supermax prison opened at Pelican Bay.
He went on to document that international law and U.N. treaties consider long-term solitary confinement and sensory deprivation to be forms of torture or “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” He documented that solitary confinement is prohibited by numerous U.N conventions. After reading one U.N. prohibition against medical or scientific experimentation without the preconsent of people involved, Professor Eisenman made the observation, “We really are conducting long-term experimentation of solitary confinement, of isolation, the kind of experimentation that we tend to associate with Nazi doctors, or with horror movies…”
In closing, Professor Eisenman poignantly pronounced: “The weight of history, the judgment of courts, the testimony of physicians and psychiatrists and the determination of international law all argue for the elimination of long-term solitary confinement and supermax prisons. How much longer will the state and federal government uphold them? How much longer will this violation of human rights and reason continue? States as different as Maine and Mississippi have made major strides in reducing the use of long-term solitary confinement. My organization… Tamms Year Ten has succeed in pressuring the IDOC, the Illinois Department of Corrections, to reduce their supermax population by between 1/4 and 1/3rd, and to obtain finally the prisoners rights to make telephone calls… But the basic armature of isolation at Tamms and in other supermax prisons such as Pelican Bay remains almost 200 years after it was shown at Eastern State penitentiary to be cruel and useless.”
The next panelist was Dr. Antonio Martinez, a psychologist with the Institute for Survivors of Human Rights Abuses and co-founder of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture, who has lectured about the trauma and consequences of torture and abuse throughout the world.
Dr. Martinez expressed his visceral reaction to the exposure of the inhumanity of the torturous conditions of isolation that tens of thousands of prisoners languish under in the U.S.: “I’m appalled. I have heard so many stories of torture around the world, and when you hear these kind of things happening right here in the United States, not that I am surprised, but it’s in your own context, yes? I wonder how, what this makes you feel, as a person living in this context…”
He went on to further describe some of the feelings that the Forum had brought out: “One is the reaffirmation of normality in us, and the Other, that is the sick, the ‘bad person,’ reinforcing that we are ok, and they are totally wrong. That we are the repository of total virtue and they are the scourge of humanity, and because of that they don’t deserve treatment as a human being. That’s one response that probably at some level we all feel because we are human and we have that kind of reaction, especially if we have been victims of a crime at one moment… The reaction of attacking the Other, and by attacking the Other losing our own humanity.
The other reaction I have every time that I talk about this – and thats why I sometimes I do this as a sense of duty. I don’t enjoy this at all because every time that I talk about this topic and I have to first face seeing how human beings can be so cruel to human beings just to maintain a society of privilege. Because this is not in isolation, we have a very political context to why this happens in this society and it doesn’t happen in the Pygmy people, for example, that doesn’t own anything and don’t have a sense of private property.”
Speaking to the broader impact of the use of torture, he explained that one of its major effects is to instill fear in the population, to keep people from stepping forward and challenging those in power. He recounted an experience he had when he was invited by Amnesty International to give a healing workshop for women of Atenco. In May 2006, the peasant women of Atenco, Mexico had an agreement with the municipal authorities to allow them to sell flowers in the market square. However, when they arrived on the morning of May3rd, masses of police were arrayed and waiting to stop them. They staged a protest where the police killed two people (including a 14-year-old boy) and injured many more. In the next few days, more protests were held, and the police reacted with a campaign of beatings, house raids and indiscriminate detention. Of the hundreds of people detained, dozens of women suffered beatings, rapes and sexual assaults at the hands of the police while detained.
On his way to Mexico to give the healing workshop, Dr. Martinez was detained by security, who held him in a room and claimed that a person with his name was an “international terrorist” and that they had to “check to make sure it wasn’t him.” They held him for over half an hour in isolation and then came back and told him they would have to keep a copy of his passport. And this had a real effect on him: “It was difficult for me to denounce the things I wanted to denounce. I had to stop and had to remember what I was, what was my center, my heart, what was the center of my humanity and decided: other people are taking bigger risks than me and I need to take these risks and say what I came here to say. But it really choked me up, really.”
That fear and control is exactly what torture is used for: “And that’s what all these things are about, it’s about social control. It’s about a society – and you know this, I’m just repeating – it’s about a society that needs to control the Other and to let people know that they are under control. Because 2% of the population that owns 80% of the resources want to maintain business as usual. That’s what it’s all about. In the last moment, that’s what it’s all about – about social control.”
Dr. Martinez then went on to compare the use of torture in U.S. prisons to experiences of torture in other countries: “What I hear here is very similar to what I hear about the torture chambers in Guatemala, in Colombia, in Chile. Actually in Chile, Pinochet was more humane. They allowed people to be among others, they allowed some music, they allowed some type of interaction and they allowed more generous visits. And that was Pinochet. So what does that say about us as a society where all these things are the rule and not the exception? …It reflects a very increasing trend to what I call, because I haven’t found a better name, friendly fascism. With a smiley face. Where we have two United States: one that is for all of us ‘law abiding citizens’ with certain economic status; and another one for what it calls the ‘dangerous classes,’ the classes that need to be controlled, the classes that have to be measured and observed. And where unfortunately psychology – my profession that sometimes I hate, to be a psychologist – but psychologists are a big, big part of it. Because just as part of our existence we contribute to this mess by creating an illusion that social problems are individual problems, yes?”
In describing the effects of isolation and solitary confinement, Dr. Martinez explained: “All human experience is contextual. We know that we are human because we interact with other humans. If that is broke, it has broken the most essential part of what it means to be a social person. Being a human is to be social. So what they are doing in these prisons is breaking, breaking the individual to the point that some of them will be very difficult to return. They would be better if they tortured them physically and they killed them rather than to do that to another human being. And then a percentage of them will return to society eventually and then we all will pay for that crime that they are doing. This is criminal, the situation, and in any international court would be a criminal act what they are doing there.”
People subjected to these forms of torture struggle with so much internal fear, depression and other symptoms that one of the most debilitating effects of isolation and solitary confinement is that it serves to make it even more difficult for people to organize for social change.
The use of torture has wide-reaching effects, including on those who participate in torture, as Dr. Martinez recounted: “We have to think that these people are working there 8 hours, sometimes overtime 10 hours. What it does to the mind of a guard having to do all these cruel things to these prisoners… One of the fundamental positions of this system, this monstrous system that we live in, is that there’s a separation between work and family. That what happens at work doesn’t have anything to do with your family. But we know that that’s a myth, that you cannot be going around being a crocodile in your business trying to eat everybody alive, treating other people like objects not as subjects, and suddenly you enter into the reality of the space of your house and you turn into this sweet angel of compassion and love. So what does this type of treatment do to the guards but [also] the families of the guards? What does it do also to society? What does it do to the children of these prisoners that are not able to have human contact with their father or their mother?”
In closing, Dr. Martinez tied together the haunting effects of torture: “So in reality all these parts that look isolated there, it filters down into the fabric of society that we are constructing every day. And in reality I don’t want to be part of that society because it is a society that is based on the oppression of the Other, on fascist oppression, on the use of force, on the use of intimidation. I don’t know what else to say. Because it is appalling that this type of thing is happening and we still can call ourselves a democracy. It’s acting against our own interests to do this type of thing. And it really will create harder criminals and people without hope, and communities without hope, because this filters down. Torture in Latin America was always a secret, a secret that everybody knows, and this type of behavior, that is also torture, is a secret that in order to work as it is intended to work has to leak out. This is not by chance that we know about these things, because part of this type of behavior in these prisons is to create social control over us right here.”
The final panelist, Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots campaign to end the use of long-term isolation at Tamms, spoke about her work in organizing against torture. She highlighted a prominent art campaign where they used mud-stencils proclaiming “Tamms is Torture” and “End Torture in Illinois” on sidewalks and walls across the city to expose the use of torture. She discussed the work they’ve done in bringing out the humanity of the men suffering torture in Tamms, including mounting more than 50 educational, artistic and cultural events about the use of isolation and segregation in Illinois prisons. She also described the work they’ve done in pushing for legal reform of the prison system through the legislative process.
In closing the Forum, I reiterated the heroic example that the hunger strikers have provided us, including their protest being the basis for organizing the Forum, and the exposure they’ve brought to the pervasive and systematic use of long-term isolation as torture in U.S. Prisons. People have a moral responsibility to act both in support of the hunger strikers, including ensuring that their demands are met and that they do not suffer retaliation for their peaceful political protest, as well as to take actions that are commensurate with the risk and the stand that the prisoners have taken coming together on the hunger strike to end the use of torture in U.S. prisons.
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Tags: Alan Mills, Alcatraz, Atenco, California, CDCR, Chicago, Dr. Antonio Martinez, Eastern State Penitentiary, forum, hunger strike, IDOC, Illinois, Illinois Department of Corrections, international law, isolation, Laurie Jo Reynolds, National Lawyers Guild, Northwestern University, Pelican Bay, prison, Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, SHU, solitary confinement, Stephen Eisenman, supermax, Tamms, Tamms Year Ten, The Abu Ghraib Effect, torture, Uptown People's Law Center, World Can't Wait