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July 29, 2015

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

Opinion
in: CS Monitor

Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons
Finally, America is beginning to tackle overcrowded prisons, prompted by financially strapped states that can no longer afford them. The road to prison reform, and less crowding, includes revamping 'three strikes' laws, as in California, and limiting pre-trial detention.

By Arjun Sethi / December 29, 2011

Necessity can spur novelty. Even political novelty. As the need for fiscal austerity grows, an unlikely alliance has emerged between policymakers and public advocates who have long sought criminal justice reform. These policymakers are realizing what advocates have reiterated for years: The nation's addiction to incarceration as a curb on crime must end. The evidence is staggering.

In California, 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium supervised by two or three officers. Suicidal inmates may be held for protracted periods in cages without toilets and the wait times for mental health care sometimes reach 12 months.

Citing these conditions and more, the Supreme Court ruled in May that California prisoners were deprived adequate access to medical and mental health care in violation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.

Prison overcrowding is ubiquitous and shows few signs of abating: Between 1970 and 2005, the nation's inmate population grew by 700 percent. Besides impeding access to health care, overcrowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions, diverts prison resources away from education and social development, and forces low- and high-risk offenders to mingle, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

Expect additional lawsuits. That's why a consortium of states, including Illinois, Texas, and my home state of Virginia, submitted an amicus curiae or friend-of-the-court brief in support of the state of California.

America's overreliance on incarceration has also impeded the rights of criminal defendants. TheSixth Amendment guarantees legal representation to individuals charged with a crime. Yet, because of the crushing volume of cases, indigent defense programs often suffer from inadequate staffing, funding, and supervision.

In Kentucky, a public defender may represent more than 450 clients in a single year. In Miami, Florida, the annual case load is nearly 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. The consequences include wrongful incarceration, wrongful convictions, and guilty pleas when meritorious defenses are otherwise available.

Civil rights groups in Michigan and New York have already brought lawsuits seeking an overhaul of their states' indigent defense systems. These lawsuits might be a harbinger for the future: States unfaithful to the promise of the Sixth Amendment may be forced to increase funding and restructure legislative priorities.

Protecting prisoners and criminal defendants is not just about fidelity to the Bill of Rights. It is about recognizing that they are acutely vulnerable because they do not have access to coalitions and political networks capable of effecting change. Affording them protection is consistent with the enduring constitutional principle that political democracy alone cannot adequately protect the rights of certain groups of people.

First, revamp habitual-offender laws, now in effect in more than 20 states, which regularly yield perverse sentences.

California's three-strikes law, for example, was passed during the paranoia that followed the searing murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a long-time violent offender, and is so egregiously punitive that nonviolent petty theft may serve as a "third strike." Leandro Andrade, a father of three, who never once committed a violent felony, received two sentences of 25 years-to-life for stealing children's videotapes, including "Free Willy 2" and "Cinderella," from Kmart. A new ballot initiative in California, "The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012," seeks to change this law.

Second, implement misdemeanor reform by decriminalizing offenses such as feeding the homeless, dog-leash violations, and occupying multiple seats on the subway. Such reform is vital: between 1972 and 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions rose from 5 million to 10.5 million.

Third, limit the use of pre-trial detention. Nearly two-thirds of the nation's prison population haven't been convicted of a crime - they are awaiting trial. Many are arrested for low-risk offenses such as disturbing the peace or traffic violations, and they languish in jail because they can't afford bail. Releasing these individuals would not jeopardize public safety and would reduce overcrowding and public defender case loads. Just this year, Kentucky terminated pre-trial detention for numerous drug offenses and mandated citations rather than arrests for certain misdemeanors.

Fourth, impose nonprison penalties on those arrested for technical parole and probation violations like missing a meeting or court appearance. This would dramatically ameliorate overcrowding and excessive case loads given that over a third of all prison admissions are for such types of violations. Texas is leading the charge here, and through such measures has significantly reduced its inmate population.

The spirit that animates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments is human dignity. A recognition that no matter the crime or harm, criminal defendants and prisoners retain a dignity that must be respected.

Thirty years ago, a group of inmates claimed they were deprived of this dignity and, in what has since become a subject of fascination in American pop culture, rioted at Attica Correctional Facilityin New York. The ensuing violence and its death toll serves as an ominous reminder that Americamust pursue criminal justice reform if it is to honor this dignity.

Arjun Sethi is an attorney.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/1229/Four-ways-to-relieve-overcrowded-prisons

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Force-fed and beaten – life for women in jail

From: The Independent
Dec 18, 2011
New UN guidelines are being flouted worldwide, Independent on Sunday research shows
By: Molly Guinness

Female prisoners around the world are being subjected to body cavity searches, beatings and force-feeding, are held in padded cells, shackled during childbirth, and made to work in chain gangs. Some of the worst conditions are in developing countries, but there are also serious abuses and overcrowding in Europe and North America. These are the major findings of a survey by The Independent on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of United Nations rules governing the treatment of women in prison.

The "Bangkok Rules" make stipulations about contact with families, gender-specific healthcare, psychological treatment and hygiene, and they forbid strip searches in most circumstances. The guidelines were adopted on 21 December 2010, but reports from around the world show they are being widely flouted.

In Greece, for example, prisoners have been offered a choice between a vaginal search and solitary confinement on a course of laxatives. Chinese prison officers encouraged inmates to tie each other up and fight. In Turkmenistan, prisoners are shackled to their beds as they give birth - a practice that is also legal in most of the United States. South African prisoners complain that they run out of water on an almost monthly basis. A Russian male deputy prison governor was jailed for beating female inmates with his fists and boots. Rape victims have been jailed in Afghanistan for having extramarital sex. And women's prisons from Russia to Canada, France to Australia have been condemned for their appalling living conditions and inadequate mental and physical healthcare.

Just as alarming is the steep rise in the number of women being jailed. More than 500,000 are in prison around the world. In the US alone, there are now eight times more women in prison than 30 years ago. Fiona Cannon, who chairs the Prison Reform Trust's Women's Justice Taskforce, said women's prisons are now seen as "stop-gap providers of drug detox, social care, mental health assessment and treatment, and temporary housing". Self-harm and suicide are far more common among female prisoners than male, relatively few women are in jail for violent crimes, a majority have children, and many are drug addicts or victims of sexual abuse.

At Johannesburg Women's Prison, cells typically contain one toilet, one sink, one shower and as many as 40 people. Prisoners are locked in from 2pm to 8am. "People can kill each other before they unlock the cells," Duduzile Matlhabadile, a former prisoner, told The IoS. "You don't know what's going to happen. It's not safe in there." Ms Matlhabadile, who served 12 years for armed robbery and homicide, recalled an incident in which a woman threw boiling water over a fellow prisoner; it took two hours for the guards to come and open the doors. She said her cell would often be without water for two days at a time.

A former judge inspector of prisons in South Africa, Deon van Zyl, last year called the country's prison conditions "shockingly inhumane". Campaigners at the Wits Justice Project, which investigates problems in South Afica's justice system, say the Department of Correctional Services has ignored their requests to gain access to prisons since February, adding that anecdotal evidence indicates conditions have not improved.

In northern Turkmenistan, inmates at the Dashoguz Women's Prison colony are reportedly handcuffed to the bed from both sides while giving birth. The baby is given away and the woman returns to forced labour a day or two later. More than 2,000 women are housed in a colony built for 1,000. Fights break out when food is handed out: black bread, porridge and a thin soup made of bones, cotton oil and pumpkin make up the daily diet.

The EU has its share of horrors, too. Greece's Thiva Women's Prison is an hour north of Athens. A former detoxification centre, it has the bleak atmosphere of a converted warehouse. Its dormitories each hold six bunk beds and a couple of single beds. A communal area features a concrete floor, dark green walls and little else; the exercise yard contains no equipment or shelter. Messages are conveyed to inmates via a loudspeaker. Vaginal searches are conducted there, as in other women's prisons in Greece. Until earlier this year, prisoners who refused a vaginal examination on arrival were placed in a segregation unit for several days and made to take laxatives. Authorities say vaginal searches are now undertaken only in exceptional circumstances and are now done by trained doctors, rather than by nursing assistants. They say laxatives are no longer administered, but monitors from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture confirmed that the practice was still going on when they visited in January.

In France, strip searches are more or less routine, and inmates' letters seen by The IoS complain about being made to adopt degrading positions. One pregnant woman was told to lift up her breasts while being searched before being permitted to see her family in the visiting room. But the real problem in France's prisons is healthcare. In the mixed-sex Nîmes Prison in southern France, for example, there is no facility for gynaecological examinations, which means that no preventative consultations are done.

In England and Wales, conditions are far more benign, but the number of women in jail has increased from 1,800 in 1996 to 4,100 now. More than half of female prisoners say that they have suffered domestic violence, 37 per cent have previously attempted suicide, nearly 40 per cent left school before 16, and one in three have experienced sexual abuse. More than two-thirds of female prisoners have children, which means, according to Home Office research in 2003, that prison deprives nearly 20,000 children of their mothers each year. And judges do not take into account whether a defendant is a primary carer. "It's deeply ingrained in judges that a child must not be an excuse to avoid imprisonment," said Rona Epstein, who has studied 47 cases in England and Wales where judges have ignored the rights of the child.

The situation in North America is worse. The California state prison healthcare system has been in federal receivership since 2006. To get healthcare and living conditions to a constitutional minimum, the state has been ordered to reduce its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years. In the meantime, supplies of medicines and sanitary products are limited, and understaffing means prisons are in lock-down mode. Two-thirds of education staff have been laid off in the past two years, and all the while the prison population continues to rise.

The state's two biggest female prisons are both in the desert town of Chowchilla. Valley State Prison is designed to hold 2,024 people and is currently housing 3,810. Central California Women's Facility is holding 3,918, far more than its 2,004 capacity. Cells originally built for four people are holding 10. "We've never, ever had the reports of violence among peers that we're seeing now," said Cynthia Chandler, the director of the women's campaign group Justice Now.

"People are dirty, their cells are dirty, they're bleeding on themselves, they're emotional and in a state of despair. It's creating conditions inside a pressure cooker." And, across the border in Arizona, female chain gangs are made to bury the dead and clear wasteland in the desert heat, in a scheme introduced by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in June.

Andrew Coyle, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at London University, said: "Scandinavian practice in general terms is better than in many other countries. That's because they put fewer people in prison, and the consequence is they can run them more decently and humanely. The criminal justice system is kept for those who need to be locked up for the sake of society.

"Reducing reoffending is a false target. It's based on the premise that sending someone to prison makes them less likely to commit crime. In fact, one of the strongest predictors of future offending is being sent to prison. We know the solutions: more community-based facilities and putting women in small units close to home. The answers are there. They're just not being implemented."
[emphasis by PW]
---
See here the UN document or "Bankok Rules" (PDF): http://www.apt.ch/region/visits/Bangkok%20Rules_en.pdf

See also: article by the Association for the prevention of torture (6 November 2011)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Prison Visits Make Inmates Less Likely To Commit Crimes After Release, Study Finds

From: Huffington Post:

By John Rudolf
12/7/11
Just a single visit from a family member or a friend can make a big difference in whether or not a prisoner ends up back behind bars after their release, a new study finds.

The study, by researchers with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, determined that prisoners who received at least one personal visit at any time during their incarceration were 13 percent less likely to commit another felony and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison on a technical parole violation. Data showed that the more visits prisoners received, the lower their chance of re-offending after release.

The study tracked 16,000 prisoners over nearly five years, making it the largest such study of its kind, according to Grant Duwe, director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, who led the research team. The study will be published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Duwe said prison officials in Minnesota were already weighing how to apply its results to the state's corrections policies.

"I think the completion of this study gives us some tangible evidence to show that if we can increase visitation, we can give offenders more of the social support they need to succeed," he said.

Several previous, smaller-scale studies have found an even larger correlation between prison visitation and inmates' likelihood of re-offending. But most state prison systems continue to see visitation as a privilege, not a tool to help inmates establish law-abiding lives after their release, Duwe said.

"I think visitation has been largely viewed as a concession that's given to inmates," he said. "I don't know if there has been a great deal of thought given to the public safety benefits that visitation might have."

As the economic slowdown has bitten into state budgets, some prison systems have already altered visitation policies in order to save money. In Minnesota, a temporary government shutdown earlier this year led to the suspension of all prisoner visitation as a cost-saving measure.

In July, Arizona lawmakers imposed a one-time $25 fee on all adult visitors to inmates. Funds from the fee are to be directed to maintenance of state prisons. Middle Ground Prison Reform, an advocacy group, filed suit against the state, calling the fee an "unconstitutional tax."

"If this policy results in delaying or diminishing or eliminating prison visitation for anyone, the state is shooting themselves in the foot in terms of rehabilitation," Donna Hamm, a retired municipal court judge and executive director of the group, said in September, according to the Associated Press. "That's a very short-sighted view of public safety policy."

John Kavanagh, the Republican legislator who wrote the provision, scoffed at the idea that the fee would discourage prison visitors, however.

"If a one-time charge of $25 is enough to dissuade you from visiting your loved one, then I'm wondering how much of a loved one he or she is," he told the Arizona Daily Star.

Duwe declined to comment specifically on the Arizona policy. But he said the results of the Minnesota study clearly suggested that states have a fiscal incentive to encourage visitation, not discourage it.

A single parole violation that returns a released inmate to prison, even briefly, costs upwards of $9,000. A prisoner who commits a new felony and spends additional years behind bars will cost far more.

"The benefits we could see from a reduction in recidivism could vastly outweigh the cost of increasing visitation," he said.

A few states, such as Idaho and Virginia, are already experimenting with a novel and cost-effective way to boost interaction between inmates and their loved ones: internet-based video visitation systems, which have proven popular with inmates and administrators.

Read the rest here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/07/prison-visits-inmates_n_1135288.html

This should make prison administrators think, prisons ought to do much more in encouraging family and friends to visit their loved ones. It is a free means for 'rehabilitation.' But often prisons are built very far away, and having many prisoners earns the prisons more money, and the employees do not want to loose their job. One would nearly think prisons profit from crime, one would think they want it to happen so that more will come to their remote prisons. More prisoners, not visitors, that is... yet,. prisons earm money from visits too (canteen). And from telephone calls...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

United States Must Halt Life Without Parole Sentences for Children


United States Must Halt Life Without Parole Sentences for Children, says Amnesty International

Human Rights Organization Details Stories of Three Young Offenders From Louisiana, Illinois and North Carolina, in New Juvenile Justice Report
Louisiana Case to be Featured in Amnesty International’s Global Write-a-Thon

November 30, 2011
(Washington, D.C.) -- Authorities in the United States must ban the imposition of life without parole sentences against children and review the cases of more than 2,500 prisoners currently serving such sentences to bring the sentences into line with international law, Amnesty International said today in a new report.

"In the United States, people under 18 cannot vote, buy alcohol or lottery tickets or consent to most forms of medical treatment, but they can be sentenced to die in prison for their actions. This needs to change,” said Natacha Mension, U. S. campaigner at Amnesty International (AI).

Children as young as 11 at the time of the crime have faced life imprisonment without parole in the United States – the only country in the world to impose this sentence on children.

Amnesty International’s 34-page report 'This is where I’m going to be when I die': Children facing life imprisonment without the possibility of release in the United States, illustrates the issue through the stories of Christi Cheramie, Jacqueline Montanez and David Young.

In the United States, life without parole can be imposed on juvenile offenders as a mandatory punishment – without consideration of mitigating factors such as history of abuse or trauma, degree of involvement in the crime, mental health status, or amenability to rehabilitation.

"We are not excusing crimes committed by children or minimizing their consequences, but the simple reality is that these sentences ignore the special potential for rehabilitation and change that young offenders have," said Mension.

In May 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court said life without parole is "an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile," as the young offender will serve, on average, more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an older offender. "A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only," the Court said.

Eighteen months after prohibiting this sentence for non-homicide crimes committed by under-18-year-olds, on November 8, 2011, the Supreme Court agreed to consider this issue in relation to crimes involving murder. It will not issue a decision until the second quarter of 2012 at the earliest.

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force more than two decades ago, expressly prohibits the imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of release for offenses, however serious, committed by people under 18 years old. All countries except the United States and Somalia have ratified the Convention.

"It is long past time for the United States to ratify the Convention without reservations or other limiting conditions and to fully implement its prohibition on the use of life imprisonment without release against children, including in relation to the cases of those already sentenced," said Mension.

On November 30, Christi Cheramie, who is serving life without parole in Louisiana, will submit an application for executive clemency with the state Board of Pardons. Christi was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release in 1994, when she was 16 years old for the killing of her 18-year-old fiancé’s great aunt.

She pleaded guilty just before her trial in adult court began, fearing she could be sentenced to death if the trial went ahead. Her guilty plea prevents her from directly appealing her conviction or sentence.

A psychiatrist who saw Christi prior to her trial said that she was a "depressed, dependent, and insecure" 16-year-old who "seems to have been fearful of crossing" her fiancé, who she maintains committed the crime. Christi’s childhood was marked by sexual abuse. At the age of 13, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic after trying to commit suicide on at least two occasions.

After spending half of her life in prison, Christi believes she has changed in many ways. She has obtained a high school equivalency diploma, a degree in agricultural studies, and teaches a number of classes at the prison. A warden has stated that she is "worthy of a second chance." View a video of Christi’s grandmother and her conversation with Christi here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AHsW9YbP1A&NR=1

Christi will be among 15 people for whom Amnesty International activists worldwide will be taking action as part of Write for Rights – the Global Write-a-Thon on December 3 - 11. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide will be educated about Christi’s case and asked to call on Governor Jindal to help. In the United States, more than 35,000 people are expected to participate in this annual event. http://www.amnestyusa.org/writeathon

Additionally, on Dec. 3 in New Orleans, Amnesty International USA, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, the Louisiana Interfaith Conference and Citizens for Second Chances will hold an event from 4 to 7 pm with a candlelight vigil, music and speakers focusing on Christi’s case at St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, 1313 Esplanade Avenue. For more information visit www.jjpl.org

A clemency campaign is also pending for a second person whose case is profiled in AI’s report. Jacqueline Montanez is the only woman in Illinois serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime committed as a child. A victim of child abuse, Jacqueline began abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of nine. Jacqueline’s abuser was her step-father, a gang leader, who also involved her in the drug trade as a very young child and groomed her to be his “little soldier.” After running away from home and joining a rival gang, she and two older women shot and killed two adult male members of her step-father’s gang.

Because she was 15 at the time of the crime and charged with first degree murder, she was automatically tried in adult criminal court. This denied the court system the opportunity of conducting a transfer hearing to determine whether her case ought to have been tried in juvenile court where factors such as her young age, home environment or amenability to rehabilitation would have been considered. Jacqueline was also automatically sentenced to life without parole due to her conviction; the sentencing court had no discretion to consider her history, her age, the circumstances of the offense or her potential for rehabilitation.

Now 35 years old, she expresses deep remorse for her actions and believes that she has grown into a very different person. She has obtained a high school equivalency diploma and has become a certified trainer of service dogs for disabled people. She grieves for her victims and the pain that their families have suffered.

In Illinois, 80 percent of children in prison for life without parole received mandatory sentences; about 82 percent are prisoners of color. That number is even higher in Cook County, where the Montanez case originated. These findings were published by the Illinois Coalition on the Fair Sentencing of Children in its 2008 report Categorically Less Culpable, Children Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Illinois. http://www.law.northwestern.edu/cfjc/jlwop/documents/JLWOP_Report.pdf

Jacqueline’s petition for executive clemency will be submitted to the Illinois governor and the Prisoner Review Board in January 2012.

David Young is one of two teenagers arrested and charged for the murder of Charles Welch in 1997. He was automatically charged in adult criminal court as required by North Carolina law for any criminal offense committed by anyone age 16 or older. Young’s co-defendant, who shot the victim, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 19 to 23 years in prison. David was convicted of first-degree felony murder and was sentenced to life without parole.

Young grew up in a hostile community environment where his parents abused drugs and his stepfather physically abused him and his mother. Now 32 years old, Young obtained his high school equivalency diploma and is in solitary confinement after being stabbed by two prisoners.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom and dignity are denied.

# # #

For a copy of the report, 'This is where I’m going to be when I die': Children facing life imprisonment without the possibility of release in the United States, email Gwen Fitzgerald at gfitzgerald @ aiusa.org. OR Click here to view the report in PDF.

Photos are available online at https://adam.amnesty.org/asset-bank/action/quickSearch?keywords=newsflash+LWOP. For more information, please visit: www.amnestyusa.org.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pelican Bay is not Enough!! Continuing the Struggle Against Extreme Isolation and Sensory Deprivation

By Victoria Law
November 16, 2011

http://criticalmassprogress.com/2011/11/16/ci-pelican-bay-is-not-enough-continuing-the-struggle-against-extreme-isolation-and-sensory-deprivation/

Last month, prisoners across California ended a nearly three-week hunger strike. The strikers, who numbered 12,000 at the strike’s peak, had five core demands:

1) Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long term solitary confinement;
4) Provide adequate food;
5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

The strike, the second three-week hunger strike to rock California’s prison system this year alone, was called by men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The SHU is explicitly designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Men are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door.

Prison administrators place men in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they were “validated” as prison gang members. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members are released from the SHU into the general prison population only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU.

Nearly three weeks after the strike began, the CDCR promised both the hunger strikers and members of the outside mediation team to review every single SHU placement under new criteria. In response, the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay ended their strike on October 13th. Two days later, hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison halted their strike, stating that they were enabling prisoners to regain their strength.

But the struggle over the SHU is only the beginning.

Laura Magnani is the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and served as a mediator during negotiations between the hunger strikers and the CDCR. She points out that, in 2008, 14,500 people in California’s state prisons were held in some form of solitary confinement. Of those, only 3,500 were in Security Housing Units. The remaining 11,000 are held in other forms of isolation, such as Administrative Segregation. The promised changes to SHU policy will do little to ameliorate their own torture. Once the changes have been drafted, reviewed and approved, she said, advocates and supporters need to work to expand these new policies to non-SHU isolation units. (1)

Conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation are not unique to California. Over the last 25 to 30 years, the use of extended solitary confinement has become more routine in U.S. prisons.

In 1986, the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, opened a control unit specifically for women political prisoners in 1986. It was built underground and entirely white. Women were prohibited from hanging anything on the white walls, causing them to begin hallucinating black spots and strings on the walls and floors. Their sole contact with prison staff came in the form of voices addressing them over loudspeakers. The unit was shut down in 1988 after an outside campaign and a court decision that determined their placement unconstitutional. The practice of solitary confinement continues today, however, with jailhouse lawyers and other incarcerated activists often targeted. (2)

Today, there are 20,000 people held in supermax prisons, institutions designed to permanently isolate each prisoner for the duration of his or her sentence. Supermax prisoners are confined to small cells 24 hours a day. Many of the cells have no windows and are soundproof. Visits, phone calls and mail from family and friends are severely restricted; reading material is censored. Exercise is a solitary pursuit in a small cage in a yard.(3)

Approximately 80,000 people are in some form of solitary confinement across the United States. (http://www.alternet.org/rights/146497/torture_at_home_documentary_on_solitary_confinement_in_us_prisons_misses_the_mark?page=entire)

In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which manages the federal prison system, created the Special Administrative Measures (SAMS). Under SAMS, a prisoner is held in 23 to 24 hour solitary confinement. All of his mail is monitored and censored. He is only allowed contact with immediate family members. Under SAMS, they are not allowed to reveal their loved one’s condition or the conditions of his confinement. SAMs, which are considered “administrative,” not punitive, can be imposed on a prisoner who had been classified as violent for a maximum of four months. After September 11th, the time limit was expanded. The Attorney General can now place a person under SAMS for an entire year. When that year is over, he can renew the prisoner’s SAMS status. Prisoners can be and have been placed under SAMs during their pre-trial detention. Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen accused of providing material support to terrorists, spent three years under SAMs before he even went to trial. At his sentencing, his speech was rapid. When asked to slow down, he apologized, noting that, because of his three years under SAMS, he has not had many occasions to talk to other people.(4)

The impact of extreme solitary confinement is not limited to Fahad Hashmi. Damion Echols was exonerated after spending 18 years in solitary confinement. During those 18 years, he had only walked in full restraints. Upon his release, he had to relearn how to walk. He also had to relearn how to see past a few feet; after 18 years, his eyes had become unused to seeing past the few feet inside his cell.(5)

Even a few weeks in solitary confinement can have drastic repercussions. Sarah Pender, held in solitary confinement in Indiana for three years, recently wrote about another woman on the solitary housing unit: “Just yesterday [she] was writing on the walls with her own blood. Before she cut her arms, she strangled herself with a shoestring until the guards found her purple. Before that, she used her fingernails to rip chunks of flesh out of her face. She had been held here for two months after essentially sassing a guard.” (6)

People in the U.S. are increasingly recognizing the use of solitary as a means of legalized torture. In 1988, continued public pressure and advocacy led to the shutting down of the control unit at FCI Lexington. Today, activists, advocates, family members and community members are fighting to draw attention to these atrocities and publicly pressure authorities to either release individual prisoners into general population or to drastically change procedures around solitary confinement.

The ACLU and Indiana Protection Services Agency filed a class-action lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Corrections on behalf of all prisoners held in solitary housing units that suffered from mental illness. The Federal District Court for Southern Indiana heard the case over the summer and is expected to make a decision at the end of this year.(7) Pender, who notes that her three-year stay in isolation is “one of the longest periods a woman has ever been held in isolation for a single, non-violent act in Indiana history,” filed a civil suit in April 2011 against specific prison officials raising similar claims regarding SHU conditions, lack of appropriate mental health care, and the mental health effects of solitary confinement.

Other tactics have also been used to raise awareness and outrage around solitary confinement: In October 2009, Theaters Against the War, Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative, along with individuals concerned about the human rights atrocities inflicted upon Fahad Hashmi by the SAMS, began holding weekly vigils outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. For seven months, these vigils continued with opera singers, theater artists, human rights and social justice activists supporting Hashmi’s friends, family and immediate community. As Hashmi’s trial neared, a call went out to fill the courtroom with supporters. The government responded by first asking for anonymity and extra security for the jury, thus implying that the jurors had reason to fear Hashmi’s supporters. It then dropped three of its charges, offering a 10 to 15 year sentence instead of a potential 70 year sentence if Hashmi pled guilty to the last remaining count of material support. The number of friends and supporters filled not only the courtroom but three overflow courtrooms on the day of Hashmi’s sentencing.(8)

During the hunger strike started at Pelican Bay, family members, advocates, and concerned community members across the country acted to draw attention to the hunger strike. In Oakland, supporters held a weekly vigil on Thursday evenings. On July 9, 2011, supporters organized demonstrations in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Nine days later, 200 family members, lawyers, and outside supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, delivered a petition of over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers, and then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers. That same day, supporters in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City, and Philadelphia also held solidarity rallies.

Compelled by the hunger strike, its ensuing publicity, and community pressure on legislators, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions on August 23. Former SHU prisoners, family members, attorneys, advocates, and psychiatrists testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. When the hunger strike resumed again in September, so too did the actions to keep the strike—and the conditions prompting it—in public consciousness.

On October 13, 2011, the day that the hunger strike ended at Pelican Bay, students, attorneys, civil rights activists, and family members convened at Brooklyn College for a one-day conference that connected the human rights atrocities in the federal prison system with the struggles of the prison justice movement. Attendees learned from each other’s struggles and experiences and built bridges between movements that often work separately.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, 60 people braved the November rain to rally outside the NC Division of Prisons. The protest was co-organized by anti-prison activists and members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, a group whose imprisoned members have been harassed and segregated within the NC prison system. Outraged by this harassment, the continued targeting of politically-active North Carolina prisoners, and the recent hunger strike in California, the rally focused on solitary confinement with banners stating, “Against Solitary—Love for All Prison Rebels,” “Solitary is Torture” and “Against Prisons.”

Protesters marched form the Division of Prisons to the rear of the men’s Central Prison. Although police prevented the march from reaching the prison fence, the prisoners could see the protest from the windows and, in response, banged on the glass.

Concerns about solitary confinement are not limited to activists, advocates and family members. The European Convention on Human Rights holds that the extreme isolation in ADX Florence amounts to torture, stating that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason.” On October 18, 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented a written report on solitary confinement in the U.S. to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. He stated that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles. Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion (of information) technique.” He called for a ban on any type of solitary confinement exceeding 15 days.

What does all this mean for the 80,000 people isolated in extreme solitary confinement right now?
“It’s nearing the end of 2011,” wrote Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. “How is it that thousands of prisoners in SHU-type units across the country are being subject to conditions the International Courts have condemned as torture?” (10)

On the day that the Pelican Bay hunger strike ended, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights exhorted the audience at Brooklyn College: “We need to build on the momentum of Pelican Bay, Bradley Manning and other cases.” (11)

Let us take these words—and the organizing of those both in and out of prison—as a call to action.

End Notes

(1) Laura Magnani, telephone interview with author, October 14, 2011.
(2) Cassandra Shaylor, “ ‘It’s Like Living in a Black Hole’: Women of Color and Solitary Confinement in the Prison-Industrial Complex” in Feminist Legal Theory: An Anti-Essentialist Reader, ed. Nancy E. Dowd and Michelle S. Jacobs (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 320. The court determined the women’s placement unconstitutional since they were housed in the control unit because of their political beliefs. It did NOT rule that control units constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Court of Appeals then ruled that prisons are free to use political associations and beliefs to justify different and harsher treatment.
(3) Rachael Kamel and Bonnie Kerness, The Prison Inside the Prison: Control Units, Supermax Prisons, and Devices of Torture: A Justice Visions Briefing Paper. Philadelphia, PA: American Friends Service Committee, 2003. 2.
(4) Fahad Hashmi allowed a visiting acquaintance to store waterproof socks, ponchos and raincoats in his London apartment. Prosecutors argued that these socks, ponchos and raincoats later ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda. Hashmi was sentenced to 15 years in ADX Florence. His SAMS status remains.
(5)David Fathi, Roundtable: Conditions of Confinement, The Civil Rights Crisis in the Federal System Post 9/11, Brooklyn College, October 13, 2011.
(6)Sarah Jo Pender, “The Annals of Solitary Confinement,” Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison 24, Fall/Winter 2011.
(7) Pender, “The Annals of Solitary Confinement.”http://chronicle.com/article/My-Student-the-Terrorist/126937/
(8) Fahad Hashmi was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. Only weeks before the conference, it was revealed that the NYPD had been monitoring Muslim students and student groups at Brooklyn College.
(9) Letter from Todd Ashker to author, dated September 25, 2011.
(10) Pardiss Kebriaei, Roundtable: Conditions of Confinement. The Civil Rights Crisis in the Federal System Post 9/11, Brooklyn College, October 13, 2011. For more about Bradley Manning’s case, see www.bradleymanning.org

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars – NYC. She is currently working on transforming “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

We dare to win: The reality and impact of SHU torture units

A discussion in the wake of the Aug. 23 legislative hearing

From: SF Bay View, November 11, 2011

by J. Heshima Denham, Zaharibu Dorrough and Kambui Robinson of the NCTT Corcoran Security Housing Unit (SHU)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” – “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Written Oct. 12, 2011 – These sage words by Dr. King are both appropriate to the discussion we’d like to have on indeterminate SHU confinement and cautionary as to who we are and what we allow as a society in these troubled times. This second point is very relevant to this discussion and we hope you’ll stick with us, as the subject matter is both broad and disturbing; it requires us to share some inconvenient truths.
[1]
At the rally in support of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s historic hearing on the hunger strike against SHU torture Aug. 23, Amber, the sister of a SHU prisoner told the crowd: “My brother has been in Pelican Bay SHU for the last 10 years. I’m here today to be the voice, not only for him, but for all of the prisoners who are suffering in the SHU and for all of the prisons in California. There are a lot of questions that I want answered. I want to know what our elected officials are going to do to change what’s being done? Why is it 30 days later (since the end of the first round of the hunger strike) and still nothing has been done when the CDC agreed to part of the prisoners’ demands? I want to know why my brother is tortured on a daily basis year after year. Why is he not fed correctly and why is he so pale and skinny? Why does my mom have to cry every time she goes to see him? Seeing everybody that has come out today just lights my fire, because I know that I am not alone and I can let him know that he is not alone.” – Photo and quote: Revolution Newspaper

Security Housing Units (SHUs) like those in Pelican Bay, Tehachapi and this one here in Corcoran are torture units. They are used to indefinitely house human beings in solitary confinement based on an administrative determination that they are “gang members” with impetus towards breaking their minds in hopes of eliciting information and coercing them into becoming informants or active agents in the state.

These units are the tombs of not only alleged “gang members” but political and politicized prisoners, imprisoned human rights activists and jailhouse lawyers alike, most anyone who, in the sole determination of institutional gang investigators and administrators, is not content to submit passively to his role as a commodity in the prison industrial complex.
These units are the tombs of not only alleged “gang members” but political and politicized prisoners, imprisoned human rights activists and jailhouse lawyers.

The U.S. and many of its media outlets, such as The New York Times and San Diego Union Tribune, prior to the U.S. War on Terror, routinely criticized China, Turkey, Syria and other nations for holding prisoners in indefinite solitary confinement under conditions of constant illumination, sensory deprivation etc. for expressing contrary political views. They universally condemned the practices as torture, citing the United Nations Human Rights Commission Treaty. Their hypocrisy was of course revealed after the policies of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and numerous CIA blacksite prisons was exposed.

Yet what has been America’s dirty little secret is that years before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, they were boiling men alive at Pelican Bay SHU, they were holding murderous “blood sport” style bouts here at Corcoran SHU and they had been holding people with left-wing political ideologies as “gang members” for decades in sensory deprivation torture units at Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi SHUs. Yes, indefinite solitary confinement and constant illumination is being used right now in California SHU units, in conjunction with a program of systematic isolation and experimental behavior modification to torture prisoners every day, without end.

The California and U.S. Supreme Courts, in blatant indifference to international and constitutional law, have repeatedly refused to intervene in most cases on behalf of prisoners in Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs who’ve lived in solitary confinement under constant illumination and daily psychological stressors for 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years straight. This is gross hypocrisy wherein your nation is torturing its citizens in your names.

The “United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and 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 has 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.”
[2]
Banners at the rally by hunger strikers’ families and supporters held on the capitol steps prior to the Aug. 23 hearing spoke truth to power.
This virtually defines the validation, indeterminate SHU confinement and debriefing processes, which are all interconnected. We are routinely told, quite frankly, at ICC (Institutional Classification Committee) hearings, “You’ll only get out of SHU if you parole, debrief or die”; at parole board hearings the line is no different: The panel of law enforcement officials states, “If you want a parole date, you may want to think about debriefing.”

When, after serving 24 years, most of that in these indeterminate SHU torture units, for a crime where he was simply a 16-year-old bystander and had not had a single rules violation in over a decade, had family and community support and several job offers, Sondai Ellis was told that very thing as he was denied parole again. I was, and continue to be, so furious that it is only through the discipline and adherence to principled conduct instilled in me by brothers like Sondai that I’ve been capable of keeping that fury in check at such bald-faced injustice.

To debrief one must become an informant, an agent of the state, and decades of torture and withholding of freedom are strong state sanctions to compel some of us to make something up or simply parrot what we are told to say to get out of SHU or support a law enforcement agenda. In at least two recent online articles, we see debriefers doing just this: actually advocating the merits of the very torture units that reduced them to broken men and made them thralls of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and its various units and affiliates. They – the Institutional Gang Investigations (IGI), Investigations Services Unit (ISU), prison guards etc. – are the ones who have an economic and political interest in maintaining the symbolism of these torture units as the final abode of “predatory gang leaders and organized criminals.”

The U.N. Human Rights Commission has stated prolonged solitary confinement for purposes of extracting information is prohibited as torture. SHUs are by definition torture units and specialty, experimental, ultra-supermax isolation units like Pelican Bay SHU’s D-Short Corridor and Corcoran SHU’s 4B1L-C-Section short corridor are specifically engineered to warp reality for purposes of breaking men’s minds.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission has stated prolonged solitary confinement for purposes of extracting information is prohibited as torture. SHUs are by definition torture units.

Torture, no matter the supposed justification, is never an acceptable practice for a humane society. The U.N. Convention Against Torture states, “No exceptionable circumstances whatsoever, whether a state or threat of war or political emergency, may be invoked as a reason for torture.” As it stands, your correctional department, courts, some of your elected officials, and all law enforcement agencies do feel torture is justified as long as it’s applied to those they deem “gang members.”
Your correctional department, courts, some of your elected officials, and all law enforcement agencies do feel torture is justified as long as it’s applied to those they deem “gang members.”

But there is a much more insidious socio-economic and political motivation for the maintenance and expansion of SHU torture units and indeterminate SHU confinement based on “gang” validation. It is sustained by manipulating your perception of truth and humanity and by controlling your perception of these things. The prison industrialists dictate your actions, reactions and inaction to their impact on your lives and communities.

As you may know, we embarked on a historic 24-day hunger strike in July and at this writing are 17 days into a second hunger strike that began on Sept. 26 in solidarity with the Pelican Bay SHU D-Corridor collective and the five core demands recognizing our human rights. We were joined by some 6,600 other prisoners across the state, 12,000 in this second effort and countless others across the nation, and we garnered the support of principled people all over the world.

On Aug. 23, a hearing was held in response to those issues. I want to take this time to use some of the distortions, misrepresentations of fact and outright lies by CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan, a key prison industrialist, to illustrate just what we’re talking about here. There is an articulable basis why state-sanctioned torture units are maintained in California and throughout the U.S. And before we get into Mr. Kernan’s comments, it is necessary for you to have a clear understanding of what they are so you can understand why he would contradict himself and openly lie to a legislative oversight committee.

The purpose of SHU torture units – and “gang” validations resulting in indeterminate SHU confinement – is to ensure your financial and political support for the expansion and maintenance of the prison industrial complex as a viable business model by maximizing your fear and capitalizing on your ignorance. The foundational cornerstone of their success is convincing you that “gang members are depraved, inhuman monsters hell bent on the rape, murder and predation of innocent people,” and only they, the “gang experts,” know who these monsters are and how best to “protect” you from them.

The purpose of SHU torture units – and “gang” validations resulting in indeterminate SHU confinement – is to ensure your financial and political support for the expansion and maintenance of the prison industrial complex as a viable business model by maximizing your fear and capitalizing on your ignorance.

These so-called malevolent, irrationally violent and predatory organized “gangs” are the source of all of society’s ills and the very origins of crime in our communities. By creating these torture units and proclaiming they are the abodes of “the worst of the worst,” they have a symbolic manifestation of the validity of their claims.
[3]

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chair of Public Safety Committee, speaks at the rally before convening his hearing on prison torture in the SHUs.
No one can refute their accounts or characterizations because transparency is non-existent. Prisoners have no voice. The CCPOA successfully lobbied to ban media interviews with prisoners so the public is left to a unilateral, state-sponsored view of prison conditions and their discontents. This allows them the ability to perpetuate the myth of the inhuman “gang member” unchallenged and, with tacit media support, to dehumanize an ever-growing segment of the underclass.

Have you not noticed how your local news reports on arrestees or incidents in these communities? If someone is arrested for DUI, a drive-by or petty theft, he or she is paraded on the news and the first identification made is “he’s a validated gang member.” When incidents occur in or around our children’s schools, the school is put on “lockdown,” a term derived from the California prison system to denote a prison yard being locked down after a riot or other incident.

These terms, “gang” and “gang member,” automatically conjure images of innocent drive-by shooting victims and prison rapes inspired by “Oz” and cinematic visions, divorcing these men and women from the human condition, dehumanizing them. These people, more often than not, were saddled with these characterizations because of the communities they come from and may well have never committed a violent or predatory act in their lives.

But you don’t know that. All you know is what you’ve been told by the TV anchor, police or CDCR spokesman. They know that because they’ve used millions of your tax dollars to engineer it that way.

The truth of the matter is there are no malevolent, irrationally violent predatory gangs roving the streets of your cities or the prison yards of CDCR, only desperate men and women forced to the bottom rung of society through institutional disparities in economic and race-based distribution of educational, employment and empowerment opportunities at virtually every point of human activity in the U.S.

Do gangs exist? Of course, but that’s not the relevant question. Where are they prevalent and why do they exist? This is what is of note. “Gangs” and, more centrally, gang violence are prevalent primarily in underclass – poor – communities.

The national unemployment rate – not counting the underemployed or those who’ve stopped looking – stands at 9.1 percent, yet in the New Afrikan (Black) community, it’s 17 percent and in the Latino community it’s 14.5 percent. Those without a high school diploma stand at 16 percent unemployed while those with a Bachelor’s Degree a mere 1 percent.

New Afrikans and Latinos make up 90 percent of the prison population but a scant 26 percent of the national population. The origin of crime is not gangs. Gangs are a social symptom of that origin. The origin of all crime is the disproportionate distribution of wealth, privilege and opportunity in our society.

The origin of crime is not gangs. Gangs are a social symptom of that origin. The origin of all crime is the disproportionate distribution of wealth, privilege and opportunity in our society.

This is not by chance or happenstance. It is by design. Wage-based employment and entrepreneurship are the only ways to “legally” create wealth in this society. When social conditions are such that a community contains a large population of surplus labor – either they are unemployed due to their lack of education or marketable skills, or the market simply cannot sustain that population of workers – the only alternative to survive is the underground economy, be that illicit services such as narcotics, the sex trade and gambling or predatory crimes such as extortion, robbery and identity theft.

There is a corresponding sense of socio-political impotence which accompanies the innate insecurity of poverty. Young men and women who have no power, no hope, no impact on their world form community-based organizations to fill that socio-political void in their existence. Those the state calls “gangs” and has decided to wage “war” on them, only furthering the isolation.

Young men and women who have no power, no hope, no impact on their world form community-based organizations to fill that socio-political void in their existence.

One of the reasons so few people vote in underclass communities is these disparities are institutional and systemic to U.S. capitalist economics. No matter who’s in office, their plight doesn’t change. Because these communities are a marginal constituency, public officials extend a corresponding indifference to their plight. [4]

Families and supporters of prisoners from across California held a rally prior to the Aug. 23 hearing called by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano on the torturous solitary confinement in California SHUs.

Instead of “protecting and serving” those communities, law enforcement, judicial, legislative and correctional officers all too commonly have a containment, suppression and adversarial relationship with those communities and those who come from them. Yet the bell-curve theories and notions that young men and women want to stand on a street corner selling crack or want to risk their lives and freedom by engaging in unprovoked gang violence are simply untrue.

You pick any prisoner in these SHU units validated as a “gang member” and offer him a job making $20 an hour, and I can guarantee you he won’t break the law. But the environment in these communities and most assuredly the environment in CDCR prisons are not structured to produce such success or opportunity, which brings me to my next point:

The California corrections system is an environment designed and maintained by its administrators. Thus, any failures must be attributed to those who have precluded an environment for success. CDCR effectively retards rehabilitation especially among SHU prisoners – those who by the state’s own admission most need rehabilitation – by withdrawing the vital tech-based vocational training and higher educational opportunity needed to compete in today’s high tech world. It was primarily through the successful efforts of the CCPOA that funding through Pell grants for higher education was taken from prisoners.
You pick any prisoner in these SHU units validated as a “gang member” and offer him a job making $20 an hour, and I can guarantee you he won’t break the law.

Of course, what followed this repeal of the inmate bill of rights was an unprecedented boom in prison building and a population expansion by 800 percent in the last 20 years. Racial antagonisms are encouraged so as to preclude broad class cooperation amongst prisoners like the unprecedented unity shown statewide in the recent hunger strike.

Underdevelopment while in prison, coupled with an emphasis on seeking most any impetus for “violation” by parole officers once out of prison, is designed to preclude successful re-integration into society, maximize recidivism rates, and undermine the underclass communities from which those ex-offenders hail – all to maintain the steady social dysfunction and economic desperation in these family units so a consistent flow of bodies is exiting these communities to enter our jails and prisons, court systems and probation departments, ensuring a recession-proof industry of profit and expansion for the prison market and those who depend on your tax dollars to sustain their privilege.

The very structure of CDCR regulations is designed to promote dependency, destroy ingenuity and self-determination and deter unity. They actually have rules which bar prisoners from running a business, which always boggled my mind in an economically depressed recessionary capitalist cycle. If there are prisoners with the insight, talent and entrepreneurial acumen to make a meaningful contribution to this state’s economy and job market, men and women who the courts have determined owe some debt to society, why would you codify a basis for them not doing so?
The very structure of CDCR regulations is designed to promote dependency, destroy ingenuity and self-determination and deter unity.

Outside of the same “potential for impropriety” rhetoric they use to justify accepting unsubstantiated confidential information and mere suspicion as a basis for SHU confinement, there exists no justification for such a regulation. The only basis that follows reason is to prevent independence and promote dependency on the state, thus promoting institutionalization.

If you combine this with the psycho-social decimation of men’s minds resulting from prolonged and, in some cases, endless isolation in conditions such as these, is it any wonder psychologists universally agree this type of torture effectively destroys one’s ability to function in society? Which is the point.

As we’ve stated before, the modern criminal justice system – and correctional departments in particular – are the biggest conflicts of interest in U.S. history. Those entrusted with reducing the number of criminal offenders and protecting public safety have their potential profit margin directly attached to maximizing the number of offenders under their control at any given time.

Those entrusted with reducing the number of criminal offenders and protecting public safety have their potential profit margin directly attached to maximizing the number of offenders under their control at any given time.

This is why the CCPOA fought so hard to stop out-of-state transfers of prisoners to reduce overcrowding. The more prisoners under their control, the larger their budgets, the greater their salaries and benefits, and the more overtime hours they can bill to your tax dollars.

But most vitally, the more prisoners held and for ever greater durations, the more ensured they are of their long-term job security no matter the fragility of the economy in this current crisis. To be sure, an economic downturn to the rest of us is an economic upturn for those in the prison industry. It means an inequitable increase in human commodities: prisoners.
An economic downturn to the rest of us is an economic upturn for those in the prison industry. It means an inequitable increase in human commodities: prisoners.

According to CDCR, they spend an average $78,000 to house us in these torture unit cells each year. Perhaps a little more due to the added isolation features in 4B1L-C-Section and D-Corridor. We assure you it does not cost $78K to feed us the two small trays and sack lunch we receive each day or to keep this light burning 24 hours or power our small 13-inch TVs.

Besides being escorted in chains to the K-9 style dog cages for yard two to three times a week and five minutes in the shower three times a week, we never leave these cells. So I assure you that money is not being spent on prisoners being housed in the SHU. No, it’s spent on guards – on their salaries, benefits, equipment, training, guns and bullets – NOT US. The guard working the SHU makes the most money and with all the overtime they have action at, they can in essence write their own checks on your buck and at the expense of our minds, our bodies and, sometimes it feels, our very souls. [5]

The CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association), the prison guards’ union, considers the California State Capitol in Sacramento its turf. It is the state’s most powerful lobby. No governor has dared challenge its power for decades, but the hunger strikers dared.
During the Aug. 23 legislative hearing, the CDCR panel representative, Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan, made such baseless, overly simplistic and outright false statements concerning prison life and conditions related to SHU and so-called “gangs” that they MUST be debunked with the truth. He stated “gangs” were responsible for “ordering ‘rapes’” in prison and are the primary threat for such heinous acts. This is not only an outright lie, but in fact quite the opposite is true.

For the vast majority of those housed in these SHUs, and virtually ALL those in these indeterminate SHU torture units, the forced sexual subjugation of anyone, not to mention another human in these conditions, is not simply frowned upon by SHU prisoners but forcefully opposed. Mr. Kernan’s assertion that men housed here would even condone such sickness is a testament to the fear and dehumanization-based rhetoric which has become the basis for prison industrialist propaganda over the past 20 years and is an insult to the humanity of all of us housed here.

We in the NCTT Cor-SHU collectively have over 100 years of experience existing in the most violent and reactionary prisons in California and can say with definitive confidence that the vast majority of the “8,000 assaults and stabbings the department has each year” has little to do with gangs, as Mr. Kernan states, and everything to do with overcrowded facilities and limited space.

Be it a dispute on the basketball or handball court, an unpaid gambling or dope debt, a cross word said in frustration at overcrowded conditions taken as disrespect, etc., these things have little to do with “gangs.” And in those instances where a gang member may be involved in a personal dispute – and according to CDCR everyone in CDCR runs with some gang – they report or record it as “gang related” when the “gang” in fact has nothing to do with the initial incident.

He went on to state “millions of tax dollars were ‘wasted’ each year, and ‘gangs’ would be identified as the primary problem.” Mr. Kernan has no factual basis for this statement. I can’t even conceive of the rubric by which he would venture this opinion when targeting educational and economic development programs in underclass communities and amongst criminal offenders has proven an effective means by which to reduce both predatory and market-based crime rates and reduce recidivism amongst prisoners, yet funding for such initiatives, due primarily to lobbying efforts by the CCPOA and their political cabal, has been repeatedly diverted to prison budgets under the auspices of public safety, an oxymoronic application of the term if ever there was one.

Mr. Kernan went on to state it’s “only 3,000 validated SHU prisoners in a population of 165,000 – that’s a very small number.” The Marquis de Sade is said to have tortured some 2,000 prisoners out of the 100,000 that passed through Elba – before honing his skills on women – when he was a gaoler (jailer) there. No one in the French aristocracy minded De Sade’s dalliances with prisoners much either. It’s this type of thinking that led to the use of CIA blacksites in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt and, yes, Libya under Qaddafi to imprison “under special conditions” terror “suspects” and torture them for years, continuing still, in the U.S. “war on terror.”
[6]

SHU survivor Jitu Sadiki speaks at the rally prior to the Ammiano hearing Aug. 23. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Three thousand torture victims in a population of 165,000 is 3,000 too many. Mr. Kernan went on to state, “We don’t allow media to talk to individual inmates for fear of their sensationalizing their crimes, like Charles Manson or Scott Peterson” – a patently absurd notion he knows full well was untrue. First of all, it was the media that “sensationalized” Manson and Peterson’s cases, not Manson and Peterson themselves.

But, more importantly, no one here wants to “sensationalize” their criminal convictions or past lifestyles. In fact there is a significant segment of the indeterminate SHU population, such as the NCTT, the Freedom, Justice and Human Rights Initiative, George Jackson University etc., who have dedicated their lives to not simply atoning for the damage to our communities as a result of our ignorance and lack of consciousness in the past, but putting forward meaningful programs and initiatives to improve life in those communities, such as those mentioned above.

The only prisoners in SHU that Mr. Kernan allowed the media access to, and the only prisoners such media outlets as the Sacramento Bee seem to be interested in quoting are debriefers, informants and agents of the state. Mr. Kernan did not allow media access to the D-Short Corridor collective, like Sitawa Dewberry, Todd Ashker or Mutope Crawford, or the 4B1L-C-Section collective because he did not want politically and socially conscious prisoners articulating the true basis of SHU and reason for the hunger strikes and the inescapable deteriorating psychological effects of SHU.

This is simply another example of state controlled media in a society that purports itself to be “free and open,” yet another manifestation of CDCR’s successful gambit to monopolize the conversation. I found it ironic that Mr. Kernan attempted to dismiss and redirect the blatant human rights violations which torture units represent by stating “the violence the gangs perpetuate is the human rights violation,” when the vast majority of the “8,000 assaults and stabbings” occurring in the modern CDCR are occurring on “sensitive needs yards” (SNYs) by the very debriefers and protective custody prisoners IGI has relied on, or broken, to manufacture uncorroborated and unsubstantiated “confidential information chronos” to put, and keep other prisoners in indefinite SHU confinement.

To be sure, the most violent “gang” in CDCR is “2-5” – half of “5-0,” the “prison gang” made up of debriefers and informants who directly work for IGI, ISU, SSU (Special Services Unit) and other law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kernan was adamant that the courts have upheld the validation process and “though harsh, the SHU is not torture.” We’ve established without doubt this IS torture, so that brooks no comment.

But as to the comments on the courts, that’s not entirely true either. California courts, most judges having been elected with the backing of CCPOA lobbying dollars, rarely uphold the Constitution where prisoners, and especially SHU prisoners, are seeking human rights protection. But there are exceptions. For example, in the Koch v. Lewis case that the Supreme Court took up to address the equally harsh SMU II torture unit in Florence, Arizona, the court found that Koch’s solitary confinement violated his right to due process under the 14th Amendment, which is applicable to states because there was no evidence that Koch had committed any overt act to warrant such torture. The claim that he was an Aryan Brotherhood member was insufficient.

Substantive due process requires that evidence used must bear a logical relation to the specific deprivations. As Judge Moran stated, “The labeling of plaintiff Koch as a ‘gang member’ does not itself create legal concerns. Rather it is the placement in SMU II as a result of the alleged association that is constitutionally significant.” After hearing evidence of SMU conditions – identical to California SHU conditions – and the psychological harm Koch and all prisoners faced, the court not only found a significant liberty deprivation but also that the very practice of sending inmates to supermax torture units based on status alone, with no charges or evidence of misconduct, violated due process.

The court concluded that there must be some evidence of misconduct, some overt gang-related act, to justify placing Koch in SMU II for an indefinite – and very likely permanent – term. Yet, as Mr. Kernan stated, virtually lifelong supermax detention for alleged “gang members” in U.S. domestic prisons continues to be judged constitutional here in California despite the ruling in the Griffith case. CDCR still has not released him from SHU despite multiple rulings to do so.

It’s not that they, or he, does not know these torture units violate basic tenets of humaneness; they simply have an overriding interest in their maintenance: money and control. Your money, their control. This assertion by Mr. Kernan that these torture units are not torture units is so outrageous and insulting, it recalls Bush era admonitions that waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, and CIA blacksites in foreign countries weren’t torturous either. It is an absurdity, and a dangerous one.
This assertion by Mr. Kernan that these torture units are not torture units is so outrageous and insulting, it recalls Bush era admonitions that waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, and CIA blacksites in foreign countries weren’t torturous either.

Mr. Kernan’s dogged assertion that “gangs” and more certainly those of us housed in these SHU torture units are the source of perpetual violence in CDCR ignores the inescapable reality of gross overcrowding, intentional underdevelopment and dependency and the structural conditions they’ve created in California prisons, which is the actual origin of prison violence. And until these structural fallacies are addressed, violence in California prisons will continue no matter how many prisoners are consigned to these torture units, and he KNOWS this. [7]

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano leaves the rally to convene his hearing on solitary confinement and related issues raised initially by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, whose hunger strike was joined by 12,000 other prisoners simultaneously. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

Mr. Kernan stated the process being considered by “all state law enforcement, CCPOA, police, labor unions, national experts and the legislature itself” would allow prisoners to “earn a way out of the system by behavior and require the department to document when we feel it is not the case.” There are four things wrong with this approach:

1) the determining body developing the policy, outside of the legislature, consists exclusively of proponents of the prison industrial complex. Thus, whatever policy is developed will reflect the same draconian, profit-driven inhumanity that’s subjected us to these torture units thus far for decades without end;

2) most of us have not had any rules violations reports in decades. What do we need to “earn” through our “behavior” that’s not already been earned through a years-long proven record of disciplinary free conduct? Or must we subject ourselves to the behavior modification experiments developed in the Marion federal torture unit?

3) indeterminate SHU confinement cannot be allowed to continue to be based on what this department does or does not “feel is the case.” The primary issue here is the arbitrary nature of gang validation and subsequent indeterminate SHU confinement;

4) what Mr. Kernan is suggesting here is no different than the sham six-year inactive review that’s already in place.

Mr. Kernan stated the CDCR gang validation policy is “intended to protect inmates we are charged with and staff,” yet anyone who’s on this side of the door knows that’s a flat out lie. The CDCR gang policy is intended to maintain their control of prison budgets, silence prisoner critics, preclude prisoner unity and continue to scapegoat indeterminate SHU prisoners who’ve not had a single instance of documented misconduct in decades as a basis for extorting billions of taxpayer dollars through over-exaggerating the threat posed by prisoners housed indefinitely in SHU on the basis of gang validations.

The CDCR gang policy is intended to maintain their control of prison budgets, silence prisoner critics, preclude prisoner unity and continue to scapegoat indeterminate SHU prisoners who’ve not had a single instance of documented misconduct in decades.

As I’ve stated previously, if prisoners, staff and public safety were truly CDCR’s motive force, they would have developed a prison environment and programs geared toward true rehabilitation and successful reintegration and performance in society upon release. Such an environment runs contrary to their economic and political interests and unfortunately against a significant number of the peoples’ desire for vengeance against perceived offenders.

Now then, a particularly distressing lie Mr. Kernan relayed to the public safety panel was that “all evidence used to validate is corroborated.” Simply put, this is a flat out lie. There is no corroboration via independent sources of information of confidential informants’ statements or confidential informant chronos known as “1030s.” Why he would utter a lie that is so easily debunked is truly beyond me. [8]

A SHU survivor addresses the Aug. 23 rally outside the capitol in Sacramento.

To give you an example of what Mr.Kernan and the IGI deem corroboration, they have little boxes on the 1030 chrono listed a)-f) which state why they consider such a source reliable. In a 2008 1030 used to deny a validated indeterminate SHU prisoner “inactive status,” a debriefer – who was briefly housed with the brother – told IGI the individual spoke of the merits of socialism, the history of political resistance to racism and socio-economic inequality in Amerika, and of the validity of the political and socio-economic views of Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh and George Lester Jackson. The IGI told the debriefer that the prisoner was providing “BGF education,” to which the debriefer quickly agreed and parroted what his IGI handler told him to.

Because the same prisoner wrote an article in California Prison Focus critical of CDCR and expressing some of these same political ideas (CPF Fall 2003), they considered this “more than one source independently provid(ing) the same information,” and “part of the information provided by the source has already proven to be true.” This expression of his political views and social criticism of the department’s practice of arbitrarily targeting and punishing left-wing political ideologies in prison in violation of the First Amendment and their own California Code of Regulations, Title 15, was sufficient to earn him another six years in SHU – though he in truth had no chance of release via inactive review.

Not only is political speech and expression protected by “the supreme laws of the land” – or is supposed to be – but it boggles the mind how an article in a publication CDCR not only allows into institutions, but the state delivers to our cell doors, can possibly be corroboration of a coerced informant’s scripted lies. This is what passes for corroboration in Mr. Kernan’s CDCR. The fact of the matter is there is no corroboration of evidence and no way to verify it if there was. IGI is the only one who gets to see the evidence used to consign men to these torture units forever.

Mr. Kernan went on to state, “These offenders are in the SHU with mountains of documentation of illegal criminal activities both out on the streets in public and in prison.” And it is just these types of irresponsible, intentionally dishonest statements which have cowed courts and legislators alike into turning a blind eye to wholesale psychological torture for decades in the California prison system. [9]

A panel of professionals firmly opposed to the torture of solitary confinement – Laura Magnani, Dorsey Nunn, Terry Kupers, Craig Haney and Charles Carbone – prepares to testify at Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s hearing Aug. 23. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

The truth of the matter is most validated indeterminate SHU prisoners haven’t had a single documented instance of misconduct or rules violation report for ANY criminal act in decades. I assure you if such a “mountain of illegal activities” was documented, you’d have an equally high mountain of rules violation reports, district attorney referrals and indictments. This is a lie specifically designed to put forward a non-existent justification for that which, according to “the rule of law,” is unjustifiable: indefinite psychological torture to coerce men into becoming informants, agent provocateurs and advocates for the same heinous practices which broke their minds and subsumed their wills.

To be sure, Mr. Kernan contradicted himself in his next breath by stating, in response to the statistical data showing gang violence has only increased as sensitive needs yards – inhabited exclusively by the debriefers, informants and other protective custody designees Mr. Kernan is singing the praises of – have expanded, that “the state’s gang problem has even increased, but separating those offenders we have in SHU has led to a decrease.”

Upon hearing this absurdity, even the assemblyman had to call him on the contradiction. As the hearing wore on and the objective evidence in front of the legislative oversight committee continued to contradict the lies and distortions Mr. Kernan was offering as authority, he stated, “Let’s not lose focus on the real public safety threat perpetuated by gangs in our system.”

And it is this narrow and intentionally ill-informed perspective on public safety which has produced an 800 percent increase in the California prison population, a dysfunctional correctional and nonexistent rehabilitation system, and led to the state’s use and expansion of domestic human experimentation, torture units on the victims of a socio-economic arrangement that has forced us from the bottom rung of society into the bowels of Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs. [10]

The lights in these SHU cells are never turned off, causing sensory deprivation that is another form of torture.

Mr. Kernan and the rest of the prison industrialists can lay the blame for society’s ills at the feet of “gangs” all they like, and the vicious cycle will only continue ebbing toward the inexorable decline of Western Civilization. Until such time as we all accept the fact that “gangs” are the inevitable outgrowth of capitalist contradictions, of educational and labor underdevelopment in underclass communities and your political and economic leaders’ unwillingness or inability to address the gross disparities between the haves and have nots as the true origin of society’s ills, “gang” violence and systematic criminality will continue to be part of the U.S. social fabric.

Luckily, as consciousness raising efforts like the global Occupy Wall Street Movement continue to sweep across the planet, these “leaders” will be forced to acknowledge the obvious. With a multi-billion dollar budget, Mr. Kernan and his department can make some significant contributions to a new approach. But as the continued intransigence of the department shows, true public safety is a remote concern of those you’ve invested with that responsibility.

The actual public safety threat lies in the underlying socio-economic relationship between poor communities and the prison industry, our society’s indifference to that conflict, and the apparent dogged pursuit of a law enforcement and correctional policy which has been both a dismal inhumane failure and economically unsustainable. The definition of “insanity” is pursuing the same course of action repeatedly and expecting a different result.

I’d like to address one final point Mr. Kernan raised that I believe is pertinent. He stated, “An offender that wants to rehab himself, he can’t because of an inmate telling him to go stab someone or he will be killed.” This is both a misrepresentation of truth and a dangerous exaggeration. There are numerous non-affiliates in the general population of CDCR and Mr. Kernan is well aware of it. Everyone in prison knows lumpen organizations or “gangs” in prison don’t force membership onto non-affiliates, because history has proven such prisoners always become informants, agents or are easily compelled to lie on those they formerly ran with.

But that’s not the core issue here. What is, is Mr. Kernan’s willingness to dispense such tripe as “facts” in hopes of somehow convincing the people that the perpetual torture of over 3,000 human beings is somehow legitimate. This type of thinking and speech MUST be confronted and debunked. Indefinite solitary confinement of humans in California, across the U.S. and throughout the world must be opposed, resisted and abolished.
Indefinite solitary confinement of humans in California, across the U.S. and throughout the world must be opposed, resisted and abolished.

In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, a document was drafted which stated “The protagonists of this practice of human experimentation justify their views on the basis that such experiments yield results for the good of society that are unprocurable by other methods or means of study. All agree, however, that certain basic principles must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical and legal concepts.” That was an excerpt from the Nuremberg Code. [11]

The most passionate and powerful testimony at the Aug. 23 hearing came from SHU survivors and prisoners’ family members, especially Earl Fears and Glenda Rojas shown here. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

Have we as a society descended so far into the miasma of fear, hatred and dehumanization that we would condone the state-sponsored torture of thousands of humans from our communities, in our name?

I began this discussion with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to illustrate the slippery slope we are on as a society. Maintenance of these torture units is an injustice; a continuation of the current law enforcement and correctional policy in relation to fundamental socio-economic disparities is inhumane. Injustice anywhere, even here in Corcoran SHU’s 4B1L-C-Section, is a threat to justice everywhere. Today it is us; tomorrow if may be someone you love or, God forbid, you yourself.
Have we as a society descended so far into the miasma of fear, hatred and dehumanization that we would condone the state-sponsored torture of thousands of humans from our communities, in our name?

It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” How civilized is this society? And to answer that question with another: How civilized are you, the people who make it up?

If this second hunger strike effort has taught us anything, it is that the power to transform an intransigent industrial interest such as CDCR must come from the will of the people, from exercising your limitless power. Prison authorities were fully content to let us die this time and even modified their medical responses to maximize the chance of permanent injury or death to hunger strikers, which makes the broader aspects of this struggle so significant.
The power to transform an intransigent industrial interest such as CDCR must come from the will of the people, from exercising your limitless power.

This is not over. It is a protracted struggle that does not end, yet simply begins, with the abolition of SHU torture units. It is the intent of the NCTT to ensure not another human is done this way, not another soul lost to such greedy and heartless people. [12]

Participating in the first round of the hunger strike, 6,600 prisoners and in the second round 12,000 prisoners joined their comrades in SHU to demand an end to “gang validation” and the torture of solitary confinement.
It is our intent to fight for true rehabilitation and positive empowerment, not merely for current or ex-prisoners, but for the underclass communities we all too often hail from. If we can provide community-based initiatives and programs which address the inherent social inequalities in the class arrangement, this will eliminate the motive for property crimes – which make up 98 percent of all crime in the U.S. – and give us all safer and more prosperous communities, allowing us all to partake of the inalienable rights provided for in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The nature of California state and U.S. corrections must change. But to do that we must change society. Who dares to take up such a challenge? Who dares breathe life into the promise of the Declaration of Independence? Who dares champion the poor, the most disenfranchised and underdeveloped communities, the ghettoes, barrios and trailer parks of Amerika? Who dares champion the most vulnerable and urbanized in our society – the felon, the SHU prisoner, the poor?
Who dares champion the most vulnerable and urbanized in our society – the felon, the SHU prisoner, the poor?

Who dares do the right thing when the Scott Kernans of the world swear it’s wrong? Who dares to struggle? Who dares to win? We do, and we hope you do too.

Join us! This power to shape history and the future of the society is in your hands. We have faith you will uphold the highest standards of humanity. Our love and solidarity to all those who love freedom, justice and equality and fear only failure.

For more information on the NCTT or its work products and initiatives, contact Zaharibu Dorrough, D-83611, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #53, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212; J. Heshima Denham, J-38283, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #46, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212; Kambui Robinson, C-82830, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #49, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212.

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How the hunger strike started for me

George Jackson: Forty years ago they shot him down

Repression breeds resistance!

CDCR: Bay View is contraband for mentioning George Jackson and Black August

Article printed from San Francisco Bay View: http://sfbayview.com

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