Furthering the Movement to Stop Mass Incarceration
Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro – Ballroom Salon B – C
2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, with an additional 5 million under the control of the criminal “in”justice system on probation and parole. Over 30,000 are in immigration detention centers, and Obama has deported a record 2 million immigrants. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, courthouse doors are closed to systemic legal challenges to the racial inequality which has lead to more than 50% of the prison population being people of color.
This will not stop without a mass movement that demands an end to mass incarceration and the criminalization of Black and Latino youth. In this panel, former prisoners and others intimately familiar with the broader social consequences of mass incarceration will lead a discussion on how to turn around what is now two generations living under the injustice of mass incarceration. We will call for a Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration in October 2014, initiated by Dr. Cornel West and Carl Dix, co-founders of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.
Gregory Koger – Revolutionary communist activist with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN). Gregory just returned from spending most of the last month on the front lines of the Ferguson rebellion in response to the police execution of Michael Brown. A member of the National Lawyers Guild, paralegal and former jailhouse lawyer, Gregory spent 11 years in prison, including over 6 years straight in solitary confinement, where he transformed himself from a gang member to a revolutionary. Since his release from prison has dedicated his life to ending the injustices of capitalism. He has spoken from cellblocks to universities about need to build a mass movement to end mass incarceration as part of the struggle for a liberated world for all humanity. Deeply inspired by the California prison hunger strike, Gregory organized a Chicago Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike and Torture in U.S. Prisons in August 2011. During the 30,000-strong resumption of the hunger strike in July 2013, he spoke on NPR and other radio stations in support of the brothers and sisters on hunger strike, and he spent two weeks on hunger strike in solidarity while locked down in Cook County Jail serving a 300-day sentence for recording a political statement on an iPhone. He is currently the Plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the decades-old policy of banning all newspapers in Cook County Jail (Koger v. Dart).
Mark Lewis Taylor – Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Writer, teacher, scholar and activist, Mark Lewis Taylor is a theologian in the vein of engaged thinkers who trace and analyze liberating spirit – the spirit of decolonizing political practices, wherein re-membered collective suffering of the earth and its oppressed peoples can become “specters,” material forces for multidimensional revolutionary change. In addition to being the author of several books, he is the founder of “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” a group of teachers from all levels of education, organizing since 1995 for a new trial on behalf of Abu-Jamal, a journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row for 30 years. Activist movements achieved a victory in 2011, securing Abu-Jamal’s transfer from death row to general population. Nevertheless, the struggle to free him from prison continues, as many join in support of Desmond Tutu’s demand for his “immediate release.”
Brian Orozco – NLG member and practicing lawyer who has worked with prisoners and their families in California and Illinois and will speak to police/prison guard brutality, what the prisoners and their family members have been doing to protest their own conditions, and why massive resistance is needed to end the torture of solitary confinement and other atrocities. And why the NLG needs to be part of the Month of Resistance.
Hosted by Rev. Jessie Jackson. Panelists:
Barbara Arnwine, attorney, President and Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law;
Jonathan Jackson, RainbowPUSH national spokesman;
Gregory Koger, Stop Mass Incarceration Network;
Dr. Donna Leak, former high school superintendent;
Michael Seng, Attorney, Law Professor, John Marshall Law School, Chicago;
David Shapiro, Attorney, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University Law School.
Former inmate Gregory Koger and Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Alexis Agathocleous discuss the progress since Pelican Bay hunger strike and the merits of solitary confinement as torture – March 7, 2014
In 1878 convicts began backbreaking labor carving into the limestone bluffs along the bank of the Mississippi River outside Chester, Illinois. Over a decade of sweat and sorrow at gunpoint produced two cell houses enclosed by a massive wall built from the limestone quarried by the prisoners. The prison – formerly Southern Illinois Penitentiary and now Menard “Correctional Center” – is known as “The Pit.”
On January 15, 2014, prisoners in The Pit’s “High Security Unit” began a hunger strike to oppose their placement into inhumane conditions in isolation under Administrative Detention. Solitary confinement exceeding 15 days is considered torture and prohibited under international law. We must support the prisoners stepping forward and putting their lives on the line to demand an end to these crimes being systematically perpetrated by the rulers of the United States.
The courageous hunger strike by prisoners at Menard is the latest uprising in a wave of prisoner-lead struggle against torture and the dehumanizing conditions within the United States’ historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration. Last year’s 30,000-strong resumption of the California prison hunger strike (which I joined for two weeks in solidarity while a political prisoner in Cook County Jail) was the biggest and most publicized, but a number of other organized struggles by prisoners have taken place in the last several years – from work stoppages in Georgia to hunger strikes in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington. Also last year prisoners in Guantanamo participated in a long hunger strike and faced brutal forced feeding, bringing resistance and exposure on a more international level. Recently, prisoners in Indiana’s Westville “Correctional Facility” began a hunger strike on January 13, 2014 to protest nutritionally deficient food.
Many of the prisoners on hunger strike in Menard were formerly held in Tamms – Illinois’ official “supermax” prison modeled after Pelican Bay SHU. Tamms was closed down in January 2013 after a fifteen year long political and legal battle by prisoners, family members and activists. Several of the prisoners placed in the HSU at Menard are “jailhouse lawyers” – prisoners self-educated in the law who help other prisoners with legal work and challenge prison conditions.
“They won’t tell anybody why they are in Administrative Detention, let alone give them an informal hearing to contest the undisclosed allegations,”1 one Menard prisoner wrote. He said, “There are mice just running wild. They have 20 guys using one pair of fingernail clippers with no cleaning in between uses, there is absolutely no mental health screening or evaluation, nor do any mental health staff even make rounds.” Another prisoner said, “I’m a jailhouse lawyer. And [I] file/help other prisoners with their grievances and lawsuits. Because of that I was retaliated against and transferred to Menard and placed in the High Security Unit under Administrative Detention.”2
Since beginning the hunger strike, prisoners reported to attorney Alice Lynd (and published in the San Francisco BayView) that “officers shook down their cells and took any food they found. The hunger strikers were sent to see medical staff and charged $5 for medical treatment.”3 In 2000 the IDOC began charging prisoners $5 per incident to receive medical care – a direct violation of international law, including the United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment which states that prisoners’ medical “care and treatment shall be provided free of charge.”
Additionally, Lynd reported one prisoner was pushed down the stairs by two officers while handcuffed and then beaten.4 Officers pushing handcuffed and/or shackled prisoners down the stairs is a common form of retaliation in segregation units in Illinois prisons, as prisoners are never allowed to leave their cells without handcuffs and/or shackles.
With the closing of Tamms – the most visible face of torture in Illinois’ prison system – prisoners were sent to other prisons where the practice of solitary confinement has been hiding behind older and less-scrutinized walls. Within weeks of Tamms prisoners being transferred to Illinois’ long-term disciplinary segregation prison in Pontiac, IL, nearly 50 prisoners began a hunger strike opposing the conditions there. A number of smaller and not well-publicized hunger strikes against the conditions at Pontiac have taken place since it was converted from a regular maximum security prison to long-term disciplinary segregation in the late-1990s.
Debate and struggle roil every day behind the prison walls about the repressive and degrading conditions and what to do about it – especially in solitary confinement. Far too often prisoners have little or no connection on the other side of the walls to expose the horrors of what they are facing – and to support them when they do organize to oppose those conditions.
Solitary confinement is specifically implemented to destroy people psychologically, emotionally and intellectually. It is a severely damaging and demobilizing form of torture that survivors never escape. Over 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Mass incarceration, rooted in the foundational white supremacy of this country, is a response of the ruling class to the driving dynamics of capitalism-imperialism. The drive for ever greater profits has decimated inner city communities as factories uprooted and set up sweatshops abroad where they can even more brutally exploit workers than they can here – leaving generations of principally Black and Brown youth locked out of society who will never be meaningfully employed. It is also a conscious response to the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s – implemented to contain and repress millions who this system has no future for and who could become the backbone of the struggle for a radically different and more liberated world for all humanity.
The conditions and retaliation described by the men in Menard sound all too real and familiar to me. I spent over 6 years straight in indeterminate segregation in Pontiac – and most of my time there in the North Cellhouse. It was under those same conditions that I became part of a new generation of prison-educated revolutionaries beginning to emerge within those concrete tombs. I firmly believe it will take revolution – nothing less – to end the crimes of this system, and that we can bring into being a society that values and meets the material, cultural and intellectual needs of all humanity – a communist world.
“The world needs to know of the sadistic, systemic horror of long-term solitary confinement, which is enforced on more than 80,000 people in the U.S. prison system. We know that revisiting this can be difficult for those who are facing or have faced these conditions, but the truth must be laid bare for all. All of society needs to know of the racial profiling that sucked you into the pipeline to prison, of the horrific conditions everyone in prison endures and of the open discrimination formerly incarcerated people face after release. You are in a unique position to expose the lying justifications given by the authorities for what they are.”
“Send these stories to the Bear Witness Project of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. Through this you will be opening the eyes of those who are shielded from the real situation in the inner cities and the actual conditions enforced in prison. And letting those caught up in the cycle of going in and out of prison know that what they’re up against are social problems, not individual ones, and that by standing up and resisting them together, we can change the way mass incarceration is looked at in society and contribute to bringing forward a movement that can end it.”
And I call on all people of conscience to support the prisoners and to step forward and follow the courageous example they are setting. Much love, respect and support to the brothers and sisters rising up from deep within the depths of this criminal system of injustice.
Mail Bear Witness correspondence to:
PRLF1321 N Milwaukee, #407 Chicago, IL 60622
or Stop Mass Incarceration Network P.O. Box 941, Knickerbocker Station, New York City, NY 10002-0900
I’m back down after a long legal and political battle, including two weeks on hunger strike in Cook County Jail in solidarity with the California prison hunger strike. Got some reading and writing done as well. Will have more to say soon. Much love – Gregory
“I will continue to be on the front lines and continue to fight, and I know many of you will be there with me.” – Gregory Koger
Over 50 people came together in Chicago on Saturday, November 2 to celebrate Gregory Koger’s release from Cook County Jail. Gregory’s release came after he served the remainder of an outrageous sentence that should never have been imposed, for a political act that was never a crime. (See “Revolutionary Gregory Koger Sent Back to Jail” for background.) The evening of music, hugs, and conversation was sponsored by the defense committee that has fought for his innocence and freedom for four years, warmly welcoming him back to the “outside” where he vowed to continue to fight to liberate humanity.
Sunsara Taylor, whose statement protesting censorship Gregory was filming when he was arrested, sent a beautiful statement.
Statement from Sunsara Taylor, sent to the celebration of Gregory Koger’s release:
I don’t know if this will reach you while you are all together celebrating—but either way I want to send the biggest virtual hug imaginable. I have been furious and agonized every day knowing that you have been unjustly and outrageously held behind bars and denied very basic freedoms. Yet, even behind bars your determination and strength and revolutionary understanding shined. Even as I know that millions of others remain in America’s hellholes and even though I know the world is teeming with unbearable and unnecessary suffering due to this outmoded, illegitimate capitalist-imperialist, life-crushing system we live under—my spirit is lifted and I am deeply happy to know that today you are out. Even more so to know that you are celebrating with people who know and love and deeply respect you. With people who have been touched by you and learned from your courage and strength. I am, as always, proud to count you as a friend and a comrade. It is great to have you back—we have much to accomplish together!
Until all are free,
A member of his defense committee, the Ad Hoc Committee for Reason, spoke for many when she said, “Speaking as a visitor to that hellhole, spending even one hour there was too much. How anyone incarcerated under those conditions could be expected to survive, much less be rehabilitated is unrealistic. Gregory did manage to survive and no doubt had some damned good discussions with his fellow inmates and will continue his fight against injustice.”
Gregory’s heartfelt talk was the highlight of the evening. We want to share this with the readers of Revolution, especially those who are locked down in the hellholes of this country:
“In talking to someone earlier tonight, I recounted that in the last 19 years of my life, I have had 9 months when I wasn’t in jail, in prison, on parole, on probation, or on bond. Including over half the time of the [seven years] since I’ve been out of prison has been spent fighting this case.”
“It didn’t surprise me what the criminal injustice system did in this case, but there were aspects that I think surprised all of us. The fact that I was charged with criminal trespass for just standing there holding an iPhone, which every legal scholar and lawyer we consulted with said there is no way that is trespassing; the fact they tried to hold me in contempt of court because my defense committee had a website that talked about the larger political questions related to this case; the fact that at the very end of the case, the judge issued a secret ruling without any notice to my attorney or myself that there was a hearing happening and then issued a warrant for my arrest. The fact that none of the substantive legal issues we raised were ever addressed by the court was not all that surprising to me because I know how the system works.”
“People have spoken about where I come from. It was very much in the conditions of torture, conditions in which tens of thousands of people in U.S. prisons are held in solitary confinement, where I began to really grapple with the broader questions of society, including why is the world this way. And that is where I ultimately came to conclude, through reading Revolution newspaper and other revolutionary literature, that there is absolutely no reason for this system to do what it does to people—billions and billions of people in the world—ruining their lives and offering them no hope whatsoever. There are the resources on this planet to feed, clothe, provide housing, healthcare, and education for everyone, and to provide intellectual and cultural life for the millions and billions of people who are systematically locked out of those realms. All that could happen, but it doesn’t because of the capitalist-imperialist system. But we can get to that world through revolution—nothing less. This is what I firmly believe.”
“During the course of this battle I have made friends with so many people who don’t all agree with what I believe, including many who do not agree with communism. But we have united together to oppose the glaring injustices of this system, of which one small part is this case we have fought for the last four years. To me this is an expression and an example of what needs to happen much more in society. An example of both the core strategic approach and outlook of the Revolutionary Communist Party—that we have to bring together people from the bottom of society and people from middle class backgrounds who don’t have the direct experience of that kind of oppression and injustice. We will never get to another world without people from the bottom and people from other parts of society being firmly committed toward humanity. We really had a great expression of that throughout the course of this case.”
“On a personal level, just seeing and knowing everybody here, many of whom I first met through the work of struggling against this case, people from many different backgrounds—writers, intellectuals, and people who don’t have a fucking thing. Artists like [the world-renowned jazz musicians] who are performing here tonight. Other people who know what torture is like [a friend at the party] who was tortured in Chile under Pinochet, who was out there fighting against the torture that’s happening to prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S. People like me, and like this brother here, who was in the same prisons as me in the same conditions, who are now revolutionaries fighting against the system. I was on a hunger strike the first two weeks I was in jail in solidarity with the California prisoners’ hunger strike against torture…”
“I want to thank everybody. This has been a very trying and difficult four years, but we have built a tremendous amount of strength taking this on. On the biggest level in society, the core fault line contradictions that were embodied and encapsulated in this case—from the role of prisoners in this society, and mass incarceration, to the repression of voices of dissent and critical thinking. I will say that we lost the case legally, but we won it politically.” [cheers]
“This is a big inflection point, not the least for me. This has been a major component of the last 4 years. The last time I was in Cook County Jail three years ago there was a point when I was depressed, recognizing that the place they had me—in that jail cell—was exactly where they wanted me and people like me. But this time I didn’t get depressed, I got pissed off. My life will continue to be dedicated to fighting against this system and its outrageous manifestation of mass incarceration, against the degrading oppression of women and LGBT brothers and sisters; against the oppression of immigrants and all the things this system does to people here and around the world. I will continue to be on the front lines and continue to fight, and I know many of you will be there with me. So I want to thank everybody for coming out tonight from the bottom of my heart.”
Gregory asks that all those who wish to celebrate his release donate to the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund. Thousands of dollars are needed to continue to send Revolution newspaper, BAsics, and other revolutionary literature to all the prisoners who are requesting it. Donate online at prlf.org. Or contact PRLF at:
1321 N Milwaukee Ave. #407, Chicago, IL 60622 773-960-6952 contact@PRLF.org
On July 8, 2013, over 30,000 prisoners in over two-thirds of California’s prisons began a hunger strike to demand an end to the systematic torture they face through long-term solitary confinement. Prisoners in several other states have joined them in work stoppages and hunger strikes. 2.3 million people are in prison in the U.S. and over 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States – under conditions that amount to torture under international law.
Dr. Antonio Martinez, a psychologist with the Institute for Survivors of Human Rights Abuse and co-founder of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture. Dr. Martinez has been recognized by UNESCO for his lifelong work treating survivors of torture and human rights abuses.
Gregory Koger, torture survivor who spent over six years in solitary confinement in Illinois prison. He is a revolutionary who works with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and has spoken in universities and high schools regarding torture in U.S. prisons. Mr. Koger – a jailhouse lawyer in prison and a member of the National Lawyers Guild – was a homeless teenager in a street gang when he was sent to an adult maximum security prison; he transformed himself in solitary confinement and has dedicated his life since his release to opposing injustice. He will be joining the hunger strike on July 23 when he faces a court hearing to jail him to serve an unjust 300-day sentence for recording a statement against censorship on an iPhone at a public meeting of the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago. More details on his case available at www.dropthecharges.net
During the initial California prison hunger strike in July 2011, Mr. Koger organized a Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike and Torture in U.S. Prisons. Dr. Martinez spoke at that Forum, and compared the widespread, systematic 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? …”
“People who are locked down in segregation units of this society’s prisons, condemned as the ‘worst of the worst,’ are standing up against injustice, asserting their humanity in the process. We must have the humanity to hear their call, and answer it with powerful support!”
Emergency Call! Join Us in Stopping Torture in U.S. Prisons!
More than 80,000 people in prison in the US are held in long term solitary confinement. They spend 22 hours or more each day in small, windowless and sometimes soundless cells. They are placed in solitary arbitrarily and have no channels to challenge being put there. Many are denied human contact for months, years or even decades. These conditions fit the international definition of torture, and studies have found that these conditions can drive people insane.
12,000 California prisoners stood up to change these conditions by going on a hunger strike in 2011. They suspended that hunger strike when the authorities agreed to improve conditions. But authorities haven’t improved the conditions, and the prisoners have declared that they will once more put their lives on the line.
WE MUST HAVE THEIR BACKS! Long term solitary confinement is a horrific injustice. United Nations experts on torture have called on all countries to end it, but the US has arrogantly rejected these calls.
The authorities hope to isolate the prisoners and crush their hunger strike. We must not allow this to go down. We must reject the authorities’ justifications for the horrors they are perpetrated – that these prisoners are brutal thugs, “the worst of the worst,” and deserve the treatment they are subjected to and that these conditions are required to keep society safe. And we must reject the morally unconscionable stance of doing nothing while this torture is happening because it isn’t affecting “us.” Instead we must stand with the prisoners who are standing up.
The publication of the Emergency Call in the Los Angeles Times will make this torture more widely known in society. Its moral clarity on the utter unacceptability of torture must reach millions. Help raise the $25,000 needed to get it published by early July, 2013.
The widespread torture in US prisons MUST END! Will you join us in standing up to it? Will you sign this Emergency Call! and spread it to others? Will you make a generous financial contribution to publish the Emergency Call and encourage others to do so as well? Will you join Cornel West, Bill Ayers, Luis Valdez, Cynthia McKinney, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chuck D, Marjorie Cohn, Carl Dix, Peter Schey, Robin DG Kelley, Blase Bonpane, Wayne Kramer, Rev. George F. Regas, Fr. Bob Bossie, SCJ and scores of others to Stop Torture in U.S Prisons?
You can donate online at http://stopmassincarceration.net/donate, or send a check payable to “Alliance For Global Justice,” a 501(C)(3) tax-exempt organization, with “Stop Mass Incarceration” on the memo line to:
Stop Mass Incarceration Network
P. O. Box 941
New York, Ny 10002
On July 8, 2013, prisoners in Pelican Bay SHU will resume their hunger strike. The leaders of the hunger strike have called on prisoners across California and across the country to join them on a nationwide prison hunger strike/work stoppage, with a proposal to other prisoners to develop their own plans and lists of demands pertinent to the conditions of their confinement.
I intend to have more to say on this in the coming days and weeks…
From the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor Collective Human Rights Movement:
Written June 20, 2013 – The principal prisoner representatives from the PBSP SHU Short Corridor Collective Human Rights Movement do hereby present public notice that our nonviolent peaceful protest of our subjection to decades of indefinite state-sanctioned torture via long term solitary confinement will resume on July 8, 2013, consisting of a hunger strike and work stoppage of indefinite duration until CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands, the heart of which mandates an end to long term solitary confinement, as well as additional major reforms.
Our decision does not come lightly. For the past two years we’ve patiently kept an open dialogue with state officials, attempting to hold them to their promise to implement meaningful reforms responsive to our demands. For the past seven months we have repeatedly pointed out CDCR’s failure to honor their word – and we have explained in detail the ways in which they’ve acted in bad faith and what they need to do to avoid the resumption of our protest action.
On June 19, 2013, we participated in a mediation session ordered by the judge in our class action lawsuit, which unfortunately did not result in CDCR officials agreeing to settle the case on acceptable terms. While the mediation process will likely continue, it is clear to us that we must be prepared to renew our political non-violent protest on July 8 to stop torture in the SHUs (Security Housing Units) and Ad-Segs (Administrative Segregation) of CDCR.
Thus we are presently out of alternative options for achieving the long overdue reform to this system and, specifically, an end to state-sanctioned torture, and now we have to put our lives on the line via indefinite hunger strike to force CDCR to do what’s right.
We are certain that we will prevail … the only questions being: How many will die starvation-related deaths before state officials sign the agreement?
On January 12, 2012, just one day after the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, the Chicago city council held a hearing on a resolution organized by the Illinois Coalition Against Torture (ICAT) that publicly condemns the use of torture and declares Chicago a “torture-free zone.” A broad array of people came out to speak publicly against the use of torture in the U.S. and abroad at the hearing organized by Alderman Joe Moore, who introduced the resolution to the Chicago city council. Listen to an excellent interview about the use of torture by the United States and the resolution with Mario Venegas and Dr. Frank Summers here. I spoke at the press conference and hearing about the pervasive use of torture in U.S. prisons in the form of long-term isolation and sensory deprivation in solitary confinement.
Speakers at the press conference and hearing included: Congressman Danny Davis; Flint Taylor, attorney with the People’s Law Office who has been instrumental in seeking justice for the men tortured by Chicago police commander John Burge; Dr. Frank Summers, psychologist who lead the fight within the APA to bar psychologists from participating in interrogations and torture in Guantanamo; Cherif Bassiouni, United Nations war crimes expert; Melinda Power and Margaret Power, Illinois Coalition Against Torture; Mary Lynn Everson, Marjorie Kovler Center; Sr. Benita Coffey, representing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT); Laurie Jo Reynolds, activist with Tamms Year Ten; Mario Venegas, Chilean survivor of torture under Pinochet; Mark Clements, Burge torture survivor; Mary L. Johnson, mother of a Burge torture victim and inmate at Tamms Correctional Center, as well as several other mothers of Burge torture survivors; and Wallace “Gator” Bradley, who spoke to the use of torture in the federal ADX supermax prison.
I’m Gregory Koger, torture survivor who spent nearly the entirety of my 20’s in solitary confinement in prison in Illinois.
The exact number of prisoners held in solitary confinement within the US is difficult to ascertain. A 2005 study1 found that as of 2004, 44 states had supermax prisons holding approximately 25,000 prisoners. This number does not take into account numerous prisoners held in isolation outside of officially designated supermax prisons. For example, Tamms – Illinois sole supermax prison – holds 408 prisoners, while Pontiac – Illinois long-term disciplinary segregation prison – holds 1,733 prisoners2 in similar conditions of isolation, many for years on end. The total number of prisoners held in isolation in the US is estimated to be between 50,000 – 100,000 persons.
Sensory deprivation in solitary confinement has been universally condemned and considered torture. In October, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for the prohibition of solitary confinement, stating: “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique.”3
Despite both universal condemnation and widespread knowledge of its seriously detrimental effects, the United States is now the foremost practitioner of solitary confinement in the world. This unprecedented use of solitary confinement arose concomitantly with with the explosion of mass incarceration in the U.S. since the early 1970s, under the guise of the “war on drugs” and – as Michelle Alexander has documented4 – racist New Jim Crow policies that leave the United States with a rate of incarceration for Black males five times higher than apartheid South Africa.5 Along with incarcerating more men, women and children than any other country in the history of the world, no other society has so routinely used torture in the form of solitary confinement.
As Harvard professor Dr. Atul Gawande stated, “In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.”6 And as Dr. Gwande has also described, “”People experience solitary confinement as even more damaging than physical torture.”7
This summer, thousands of prisoners in over one-third of California prisons came together across racial and other dividing lines on hunger strike to oppose the inhumane treatment that they, and other prisoners across the country, face. Ending long-term isolation in solitary confinement was one of their core demands.
We should follow their courageous example by demanding an end to torture in the form of solitary confinement in prisons. We should categorically state – as this resolution does – that there is never any justification for torture and that it has no place in our city or our society. And we must demand that it stops and that those responsible for policies and practices of torture be brought to justice. Thank you.
1 “A Critical Look at Supermax Prisons.” Daniel P. Mears. Corrections Compendium. 2005.
2 IDOC Quarterly Report, October 1, 2011.
3 “UN Special Rapporteur on torture calls for the prohibition of solitary confinement.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. October 18, 2011.
4The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. 2010.
5 South Africa near the end of apartheid in 1993 had a rate of incarceration for Black males of 851 per 100,000; the United States in 2001 had a rate of incarceration for Black males of 4,848 per 100,000. The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry (2003). Peter Wagner.
6Hellhole. Dr. Atul Gawande. The New Yorker. March 30, 2009.
Teach-in on Torture and Indefinite Detention, Chicago – January 7, 2012
“In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.”
Dr. Atul Gawande1
“The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.”
Federal court testimony of Ralph Arons,
former warden at Marion federal supermax prison2
“Without a home of my own to return to, the Streets welcomed another lost soul to wander the barren wasteland littered with the broken hopes of countless other thrown-away lives. The landscape of cold, black rivers of asphalt would soon be replaced by razor-wire serpents crawling along the concrete walls and steel bars of the tombs reserved for boys barely grown, sent to be locked away lest their existence disturb the faultless facade finely crafted to conceal the truths that must not be confronted. We must not let them awaken from their American dreams…”
The exact number of prisoners held in solitary confinement within the US is difficult to ascertain. A 2005 study3 found that as of 2004, 44 states had supermax prisons holding approximately 25,000 prisoners. This number does not take into account numerous prisoners held in isolation outside of officially designated supermax prisons. For example, Tamms – Illinois sole supermax prison – holds 408 prisoners, while Pontiac – Illinois long-term disciplinary segregation prison – holds 1,733 prisoners4 in similar conditions of isolation, many for years on end. Estimates for the total number of prisoners held in isolation in the US are estimated to be between 50,000 – 100,000. The unprecedented use of torture in the form of long-term isolation in solitary confinement in US prisons has developed concomitantly with the explosion of mass incarceration in the US since the early 1970s, under the guise of the “war on drugs” and racist New Jim Crow policies that leave the United States with a rate of incarceration for Black males five times higher than apartheid South Africa5 and where more Black folks are incarcerated or under the control of the criminal “justice” system than there were slaves just before the Civil War6.
Voice of the Voiceless
I’ve been asked to share some of my personal experience facing torture in the form of long-term isolation in solitary confinement in Illinois prisons. I thought two pieces I’ve written on my experience in solitary confinement would best capture that. First, an excerpt from Un-“Corrected”7– a piece I wrote in a prison cell after I had spent nearly 5 years in solitary confinement in Pontiac. And secondly, an excerpt from Thesis | Antithesis | Synthesis, which I wrote shortly after my release from prison.
An Excerpt from Un-“Corrected”
“As a prisoner at Pontiac, you will find yourself in an empty concrete and steel box, approximately 6 feet by 10 feet, where you will be confined 24 hours a day. Bare white walls surround you. Don’t even think about putting up a photo of your family, a drawing, or anything else on the walls to reduce the drab blankness, because doing so is a violation of the rules and will result in disciplinary action…
You eat in your cell, you get one eight-minute shower per week, and they have individual cages (approximately the size of one and a half or two cells) that you can go outside for approximately two hours, two times a week. Whenever you leave your cell, you will be handcuffed, and sometimes shackled and chained as well. You will be escorted by an officer wherever you go…
You can’t wear pants or regular prison clothing. You are forced to wear a tan-colored jumpsuit… The only pen you are allowed to have (and the one I am using now) is tiny and made of flexible rubber and plastic, approximately 3 inches long…
No mirrors are permitted at Pontiac, unlike other prisons with either steel mirrors permanently attached in the cell, or small flexible plastic mirrors. The entire objective here at Pontiac is depersonalization. We wouldn’t want you to be able to see yourself, what you look like, or remember that you are an individual…
You will routinely be choked by pepper spray that is used inside the building, usually by the ‘tactical team’…
All day, every day is spent in a small drab cell with basically nothing. The property restrictions are such that you can barely possess even a few books, newspapers and magazines, maybe a radio or TV. You will also be subjected to strip searches at various times, have your cell ‘shook down,’ searched by the officers who will take anything they consider ‘excess’ or ‘altered.’ If you run afoul of the officers, you may also receive some ‘special treatment:’ being denied food, having your personal property stolen, having your water turned off, or beaten, among other things. You will also be given disciplinary ‘tickets’ for violating arbitrary rules or not answering to the whims of an officer. Your punishment for receiving a ‘ticket’ can range from lost privileges to lost good time-thus increasing your time spent in prison…”
An Excerpt from Thesis | Antithesis | Synthesis
“Lightly running my fingertips over the concrete wall, I wonder how many other men have been here, how many other times someone has walked in and heard the metal door heavily slam shut behind them, to be left standing alone in this empty cell. Although I’m alone in the cell, a nonstop cacophony continuously bombards my ears. Other men, in other cells just like this one, strain against the solitude by calling out to each other; some to talk, others to argue, and some simply babble nonsensically to themselves.
As I gaze around at the sparse geometry of the empty chamber, I’m struck by the notion that this vacant cube of steel and concrete will be my abode for the foreseeable future. I might be in this particular cell for a week, a month, a year, but even if I’m transferred out of this cell, the next one will be almost exactly identical. Maybe it will have someone else’s name jaggedly carved into the paint underneath the bunk, maybe my next neighbor will spend all day and all night in a psychotic rage banging on the walls of his cell, maybe I’ll be in a cell with bars on the front as opposed to solid metal, but no matter what trivial differences may await me, the next cell will be just a carbon copy of my current crypt.
Twenty-four hours comprise a day, but time blurs out into timelessness without any environmental cues to differentiate day from night, light from darkness, winter from summer. Days, weeks, months, and seasons pass by while the cell remains the same. Brown leaves gently glide to the ground, the first tiny flakes of snow float past, pile up, then melt away as new green leaves spring forth, all beyond the walls and outside of my reality. Perhaps if I try to peek out of the sliver of a crack next to the cell door I can glimpse a small opaque window and I can tell that it’s morning by seeing the faint light beyond straining to penetrate the diabolic darkness within.
I lie on the bunk, staring up at a blank white ceiling, not wispy cotton-clouds stretched thin floating slowly across the pale blue sky, knowing that I cannot move more than a few feet in any direction. Instead of verdant fields of lush green grass beneath my toes, there will only be rough, gray concrete, well-worn by the soles of countless other men pacing the same few feet back and forth continuously. My skin won’t feel the gentle caress from the lips of a lover, only the jarring cold steel of handcuffs, chains, and shackles biting into the flesh.
Emptiness consumes me – empty cell, empty days, empty nights, empty life… Or is it I who consumes the emptiness? Becoming the Void into which I have been cast, I seek out Knowledge to fill the barrenness. Letters, words, sentences, ideas, and concepts begin to populate the untapped potential locked away and warehoused within this antisocial abyss of the damned. Books, magazines and newspapers sneak in to join me in my little corner of solitude, subverting the plans of the architects of the sensory deprivation regime designed to destroy men’s minds. I refuse to be ‘corrected’ into the mindless, submissive slave that they – and the system they uphold – require me to be…”
Resisting Torture and Oppression
As we organize to resist 10 years of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo, and in the context of the wave of resistance sweeping the globe from Tunisia and Tahrir Square to the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wanted to close with the inspiring example of the California prison hunger strikes. For three weeks in July, and another three weeks beginning at the end of September, thousands of prisoners in over one-third of California’s prisons came together across racial and other dividing lines fostered by prison administrators to put their lives on the line on hunger strikes to demand an end to the inhumane conditions of torture they face. Currently, prisoners in segregation at Corcoran prison are on a hunger strike that began December 28th. In the midst of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Comrade George Jackson, the foremost prison-educated revolutionary intellectual and theorist of the Black Panther Party, on August 21, 1971 and the righteous rebellion of prisoners at Attica Prison in New York three weeks later, the hunger strikers in California once again placed the heroic example of prisoners at the forefront of the struggle against oppression.
Check the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website for ongoing news and actions in support of the prisoners:
3 “A Critical Look at Supermax Prisons.” Daniel P. Mears. Corrections Compendium. 2005.
4 IDOC Quarterly Report, October 1, 2011.
5 South Africa near the end of apartheid in 1993 had a rate of incarceration for Black males of 851 per 100,000; the United States in 2001 had a rate of incarceration for Black males of 4,848 per 100,000. The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry (2003). Peter Wagner.
6The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. 2010.
All of us have a moral responsibility to stand up for the basic rights and humanity of those held behind bars, and build a determined movement outside prison walls demanding CDCR grant the prisoners’ just demands and immediately halt its retaliation against hunger strikers.
Prisoners’ Five Core Demands:
1. End to group punishment and administrative abuse.
2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria.
3. Comply with Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4. Provide adequate and nutritious food.
5. Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status prisoners.