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“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”—Karl Marx
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An Unexpected Drive Past Stateville Prison

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Ending the Torture of Solitary Confinement In Illinois

Solitary confinement is categorically condemned as a form of torture by the United Nations, yet the United States has perfected its coldly inhuman use in supermax prisons, SHUs and segregation units throughout the country. The use of solitary confinement is intimately interconnected with the white supremacist implementation of mass incarceration and New Jim Crow laws targeting principally Black and Brown youth – who this system has utterly failed and has no future for – condemning them to a life of harassment by police and incarceration unprecedented in human history.

Imagine locking yourself in your bathroom for a week, a month, a year, a decade. Imagine never seeing the sun for years. Imagine never being able to touch or hug your loved ones for years. That might give you a small glimpse into what it would be like to be locked in solitary confinement, yet it would be much more comfortable in many ways than being in those cells.

I spent many years in solitary confinement in Illinois prisons. In fact, before I was even convicted I went to trial as a seventeen year old charged as an adult from solitary confinement in the county jail.

Due to the heroic struggles of the Pelican Bay and California prison hunger strikers and the work of many people in recent years protesting and exposing the pervasive use of torture by the United States government, there is now momentum pushing the rulers of this system to back away from the use of this torture practice.

In Illinois, we may have a unique opportunity to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement. A recent bill has been introduced by Rep. LaShawn Ford to limit the use of isolation to 5 days, currently named the “Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.” As currently written, this bill would restrict the use of isolation to 5 days at a time during any 150 day period, and incorporates a number of restrictions.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t participate in electoral politics. This bill will on its face severely restrict the use of solitary confinement and remove from the Illinois Department of Corrections and Sheriffs in County Jails, and any private prison or detention center in the state of Illinois the ability to formally use State-sanctioned torture in the form of solitary confinement. As long as this bill remains true to its current form and intentions, I can do nothing but support it and work to ensure that it passes so that those still languishing in those cells where I spent over six years straight in solitary confinement will no longer be subjected to that form of torture.

Our understanding is that this bill may move rather quickly and be put to a vote by May. There are several hearings scheduled, one in March and one in April, which I will convey the further details of once I have the exact information. Mobilizing people to come out to those hearings and to to convey to both the public at large as well as the representatives of the government of the State of Illinois that we will no longer allow the practice of torture in the form of solitary confinement will be imperative.

I generally ask very little of my friends, comrades, and supporters. Supporting this struggle to end solitary confinement in Illinois is one thing that I am asking that you step up and be part of.

We will have more details to convey as they become available. But we, those of us who have survived the horrors of long-term solitary confinement and live with the aftermath every moment of every day, are committed to ensuring that our brothers and sisters who remain there are no longer subjected to this torture.

-Gregory

Letter from my Friend and Comrade Brian Nelson on Ending Solitary Confinement in Illinois:

Over the past several years, I have spoken at numerous Universities and other forums about the torture I endured in solitary confinement. There is no doubt that solitary confinement is torture and has taken a terrible toll on my life. Anyone that has seen me talk have seen the affects first hand and understand why we need to join together in this fight to stop these horrific acts of torture. Some have asked me why I continually put myself through the torment of reliving solitary when I talk about it. First off, I believe that nobody should ever have to endure the evil treatment I endured. Second, no mother, wife, parent, child or friend should be tormented by seeing what solitary confinement does to their loved one. Have no doubt that my mother was tortured just by looking at me. Thirdly, solitary confinement is morally wrong and so barbaric that most of the countries in the world have outlawed its use and condemn the United States for the use of solitary and its overuse.

The United States government has admitted that they have no idea who is in solitary confinement in the Federal Prison system, nor why they are there, how long they have been there, or if they will ever be released. Recently, the federal government has restricted the use of solitary on juveniles and mentally ill prisoners. Unfortunately, this only applies to the federal prison system not the states and it is the states that hold most of the prisoners in solitary! We need to work to protect the millions of individuals incarcerated in the state penal systems.

I have been asked hundreds of times, “What can we do to stop this?” Well, I finally have an answer. Illinois State Representative Ford has entered a bill to restrict the use of solitary and he needs us to help educate the public about the evils of solitary confinement. Representative Ford needs us to form groups to lobby our local Representatives and State Senators to support this bill. I am appealing to everyone to help. Form a student group, create web pages, educate friends, family, and yourselves about how horrific and destructive solitary confinement is upon a person’s mind!

I am positive you have hundreds of other ideas. I will help anyway I can. Just let me know the best way I can help you in this fight. As I have said numerous times, you are the future and you can change this. I firmly believe that you can do this and a lot more.

Please help stop this evil and horrific torture that is being unjustly inflicted upon human beings. THANK YOU!

Brian Nelson – Prisoners’ Rights Coordinator, Uptown People’s Law Center

Solitary Confinement In Illinois: Facts & Demands

FACTS:

  1. Solitary confinement in excess of 15 days amounts to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and can rise to the level of torture1 – Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
  2. “In the United States, more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement, often in miserable conditions, for periods of time that qualify as torture.2
  3. In Illinois, the current maximum amount of time a person can be held in solitary confinement is an indeterminate period of time. There is no limit on how long the State of Illinois can hold a person in solitary confinement, and many are held for periods of time that constitute torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
  4. Torture is a crime.
  5. The State of Illinois is currently holding an unknown but knowable number of people in isolation under conditions that constitute torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
  6. The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act would prohibit the state-sanctioned use of torture in the form of solitary confinement, by limiting the maximum number of days a person can be held in isolation to 5 in any 150 day period.

DEMANDS:

  1. The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act must be passed and implemented immediately.
  2. Survivors of the state-sanctioned use of torture in the form of solitary confinement must be provided reparations and treatment.

 

1 Can International Laws and Standards Help Curb Solitary Confinement in the United States? By AYLIN MANDURIC AUGUST 6, 2015
2 Id.

Solitary Confinement In Illinois: Facts & Demands.pdf

More at our website – Torture Survivors Against Solitary

Sign the Petition Supporting the Bill Here

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Menard Prison Hunger Strike: Lives on the Line – We Stand With You!

Menard hunger strike

 

Thursday, February 13, 2014 – 4:30 – 5:30pm
Outside the Thompson Center – 
Randolph & Clark – Chicago, IL

 

UPDATE 2-13-14: We have just received word from Brian Nelson at Uptown People’s Law Center that Menard today has barred them from speaking on the phone with one of the men on hunger strike. Additionally, one of the hunger strikers has been transferred to Stateville in an attempt to break his hunger strike: “Mr. John Velez was one of the men that began hunger striking in Menard on Jan. 15. As of today he is still on hunger strike. He was moved from Menard temporally to Stateville NRC. His Mother and Wife attempted to visit him today and they were denied visits until Mr. John Velez comes off the hunger strike. None of his legal material or personal property was allowed to be transferred with him. He does not no why he was temporally transferred to Stateville NRC.”

*****

A group of men in a high security unit at Menard (a prison in southwestern Illinois) began a courageous hunger strike on January 15. On Friday, February 9, several prisoners escalated the strike and began refusing liquids.

These men have put their lives on the line to protest inhumane conditions and placement in severe isolation, without reason or ability to challenge that placement. One prisoner was beaten in retaliation for being on hunger strike, others have been issued bogus “disciplinary tickets.” Attorneys for the prisoners were prevented by the IDOC from communicating with the men in the first weeks of the strike.

The conditions at Menard are intolerable: there is a lack of adequate heat and hot water, filthy, vermin-infested cells, a lack of access to basic cleaning and sanitation supplies, insufficient food and clothing, and a lack of access to legal resources and educational programming. Solitary confinement is considered torture under international law (over 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are held in solitary).

One prisoner wrote, “Our conditions are inextricably linked to the social mobilization across the nation against the injustice of mass incarceration. We hope that we have your support & we thank you.”

No society should be permitted to treat human beings this way. We must stand with the hunger strikers and call for their demands to be met immediately.

The men on hunger strike have asked that “you & your friends call the Governor’s office, the Director of IDOC S.A. Godinez, & the Warden of Menard CC, and inquire about our peaceful protest & our reasons & conditions of confinement.”

Contact information:

Illinois Department of Corrections Director Salvador Godinez, (217) 558-2200, ext. 2008, Illinois Department of Corrections, P.O. Box 19277, Springfield IL 62794-9277 or http://www2.illinois.gov/idoc/contactus/Pages/default.aspx

Warden Rick Harrington, (618) 826-5071, P.O. Box 711, Menard IL 62259

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Struggle Intensifies – Illinois Prisoners on Hunger Strike Refuse Liquids

Prisoners in Menard, IL have refused liquids as they entered the fourth week of a courageous hunger strike opposing their placement into administrative segregation without notice in filthy conditions of severe isolation. Attorney Alice Lynd reported,  “The Menard hunger strikers have apparently decided to go without liquid as well as food, and their physical condition could deteriorate rapidly.”1 These men’s lives are on the line and we must support them.

At least one prisoner has been beaten in retaliation for being on hunger strike and others have reported receiving retaliatory “disciplinary reports.” A Chicago attorney for some of the hunger strikers has also reported that in the first weeks of the hunger strike the Illinois Department of “Corrections” (IDOC) had been barring the prisoners from using the telephone and holding up their legal mail, preventing information about the conditions of the hunger strikers from getting out in a timely manner.

IDOC has issued a number of bald faced lies in response to journalists’ inquiries into the prisoners demands. In regards to the prisoners having no notice of the reasons for their placement into administrative segregation, IDOC Director of “Communications” Tom Shaer told Solitary Watch that because prisoners have allegedly been “interviewed about issues causing [their] placement” into ad seg, they have “a very good idea of the reasons.”2 However, in the next breath Shaer actually revealed that – just as the hunger strikers have claimed – the IDOC has provided no actual formal legal notice of the reasons for their segregation: Shaer admitted that “the placement decisions and 90-day reviews contain confidential information, so issuing copies to prisoners could pose a security threat.”3 Shaer then had the audacity to claim that “we don’t have Solitary Confinement in Illinois prisons” while running down a listing of conditions of confinement that, as Solitary Watch pointed out, exactly fit the definition of solitary confinement used by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other human rights groups.4

One of the hunger strikers wrote and asked that “you & your friends call the Governor’s office, the Director of IDOC S.A. Godinez, & the Warden of Menard CC, and inquire about our peaceful protest & our reasons & conditions of confinement.”5 He added, “Our conditions are inextricably linked to the social mobilization across the nation against the injustice of mass incarceration. We hope that we have your support & we thank you.”6

Contact information:

Illinois Department of Corrections Director Salvador Godinez, (217) 558-2200, ext. 2008, Illinois Department of Corrections, P.O. Box 19277, Springfield IL 62794-9277 or http://www2.illinois.gov/idoc/contactus/Pages/default.aspx

Warden Rick Harrington, (618) 826-5071, P.O. Box 711, Menard IL 62259

1. Menard hunger strikers refusing water until face-to-face hearings begin, Alice Lynd, San Francisco BayView, February 9, 2014

2. Voices from Solitary: Hunger Strike in Menard Prison, Solitary Watch, February 6, 2014

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

* Also published in Revolution newspaper online, News Flash: Illinois Prisoners on Hunger Strike Refuse Liquids, February 11, 2014

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Rising From The Pit: Illinois Prisoners Join National Upsurge of Resistance to Torture and Dehumanizing Conditions in U.S. Prisons

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.

Last year Carl Dix, Clyde Young and I issued a call – An Appeal to the Brothers and Sisters Locked Down in this Society’s Prisons: Bear Witness to Torture in U.S. Prisons and to All Law Enforcement Abuse. I’d like to reiterate that call, which read in part:

“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:

PRLF 1321 N Milwaukee, #407 Chicago, IL 60622
or Stop Mass Incarceration Network P.O. Box 941, Knickerbocker Station, New York City, NY  10002-0900

For those outside the walls:
contact@PRLF.org

stopmassincarceration@gmail.com

Web: www.stopmassincarceration.org

Footnotes:

1.  “Locked-Up in ‘High Security Unit’ and Not Told Why, Prisoners Hunger Strike for Answer,” Ray Downs; Riverfront Times Blogs, January 21, 2014

2. Id.

3. “Update from Menard hunger strikers: We need outside support, force feeding threatened” Alice Lynd; San Francisco BayView, January 21, 2014

4. Id.

* Also published in Revolution newspaper online: Rising From the Pit: Illinois Prisoners Join National Upsurge of Resistance to Torture and Dehumanizing Conditions in U.S. Prisons,  January 27, 2014

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Prison System Injustices: Racism, Solitary Confinement, and the Detention of Immigrants

People's Summit logoJoin us for a workshop at the People’s Summit on Prison System Injustices: Racism, Solitary Confinement, and the Detention of Immigrants with Gregory Koger, Mark Clements, Lynne Jackson, and Anthony Rayson

Saturday, May 12th, 11:45am at 500 W. Cermack – Room 715

Mark Clements & Gregory Koger

Mark Clements & Gregory Koger

Mark A. Clements, is a Chicago Police torture victim who spent 28 years inside Illinois prison for a crime that he did not commit. He serves today as Administrator over the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Jail Jon Burge Coalition.

Gregory Koger spent over six years straight in solitary confinement during his eleven years held in Illinois prisons. During his time in solitary confinement, Gregory studied broadly and became increasingly politically conscious and developed as a revolutionary and communist. Since his release, Gregory’s life has been dedicated to struggling against the injustices of this capitalist system and for a radically more liberated world, and he speaks and writes on the horrendous conditions and torture in U.S. prisons, mass incarceration and the criminalization of the youth, as well as the vast potential for those that this system has cast off to transform themselves and the world. He will focus on the historically unprecedented and racist system of mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, situating its development in the historical context of the foundational white supremacy of the United States and the dynamics of capitalism-imperialism.

Lynne Jackson of Albany, NY is a co-founder of Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims). Her involvement with the issue of preemptive prosecution began when two Muslim men in Albany, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, were sentenced to fifteen years in prison after being entrapped by the FBI. In 2010, Lynne organized the campaign for the Albany Common Council to pass the Albany Resolution, which urges the U.S. Justice Department to implement the recommendation of its own Inspector General and establish an independent panel to review the convictions of Muslims who have been preemptively prosecuted to ensure their fair treatment under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. She will focus on pre-trial and post-conviction solitary confinement conditions, as well as their effects on the prisoners, their families, and the community. Case examples will be given in detail, and letters and poems from prisoners describing their experiences will be read.

Anthony Rayson of the South Chicago Anarchist Black Cross will discuss the Crete Detention Center, ICE and the Corrections Corporation of America, as well as his experience with providing literature and zines to prisoners and the importance of letting the voices of prisoners be heard.

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Reflections on Solitary Confinement and Resistance to Torture

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…”

Gregory Koger

 

Quantifying Torture

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:

http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/

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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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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Forum on the California Prison Hunger Strike & Torture in U.S. Prisons

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.

Panelists include:
  • 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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