Confronting Human Rights Abuses in US Prisons
--an interview with Bret Grote of HRC/Fed Up!
Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in
The website for the founding chapter of Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in
Bret Grote: Our chapter of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) was formed in late 2004-early 2005 and was originally known as Fed Up! The group began as a collaboration between etta, an anti-prison activist who lives in
Given the inherent brutality in Supermax facilities, the diametrically opposed racial demographics between prison personnel and prisoners, and the prevailing culture of violent dehumanization within the U.S. prison system at every level, it is no surprise that reports of severe human rights violations began emerging from Red Onion and its twin institution Wallens Ridge State Prison, which sits 30 miles down the road atop a decapitated mountain, immediately after each opened in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
Fed Up! was formed in an effort to expose conditions of confinement in
Over the next couple of years Fed Up! built a contact list of hundreds of prisoners in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, documented dozens of reports of human rights violations, informed various governmental representatives and agencies-including the governor of Virginia—of these conditions, and mobilized allies for letter and phone campaigns in an effort to penetrate the silence that enables the worst of the abuse, and thereby having a chilling effect on the most grievous brutality.
Sometime prior to or during 2007, Fed Up! became an official chapter of the Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization whose founding chapter was and still remains active in
During these last two years we have documented hundreds upon hundreds of human rights violations (to view a small portion visit our website) from over 20 prisons in the state system (PA has 27 state prisons). These reports have been collated from thousands upon thousands of pages of prisoner letters and reports, criminal complaints, affidavits and declarations, civil litigation documents, prison records, along with countless hours of interviews and dialogue with current and former prisoners and their family and support people.
What our investigations demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt is that the state of
Every single prison in the state has a control unit, and most of these consist of barren and often filthy cells that not only are the size of a bathroom, but are in fact bathrooms. Prisoners are confined for 23-24 hours per day in their cells.
While this capsule description of solitary confinement may appear inhumane and degrading enough to constitute torture—and it is—the concise litany of conditions above more or less corresponds to the aspects of solitary confinement that are mandated by policy, with the exception of some forms of mail tampering. The fact of the matter is that these control units are never operated in accordance with policy and instead serve as quite deliberate repositories for excessive and arbitrary violence, starvation and deprivation of water, psychological torment, etc.
Prisoners targeted most heavily by the regime of control unit torture are those who attempt to exercise constitutional rights to file grievances and lawsuits and expose conditions to the public. The other dominant filters that dictate an enhanced probability for placement in solitary confinement are race and mental health, as prisoners of color and those in need of psychological and psychiatric care constitute a higher concentration of prisoners in solitary than in the general prison population, which of course already has higher concentrations of both populations than the general population.
This focus on investigating, exposing, and fighting against state torture has emerged from a twinned set of obligations that need to accompany not only abolitionist movements, but struggles for social justice in general: the need to take immediate action in partnership and solidarity with those most heavily targeted by systems of oppression while simultaneously building a sustainable movement with a visionary, liberatory objective.
During the last year we have engaged in a number of other projects and community outreach and coalition-building efforts as well. Some of the more promising ones in terms of their necessity and importance for sustainable organizing are the recently launched project focusing on women’s incarceration, our Innocence Division which aims to support the wrongfully convicted, and perhaps most crucial, the recent formation along with a number of other local groups of the Human Rights Alliance Pittsburgh, which works to generate an integrated, multi-front human rights movement by means of organizing local communities to struggle for their rights and build political power.
A3N: What role do prisoners and the families of prisoners have in HRC’Fed Up! today?
BG: Prisoners and their family members have provided the inspiration, dedication, strategy, and educational perspective from the beginning of HRC’s work. Understanding the importance of documentation and securing affidavits, educating us on key aspects of the law and how to file criminal complaints, networking and bringing us into contact with other prisoners and activists: all of this has come from those on the inside.
Even more to the point, the resistance, humor, persistence, dignity, and unbreakable humanity of those subjected to conditions designed to humiliate, degrade, terrorize, break, and otherwise kill the human spirit is a constant wellspring of motivation that fortifies our collective commitment at HRC/Fed Up!
Family members’ involvement is central, as our planning meetings and letter-writing nights frequently, though not always, feature the participation of those with loved ones inside. We routinely ask people to step up and respond to our action alerts in defense of those being starved, beaten, denied medical care or otherwise targeted, and it has been the responses of family members that have led to our ability to amplify our voices and have some degree of a chilling effect in certain situations.
Still, we need to make a more dedicated effort in my view to community organizing, since most people in
A3N: Can you please tell us about HRC/Fed Up!'s ongoing investigations into SCI
BG: In early June of this year we sent a letter to more than 20 current and former prisoners at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at
The highest concentration of reports come from the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which is PA’s own acronym for the solitary/control units, and these conform to the broad characteristics outlined above regarding solitary confinement, although certain depredations have been more prevalent at SCI Dallas. These include high incidence of sexual harassment by RHU staff and even reports of guards encouraging prisoners to sexually assault and rape other prisoners; frequent incitement to suicide, which was fatally successful in a case I’ll discuss below; guards arriving to work drunk—we have had a shocking number of reports regarding this, particularly concerning Correctional Officer Jimmy Wilkes; no effective ventilation, which was exacerbated by the plastic “spit shields” placed on prisoners’ doors in the RHU and a source of extreme misery in the stifling heat of summer; brown drinking and washing water from excessive amounts of iron, which was confirmed in a letter from the Department of Environmental Protection to a prisoner in the RHU that HRC/Fed Up! has obtained.
The assaults, racism, denial of adequate or even any medical care in solitary or general population, especially mental health treatment, denial of due process in internal grievance and misconduct procedures, obstruction of access to the courts via the destruction of legal documents and arbitrary restrictions on usage of the law library are commonplace at SCI Dallas as they are throughout the control units of PA with varying degrees of intensity.
During the course of our still ongoing investigation, on August 24, 2009, a prisoner in the RHU named Matthew Bullock committed suicide. The PA DOC issued a press release, as is their legal obligation, on 25 August 2009 announcing his death. Only two days later we received the first report that guards were involved in encouraging and enabling Mr. Bullock’s death. Since then we have learned through more than half-a-dozen eyewitness reports, several of which were submitted as affidavits, that Mr. Bullock was extremely mentally ill and according to his family had attempted suicide on at least six separate occasions while confined in the PA DOC. Guards repeatedly kicked on the door of his cell and taunted him, telling him to kill himself, and calling him a child molester and rapist, despite his having no record of any such crimes. Mr. Bullock told guards he was going to kill himself on the morning of August 24. Guards encouraged him to do so and subsequently moved him from cell #50, which was/is a psychiatric observation cell with a camera, to cell #48, which had no camera. Guards on the afternoon shift then reportedly failed to make rounds. Mr. Bullock was found hanging in his cell at 6:15 pm.
Because our investigations involve advocacy and are pursued with the explicit aim of abolishing control unit torture and other human rights violations in the prison system, we have earned the trust of many prisoners, and this is the reason that so many have come forward with reports of torture and human rights violations in SCI Dallas and elsewhere. As a result of their courage in speaking out we were able to break the story of the Bullock suicide in the local newspaper, the Wilkes Barre Times Leader. Mr. Bullock’s trial lawyer read the story and contacted our office. We have provided a lot of documentation and witness statements to them, and they have recently opened an estate on Mr. Bullock’s behalf, which is the first step in an eventual lawsuit.
Despite the negative publicity and small measure of exposure, conditions have not improved in the slightest, and acts of retaliation have in fact escalated recently. Reports of assault and instances of days long starvation continue to come into our offices multiple times each week.
HRC/Fed Up! has compiled the evidence we have accumulated and periodically notified those in positions of power with attendant requests for transparent investigations so as to ensure accountability and enforce the rule of law in the administration of the criminal legal system. In early July, over 70 state representatives and senators were put on notice of our preliminary findings, along with the PA DOC, the PA Attorney General and Governor Rendell (who it must be noted has a sordid history of criminal conspiracy and human rights violations himself, stemming from his role as the District Attorney of Philadelphia during the city’s war against the MOVE organization and the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal). Further notices were sent in September, with even more copious documentation. To date no action has been taken by the PA DOC, the Attorney General of PA, or the Governor. Nor has the District Attorney of Luzerne County—notorious site of the kids-for-cash judicial scandal—taken any action regarding criminal complaints regarding the Bullock incident or the acts of assault and starvation and intimidation against Andre Jacobs, a brilliant 27 year-old jailhouse lawyer who was recently awarded $115,000 in a case against the PA DOC.
Our strategy has been to grant PA state authorities the opportunity to do the right thing while simultaneously preparing for the predictable reality that they will not. Our next steps are the filing of formal criminal complaints with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the issuing of a major human rights report detailing our findings regarding SCI Dallas. The basic idea is to methodically link state authorities at every jurisdictional level into a chain of notice and liability and to reflect the failure of the government to enforce the rule of law and uphold basic human rights onto the public consciousness in order to create the degree of exposure necessary for enabling mass movements and coherent, collective action against the injustices of the police-security state.
In the process we seek to bring methodically incremental increases in the forms and effects of pressure so as to provide improvements in immediate conditions. Or, in other words, we seek to win small battles as a method for building power and strength for the larger ones. Success often appears distant.
I just saw on the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader website that another prisoner died at SCI Dallas on Saturday morning (read here). Autopsy results have not been determined and/or released, and the name has not been made public either. The article says the individual fell ill early Saturday morning and died at the hospital. My question is why is this one being reported? Deaths from "natural causes," i.e. medical conditions, are not required to be made public. Others have died at
A3N: Does HRC see solitary confinement as a form of torture? Why do you think prison authorities use solitary confinement?
BG: What HRC or any members involve consider torture might be an interesting question, but it is of limited utility for effective political organizing. How do international law and the
Do the conditions of control unit confinement meet this standard? There is not space here to go over the evidence, which could fill several hundred pages on the basis of our two-year investigations in prisons in PA alone, but those familiar with the subject have an unequivocal grasp of the reality that solitary confinement deliberately inflicts “severe pain and suffering,” especially psychological, and cannot be justified on legitimate, i.e. “lawful,” grounds. The reasons for these conclusions are several but I will simply touch on two matters here: the psychological impact of solitary confinement and its failure to meet stated policy objectives.
The scientific consensus deduced from copious research on the psychological impact of solitary confinement is that the experience generates considerable and sometimes permanent mental suffering. One of the foremost experts on the subject, Dr. Stuart Grassian, reveals that “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium,” and outlines the following seven symptoms as being characteristic of an “organic brain delirium” associated with solitary confinement: a) hyperresponsivity to external stimuli; b) perceptual distortions, illusions, hallucinations; c) panic attacks; d) difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory; e) intrusive obsessional thoughts: emergence of primitive aggressive ruminations; f) overt paranoia; g) problems with impulse control.
Questionnaires submitted by HRC/Fed Up! to over 75 prisoners in SCI Dallas and throughout the state confirm the presence of these same symptomatic patterns amongst a disturbingly large number of the solitary confinement population. Incidents of self-harm, including suicide attempts, occur regularly and are certainly under-reported. At SCI Fayette, between the months of July and September, HRC received reports from RHU prisoners that two men set their cells on fire, one of those same men cut himself and swallowed a razor, another man tried to hang himself, and another two cut their wrists and arms. These examples can be multiplied throughout the PA DOC and the entire country.
As for the pretext that solitary confinement reduces violence in prisons and ensures secure facilities, this is supported by literally zero credible evidence to my knowledge. All available testimony and reports would seem to indicate that solitary units create a psychological condition of such absolute repression that instances of violence and brutality proliferate. Not to mention the obvious fact that a stay in the hole exacerbates mental illness, rage, frustration, and other characteristics of anti-social behavioral traits.
Countless prisoners report being forced to max out their sentences because of alleged disciplinary infractions that land them in solitary. The conditions of confinement in the PA DOC are a major contributing factor to recidivism rates that hover around 50% in the first three years after release, helping to feed a chronic crisis of overcrowding. This refutes the notion that the PA DOC has any legitimate security, penological, correctional or other rationale behind the program.
In other words, there is nothing lawful in the sanctioning of one to solitary confinement, as it clearly contributes to social destabilization by engendering even more criminality on the part of prison personnel and prisoners in an endless cycle that diverts funding from desperately needed social programs in order to disappear and warehouse members of the underclass. These conditions are a flagrant violation of article 6 of the U.S. Constitution as well, which affirms that treaty law (i.e. international law) is the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, article 10 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.”
A3N: What role does solitary confinement have in the overall prison system? Since 1970, the prison population has increased from 300,000 to over 2.3 million today. The
BG: I’ll be concise here. Solitary confinement is the innermost core of the US-led imperial architecture of terror. A succinct overview of this architecture can be formulated as follows:
1) The solitary confinement population is used to terrorize the prisoner population;
2) The prison population is used to terrorize poor communities in general and communities of color in particular;
3) Social and economic conditions in these communities are used to terrorize the middle classes;
4) The middle classes are used to carry out the social, economic, and political agenda of the ruling/owning class;
5) The ruling class uses this domestic base of power to organize empire abroad;
6) Empire generates a trajectory of apocalypse;
7) We have to stop this.
This sketch can be developed with varying degrees of nuance, focus, and elaboration, but seems durable enough for me.
In this respect the proliferation of solitary confinement/supermax conditions in the U.S. has corresponded closely with the rise of policies of mass incarceration and the global regime of neoliberal capitalism and its economic ideology of corporate supremacy, which I won’t describe here except to say that the deindustrialization of U.S. society has generated an ever-escalating number of people who are useless to the accumulation of wealth. When these populations become fodder for the prison industry they obtain economic capital while the systematic removal of massive numbers of poor people, especially people of color, from anything but marginal or token participation in the economic, social, and political domains serves the political function of neutralizing potential bases for movements against the unjust status quo.
A3N: Concerning strategies of resistance, how do you think human rights and international law framework can be applied to prison conditions as a method/strategy/philosophy for investigations, exposure, and organizing? How does this relate to other struggles against the PIC and for human rights generally?
BG: Human rights, which are rooted in international law and designed to ensure the self-determination of peoples and thus a humane, sustainable, and legitimate social order, have a number of immediate advantages as framing instruments for the widest array of political struggle possible.
First of all, this frame turns reality right side up and exposes with grim clarity the criminality of the corporate-state. No matter the severity of crimes committed by those languishing anywhere in the U.S. prison system—and nobody disputes that some of those in prison are dangerous, violent, and pathologically anti-social—these crimes pale in comparison to wars of aggression, radical and ceaseless violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention against Torture, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Genocide Convetnion, etc. ad nauseam.
In fact, the systemic criminality of the political-economic order generates the oppressive power relations and attendant conditions of poverty, addiction, illicit economic activity, and normalized violence—especially against women and children—that fosters officially defined and punished crime. For those who are serious about ending violence and poverty in our collective communities it is imperative that a core objective of such a project is to mobilize a coherent mass movement from below to put constraints on and eventually eliminate altogether the ability of those in positions of power to engage in serial violations of the rights of others.
This framework has everything to do with accountability and necessitates that we work tirelessly to generate understanding and action around the reality that those who design and operate systems of power in this society are guilty of perpetrating crimes against humanity and must be stopped.
Specifically, in the context of day to day organizing around the prison system, it means that individuals and organizations concerned with the rights and lives of prisoners need to familiarize themselves with the basic principles of international human rights law as it pertains to the criminal legal system (I refuse to call it a justice system) and collect evidence regarding the state’s failure to implement basic human rights and constitutional safeguards for prisoners. The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, amongst other human rights documents, are appropriate for orienting a host of campaigns toward dismantling the worst practices of the present system while simultaneously implementing alternative structures and practices.
Widespread dissemination of human rights documents and literature and the creation of community and movement curriculums toward this end are other means to build, and in part reconstruct, a rights-based culture of political dissent. Rights-based cultures naturally create movements that make demands and mobilize to enforce those demands, without asking for permission from repressive authorities or the ideal historical circumstances for organizing from below. A rights-based culture is a culture of struggle, cooperation, collective accountability, historical consciousness, and dedicated to creating a better world for those generations that will follow. Rights-based cultures are constituted by unbreakable bonds of solidarity, trust, and responsibility.
As anybody familiar with even a fraction of the history of popular struggles for social justice knows, these movements—while they rise and fall, wax and wane—never disappear so long as injustice exists; they are built to last. In fact, the human rights framework corresponds to the liberation movements of the 60 and 70s embodied in the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement amongst others.
Ultimately, human rights discourse and organizing revolves around the question of power: what forces in society hold power, how is it defined, who makes decisions and who suffers the consequences. For this end it is essential that we work to proliferate human rights alliances so as to build the necessary capacity and solidarity to confront the question of power. That is why the Human Rights Alliance of Pittsburgh, young as it is, strikes me as one of our most promising projects.
More practically, a method of documentation, intervention, and movement-building is effective for 1) tracking and exposing human rights violations in prisons, and other areas of society as well; 2) accumulating evidence to strengthen arguments in support of mass action for social reconstruction; 3) building trust with prisoners and their families by taking advocacy actions to the greatest degree possible; 4) building an organizational network with communication infrastructure that will serve to inform, foster dialogue, and mobilize increasing numbers of prisoners and their families and communities.
A3N: What link can we make between the work of HRC/Fed-Up! and the movement to free the
BG: The relationship between the work of HRC/Fed Up! and the struggles of the
Solitary confinement is a mechanism to isolate and neutralize leadership elements, people with the ability to articulate a common vision, support their principles with action, and build trust, solidarity, self-empowerment, and unbreakable determination within oppressed populations inside the prison and out. As
As Cain further stated about Woodfox, “I still know he has a propensity for violence...he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates.” For those familiar with the actual program and ideology of the Black Panther Party, Cain’s statement contains a key insight: the struggle for human rights amongst oppressed peoples is an unacceptable threat to a system built and sustained upon the denial of those rights.
Our task in this context is clear: to carry forward in our work with renewed intensity and dedication, honoring those who struggled before us, acting on our responsibilities toward those who will follow, and building the movements of today that will confront and ultimately defeat this unspeakably cruel and inhuman system.
A3N: How can readers best support HRC/Fed Up! with its work?
BG: We have no staff and even less money, so financial contributions are extremely helpful. We have a lot of printing and mailing needs, as we send dozens of letters to prisoners each month, not to mention criminal complaints, letters to state officials and legislators, and other operational costs, including transportation costs for a possible speaking tour and visits to prisons. Checks can be made to HRC/Fed Up! and sent to us at
Most importantly, however, get in contact with us so we can learn from each other’s work and practice mutual aid and solidarity in whatever ways appropriate and possible. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-361-3022.
And finally, please do send an email and join our Emergency Response Network to help us spread information and take collective action in urgent situations involving starvation, assaults, medical neglect, and other human rights violations in PA prisons. Set up your own ERN for your city, state, and/or region, and lets network to help shatter the silence that enables the torture to continue.