Kiilu Nyasha is a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Kiilu hosts a weekly TV program, "Freedom Is A Constant Struggle," on SF Live (Comcast 76 and AT&T 99), which can be viewed live hereon Friday at 7:30 pm (PST), and rebroadcast Saturdays at 3:30 p.m., and Mondays, 6:30 p.m.. She writes for several publications, including the SF Bay View Newspaper and BlackCommentator.com. Also an accomplished radio programmer, she has worked for KPFA (Berkeley), SF Liberation Radio, Free Radio Berkeley, and KPOO in SF. Some of her work is archived at www.kpfa.org. and www.myspace.com/official_kiilu
ARTWORK BY KIILU NYASHA: From left to right: Hugo "Yogi Bear" Pinell, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Albert "Nuh" Washington.
AMERICA’S SUPERMAX PRISONS DO TORTURE
by Kiilu Nyasha
November 22, 2009
President Barack Obama has clearly stated, “We don’t torture.”
Oh, yes we do. Big time.
A myriad of studies have clearly shown that human beings are social creatures – making prolonged isolation torture.
The New Yorker published an article March 30, 2009 by Atul Gawande titled, Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?
Gawande asks, “If prolonged isolation is – as research and experience have confirmed for decades –so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”
By 2000, some 60 supermax prisons had been opened nationwide, in addition to new isolation units in nearly all maximum-security prisons.
The first such gulag was established in 1983 in Marion, Illinois. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border housing over 1,200 captives. It’s been the model for dozens of other states to follow. The SHU (Security Housing Unit) is entirely windowless, and from inside a cell with doors perforated with tiny holes, prisoners can only see the hallway.
They’re confined 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year with just a brief time (when permitted) in the “dog run” or outdoor enclosure for solitary exercise with no equipment, not even a ball.
But after nearly 20 years, California is now holding more people in solitary than ever; yet its gang problem is worse, and the violence rates have actually gone up.
Nationwide, at least 25,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement with another 50-80,000 in segregation units, many additionally isolated but those numbers are not released.
According to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons reported there are 216 so-called international terrorists and 139 so-called domestic terrorists currently in federal facilities (I’m convinced the real terrorists are on Capitol Hill). No one has ever escaped from these “most secure prisons.”
In a 60 Minutes segment titled, Supermax: A Clean Version of Hell (revisited), June 21, 2009, the reporters took cameras into the ADX-Florence, Colorado Supermax where there have been six wardens since it opened in 1994. It’s where Imam Jalil al-Amin and Mutulu Shakur are held captive, along with myriad other political prisoners.
One former warden stated, “I don’t know what hell is, but I do know the assumption would be, for a free person, it’s pretty close to it.”
“Supermax is the place America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most – a place the warden described as a clean version of hell.”
In a national study (Hayes and Rowan 1988) of 401 suicides in U.S. prisons —one of the largest studies of its kind—two out of every three people who committed suicide were being held in a control unit.
In one year, 2005, a record 44 prisoners killed themselves in California alone; 70 percent of those suicides occurred in segregation units
Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In the Angola 3 Newsletter, Grote details how HRC/Fed Up! Documented many hundreds of human rights abuses in Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons. Their investigations concluded that Pennsylvania is “operating a sophisticated program of torture under an utterly baseless pretext of ‘security,’ wherein close to 3,000 people are held in conditions of solitary/control unit confinement each day.”
Supermax prisons can also contain death rows where prisoners can spend decades in isolation, torture, with the added torment of impending execution. One obvious example is the highly political case of former Black Panther, journalist and author, Mumia Abu-Jamal, falsely convicted of killing a cop in 1981. Despite hard evidence of innocence, he’s still locked up in SCI Green, a Pennsylvania Supermax, after 27 years on death row and the signing of two death warrants.
These conditions are a flagrant violation of article 6 of the U.S. Constitution 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.”
Contrary to the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric of politicians, A Zogby poll released in April 2006 found 87 percent of Americans favor rehabilitative services for prisoners as opposed to punishment only.
The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, produced a study after a yearlong investigation (2005-2006) that called for ending long-term solitary confinement of prisoners. The report found practically no benefits and plenty of harm – for prisoners and the public.
One of the most egregious cases of prolonged torture is the politically-charged isolation of Hugo Pinell still held in PelicanBay’s SHU after nearly 20 years. For his active resistance back in the 1960s and assault conviction in the San Quentin Six case (1976), my dear friend has spent a total of 40 years in hellholes – 45 of his 64 years in California prisons. (http://www.hugopinell.org).
“In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation,” writes Gawande, “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 30-minute drive from my home.”
In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!
The infamous “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a method of torture in Imperial China, appears to be the model the State and Federal judicial systems are employing in the handling of the appeals for Herman and Albert. Year by year, month by month, day by day, the myriad indignities and injustices mount up as endless delays hinder the final resolution of their cases.
Herman's brief stint in a two-man cell ended last week when he was moved to a one-man cell again, but he remains in lockdown for another 90 days or so from now. This means he has limited material in his cell, infrequent time in the exercise pen, no contact visits and minimal commissary. All his mail is monitored closely, but that's nothing new.
Albert meanwhile remains in CCR in Angola awaiting a decision from the 5th Circuit Court on upholding the overturning of his conviction and so another year grinds to a halt with the State increasing their efforts and expenditures to keep two men, 62 and 68 respectively in punitive lockdown after 37 years in solitary confinement for a murder that there is still no evidence that they actually committed.
GuantanamoBay has drawn universal condemnation, but the evolution of our own prison system remains as far away as ever, impervious to the rising tide of public criticism and the economic hardships created by this system. The articles below are a sad testament to these dark times.
Dr. Terry Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. wrote the introduction to From the Bottom of the Heap and is Institute Professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Dr. Kupers is a psychiatrist with a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensics and social and community psychiatry. His forensic psychiatry experience includes testimony in several large class action litigations concerning jail and prison conditions, sexual abuse, and the quality of mental health services inside correctional facilities. He is a consultant to Human Rights Watch, and author of the 1999 book entitled Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It.
King and Kupers were interviewed in Oakland, California in October, 2009, when King was in town for Black Panther History Month. This video is only part one, so please stay tuned for more!
Jeanne Theoharis is the author of an April, 2009 article in The Nation, entitled “Guantanamo At Home,” which focuses on the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of US citizen Syed Hashmi in a New York City prison with Guantanamo-like conditions. Theoharis holds the endowed chair in women's studies and is an associate professor of political science at BrooklynCollege, CUNY.
Syed Hashmi’s trial will begin in New York City on December 1. The website www.freefahad.com explains that: “Syed Hashmi, known to his family and friends as Fahad, was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1980, the second child of Syed Anwar Hashmi and Arifa Hashmi. Fahad immigrated with his family to America when he was three years old. His father said ‘We knew there would be many opportunities for us here in the United States. We came here to find the American dream.’ The large Hashmi family settled in Flushing, New York and soon developed deep roots throughout the tri-state area. Fahad graduated from RobertF.WagnerHigh School in 1998 and attended SUNYStonyBrookUniversity. He transferred to BrooklynCollege, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2003. A devout Muslim, through the years Fahad established a reputation as an activist and advocate. In 2003, Fahad enrolled in LondonMetropolitanUniversity in England to pursue a master’s degree in international relations, which he received in 2006. On June 6, 2006, Fahad was arrested in London Heathrow airport by British police based on an American indictment charging him with material support of Al Qaida. He was subsequently held in Belmarsh Prison, Britain’s most notorious jail.” For more information on the Hashmi case, also visit: www.educatorsforcivilliberties.org.
Angola 3 News:Can you please give us background on the arrest and prosecution of Syed Hashmi? For example, what are the charges against him? What is their evidence?
Jeanne Theoharis:In June 2006, Hashmi, who is a US citizen, was arrested by the British police at HeathrowAirport (he was about to travel to Pakistan, where he has family) on a warrant issued by the US government.In May 2007, he was extradited to the United States, the first US citizen to be extradited under terrorism laws passed after 9/11. Since then, he has since been held in solitary confinement at Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).
The US government alleges that early in 2004, a man by the name of Junaid Babar, also a Pakistani-born US citizen, stayed with Hashmi at his London apartment for two weeks.According to the government, Babar stored luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks in Hashmi’s apartment and then Babar delivered these materials to the third-ranking member of Al Qaida in South Waziristan, Pakistan.In addition, Hashmi allegedly allowed Babar to use his cell phone to call other conspirators in terrorist plots.
The government has claimed that Babar’s testimony is the “centerpiece” of its case.Babar, who has pleaded guilty to five counts of material support for Al Qaida, faces up to seventy years in prison.While awaiting sentence, he has agreed to serve as a government witness in terrorism trials in Britain and Canada as well as in Hashmi’s trial.Under a plea agreement reported in the media, Babar will receive a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation.
A3N:What can you tell us about Hashmi as a person, especially your personal experience of knowing him when he was a student of yours?
JH:Fahad was a student of mine at BrooklynCollege in 2002.An outspoken Muslim student activist, Fahad wrote his senior seminar paper with me on the treatment of Muslim groups within the United States and the violations of civil rights and liberties that many groups were facing.Needless to say, this feels particularly chilling—and no longer academic—as we have now witnessed his own rights being violated.
A3N:Since his arrest, what have the conditions of his incarceration been?
JH:Under special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed in October 2007 by the former Attorney General, Hashmi must be held in solitary confinement and may not communicate with anyone inside the prison other than prison officials.Family visits are limited to one person every other week for one and a half hours and cannot involve physical contact.While his correspondence to members of Congress and other government officials is not restricted, he may write only one letter (of no more than three pieces of paper) per week to one family member.He may not communicate, either directly or through his attorneys, with the news media.He may read only designated portions of newspapers – and not until thirty days after their publication – and his access to other reading material is restricted.He may not listen to or watch news-oriented radio stations and television channels.He may not participate in group prayer.He is subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring inside and outside his cell – including when he showers or relieves himself – and 23-hour lockdown.He has no access to fresh air and must take his one hour of daily recreation – when it is given – inside a cage.
As the expert testimony supplied by Hashmi’s attorneys in a pre-trial motion of December 2008 attests, the conditions of Hashmi’s detention may have severe physical and mental consequences and impair his mental state and ability to testify on his own behalf.
While former Acting Attorney General Keisler claimed that these measures are necessary because “there is substantial risk that [Hashmi’s] communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons,” Hashmi was held with other prisoners in a British jail for eleven months without incident.The SAMs were renewed by Attorney General Mukasey in November 2008 and upheld by Judge Loretta Preska in January 2009, citing Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence.” There has been no change to the SAMs under the Obama Administration. They were renewed again by Attorney General Holder in early November 2009. Yet, Hashmi is not being charged and has never been charged with committing an actual act of violence.
Currently, according to research by the New York Times in February 2009, there are six people in the United States being held on pre-trial terrorism SAMs; three (including Hashmi) are under the jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York, which has long served as a stepping stone to national political office.
A3N:Looking particularly at the harsh solitary confinement imposed on Hashmi, how is this officially justified? Do you think the stated reason is the actual motivation, or do you think there are other reasons for the solitary confinement and other harsh restrictions?
JH:My colleagues and I have begun to come to the conclusion that the use of prolonged solitary confinement is a tactic to ensure convictions.Such conditions weaken people mentally and the toll of sensory deprivation and isolation simultaneously makes people more eager to take a plea or not able to fully assist their counsel. Most experts agree it is torture (see Atul Gawande's “Hellhole” in The New Yorker).While our public discussions have tended to see torture as a tactic to get information, in cases like Hashmi's, torture is being used to help secure convictions.
A3N:How are the prion conditions for Hashmi in NYC different from those in Guantanamo?
JH:There are key similarities of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation between Hashmi's treatment at MCC in lower Manhattan and what we have heard of the conditions at Guantanamo.However, there has been much less attention to these inhumane conditions within the United States.
The focus on prisons like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Baghram stems, in part, from a larger post-civil rights paradigm that assumes the judicial process is now fair in the United States and relatively incorruptible and thus it was necessary to go outside of the US courts to do the extreme bad things.
Rather, what made Guantanamo possible stemmed from domestic legal practices, many already in place and many others expanded after 9/11, which have continued almost unabated under the Obama Administration.
A3N:With Hashmi’s trial beginning on December 1, what are activists currently doing to support him?
JH:Theaters Against War began holding weekly vigils in October to draw attention to the inhumane conditions of confinement and the due process violations Hashmi and others are facing within the federal courts.Artists and actors such as Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Chalfant, Bill Irwin, Jan Maxwell, Betty Shamieh, and Christine Moore have performed at the vigils.
A3N:Any closing thoughts?
JH:Three central Constitutional issues have become clear in the treatment of Hashmi and others within the federal system: the inhumane conditions of confinement, the abridgement of due process rights , and the lack of 1st Amendment protections.
If these are not addressed, then moving the Guantanamo detainees into the federal system does little to return America to the rule of law, of which we are rightfully proud.I am reminded of that quote by former Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1967, ""It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of...those liberties...which [make] the defense of the nation worthwhile."
Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Grote first became involved with the group after returning from the mobilization in Jena, Louisiana in Fall 2007.HRC sister chapters are in Philadelphia and Chester, PA. While covering a range of topics in this interview, Grote details how HRC/Fed Up! is documenting human rights abuses in Pennsylvania prisons, and using this documentation to fight back.
The website for the founding chapter of Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in Philadelphia says that HRC “was founded in 2001 based on the radical notion that there was a vital segment of the population missing from the organizing work against prisons: the families and loved ones of the over two million prisoners in this country. Not just as spokespeople or tokens, but in decision-making positions, deciding what campaigns to do and what issues to address. Incarcerated brothers took this idea, and asked their family members as well as some supporters to take the lead in building such an organization, and the HRC was born…There are many fronts to fight the prison system on, so many issues to address, but the voices of those most affected: prisoners' families, ex-prisoners and the prisoners themselves, have to be at the forefront of any movement to change and, sometime in the future, to abolish the prison system entirely, because we are the ones who know the intimate pain this system causes.”
Angola 3 News:Can you please explain the history of the Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up chapter?
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 Pittsburgh, and Kevin Johnson, a prisoner confined in Red Onion State Prison, a Supermax facility situated in southwestern Virginia adjacent to the Tennessee border.The two were collaborating on an arts-based educational project.
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 Virginia’s high-security prisons and mobilize prisoners’ family members and support people against the racism, brutality, deprivation, medical neglect and abuse, and psychological torture that define these facilities.
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 Philadelphia.HRC was the brainchild of prisoners as well. Around the fall of 2007 and early 2008 HRC/Fed Up!—as we were then known—began to focus more exclusively on PA prisons for reasons of capacity and strategy, because, obviously, we have more potential and actual power in this state since we are based here.
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 Pennsylvania is operating a sophisticated program of torture under an utterly baseless pretext of “security”, wherein close to 3,000 people are held in conditions of solitary/control unit confinement each day.
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. Reading materials are heavily restricted and censored. All incoming mail is subject to being read, except legal mail, although this policy is often violated while outgoing mail is subject to various forms of surveillance, tampering, and destruction. Restrictions on visitations are extreme and all visits with those in control units are conducted through thick glass with prisoners who are handcuffed throughout. Exercise “privileges” are granted 5-days per week when prisoners are taken to little cubicles of space enclosed by chain-link fencing and resembling dog kennels, presuming that the guards are willing to follow policy that day and that the prisoner in question feels secure being led from their cell to the “yard” by often flagrantly racist and sadistic guards.
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 onwomen’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 Pittsburgh do not know we exist, and those who do are not always able to make meetings for a variety of reasons, which primarily has to do with attending to familial and work responsibilities.We need to broaden our avenues for participation and create a diverse and steady stream of public forums in which the voices of current and former prisoners and their loved ones will be central and guiding.We need to consciously step up our efforts to build more leadership within targeted communities.
A3N:Can you please tell us about HRC/Fed Up!'s ongoing investigations into SCI Dallas?
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 Dallas, PA, soliciting reports of human rights violations.Since then we have received thousands of pages in reports from dozens of prisoners detailing a wide range of gross and deliberate human rights violations.
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 andrape 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 Dallas recently, or we've been informed, and the newspapers did not make mention of this. I've checked a half-dozen of our closer contacts and their names are still listed in the inmate locator. Nevertheless, I am concerned.
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 U.S. government define torture?The UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incident to lawful sanctions.” Sounds clear enough.
How does U.S. statutory code define torture?Section 2340 of Title 18 of the federal criminal code defines torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.”
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 US now has more total prisoners and the highest incarceration rate than any other country in the world. What do you attribute this increase to?
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 Angola Three and all political prisoners?
BG:The relationship between the work of HRC/Fed Up! and the struggles of the Angola 3 are inseparable.Solitary confinement and the prison system as a whole have the primary function of silencing and/or liquidating precisely those radical movements embodied in the case and lives of Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox.
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 Angola’s Warden Burl Cain clarified the matter, albeit while speaking against the release of Albert Woodfox, “He wants to demonstrate.He wants to organize.He wants to be defiant. . . .A hunger strike is really, really bad, because you could see he admitted that he was organizing a peaceful demonstration.There is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration in prison.”Any act of dissent or protest is unacceptable to the totalitarian mindset.
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 5125 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA15224.
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 email@example.com 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.