Solitary confinement is categorically condemned as a form of torture by the United Nations, yet the United States has perfected its coldly inhuman use in supermax prisons, SHUs and segregation units throughout the country. The use of solitary confinement is intimately interconnected with the white supremacist implementation of mass incarceration and New Jim Crow laws targeting principally Black and Brown youth – who this system has utterly failed and has no future for – condemning them to a life of harassment by police and incarceration unprecedented in human history.
Imagine locking yourself in your bathroom for a week, a month, a year, a decade. Imagine never seeing the sun for years. Imagine never being able to touch or hug your loved ones for years. That might give you a small glimpse into what it would be like to be locked in solitary confinement, yet it would be much more comfortable in many ways than being in those cells.
I spent many years in solitary confinement in Illinois prisons. In fact, before I was even convicted I went to trial as a seventeen year old charged as an adult from solitary confinement in the county jail.
Due to the heroic struggles of the Pelican Bay and California prison hunger strikers and the work of many people in recent years protesting and exposing the pervasive use of torture by the United States government, there is now momentum pushing the rulers of this system to back away from the use of this torture practice.
In Illinois, we may have a unique opportunity to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement. A recent bill has been introduced by Rep. LaShawn Ford to limit the use of isolation to 5 days, currently named the “Isolated Confinement Restriction Act.” As currently written, this bill would restrict the use of isolation to 5 days at a time during any 150 day period, and incorporates a number of restrictions.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t participate in electoral politics. This bill will on its face severely restrict the use of solitary confinement and remove from the Illinois Department of Corrections and Sheriffs in County Jails, and any private prison or detention center in the state of Illinois the ability to formally use State-sanctioned torture in the form of solitary confinement. As long as this bill remains true to its current form and intentions, I can do nothing but support it and work to ensure that it passes so that those still languishing in those cells where I spent over six years straight in solitary confinement will no longer be subjected to that form of torture.
Our understanding is that this bill may move rather quickly and be put to a vote by May. There are several hearings scheduled, one in March and one in April, which I will convey the further details of once I have the exact information. Mobilizing people to come out to those hearings and to to convey to both the public at large as well as the representatives of the government of the State of Illinois that we will no longer allow the practice of torture in the form of solitary confinement will be imperative.
I generally ask very little of my friends, comrades, and supporters. Supporting this struggle to end solitary confinement in Illinois is one thing that I am asking that you step up and be part of.
We will have more details to convey as they become available. But we, those of us who have survived the horrors of long-term solitary confinement and live with the aftermath every moment of every day, are committed to ensuring that our brothers and sisters who remain there are no longer subjected to this torture.
Letter from my Friend and Comrade Brian Nelson on Ending Solitary Confinement in Illinois:
Over the past several years, I have spoken at numerous Universities and other forums about the torture I endured in solitary confinement. There is no doubt that solitary confinement is torture and has taken a terrible toll on my life. Anyone that has seen me talk have seen the affects first hand and understand why we need to join together in this fight to stop these horrific acts of torture. Some have asked me why I continually put myself through the torment of reliving solitary when I talk about it. First off, I believe that nobody should ever have to endure the evil treatment I endured. Second, no mother, wife, parent, child or friend should be tormented by seeing what solitary confinement does to their loved one. Have no doubt that my mother was tortured just by looking at me. Thirdly, solitary confinement is morally wrong and so barbaric that most of the countries in the world have outlawed its use and condemn the United States for the use of solitary and its overuse.
The United States government has admitted that they have no idea who is in solitary confinement in the Federal Prison system, nor why they are there, how long they have been there, or if they will ever be released. Recently, the federal government has restricted the use of solitary on juveniles and mentally ill prisoners. Unfortunately, this only applies to the federal prison system not the states and it is the states that hold most of the prisoners in solitary! We need to work to protect the millions of individuals incarcerated in the state penal systems.
I have been asked hundreds of times, “What can we do to stop this?” Well, I finally have an answer. Illinois State Representative Ford has entered a bill to restrict the use of solitary and he needs us to help educate the public about the evils of solitary confinement. Representative Ford needs us to form groups to lobby our local Representatives and State Senators to support this bill. I am appealing to everyone to help. Form a student group, create web pages, educate friends, family, and yourselves about how horrific and destructive solitary confinement is upon a person’s mind!
I am positive you have hundreds of other ideas. I will help anyway I can. Just let me know the best way I can help you in this fight. As I have said numerous times, you are the future and you can change this. I firmly believe that you can do this and a lot more.
Please help stop this evil and horrific torture that is being unjustly inflicted upon human beings. THANK YOU!
Solitary confinement in excess of 15 days amounts to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and can rise to the level of torture1 – Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture
“In the United States, more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement, often in miserable conditions, for periods of time that qualify as torture.2”
In Illinois, the current maximum amount of time a person can be held in solitary confinement is an indeterminate period of time. There is no limit on how long the State of Illinois can hold a person in solitary confinement, and many are held for periods of time that constitute torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Torture is a crime.
The State of Illinois is currently holding an unknown but knowable number of people in isolation under conditions that constitute torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act would prohibit the state-sanctioned use of torture in the form of solitary confinement, by limiting the maximum number of days a person can be held in isolation to 5 in any 150 day period.
The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act must be passed and implemented immediately.
Survivors of the state-sanctioned use of torture in the form of solitary confinement must be provided reparations and treatment.
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
Opening remarks by former prisoner Gregory Koger at LaSalle & Jackson on February 20th for the Occupy4prisoners march and rally in Chicago:
Photo courtesy FJJ
Amidst these financial buildings that literally and figuratively concentrate the stark reality of a system that puts the interests of profit over people, where commodities produced collectively by the people all across the world are bought and sold in trading pits and electronic blips on computer screens, and where the wealth of all that labor is wrenched away from the 99%, the people who created it, and into the coffers of the 1% – and the class that rules over society – Occupy Chicago headquarters at LaSalle and Jackson stands in the shadow of a federal prison. The Metropolitan Correctional Center, which we will be marching to momentarily, looms in eerie silence a block away from the Federal Reserve Bank, just beyond the Chicago Board of Trade.
This is emblematic of the omnipresent invisibility of the nearly 2.5 million men, women & children locked down in the hellholes of America’s historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration – and the millions more, mainly youth and people of color, who live under the threat of incarceration or the stigma and discrimination of life branded as a “criminal” or “felon.”
Wall Street and much of the financial district of Manhattan is built on the bones and bodies of slaves, and the first slave market in New York was built at the end of Wall Street. This system was founded on slavery, the extermination of the native peoples and the theft of their land, and the theft of half of Mexico.
Prisons have been integral to enforcing the brutal inhumanity of this system, repressing whole sections of society as well as groups and movements who have risen up in struggle for liberation. After the Civil War, “slavery by another name” was reimposed on Black folks through a Jim Crow system of racist laws that had former slaves arrested for such “crimes” as vagrancy and forced to labor for corporations – and sometimes even forced back to the owners of the plantations from which they were just freed.
When workers began to form unions and struggle against capitalist exploitation, the police and prison cells were waiting. When Black folks in the South began to stand up in determined struggle to demand to be treated as human beings, the police were there – with clubs and dogs and water hoses and jail cells. When broad sections of people rose up in the 1960s, the rulers of this system were profoundly shaken by the power of the people and unleashed wave after wave of repression, including assassinating and imprisoning leaders of the movement. And, as we’ve seen in our time, the coordinated national repression of the Occupy Movement – which we must stand against.
"Free 'em all!" - Occupy4prisoners Chicago formerly incarcerated: (from left) Gregory Koger, Fred Hampton, Jr., Dickey Gaines, and Darby Tillis. Photo courtesy FJJ.
Recognizing and fearing the power of the people, the rulers of this system set out to prevent any liberating movement from developing again. And as they searched for ways to more profitably exploit people in other countries, and took the factories and industrial jobs out of our cities, so began the explosion of mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, with a constant and growing stream of primarily Black and Brown people ripped from their families and intentionally defunded communities into the prison-tombs springing up across the prairies and plains.
Today we stand with thousands of others across the country in support of the bottom 1% of the 99%, locked down in prisons and jail cells and immigration “detention centers” across the country…