NB – This piece was written while I was in long-term isolation in solitary confinement in prison and originally published as “I Stand Un-‘Corrected'” in the September 2005 issue of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center‘s The Public i.
Pontiac Correctional Center is at the forefront of the recent trend in “corrections,” actually a regression to old trends, that establishes increasingly restrictive conditions in the name of “behavior modification” – long-term warehousing of prisoners under draconian sensory deprivation and isolation. These conditions are by no means arbitrarily selected or accidental. They are specifically designed to profoundly alter the psychological and emotional make-up of the prisoner. These modern-day methods inflict the maximal amount of psychological, emotional, and physical isolation and distress, usually under the pretext of “security.”
The objective is to dehumanize and depersonalize the prisoner in order to “correct,” “reeducate,” and “rehabilitate” them by removing all individuality, cognition, independence, and autonomy through a total control environment. This reduces the prisoner to a docile, compliant, complacent, easily-controlled slave that will submit to and accept whatever programming the “correctional” administration deems best.
As a prisoner at Pontiac, you will find yourself in an empty concrete and steel box, approximately 6 feet by 10 feet, where you will be confined 24 hours a day. Bare white walls surround you. Don’t even think about putting up a photo of your family, a drawing, or anything else on the walls to reduce the drab blankness, because doing so is a violation of the rules and will result in disciplinary action. You must not be allowed to consider yourself an individual. Your cell will have a number, and so will you. This number will be your “product identification code” and is emblazoned on your prison ID card along with a bar code and your photo. Any mail you receive must have your number along with your name, or else it will be returned to sender.
Inside your cell, you are furnished with a dark, worn out mattress and pillow. You have a steel sink and toilet, and a light. Some cells have a steel desk attached to the wall-simply a flat piece of metal sticking out of the wall. A steel bunk, which your mattress rests upon, is securely bolted to the floor. The front of the cell is either a solid-steel door, a perforated metal door, or bars, depending on where you are located (and your behavior-the solid-steel door is used as punishment to increase the sensory deprivation and reduce your physical contact with staff and other inmates). This empty cell is where you will spend your days.
In contrast to the general population of most prisons, Pontiac is designated as “segregation,” sometimes referred to as “the hole,” or “solitary confinement.” You do not leave your cell. You eat in your cell, you get one eight-minute shower per week, and they have individual cages (approximately the size of one and a half or two cells) that you can go outside for approximately two hours, two times a week. Whenever you leave your cell, you will be handcuffed, and sometimes shackled and chained as well. You will be escorted by an officer wherever you go.
Any property you have is restricted. You can’t wear pants or regular prison clothing. You are forced to wear a tan-colored jumpsuit. The only other clothing items you may have are a few pairs of underwear, undershirts and socks, a pair of shoes, and a coat and thermal underwear for winter. Everything you have must fit inside a small plastic property box that contains about 1.5 cubic feet of space. You are limited to having the amount of paperwork, books, magazines, and newspapers that will fit inside that small box. Some people aren’t allowed to have the boxes and are limited to only 25 items. Any excess can be confiscated. If you have the money, you can buy 2 bars of soap, some toothpaste, shampoo, and lotion in small individualized packets, writing paper and pre-stamped envelopes. The only pen you are allowed to have (and the one I am using now) is tiny and made of flexible rubber and plastic, approximately 3 inches long. Your toothbrush is less than 2 inches long and consists of a small brush with a tiny flat handle barely large enough to grip.
No mirrors are permitted at Pontiac, unlike other prisons with either steel mirrors permanently attached in the cell, or small flexible plastic mirrors. The entire objective here at Pontiac is depersonalization. We wouldn’t want you to be able to see yourself, what you look like, or remember that you are an individual.
You may also purchase a small plastic fan and an electric razor to shave with. Depending on where you are located, you may also be allowed to purchase a radio or TV. I was in the North cell house for 4 years and no one there was allowed to have a radio or TV (except the people on death row, which is also housed in the North cell house but separate from segregation).
As you lie on your bunk in your cell, your ears will be bombarded by a constant, nonstop cacophony of people screaming, yelling, arguing, banging on doors, walls, beds, boxes, sinks, toilets, and floors. People who are psychologically disturbed will be talking to themselves, smearing feces on their walls and on their bodies, mutilating themselves, and even committing suicide. You will routinely be choked by pepper spray that is used inside the building, usually by the “tactical team.” The “tac team” is a specially equipped team of approximately 6 officers wearing body armor, helmets, gas masks, with a shield and stick (they also wear orange jumpsuits under their body armor and hence carry the nickname “orange crush”). If for some reason you are asked to leave your cell and you refuse to comply, the “tac team” will come to your cell, spray a cloud of pepper spray, and then rush in to subdue you, handcuff you, shackle you, and remove you from your cell.
You will be allowed two one-hour visits per month, if you have family that can come visit you. During the visit you will be separated from your visitor by a glass window and speak to them through an intercom. The entire time you will be sitting on a small metal stool, handcuffed, chained and shackled, and connected to the floor or stool by a chain.
This is, briefly, what you would experience here in Pontiac. All day, every day is spent in a small drab cell with basically nothing. The property restrictions are such that you can barely possess even a few books, newspapers and magazines, maybe a radio or TV. You will also be subjected to strip searches at various times, have your cell “shook down,” searched by the officers who will take anything they consider “excess” or “altered.” If you run afoul of the officers, you may also receive some “special treatment”: being denied food, having your personal property stolen, having your water turned off, or beaten, among other things. You will also be given disciplinary “tickets” for violating arbitrary rules or not answering to the whims of an officer. Your punishment for receiving a “ticket” can range from lost privileges to lost good time-thus increasing your time spent in prison. Or you may even be criminally prosecuted and sentenced to more time in prison, as I was for resisting an officer who tried to threaten me and steal my property. This occurred when I was in Stateville Correctional Center and is the reason I was sent here to Pontiac. I would already be released from prison by now if it wasn’t for this incident.
I’ve engaged in various forms of resistance – both violent and non-violent – to withstand the oppressive conditions I’ve experienced in the Illinois Department of Corrections over the past 10 years. I’ve been held captive here since the age of 17. In my opinion, the greatest and most effective act of resistance has been my constant reading and studying. This way, I can break the chains that have been forced upon me by society. As I have experienced, prison conditions in the state “correctional” centers are actively and intentionally designed to prevent me from using my time productively.
I refuse to be “corrected.”
I’d like to sincerely thank the UC Books to Prisoners Project <www.books2prisoners.org>. Please know, from someone on the inside, that sending prisoners books that will help them educate themselves on the social, economic, and political realities of our world is truly more effective than all the “correction” that the system can impose. If you would like to find out more about the deplorable conditions in American prisons, conditions that rival the types of abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, human rights violations occurring daily in prisons all across America, an excellent source of information is Prison Legal News at www.prisonlegalnews.org