Reflections on Solitary Confinement and Resistance to Torture
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:
And read more about the use of torture in US prisons from the Chicago Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike and Torture in U.S. Prisons I organized.
1 Hellhole. Atul Gawande. The New Yorker. March 30, 2009.
2 The Proliferation of Control Unit Prisons in the United States. Fay Dowker & Glenn Good. Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Vol. 4 No. 2 (1993).
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.
6 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. 2010.
7 Published from prison in the September 2005 issue of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center’s The Public i and the Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners Collective’s 2006 Words Through Bars: Poetry, articles and stories written by people in prison.
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Thursday, August 4 at 7pm
Grace Place, 637 S Dearborn Street, Chicago
Beginning on July 1, 2011, hundreds of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay SHU (“Security Housing Unit”) began a historic hunger strike to demand an end to long-term solitary confinement, which constitutes torture under international law, and other demands to end the cruel and inhumane treatment they suffer under. The hunger strike rapidly spread to over 6,500 prisoners in over one-third of California’s prisons, making their heroic stand the most significant prisoner-led resistance in the U.S. in decades. After going without food for 20 days, the prisoners at Pelican Bay ended their hunger strike, with a call to people on the outside to continue the struggle against torture in U.S. prisons and to ensure their demands are met and that they are not retaliated against for their peaceful political protest. As of Friday, July 22, California prison administrators reported hundreds of prisoners at California’s Corcoran SHU remained on hunger strike, and families reported as of July 26 that prisoners at Corcoran continued to refuse food. See www.prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com for the prisoner’s demands and more details.
The use of long-term isolation pervades the U.S. prison system, with tens of thousands of prisoners held in conditions that violate international standards against torture. Join us for a discussion of the courageous stand taken by thousands of prisoners across California and the widespread, systematic use of long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons – including in Illinois, the effects of torture on its survivors and what people of conscience can do.
The courageous actions of the prisoners in California risking their lives on hunger strike have dragged the hidden humanitarian crisis that is the pervasive use of long-term isolation in U.S. prisons into the light – anyone concerned about human rights must be part of this discussion.
- 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. Dr. Martinez has lectured about the trauma and consequences of torture and abuse throughout the world.
- Alan Mills, Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. The People’s Law Center has has been engaged in litigation to change conditions at Tamms, Illinois supermax prison, since the day it opened.
- Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of Art History at Northwestern University. He is the author of (among other books) Gauguin’s Skirt (1997) and The Abu Ghraib Effect (2007). He is also a prison reform activist with Tamms Year Ten, and regularly publishes his criticisms of the “penal state” in The Chicago Sun Times and Monthly Review. Prof. Eisenman is currently completing a book entitled Meat Modernism concerned with the image of animals in Western Art from the mid 18th Century until today.
- Laurie Jo Reynolds is the organizer of Tamms Year Ten, the grassroots campaign to end the use of long-term isolation at Tamms supermax prison in Southern Illinois. TY10 was launched in 2008, at the ten-year anniversary of the opening of the prison, with the strategy of pushing for reform through public education, media attention, and legislative oversight. TY10 mounted more than 50 educational, artistic and cultural events about the use of isolation and segregation in Illinois prisons, and pulled together a coalition of concerned citizens, faith groups, mental health advocates, law and public policy clinics, prison reformers, and human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in London. Reynolds is currently a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow.
Moderated by Gregory Koger, social justice activist who as a youth spent over six years straight in solitary confinement in prison in Illinois.
Sponsored by the Chicago Chapter of World Can’t Wait and Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund
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A broad coalition of prisoners at California’s notorious Pelican Bay SHU (Security Housing Unit) supermax prison today began an indefinite hunger strike to protest against and demand an end to the inhumane conditions of isolation and sensory deprivation that violate international human rights standards against torture that they endure on a daily basis.
Joining the Pelican Bay prisoners in their hunger strike are prisoners at Corcoran SHU, another hellhole known for the brutal and degrading conditions that the “greatest and freest country in the world” imposes on those ensnared within its inhuman clutches, including prison guards forcing prisoners to fight against each other in “gladiator fights” that the guards would bet on.
As the recent article The Living Hell in Pelican Bay Prison by Li Onesto in Revolution newspaper documented, “Mass incarceration in this country is about locking up a whole section of society—especially poor Black and Latino men—to whom this system offers no future. Prisons in the U.S. are aimed at punishment—degrading, dehumanizing, and breaking people. And the SHU at Pelican Bay is a model in doing exactly that.”
The United States has the largest prison population in the world – with only 5% of the world’s population, it holds one-fourth of all prisoners in the world within its unrivaled and historically unparalleled racist dungeons. As Michelle Alexander has documented in her vital recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are more Black folks in jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in this country just before the Civil War (listen to audio of her discussing the key points from her book here). And the United States has a higher rate of incarceration for Black men than apartheid South Africa, a regime universally considered one of the most racist in the history of the world.
That this system offers millions upon millions of youth no better future and no greater fate than crime and punishment, a future of living and dying being shoved through the revolving racist doors of the “justice” system, just one of the many crimes that the rulers of this system perpetrate upon the people of the world, is reason enough to sweep this system from the face of the earth and struggle together to bring into being a radically different and far more liberatory world for not just the people of the United States, but the whole world.
Mass incarceration is one of the key concentrations of social contradiction that not only affects millions of those cast off at the bottom of society but outrages many people from other strata and backgrounds that can serve to awaken and strengthen the political consciousness of the people, bring them forward in resistance to the crimes of this system, and exposing this cruelly oppressive and exploitative system as the outmoded fetter holding back the advancement and liberation of all humanity that capitalism-imperialism is – as part of building a movement for revolution, as Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, concentrated in Some Principles for Building A Movement for Revolution.
And as the recent Supreme Court ruling that conditions in California’s prisons violate Constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment portends, mass incarceration is becoming a faultline that divides the ruling class, and can potentially serve to further break open the possibility of a revolutionary situation developing (see A Statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party On The Strategy For Revolution for more on the development of a revolutionary situation and the strategy for making revolution).
The courageous example of these prisoners coming together, across racial and other dividing lines inculcated and fostered by those in power to keep people divided, from within the bowels of the most dehumanizing and degrading conditions, and stepping forward to demand an end to the torture and inhumane conditions being forced upon them by the United States government, risking death and retaliation in the process, should inspire and challenge us to support their struggle and step forward to join them – as part of getting rid of this whole damn capitalist system and bringing forward a liberated world for all people.
The brothers in Pelican Bay have agreed on the following five core demands, reprinted in their entirety below:
1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse – This is in response to PBSP’s application of “group punishment” as a means to address individual inmates rule violations. This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern” to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts. This policy has been applied in the context of justifying indefinite SHU status, and progressively restricting our programming and privileges.
2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria –
- Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement.
- The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
- The validation procedure used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employs such criteria as tattoos, readings materials, and associations with other prisoners (which can amount to as little as greeting) to identify gang members.
- Many prisoners report that they are validated as gang members with evidence that is clearly false or using procedures that do not follow the Castillo v. Alameida settlement which restricted the use of photographs to prove association.
3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – CDCR shall implement the findings and recommendations of the US commission on safety and abuse in America’s prisons final 2006 report regarding CDCR SHU facilities as follows:
- End Conditions of Isolation (p. 14) Ensure that prisoners in SHU and Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation) have regular meaningful contact and freedom from extreme physical deprivations that are known to cause lasting harm. (pp. 52-57)
- Make Segregation a Last Resort (p. 14). Create a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities relating to having a sense of being a part of the community.
- End Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Release inmates to general prison population who have been warehoused indefinitely in SHU for the last 10 to 40 years (and counting).
- Provide SHU Inmates Immediate Meaningful Access to: i) adequate natural sunlight ii) quality health care and treatment, including the mandate of transferring all PBSP- SHU inmates with chronic health care problems to the New Folsom Medical SHU facility.
4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements.
- PBSP staff must cease their use of food as a tool to punish SHU inmates.
- Provide a sergeant/lieutenant to independently observe the serving of each meal, and ensure each tray has the complete issue of food on it.
- Feed the inmates whose job it is to serve SHU meals with meals that are separate from the pans of food sent from kitchen for SHU meals.
5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates.
- Expand visiting regarding amount of time and adding one day per week.
- Allow one photo per year.
- Allow a weekly phone call.
- Allow Two (2) annual packages per year. A 30 lb. package based on “item” weight and not packaging and box weight.
- Expand canteen and package items allowed. Allow us to have the items in their original packaging [the cost for cosmetics, stationary, envelopes, should not count towards the max draw limit]
- More TV channels.
- Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio
- Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.
- Allow sweat suits and watch caps.
- Allow wall calendars.
- Install pull-up/dip bars on SHU yards.
- Allow correspondence courses that require proctored exams.
NOTE: The above examples of programs/privileges are all similar to what is allowed in other Supermax prisons (eg, Federal Florence, Colorado, and Ohio), which supports our position that CDCR-PBSP staff claims that such are a threat to safety and security are exaggerations.
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Tags: Bob Avakian
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, Pelican Bay
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