To my brothers and sisters locked down behind the walls:
One important dynamic that developed during the historic uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, that began last August after the police execution of 18-year-old Michael Brown for “walking while Black” was that brothers and sisters who the morning before were into it with each other in rivalries between different street organizations and other conflicts, courageously and defiantly stood together in the face of racist pigs desperately trying to repress the rebellion. The world watched the people of Ferguson stand boldly and unrelentingly in the face of old-school Jim Crow tactics like threatening people with snarling, vicious police dogs straining on leashes held by white cops, to the New Jim Crow-era tactics of armored assault vehicles with snipers atop aiming down their sights at women and children holding hand-lettered “Justice for Mike Brown” posters, body-armor and desert-camo-clad SWAT teams with assault rifles and no ID tags, and the flash-bangs and tear gas of advancing police blockades attempting to push the overwhelmingly Black protesters out of the streets — their utterly failed attempts to get people to “go away” and get this rebellion off the streets and out of the view of the world.
In the face of all of that — and I was there personally on those front lines in those first days, in that tears gas with the people of Ferguson — many, many young brothers and sisters who live every day with the boot of these racist pigs on their necks for the first time saw and experienced the power of standing collectively against the real enemy — the police, the armed enforcers of this whole racist, oppressive system. Blue, red, Crips, Bloods, GDs, Vice Lords, Folks, People — it didn’t matter what organization they represented, or who they rode with — what mattered was that for the first time in way too damn long the people refused to accept another police murder of another Black youth, and the daily repression of police-state New Jim Crow America.
And those of us who have spent time behind the walls, many of us have had similar experiences when we are locked down with brothers and sisters who are in different street organizations, or of difference races. We’ve had the chance to stand together and put those differences aside in the face of our real enemy. Many of you, I’m sure, know of (and some of you, like myself, took part in and/or supported) the California prison hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013. Tens of thousands of prisoners, of all different racial backgrounds, from many different street organizations, came together and put their lives on the line to demand an end to the torture of solitary confinement and demand humane treatment. In fact, the lead organizers of the California prison hunger strike collectively issued an Agreement to End Hostilities in August 2012, in which they called on brothers and sisters locked up across California — as well as on the streets — to put aside their differences and direct the struggle towards the oppressors running this system.
These examples show the power and potential of what we can collectively accomplish when we stand together and recognize who our real enemies are. And look, we know the youth are far too often engaged in rivalries and violence against each other, all of us locked on the bottom of this society, fighting over crumbs or for a little respect. Many of us have been caught up in and been part of that ourselves, myself included. This must be transformed, we must be part of transforming ourselves, and the world.
I’ve been through that struggle myself. I was never no “big time shot caller” or anything, but during my time in prison — particularly during the years I did in solitary confinement — I began to see how all the shit we were going through to try to survive on the bottom of this society was part of how this capitalist system operates. And through a lot of study and struggle, in which this newspaper (Revolution) was very integral, I came out of prison and got involved in the movement for revolution. Because nothing short of revolution is going to end this — the world doesn’t have to be like this and can be radically different.
But you don’t have to be a revolutionary to see and know that if we put aside our differences, especially those of us in street organizations, we can be a powerful force in the struggle to push back the New Jim Crow, the pigs fucking with and trying to lock us up every day, murdering Black and brown youth every fucking day.
The Stop Mass Incarceration Network has called for April 14 to be a nationwide day of shutting this system down, to take forward and heighten the struggle that kicked off in Ferguson and spread nationwide through the end of the year. An important component to that would be for those youth and O.G.’s and others in street organizations to make a formal call for nationwide cessation of hostilities with each other and to take up being part of the struggle against the New Jim Crow. So we are calling on those of you locked down to take this up. Write to us — and to everyone you know on the streets, as well — and give us your thinking on this. I know you have been watching and reading and keeping keenly abreast of the historic uprising that has been going down nationwide since Ferguson kicked it off in August. Many of us have been in the streets a lot, and one shortcoming has been getting the voices of the brothers and sisters behind the walls into the mix of this. A nationwide Call for a Cessation of Hostilities between street organizations could play a monumental role in taking this struggle to a higher level.
Send your letters right away to:
Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund
1321 N. Milwaukee #407
Chicago, IL 60622
Originally published in the March 2, 2015 edition of Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
I’m back down after a long legal and political battle, including two weeks on hunger strike in Cook County Jail in solidarity with the California prison hunger strike. Got some reading and writing done as well. Will have more to say soon. Much love – Gregory
“I will continue to be on the front lines and continue to fight, and I know many of you will be there with me.” – Gregory Koger
Over 50 people came together in Chicago on Saturday, November 2 to celebrate Gregory Koger’s release from Cook County Jail. Gregory’s release came after he served the remainder of an outrageous sentence that should never have been imposed, for a political act that was never a crime. (See “Revolutionary Gregory Koger Sent Back to Jail” for background.) The evening of music, hugs, and conversation was sponsored by the defense committee that has fought for his innocence and freedom for four years, warmly welcoming him back to the “outside” where he vowed to continue to fight to liberate humanity.
Sunsara Taylor, whose statement protesting censorship Gregory was filming when he was arrested, sent a beautiful statement.
Statement from Sunsara Taylor, sent to the celebration of Gregory Koger’s release:
I don’t know if this will reach you while you are all together celebrating—but either way I want to send the biggest virtual hug imaginable. I have been furious and agonized every day knowing that you have been unjustly and outrageously held behind bars and denied very basic freedoms. Yet, even behind bars your determination and strength and revolutionary understanding shined. Even as I know that millions of others remain in America’s hellholes and even though I know the world is teeming with unbearable and unnecessary suffering due to this outmoded, illegitimate capitalist-imperialist, life-crushing system we live under—my spirit is lifted and I am deeply happy to know that today you are out. Even more so to know that you are celebrating with people who know and love and deeply respect you. With people who have been touched by you and learned from your courage and strength. I am, as always, proud to count you as a friend and a comrade. It is great to have you back—we have much to accomplish together!
Until all are free,
A member of his defense committee, the Ad Hoc Committee for Reason, spoke for many when she said, “Speaking as a visitor to that hellhole, spending even one hour there was too much. How anyone incarcerated under those conditions could be expected to survive, much less be rehabilitated is unrealistic. Gregory did manage to survive and no doubt had some damned good discussions with his fellow inmates and will continue his fight against injustice.”
Gregory’s heartfelt talk was the highlight of the evening. We want to share this with the readers of Revolution, especially those who are locked down in the hellholes of this country:
“In talking to someone earlier tonight, I recounted that in the last 19 years of my life, I have had 9 months when I wasn’t in jail, in prison, on parole, on probation, or on bond. Including over half the time of the [seven years] since I’ve been out of prison has been spent fighting this case.”
“It didn’t surprise me what the criminal injustice system did in this case, but there were aspects that I think surprised all of us. The fact that I was charged with criminal trespass for just standing there holding an iPhone, which every legal scholar and lawyer we consulted with said there is no way that is trespassing; the fact they tried to hold me in contempt of court because my defense committee had a website that talked about the larger political questions related to this case; the fact that at the very end of the case, the judge issued a secret ruling without any notice to my attorney or myself that there was a hearing happening and then issued a warrant for my arrest. The fact that none of the substantive legal issues we raised were ever addressed by the court was not all that surprising to me because I know how the system works.”
“People have spoken about where I come from. It was very much in the conditions of torture, conditions in which tens of thousands of people in U.S. prisons are held in solitary confinement, where I began to really grapple with the broader questions of society, including why is the world this way. And that is where I ultimately came to conclude, through reading Revolution newspaper and other revolutionary literature, that there is absolutely no reason for this system to do what it does to people—billions and billions of people in the world—ruining their lives and offering them no hope whatsoever. There are the resources on this planet to feed, clothe, provide housing, healthcare, and education for everyone, and to provide intellectual and cultural life for the millions and billions of people who are systematically locked out of those realms. All that could happen, but it doesn’t because of the capitalist-imperialist system. But we can get to that world through revolution—nothing less. This is what I firmly believe.”
“During the course of this battle I have made friends with so many people who don’t all agree with what I believe, including many who do not agree with communism. But we have united together to oppose the glaring injustices of this system, of which one small part is this case we have fought for the last four years. To me this is an expression and an example of what needs to happen much more in society. An example of both the core strategic approach and outlook of the Revolutionary Communist Party—that we have to bring together people from the bottom of society and people from middle class backgrounds who don’t have the direct experience of that kind of oppression and injustice. We will never get to another world without people from the bottom and people from other parts of society being firmly committed toward humanity. We really had a great expression of that throughout the course of this case.”
“On a personal level, just seeing and knowing everybody here, many of whom I first met through the work of struggling against this case, people from many different backgrounds—writers, intellectuals, and people who don’t have a fucking thing. Artists like [the world-renowned jazz musicians] who are performing here tonight. Other people who know what torture is like [a friend at the party] who was tortured in Chile under Pinochet, who was out there fighting against the torture that’s happening to prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S. People like me, and like this brother here, who was in the same prisons as me in the same conditions, who are now revolutionaries fighting against the system. I was on a hunger strike the first two weeks I was in jail in solidarity with the California prisoners’ hunger strike against torture…”
“I want to thank everybody. This has been a very trying and difficult four years, but we have built a tremendous amount of strength taking this on. On the biggest level in society, the core fault line contradictions that were embodied and encapsulated in this case—from the role of prisoners in this society, and mass incarceration, to the repression of voices of dissent and critical thinking. I will say that we lost the case legally, but we won it politically.” [cheers]
“This is a big inflection point, not the least for me. This has been a major component of the last 4 years. The last time I was in Cook County Jail three years ago there was a point when I was depressed, recognizing that the place they had me—in that jail cell—was exactly where they wanted me and people like me. But this time I didn’t get depressed, I got pissed off. My life will continue to be dedicated to fighting against this system and its outrageous manifestation of mass incarceration, against the degrading oppression of women and LGBT brothers and sisters; against the oppression of immigrants and all the things this system does to people here and around the world. I will continue to be on the front lines and continue to fight, and I know many of you will be there with me. So I want to thank everybody for coming out tonight from the bottom of my heart.”
Gregory asks that all those who wish to celebrate his release donate to the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund. Thousands of dollars are needed to continue to send Revolution newspaper, BAsics, and other revolutionary literature to all the prisoners who are requesting it. Donate online at prlf.org. Or contact PRLF at:
1321 N Milwaukee Ave. #407, Chicago, IL 60622 773-960-6952 contact@PRLF.org
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.
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.
Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund just received this letter, postmarked July 8, 2011, from one of the hunger strikers in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay prison. He is also one of 49 subscribers to Revolution newspaper at Pelican Bay State Prison, thanks to the generous donors to Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund:
Greetings, I write in concerns of the hunger strike that begun on July 1st of 2011 here in Pelican Bay Shu. And as I get into the current effort made at Pelican Bay let me give some background to what lead to this social protest from the viewpoint of one of the hunger strike participants and its important to see the Repression unleashed on the Barrios and ghettos that lead to being wharehoused in koncentration kamps like Pelican Bay throughout America.
The prisons in California hold the most prisoners than any other state in America yet many of the conditions are the same. Pelican Bay opened for business in 1989, taking a page from the Federal Prison system and what it was doing with its new ‘supermax’ concept of incarceration. California began a new dawn in its housing of those prisoners it felt unruly. Pelican Bay Security Housing unit or Shu as it’s known is a prison within a bulging state prison system and is the future of what is the supermax America.
Supermaxing prisoners is not exclusive to Californians as America has about 70,000 men and women held in supermax prisons nationwide! 70,000 people housed in supermax! This is unprecedented. Never in the history of the world has their ever been as much as 70,000 people housed in supermax prisons, not even in Nazi Germany was their 70,000 supermax prisoners. America has become #1 in supermax prisoners of all time.
The conditions at Pelican Bay may shock the public, the idea that American citizens endure torture daily, yearly and for decades may be a surprise to many, or the fact that many of the conditions for prisoners being held in Guantanimo Bay are really better than Shu prisoners in Pelican Bay is hard to swallow but its true. Shu prisoners here endure 22 ½ hours locked in their cell every day. Their cell is a windowless concrete tomb that includes a slab of cement for a mattress and a toilet and sink. Shu prisoners are held in solitary confinement with no cellmate and for some this solitary has gone on for decades. Its important to note that the United Nations has said that solitary supermax is torture as this is known to create a psychological disorder in what has come to be called ‘Shu syndrome’! The studies that have been done concerning the supermax has shown that after 60 days of supermax people begin to experience a wide range of symptoms from panic attacks to psychosis and even emotional breakdown.
There is no human physical contact between prisoners and any other human being ever in Shu. Everything from food to laundry to books or mail is passed through a slot in the door. The psychological effects from supermax cannot be reversed by rehousing into a regular general population in another prison, yet some have been here in shu for decades, this in a country that claims to uphold human Rights, even occupying other counties under the excuse of their citizens having their human rights violated. And all along people in its prisons have their human rights trampled on without a murmur coming from the ‘halls of Democracy’.
The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that the California prison system is over stuffed with prisoners to the point where it now has a couple years to reduce its population by about 30,000 prisoners. Indeed the Supreme court said about one prisoner a week dies in California prisons due to medical care thats insufficient. One prisoner a week! It should also be noted that California seems to be the epicenter for the prison boom in this country and thus the epicenter for the prison boom globally and so precidents set in California should be followed closely especially when it comes to supermax prisons.
So what does it take to get one sent to a Shu supermax? The short answer is not very much. I was corresponding with someone once who asked me if someone arrested for a drunk driving and sent to prison can ever be sent to the Shu, and that person was shocked when I said yes! The thing that would shock the public the most is that people sent to Supermax in California are not sent here necessarily because of a crime or physical violation in a prison general population, one can come to prison for a drunk driving and happen to be a ‘jailhouse lawyer’ helping other prisoners with appeal’s and tackling violations in prisoner rights and be targeted by guards for Shu. One can get on the bad side of guards or simply refuse to go along with their wrongdoing or refuse to provide information and be targeted for Shu, just being a rebellious or progressive prisoner gets one targeted and labeled a ‘gang member’ and sent to Shu. The Shu is made out as a big stick to intimidate the prison population into passivity, (think deportation threats to migrants or the whip shown to the slave). It doesn’t mean its going to be used but the thought of it existing is enough to control a large portion of the prison population so it becomes a tool not used for rehabilitation but for social control. The fact that the Shu has no kind of self help program’s or classes such as victims awareness, narcotics anonymous, etc, or G.E.D. or college courses shows it is not a place designed to ‘rehabilitate’. One would think with the prison administration labeling those in Shu as ‘worst of the worst’, ‘uncorrigible’ or ‘the most violent’ in California’s prisons one would think there would be atleast one anger management class available (even if it had to be done via mail) but no dice. Instead prisoners are forced to languish in their windowless cell for 22½ hours a day every day.
Once a prisoner finds themselves in Shu and if the prisoners has a life sentence, as this person goes to board to see if he or she is eligible to parole it will be denied because nobody has been paroled from Shu with a life sentence, as administrators see it as ‘if your in Shu, your not ready for society.’ Thus Shu becomes an even bigger stick a huge whip to those of us with life sentences as it is basically a Death Sentence once sent to Shu. Any psychiatrist would agree even the thought of this playing out in ones head while locked in Solitary 22½ [hours] a day must be indescribably cruel. And once here in Shu their is a system called ‘debriefing’ that demands one to snitch on others or even make stuff up in order to be released from Shu and back into general population. After years of torture many will make stuff up on anyone just to escape the mind numbing torture of this sensory deprivation, and unfortunately someone will fill his/her cell and the cycle of torture continues.
Within this house of horrors of Shu that I have described lies an even more draconian existence (if one can imagine this) that within Shu exists what is called ‘the short corridor.’ The short corridor consists of about two hundred men here in Pelican Bay. This is where if prison officials feel you are a leader of sorts, you will be placed in short corridor where food is even less & worse, you have less movement out of your cell, less yard and mail is censored even more. It is these conditions where even reading material such as philosophy or history is censored. Pelican Bay Shu is designed to control, nothing more. We seen even Revolution newspaper being censored and banned from this prison at one time. Take a minute to think of living in a certain zip code or apartment building where city officials notify you that Revolution newspaper is banned and is not allowed in your neighborhood. How would you feel about these city officials? How would you feel about the system that upholds the actions of these city officials? This Hegemony and Draconian existence has led to the non violent civil disobedience playing out in the Shu. Mao said where you find much repression youll find much resistance! This resistance, although non violent is not expected to be met with a smile from prison officials but what other choice is there when you are left in your windowless cell in solitary for years with no recourse from the courts? But the efforts of the Pelican Bay hunger strike is more than the injustice unleashed on Shu prisoners. For vast swaths of the public this situation will call attention to the ills of not just the California Supermax but of the U. S. prison system in general. As I think of the whirlwind sweeping the middle East that was born from a Tunisian street vendor and has now been called an arab spring, I wonder in regards to the efforts of resistance from the Georgian prisoners, I wonder if the American prison system has developed a Georgian spring?
There are many demands some of which are contact visits with family, the ability to make a phone call (some have not been allowed phone calls for decades). Shu prisoners are not currently allowed to use a phone ever so as long as your here you wont use the phone. Medical services, with the present medical system you can sign up for feeling ill and not be seen for weeks, by then you feel better but your still charged five dollars. Those with documented illnesses are denied pain medications and surgeries are put through a stringent review board, treatment is very hard to obtain here. Because of the sensory deprivation a TV/ radio combination is being requested. The T.V. we are allowed to purchase has no radio and radios are not allowed. Music has long been known to be therapeutic yet in Shu it is denied, the act of enjoying music is banned. The ability to obtain colored pencils and art paper are being requested as it is also a form of therapy to create art, this basic act of expressing oneself through art is being denied to Shu prisoners and colored pencils and art paper are currently forbidden. The ability to purchase two care packages a year are being requested as at this time only one care package a year is allowable, forcing some prisoners such as Muslim Prisoners who cannot purchase halal food items on the prison commisary as the prison commisary has no halal food items. Thus many are forced to simply eat the meager slop issued on the trays given for meals.
General population prisoners are able to purchase radios, colored pencils, art paper, use the phone daily and get contact visits, take photos and receive four care packages a year. The ability to take photos is being requested as those who have been in Shu for 20+ years have not been able to take a photo to send their family. Many families do not have the money or transportation to travel all the way to Pelican Bay for a visit and a photo would substitute a visit as at this time Shu prisoners are forbidden from receiving a photo. The ability to recieve direct sunlight is being requested as currently the dog run yard has a sheet of blurred plastic so the sun is blocked out and the way the yard is designed the sun does not make contact with ones skin. It’s a known fact sunlight is essential to health and even bone density. Shu prisoners are withheld direct sunlight at this time. The dismantling of the ‘debriefing process’ is also being requested, the necessity to compromise another in order to leave Shu is a horrendous practice, one I suspect will be looked back on as incredulous as one now sees the selling of human skins in the day of slavery in America.
The whole process of ‘validation’ which qualifies one to be placed in Shu is faulty and without merit, for years its been known that some prisoners will make stuff up to leave Shu. Experts on torture have well documented that when one is tortured people will say whatever you want to know just so long as the torture stops. So as a result more people many innocent of the accusations will be placed in Shu. See Revolution issue #237 on Pelican Bay for the core demands. The issues that force people to seek redress by depriving oneself of nutrients is not exclusive to Pelican Bay Shu. The prison system in America is filled with the injustices that Shu prisoners experience here in Pelican Bay, and to deprive oneself of food is often the last line of defense, the last rock to hurl at a monster who makes life a constant state of torture, a perpetual waterboarding. Marx said in ‘On the Jewish Question,’ “We must emancipate ourselves before we can emancipate others”. I think prisoners are indeed emancipating ourselves and moving forward with a strong Revolutionary surge in seeking justice. Prisoners are tired of the decades long white torture that is often hidden from the public eye and which is now being heard nationwide with the strike – with nothing to lose and a world to win!