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“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”—Karl Marx
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Rising From The Pit: Illinois Prisoners Join National Upsurge of Resistance to Torture and Dehumanizing Conditions in U.S. Prisons

In 1878 convicts began backbreaking labor carving into the limestone bluffs along the bank of the Mississippi River outside Chester, Illinois. Over a decade of sweat and sorrow at gunpoint produced two cell houses enclosed by a massive wall built from the limestone quarried by the prisoners. The prison – formerly Southern Illinois Penitentiary and now Menard “Correctional Center” – is known as “The Pit.”

On January 15, 2014, prisoners in The Pit’s “High Security Unit” began a hunger strike to oppose their placement into inhumane conditions in isolation under Administrative Detention. Solitary confinement exceeding 15 days is considered torture and prohibited under international law. We must support the prisoners stepping forward and putting their lives on the line to demand an end to these crimes being systematically perpetrated by the rulers of the United States.

The courageous hunger strike by prisoners at Menard is the latest uprising in a wave of prisoner-lead struggle against torture and the dehumanizing conditions within the United States’ historically unprecedented system of mass incarceration. Last year’s 30,000-strong resumption of the California prison hunger strike (which I joined for two weeks in solidarity while a political prisoner in Cook County Jail) was the biggest and most publicized, but a number of other organized struggles by prisoners have taken place in the last several years – from work stoppages in Georgia to hunger strikes in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington. Also last year prisoners in Guantanamo participated in a long hunger strike and faced brutal forced feeding, bringing resistance and exposure on a more international level. Recently, prisoners in Indiana’s Westville “Correctional Facility” began a hunger strike on January 13, 2014 to protest nutritionally deficient food.

*****

Many of the prisoners on hunger strike in Menard were formerly held in Tamms – Illinois’ official “supermax” prison modeled after Pelican Bay SHU. Tamms was closed down in January 2013 after a fifteen year long political and legal battle by prisoners, family members and activists. Several of the prisoners placed in the HSU at Menard are “jailhouse lawyers” – prisoners self-educated in the law who help other prisoners with legal work and challenge prison conditions.

“They won’t tell anybody why they are in Administrative Detention, let alone give them an informal hearing to contest the undisclosed allegations,”1 one Menard prisoner wrote. He said, “There are mice just running wild. They have 20 guys using one pair of fingernail clippers with no cleaning in between uses, there is absolutely no mental health screening or evaluation, nor do any mental health staff even make rounds.” Another prisoner said, “I’m a jailhouse lawyer. And [I] file/help other prisoners with their grievances and lawsuits. Because of that I was retaliated against and transferred to Menard and placed in the High Security Unit under Administrative Detention.”2

Since beginning the hunger strike, prisoners reported to attorney Alice Lynd (and published in the San Francisco BayView) that “officers shook down their cells and took any food they found. The hunger strikers were sent to see medical staff and charged $5 for medical treatment.”3 In 2000 the IDOC began charging prisoners $5 per incident to receive medical care – a direct violation of international law, including the United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment which states that prisoners’ medical “care and treatment shall be provided free of charge.”

Additionally, Lynd reported one prisoner was pushed down the stairs by two officers while handcuffed and then beaten.4 Officers pushing handcuffed and/or shackled prisoners down the stairs is a common form of retaliation in segregation units in Illinois prisons, as prisoners are never allowed to leave their cells without handcuffs and/or shackles.

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With the closing of Tamms – the most visible face of torture in Illinois’ prison system – prisoners were sent to other prisons where the practice of solitary confinement has been hiding behind older and less-scrutinized walls. Within weeks of Tamms prisoners being transferred to Illinois’ long-term disciplinary segregation prison in Pontiac, IL, nearly 50 prisoners began a hunger strike opposing the conditions there. A number of smaller and not well-publicized hunger strikes against the conditions at Pontiac have taken place since it was converted from a regular maximum security prison to long-term disciplinary segregation in the late-1990s.

Debate and struggle roil every day behind the prison walls about the repressive and degrading conditions and what to do about it – especially in solitary confinement. Far too often prisoners have little or no connection on the other side of the walls to expose the horrors of what they are facing – and to support them when they do organize to oppose those conditions.

Solitary confinement is specifically implemented to destroy people psychologically, emotionally and intellectually. It is a severely damaging and demobilizing form of torture that survivors never escape. Over 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Mass incarceration, rooted in the foundational white supremacy of this country, is a response of the ruling class to the driving dynamics of capitalism-imperialism. The drive for ever greater profits has decimated inner city communities as factories uprooted and set up sweatshops abroad where they can even more brutally exploit workers than they can here – leaving generations of principally Black and Brown youth locked out of society who will never be meaningfully employed. It is also a conscious response to the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s – implemented to contain and repress millions who this system has no future for and who could become the backbone of the struggle for a radically different and more liberated world for all humanity.

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The conditions and retaliation described by the men in Menard sound all too real and familiar to me. I spent over 6 years straight in indeterminate segregation in Pontiac – and most of my time there in the North Cellhouse.  It was under those same conditions that I became part of a new generation of prison-educated revolutionaries beginning to emerge within those concrete tombs. I firmly believe it will take revolution – nothing less – to end the crimes of this system, and that we can bring into being a society that values and meets the material, cultural and intellectual needs of all humanity – a communist world.

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

“The world needs to know of the sadistic, systemic horror of long-term solitary confinement, which is enforced on more than 80,000 people in the U.S. prison system. We know that revisiting this can be difficult for those who are facing or have faced these conditions, but the truth must be laid bare for all. All of society needs to know of the racial profiling that sucked you into the pipeline to prison, of the horrific conditions everyone in prison endures and of the open discrimination formerly incarcerated people face after release. You are in a unique position to expose the lying justifications given by the authorities for what they are.”

“Send these stories to the Bear Witness Project of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. Through this you will be opening the eyes of those who are shielded from the real situation in the inner cities and the actual conditions enforced in prison. And letting those caught up in the cycle of going in and out of prison know that what they’re up against are social problems, not individual ones, and that by standing up and resisting them together, we can change the way mass incarceration is looked at in society and contribute to bringing forward a movement that can end it.”

And I call on all people of conscience to support the prisoners and to step forward and follow the courageous example they are setting. Much love, respect and support to the brothers and sisters rising up from deep within the depths of this criminal system of injustice.

*****

Mail Bear Witness correspondence to:

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

For those outside the walls:
contact@PRLF.org

stopmassincarceration@gmail.com

Web: www.stopmassincarceration.org

Footnotes:

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

2. Id.

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

4. Id.

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

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Statement by Gregory Koger at the Chicago City Council Hearing on Anti-Torture Resolution

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 hereI 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. 

Gregory’s Statement

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 documented– 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.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.

4 The 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.

6 Hellhole. Dr. Atul Gawande. The New Yorker. March 30, 2009.

7Dr. Atul Gawande: Solitary Confinement is Torture.” Democracy Now! January 5, 2011.

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Chicago Rally in Support of the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

Rally in Support of the Hunger Strike and Just Demands of Prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 — 10:30 am

On the steps of the Cook County Courthouse (26th & California)

In an act of tremendous courage, prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in California are beginning an indefinite hunger strike on July 1, 2011. This hunger strike is demanding an end to the horrendous and dehumanizing conditions imposed on prisoners at Pelican Bay.  People everywhere must come to their aid and support their demands.

Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is a super-maximum security prison located in an isolated part of northern California, twenty miles from the Oregon border.  There are more than 3,000 prisoners confined at this prison. More than a thousand prisoners are locked down in the SHU at Pelican Bay, where they are subjected to isolation, maximum sensory deprivation, and brutality.

These conditions are horrific, dehumanizing and in violation of international law.  This is official state-sanctioned torture, carried out in state and federal prisons across the nation. In fact, tens of thousands of prisoners are confined to isolation units throughout the country.]

The following core demands are being circulated in a “final notice from prisoners on D-Corridor” at Pelican Bay:

1)       End “group punishment” where an individual prisoner breaks a rule and prison officials punish a whole group of prisoners of the same race.

2)       Abolish “debriefing” and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. False and/or highly questionable “evidence” is used to accuse prisoners of being active/inactive members of prison gangs who are then sent to the SHU where they are subjected to long-term isolation and torturous conditions. One of the only ways these prisoners can get out the SHU is if they “debrief”…that is, give prison officials information on gang activity.

3)        Comply with recommendations from a 2006 U.S. commission to “make segregation a last resort” and “end conditions of isolation.”

4)       Provide Adequate Food. Prisoners report unsanitary conditions and small quantities of food. They want adequate food, wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals and an end to the use of food as a way to punish prisoners in the SHU.

5)       Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates…including the opportunity to “engage in self-help treatment, education, religious and other productive activities…” which are routinely denied. Demands include one phone call per week, more visiting time, permission to have wall calendars, sweat suits and watch caps (warm clothing is often denied even though cells and the exercise cage can be bitterly cold.

The prisoners who have called for this strike have made clear that they are uniting across racial lines, an extremely important development, given racial divisions in prison, which are often fomented by prison officials.  And they have called on prisoners throughout the California prison system, including prisoners who are “suffering injustices in general population, administrative segregation and solitary confinement,” to join them in the strike.

The prisoners are shining a spotlight on the horrific and unacceptable conditions existing inside the corridors of Pelican Bay State Prison; they must not be allowed to stand alone. People throughout the state of California and beyond must urgently come to their aid and support, standing firmly in support of the hunger strike and supporting the just demands of the prisoners.

 

Resources on the Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strike: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/

News from Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and Protests at Revolution newspaper

Speakers/Endorsers list in formation includes:

Duffie Clark, Illinois Institute for Community Law

Mark Clemmons, Administrator with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty

Englewood Political Task Force

Fred Hampton, Jr.; Chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee

Omega; C Number Prisoners Campaign

Dwight Taylor, Citizens Against Violence in Gary

Voice Of The Ex-offender (V.O.T.E.)

 

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