James Kilgore is a writer, an educator, and a social justice activist who teaches and works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spent six years in prison, during which time he drafted his three published novels. He is the author of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press). He currently lives with his family in Urbana, Illinois.
Bill Ayers is University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), member of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, taught courses in interpretive and qualitative research, oral history, creative non-fiction, urban school change, and teaching and the modern predicament. A graduate of the University of Michigan, the Bank Street College of Education, Bennington College, and Teachers College, Columbia University, Ayers has written extensively about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. He is a past vice-president of the curriculum studies division of the American Educational Research Association.
Three years ago I was arrested for attempting to document a political statement opposing censorship by Sunsara Taylor at the “Ethical” Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC). What began as a brief but principled statement opposing the censorship of her long-scheduled talk and an invitation for those who wanted to hear her talk to join us at the home of a now-former member of the EHSC was rapidly transformed by powers in the ruling class into a three-year-long political and legal battle against a political prosecution and 300 day jail sentence for non-violent misdemeanors.
Leading figures within the EHSC joined forces with the police and prosecutors to press fabricated criminal charges based on false statements – statements which changed dramatically after the video I recorded of what actually transpired was turned over to the prosecutor the day before my trial. You can read their claims in the police report – as well as public statements sent out to the atheist/humanist blogosphere – and watch the video of what actually occurred for yourself:
After numerous pronouncements declaring that there is “nothing political” about this prosecution, in the first paragraphs of the Appellate Court ruling Sunsara Taylor is described as a “self-avowed” communist – a description that was not allowed by the judge in the original trial and appeared nowhere in the trial record of proceedings in open court. The Courts have tried to have it both ways – refusing to allow us to raise the extremely relevant political nature of the trial, while themselves signaling the political nature of my arrest and the charges. In the final move by the prosecution, when they filed a motion to have me sent immediately back to jail, they included the completely irrelevant – but highly political – information that I had once asked the Court for permission to travel out of state for matters relating to the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund.
A Criminal System of Injustice
Many people who have heard about this case look at the severity of the reaction of the State and think, “Well, there must be something more to this story…” There absolutely is something about this case that the rulers of this system know has tremendous potential to shake this rotten and unjust system to its core – and that is not someone standing silently holding an iPhone attempting to record a political statement, although preventing Sunsara from speaking and her statement from being documented was what precipitated this case.
More and more people of all different backgrounds are becoming aware of, and beginning to stand up in opposing, the historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration in the United States, which proclaims itself the “greatest and freest country in the world” without the least sense of irony. The sheer number of people subjected to the dehumanizing and degrading violence of the State through its injustice system is difficult to wrap your mind around. Nearly 2.4 million men, women and children are in prison at any moment. As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has pointed out, more Black folks are in prison or under the control of the “justice” system than there were slaves just before the Civil War. There are five times the number of Black men incarcerated in the U.S. than in apartheid South Africa, where a white supremacist colonial regime subjugated the indigenous Black population for decades and is universally considered one of the most racist regimes in the history of the world. Hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino youth in New York City alone are fucked with by the police every year under “stop-and-frisk.” Whole families – including young children – who come here from around the world seeking a better future due to the depredations of U.S. imperialism on their home countries are criminalized and locked up in immigration prisons.
From deep within the belly of this monstrous imperialist beast, from the bowels of the torture units and the concrete and steel prison-tombs springing up across the prairies and plains of this country, brothers and sisters that this system has cast off as worthless are beginning to understand the historical and social forces that led them to the point of being locked within these hellholes, and beginning to see the pathway to a radically different future for all humanity. Prison cells designed to destroy human beings are being transformed into universities of revolution, where the tremendous potential of the wretched of the earth is beginning to be unleashed, and prisoners are one of the powerful sections of people beginning to transform themselves into emancipators of humanity.
That potential — and that reality — is the core of what is driving forward my political prosecution and their demands to put me back in jail. Because I am one of those wretched of the earth that this system has no future for. I got involved in a street organization to survive on the streets as a teenager after my family lost our home, and I was serving a long sentence in an adult maximum security prison by the time I was seventeen years old. I began to question what brought me and everyone else locked down in those hellholes to be there. And as conditions became increasingly repressive and more inhumane, I was placed into an indeterminate period of segregation – solitary confinement – where I was confronted with surviving for years in a living tomb until my release.
It was there, in those many years of torture that I spent in total isolation from human contact surrounded by crushing State violence on a daily basis, that I regained my humanity through the course of resisting those conditions and beginning to study and understand the world. Among other things I was studying, I began to receive revolutionary literature from the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund, including a donated subscription to Revolution newspaper. And Revolution presented to me a real analysis of the historical development and functioning of this monstrous capitalist system, a serious strategy for organizing and making a revolution to sweep this system away, and a viable framework in Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism for actually running society after a revolution: to increasingly break down the divisions of class society as people struggle together to create a whole different way of life in which human beings, individually and above all in their mutual interaction, in all parts of the world, can throw off the chains of tradition, rise to their full height and thrive in ways never before experienced or even fully imagined – a communist world.
My thinking and understanding of course did not change overnight. Both before and after my release from prison, I struggled with many questions – from individuality and leadership to the oppression of women—and comrades struggled with me—in making the radical ruptures to becoming a communist. But through the course of that struggle and being involved in many different realms of revolutionary work in building the movement for revolution, I’ve dedicated my life to serving the people and being an emancipator of humanity.
From oppressed communities under the gun of constant police brutality and repression, to standing with immigrants against demonization and deportation, from discussions in classrooms in high schools and universities to defending clinics and women’s right to abortion, from protesting torture and war crimes to demanding liberation for the LGBTQ community – I’m constantly amazed and inspired by all of the places I’ve been and people I’ve met and gotten to know while engaged in revolutionary work throughout the course of the few years I’ve been out of prison.
Political Repression for Serving the People
That is how I came to be at the EHSC on the morning of November 1, 2009, to document Sunsara’s statement and then record her talk at the off-site location, as I had done without incident the previous day at the same EHSC auditorium. And that is what this prosecution is really about. As Revolution wrote previously, in an article on my sentencing hearing while I was in Cook County Jail:
“Should a whole section of society (there are over 2 million people incarcerated right now in American prisons) be denied the right to participate in the full range of lawful social and political activity by mere virtue of being former prisoners, because the state will use prior criminal convictions to justify political persecution? A message is being sent to intimidate millions of others at the bottom of society, ‘Don’t even think about raising your head, participating in political activity or protest, much less taking up revolutionary politics, this is what we will do to you.’ We cannot allow this message to stand.
“The ‘public safety’ is hardly threatened by former prisoners stepping forward to take up the big social and political questions of the day, including those who become revolutionary emancipators of humanity. THAT is the life Gregory has chosen, not a ‘path of violence,’ as the judge asserted. THAT is what is ‘volatile,’ and threatening to their system, not Gregory picking up an iPhone.” (Judge Slams Videographer with 300 Days in Jail: FREE GREGORY!)
My dedication to exposing and opposing the crimes of this system, as part of building a movement for revolution to get rid of this system, is the real reason why they have pursued this political prosecution for three years and are now trying to put me back in jail. It will be a real defeat, and a real injustice, if they are able to do that. These outrages happened in a political prosecution in my case – however, they happen on a daily basis to millions of people herded through the courts into the United States’ historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration.
Support Grows and Needs to Spread
Our struggle to defeat these charges has been a small part of the broader struggle against this oppressive system that inflicts monumental suffering on the people, here and around the world. Thousands of people from all different class and social backgrounds, from across the country and around the world, have stood with me through the course of this battle. Many who don’t agree with some or even most of my political views have opposed this vindictive prosecution. All of their support has been tremendously important and I’ve personally found it deeply moving. My defense committee has hosted numerous public discussions about the broader issues concentrated in this case, including speakers such as Bill Ayers and Cindy Sheehan. And this struggle is not over! We are calling on people to sign on to and spread the Not One More Day In Jail for Gregory Koger statement – which you can sign at dropthecharges.net.
Sometime within the next couple weeks, the court will set a hearing date where they will try to send me back to jail. We will let people know when that hearing is, and call on you to come out to that hearing and demonstration afterward, if you are able. We will continue to wage a legal and political offensive against these outrageous charges, and put this system – and the real criminals in the ruling class who preside over it – on trial.
Gravediggers of This System
I want to close by sharing a few words from two letters to Revolution newspaper from those who are still locked down in the dungeons who are also becoming emancipators of humanity:
“I was glad that the paper updated us on the predicament with Gregory Koger, by filling everybody in on the details of his case, all the way from the beginning up to this point. After seeing how they played the comrade, I’m even more determined to be about THIS when I get out. They do shit like that to deter muthafuckas like me, but it REALLY only fuels muthafuckas like me all the more so. I’ve been a rebellious dude my WHOLE LIFE, as I’ve related to you before. The difference between that being the case my WHOLE LIFE… and NOW, is that NOW I finally been able to put a circle around THAT THING, I’ve really been shitty at my WHOLE LIFE: CAPITALIST – IMPERIALISM and its whole decadent superstructure.”
“As I conclude these thoughts of mine as I reside in a solitary cell myself, I just want to reiterate how important it is for as many of us as possible to reach out to Gregory in some fashion in order to show our solidarity with him in a meaningful way… By the time he finishes those 300 days in the county jail or wherever he’s being held at, he should be able to leave those gates, knowing he did the right thing by leaving prison and choosing to dedicate his life to what this Party and this movement is all about. Conversely, we should send an unequivocal message to the bourgeois state, that they can’t indirectly squelch our determination by using legal repression; because in the end, we rally behind ours, and if we do happen to emerge from the repressive arm of its legal juggernaut, it only ends up magnifying our resolve, individually and collectively.”
Like these brothers and comrades, and many more behind the walls and on the streets, my life will continue to be dedicated to making revolution and emancipating humanity, whether I’m talking with students in inner-city high schools who face police brutality and repression every day, university students from more privileged backgrounds who are beginning to learn about how this system operates, or whether I am in jail learning from and organizing with other brothers locked down there. I will continue to be part of building this movement to end all of these injustices and bring forth a world where everybody can live a life worthy of human beings and flourish in ways undreamed of under this capitalist system – a communist world.
Occupy 4 Prisoners! National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners!
February 20th – 5pm
March from Jackson & LaSalle at 5:15pm to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (Clark & Van Buren), with rally to follow.
Occupy Chicago, in collaboration with over 28 local community and national organizations, is mobilizing for The National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners: Occupy4Prisoners. This action is part of a national call initiated by California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. This demonstration is in solidarity with those behind prison walls, their loved ones, and formerly incarcerated people.
Prisoners are part of the 99%. The prison system is the most visible example of policies of punitive containment of the most marginalized and oppressed in our society. Prior to incarceration, 2/3 of all prisoners lived in conditions of economic hardship, while the perpetrators of white-collar crime largely go free.
We demand an end to mass incarceration, which has had a devastating effect on communities in Chicago and around the country. For example, in Chicago, 55 percent of black males are labeled felons for life, and, as a result, may be prevented from voting and accessing public housing, student loans, and other public assistance.
We will meet at 5 pm at the Chicago Board of Trade to call out the racist system that puts profits over people and prioritizes prisons over education, quality mental healthcare, drug treatment, after-school programs, and other vital services. At 5:15 we will march to the Metropolitan Correctional Center to show solidarity with those who are behind bars. We will let the 1% know that we have not forgotten about the 2.3 million people whom they aim to make invisible.
What we are calling for:
1. Abolishing unjust sentences, such as the death penalty, life without the possibility of parole, Three Strikes, juvenile life without parole, and the practice of trying children as adults.
2. Standing in solidarity with movements initiated by prisoners and taking action to support prisoner demands, including the Georgia Prison Strike and the Pelican Bay/California Prisoners Hunger Strikes.
3. Freeing all U.S.-held political prisoners.
4. Demanding an end to the repression of activists, specifically the targeting of African Americans and those with histories of incarceration, and many others being falsely charged after only exercising their First Amendment rights.
5. Demanding an end to systematic disenfranchisement by selective enforcement of the law on certain populations such as people of color, gender non-conforming individuals, people with disabilities (mental and physical) and those advocating for them.
6. Demanding an end to the brutality of the current system, including the torture of those who have lived for many years in Secured Housing Units (SHUs) or in solitary confinement. As well as putting an end to profiteering off of prison slave labor.
7. Demanding that our tax money spent on isolating, harming and killing prisoners, instead be invested in improving the quality of life for all and be spent on education, housing, health care, mental health care and other human services which contribute to the public good. As well as putting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Campaign to End the Death Penalty
Occupy Rogers Park
The Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, Roosevelt University
World Can’t Wait Chicago
South Chicago Anarchist Black Cross
International Socialist Organization
Occupy El Barrio
Dr. Antonio Martinez, Institute for Survivors of Human Rights Abuses and co-founder of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture
South Austin Coalition
Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban 5
Revolution Books Chicago
National Jericho Movement
Pat Hill, Executive Director of the African American Police League
The Chicago Chapter of CURE
Trinity United Church of Christ
Chicago Torture Justice Memorials
Vigils For True Justice
White Rose Catholic Worker
Tamms Year 10
Teachers for Social Justice
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.
January 1, 2011: Police shoot and kill Tory Davis…
January 7, 2011: Police shoot Darius Penix, 27-years old. Shot at 16 times, killing him at a traffic stop…
June 7, 2011: Police shoot Flint Farmer numerous times, killing him while he holds a cellphone…
July 25, 2011: Police shoot 13-year-old Jimmell Cannon four times…
October 5, 2011: Amit A. Patel is chased into Lake Michigan by police. He died a few hours later. Age 31…
Names and stories from the list of 57 people shot and/or killed by the Chicago police this year ring out in a striking indictment of these crimes of the system, reverberating off City Hall and the State of Illinois building.
As people streamed into the plaza and the stage was being set up, the electricity of the day began to course through the air. Revolutionary music from Outernational and conscious hip-hop thundered off the skyscrapers overlooking the plaza. Curious bystanders and tourist were drawn into the growing scene of resistance, as protesters unfurled Stolen Lives banners and posters condemning police brutality and murder, and passing out flyers with the faces of victims of police murder.
October 22 Chicago organizer reads a statement from Flint Farmer's father.
Once the rally started, a statement from Flint Farmer’s father was read to the crowd of 100 people of all different backgrounds gathered to demand an end to police brutality, repression and the criminalization of a generation. Family members of victims of police brutality and murder, young folks from Occupy Chicago and Occupy the Hood, people who were outraged by the execution of Troy Davis, as well as college and high school students stood shoulder-to-shoulder to demand that this must stop.
Gregory Koger, a former prisoner who spent many years in solitary confinement and who has been involved in the movement for revolution since his release from prison, condemned the historically unprecedented explosion of racist mass incarceration in the U.S. and the spoke about the courageous example of the prisoners on hunger strike in California (see below).
Gregory Koger, revolutionary former prisoner who spent many years in solitary confinement, speaks at October 22 Chicago.
After the Statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party on the Occasion of October 22, 2011 was read, others spoke out. Relatives of Jose Diaz, killed by Berwyn police, spoke; one relative said that “even though it was 11 years ago, it feels like yesterday.” Jamia Smith, the teenage sister of Devon Lee Pitts—who was killed by a police officer driving drunk—brought the crowd to tears as she read a poem with the lines, “even as I write this, I still feel you around, my big brother, my guardian angel,” with tears of sadness running down her face. Mark Clements, a survivor of police torture and activist with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty who spent 28 years in prison on a wrongful conviction, condemned the legal lynching of Troy Davis and led the chant, “Remember Troy Davis!” Occupy Chicago voted at their General Assembly to attend and send a representative speaker to stand in solidarity with O22, who said, “We have to end the suffering. It has to stop now!”
Jamia Smith, the teenage sister of Devon Lee Pitts who was killed by a police officer driving drunk, speaks with Mark Clements and other family members who lost loved ones to police murder.
The rally concluded with a member of the People’s Neighborhood Patrol reading their founding Proclamation and calling on people to join the patrols. Several people signed up.
The crowd defiantly marched out of the plaza, chanting “Egypt, Wall Street, Pelican Bay –We refuse to live this way!” This spirit was heightened musically by a raucous anarchist brass band. The march grew as it snaked through the Saturday afternoon crowds on State Street. A banner with pictures of people killed by Chicago police stretched across the sidewalk side by side with a banner of Troy Davis brought to the rally by students from Columbia College. People stepped aside to let the protesters through, with many smiling widely that this question was being addressed and some even joining chants including “Indict, convict, send the killer cops to jail—The whole damn system is guilty as hell!” After moving through the crowded streets of the Chicago Loop, they marched into the occupation surrounding the Federal Reserve Bank building, mingling in with the chanting, drumming scene at Occupy Chicago.
The raucous anarchist brass band energizes the crowd as they march.
Marching Against Police Chiefs
The Chicago Ad Hoc Committee for Oct 22nd, joining with World Can’t Wait and the Midwest Anti-War Mobilization, called for protesters to reconvene at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Gala taking place at the Chicago Hilton later that evening. This was part of the IACP convention, a convention of police commanders who order murder, torture and rape. Their members include 20,000 commanders of police forces that rain brutality and terror down on civilians from Saudi Arabia to London, England, where police brutality helped spark major uprisings this spring.
As the time to reconvene approached, a “mic check” was called at the HQ of Occupy Chicago and the crowd was challenged to join a march down to the Hilton. About 30 people marched out of the HQ bound for the IACP gala, chanting “Cairo, London, Chicago—Police brutality has got to go!” to the accompaniment of the anarchist brass band.
Once the march arrived at the Hilton, the march had grown in numbers and it was greeted by police lines and barriers. Protestors responded creatively to the police repression by positioning themselves on the other three corners and a determined and defiant protest ensued, denouncing the IACP in English and Spanish.
The October 22nd action concluded with the IACP protesters marching up Michigan Avenue to Grant Park, where they greeted thousands of people marching in to occupy the park; later that night 130 Occupy Chicago protesters were arrested while attempting to establish a permanent occupation at the park.
A banner of Stolen Lives held by family members who lost loved ones to Chicago police murder stand shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters condemning police brutality around the world outside the International Association of Chiefs of Police gala.
Former Prisoner Gregory Koger Speaks at October 22nd Rally
The following is the text of Gregory Koger’s speech at the Chicago O22 rally:
I’m here to speak about the criminalization of a generation: there’s been an explosion of mass incarceration since the early 1970s, historically unprecedented in the history of the world.
The U.S. has 5% of world population – 25% of worlds prisoners. More women are incarcerated here than anywhere else in the world.
Nearly 2.5 million men, women & children in are prison and close to 8 million are ensnared within the inhuman clutches of the so called “criminal justice system” today.
The rate of incarceration for Black males is over five times higher than apartheid South Africa, where a white supremacist colonial regime subjugated the indigenous Black population for decades and is universally considered one of the most racist regimes in the history of the world.
Joining in with the upsurge of resistance sweeping the globe, in July thousands of prisoners in California—led by prisoners in Pelican Bay SHU—went on hunger strike to demand an end to the torture & inhumane treatment they face.
Within days, over 6,500 prisoners in one-third of California prisons joined the hunger strike.
After three weeks they temporarily came off hunger strike, and then resumed the hunger strike on September 26. Within days, nearly 12,000 prisoners were on hunger strike.
The CDC retaliated: they banned prisoner’s lawyers, withheld mail and visits, and threatened to place prisoners on hunger strike in administrative seg.
At the end of last week, they temporarily came off again. Prisoners have stated that though they are willing to die rather than face these conditions of torture, they do not want to die. They know that it will take people on outside to force the government to meet their demands, and that will not happen in the time they can remain on hunger strike and live to see those changes.
Despite the demonization and dehumanizing portrayal, the majority of prisoners are locked up for non-violent drug offenses as part of “war on drugs,” which began in the early 1970s but expanded exponentially in the 1980s. And the “war on drugs” was a strategy for the ruling class to impose a “counterinsurgency before insurgency” because they fear the power of the people rising up to challenge the crimes and injustices of this system.
They saw the power of the people in the 1960s, but because people didn’t make a revolution out of the upsurge of the 1960s, the ruling class was determined to crush any potential liberating movement of the people from developing again.
Despite their attempts, even in the depths of the most horrendous conditions of oppression such as the hellholes of America’s prisons, people have a vast potential to transform themselves as they transform the world and join in becoming emancipators of humanity.
Like millions of others, I was one of those youth that this system has cast off. My family lost our home when I was a teenager, I got involved with a street organization to survive on the streets, and by the time I was 17 years old I was serving a 20 year sentence in an adult maximum security prison. Like too many other youth, this system offered me no better purpose and no greater fate than crime and punishment, a future of living and dying for nothing.
Once I got to prison, I soon started to question what brought me—and all the other people there with me—to prison, and soon began to develop an understanding of the historical and social forces that led all of us to the hellholes of America’s prison system.
Within a short period of time, I was given an indeterminate period of segregation—solitary confinement—and it was in the midst of those brutally isolating conditions of torture that I became politically conscious.
And since my release from prison a few years ago, my life has been firmly dedicated to the movement for revolution and the struggle against the crimes of this system and for a liberated future for all humanity.
O22 is a day for people of all different backgrounds to get in the streets and stand together shoulder-to-shoulder with those who live under the boot and the gun of police brutality and repression—and those languishing in the hellholes of Americas prisons—and demand that all of this must stop! People of conscience everywhere should take inspiration from the courageous example of the prisoners on hunger strike and recognize the moral responsibility to join together to rise up to take action to stop these horrendous injustices.
Since July 1st 2011, hundreds of prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU), joined by thousands more in over a third of California’s state prisons and in other prisons across the country, have been on an indefinite hunger strike demanding an end to the horrendous conditions they face languishing for years (some for decades) in isolation and sensory deprivation – conditions that violate international standards against torture. These courageous brothers have joined together to demand an end to the widespread, systematic policies of torture and human rights abuses that affect prisoners not just in Pelican Bay or California but are integral to the functioning of the world’s largest system of mass incarceration.
I know personally the horrors that these brothers are facing. Like too many others locked down in the hellholes of America’s prison system, I was caught up in survival in the street life as a youth and sentenced to serve many years in prison as a teenager. After being given an indeterminate period of segregation in prison, through intense study and resistance to the increasingly repressive conditions, I began to develop an understanding of the dynamics of this exploitative capitalist-imperialist system, and since my release have dedicated my life to serving the people in the struggle to emancipate all of humanity from the oppressive relations of class society.
My experience is shared by millions. With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. 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. 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. And there are more women incarcerated in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.
The systematic use of torture constitutes a crime against humanity under international law. As the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum describes, “[crimes against humanity] are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.” Long-term segregation in the U.S. prison system is just such a systematic practice of torture. As Dr. Atul Gawande, who documented torture in U.S. prisons, said in his March 2009 articleHellholein The New Yorker: “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.’
The courageous example of these prisoners coming together, across racial and other dividing lines fostered by those in power, 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 U.S. 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 humanity.
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.
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.
I’ve heard Michelle Alexander speak about her vitally important recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, three times now – and every time her presentation is even better than the previous one (see video of one of her talks in Chicago here). I had hoped to read her book while I was a political prisoner in the Cook County Jail, but hardcover books are banned there – along with all newspapers. Turns out that if you get hardcover books sent in, you have the option of them ripping the cover off and giving it to you, but I only learned that a few days before I was unexpectedly – and happily – release on appeal bond.
I had the great pleasure of hearing her yesterday with Rev. Jeremiah Wright at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and made an audio recording of her presentation that I hope other folks will check out, along with her book:
Postscript: I realize its been a while since I’ve been able to write here…
Although the battle against my political prosecution is far from over (and you can read more about the case on my defense committee’s website – dropthecharges.net), thanks to the support and contributions of many thousands of people, I am now out on appeal bond and able to more fully participate in my defense and towards defeating these charges, as well as to continue contributing to the broader revolutionary work that my life is dedicated to. In the face of this political prosecution and imprisonment, my dedication and determination to fight against the crimes and injustices of this system and to the struggle for liberation has only increased.
My deepest thanks to all who have shared their love and support.
With Hope and Determination for a Liberated Future For All Humanity,