prisons, jails, mass incarceration
In Florida’s Tomoka Correctional Institution, a corrections officer appears at a cell door and begins mocking fake sign language to the man inside, who is deaf. Then he pulls Sam Hart out of the cell and escorts him for a haircut. After half his hair is shaved off one side of his head, the guard orders the haircutter to stop.
As Hart describes in a letter, the officer then says, “Look, not only is he deaf but now he even looks dumb.”
Hart, who was born hearing and can speak and read lips, replies, “Don’t play with me, I do not play with you and I do not disrespect you.”
“Fuck you,” says the officer. “Mother fucker.” The next day the same officer stops by Hart’s cell. “Did you get to show it to the warden, dummy?” he asks.
“The abuse experienced by deaf prisoners housed in the Florida Department of Corrections defies imagination” Talila Lewis, founder and president of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf ), a group that supports deaf prisoners, wrote in the op-ed pages of the Sun Sentinel, the south Florida newspaper. She continued:
The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) has systematically created a culture of fear and hopelessness for disabled prisoners. The DOC’s failure to provide adequate accommodations for and protections to this vulnerable population is beyond reproach. Countless deaf prisoners, their family members, and advocates have expressed concern for the safety and well-being of these prisoners in Florida’s state prison facilities. Many of Florida’s deaf prisoners, fearful of brutal retaliation and assured of prison official’s apathy or complicity, have all but given up hope of ever living safe from fear of sexual and physical assault.
Lewis said her information is based on 21 deaf prisoners out of a total of 40 in Florida, held in six different prisons across the state. Overall, Lewis writes, “HEARD’s Deaf and Deaf-Blind Prisoner Database includes information on more than 400 men and women, in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The abuse and violations occuring in Florida are, by far, the worst that we have seen.”
Lewis said she has sent letters to the Governor Rick Scott, Department of Corrections head Michael D. Crews, and state prison inspector general Jeff Beasley. So far she has received no replies. She also wrote to and met with officials in the Justice Department’s disability rights section, and received no response from there, either. Inquiries by Solitary Watch to Ann Howard, press spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, so far have not been answered.
“This past year, one deaf prisoner [later revealed to be Sam Hart] risked his life to report to the Office of the Inspector General horrendous physical and sexual abuse of other prisoners with disabilities as well as other serious violations occurring at the prison,” Lewis wrote in her op-ed. She continued:
Though this prisoner’s complaint resulted in at least two officers being fired and numerous prisoners being transferred out of the facility, the Office of the Inspector General informed staff at Tomoka that this prisoner was responsible for lodging this “anonymous” complaint. As a result of this breach of confidentiality, this prisoner’s life has been threatened by staff and prisoners at Tomoka. Just last week, despite numerous requests from advocates not to send him back to this facility, the Florida Department of Corrections sent this prisoner back to what can only be described as a living hell for this man who sacrificed his own safety to protect others. As of the writing of this letter, he has not been heard from by any of those community members with whom he consistently maintains contact.
Lewis told Solitary Watch she “fears Hart will be killed just as soon as he is released from solitary in late May.”
In their letters to the governor and other officials, HEARD documented conditions and events at Tomoka over the past year, based on the diary-style reports provided by deaf men held there. Some excerpts from these reports appear below:
This place is infested with the mice and rats that I told you about before. In fact its more infested with mice and rats since the last time I told you about it. They have had time to breed. Its so full of mice and rats that you have to stay awake when the lights go out or they will actually crawl up on the bunk with you…They [the cells] have foot lockers bolted to the walls that set higher then the bottom bunk that almost level with the top bunk that these mice and rats will climb up on, run along the foot lockers and jump off in the bunk where you are laying…
…Deaf prisoners filing grievances were beaten by other prisoners, threatened with and put into solitary for 60-90 days…
…A man was stabbed in the head and chest because he was thought to be a “snitch”…
…Deaf [man] got robbed of his wedding ring and a chain…
….One deaf-blind prisoner was robbed again by two men and another extortion attempt by a prisoner…
….The man assigned to help the blind inmate has been stealing this blind man’s money and stamps when they come in…
Lewis summarizes: “One deaf-blind prisoner at TCI has the intellectual capacity of a young child. He is constantly subjected to sexual assault. Multiple elderly (70+ years old) wheelchair users are housed here and are beaten by their impaired assistants. These impaired assistants regularly withhold food and refuse to take blind or wheelchair bound prisoners to the bathroom or shower if these individuals do not perform sexual acts for or with these and other persons. They have been known to spend days in their own feces and urine, afraid or unable to leave their cells. Two of our deaf prisoners attempted to help the blind guys when they could by helping them get showers from time to time. These prisoners (blind and wheelchair users) are beaten (bones have been shattered and heads split open) when they complained to guards.”
Lewis says that on September 19, 2012, HEARD wrote to Ken Tucker, then secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, informing him of the abuse of deaf, elderly, and disabled prisoners under his care. “A little more than a week after we sent the letter to Secretary Tucker, a guard threw the only TTY [special telephone for the deaf] in the facility to the ground and shouted, ‘Now try to call someone!’ Around the same time, the deaf man who wrote the most detailed of the letters was sent to another camp, and many of the deaf men who were in a unit together at Tomoka were split up, with the most severely disabled prisoner–a deaf-blind prisoner with diagnosed mental retardation who was taken care of by other deaf at Tomoka–being placed alone in the worse dorm on the compound.”
On October 18, 2012, HEARD also received a message from another man in Tomoka stating similar facts that “[name omitted] was raped and all of his things stolen. Please help.”
Around Christmas, Felix Garcia, a deaf man held at Tomoka,described another deaf prisoner being put in solitary confinement because a cell phone was found in his locker. According to Lewis, “He says that a gang member in the dorm that planted this phone, and these cell phones are coming in by the guards. It’s common knowledge that guards will charge inmates $20 for 5 minutes use on a cell phone.”
On January 5, 2013, deaf prisoner Robert was reportedly locked up for a cell phone planted in his locker. When cell phones are found in the facility, not only are prisoners removed from the dorm and subjected to 30 days in solitary, but their visiting privileges are banned for the rest of their sentences. It seems that there is no investigation when these cell phones are found, despite the fact that these men are deaf, cannot communicate on such a phone, and are unable to text due to illiteracy.
• Coverage of Guantanamo was heavy again throughout the past week as the hunger strike reached its 100th day. An estimated 102 of the 166 detainee are refusing food, and some 30 are being subjected to force-feeding in violation of international human rights standards.
• A (somewhat overly sanguine) CBS News piece reported on the federal government’s internal plan to review its use of solitary confinement, and noted reductions that have taken place thus far in a handful of states.
• Mashable reports that hacker Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer has been placed in solitary confinement in his minimum security federal prison to prevent him tweeting and posting phone calls to his soundcloud.
• As a guest column in the Orlando Sun-Sentinal notes, the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act failed to make progress in the current legislative session. It’s sponsor has vowed to reintroduce it in the next session, as awareness of children held in solitary grows in Florida and around the country.
• An op-ed and letter to the editor in the Albany Times-Union argue that solitary confinement as practiced in New York is both brutal and futile. The pieces respond to an article in the Times Union on the effects of solitary, and a subsequent op-ed by the local corrections officers’ union supporting the practice.
• The New York Times reports that after years of litigation and negotiation, a federal judge has “approved a settlement meant to guarantee alternatives to segregation for mentally ill inmates in Massachusetts prisons.”
Lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight people held in solitary confinement at Central Prison against officers and administrators at the facility. As reported by the Associated Press:
A federal lawsuit on behalf of eight inmates at North Carolina’s Central Prison alleges correctional officers used “blind spots” out of view of security cameras to beat handcuffed and shackled inmates.
An amended complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says the beatings occurred in Unit One, a cell block known as “The Hole” where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.
The inmates’ abuse claims are supported by medical records documenting blunt-force injuries that occurred while they were segregated from other prisoners, including broken bones, concussions and an inmate who is still unable to walk months after his hip was shattered.
N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit names as defendants 21 correctional officers accused of participating in the abuse, as well as two wardens at the maximum security prison in Raleigh. The lawsuit alleges that former prison administrator Gerald J. Branker and current administrator Kenneth Lassister knew about the problems.
The suit seeks to eliminate this problem going forward, calling for the Court to order installation of surveillance cameras throughout the hallways of Unit One, stating “Given the history at Central Prison’s Unit One, these measures would benefit prison officials, prisoners, and the taxpaying public, and are required by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The article goes on to describe several instances of guard brutality:
One violent beating was Dec. 3, 2012, and left inmate Jerome Peters in a wheelchair, according to the lawsuit.
[Jerome] Peters, 48, was handcuffed and escorted by two correctional officers from his cell to an outdoor recreation area when the lawsuit said one of the guards punched him in the face while the other grabbed a leg and pulled him the ground. The lawsuit said a third correctional officer then helped the other two kick, stomp and punch Peters.
When they were finished, the lawsuit said the officers put shackles on Peters’ ankles and ordered him to walk. He couldn’t, the suit said, because his pelvic bone was broken…
Peters was taken to an emergency room and diagnosed with a broken right hip, and fractured bones in his hand and face. He also had blurred vision and numerous cuts and bruises, according to the lawsuit. He underwent surgery, but more than five months later is still unable to walk.
The complaint also includes an account of an incident in which the ribs of a person held at the facility were broken. According to the Associated Press:
…Riddle was removed from his cell so that officers could search it. While he was waiting in handcuffs, the lawsuit alleged a correctional officer punched him in the face. Two officers then took Riddle to a secluded area of holding cells inmates call “The Desert” because they are not covered by video cameras.
There, three officers are said to have punched and kicked Riddle in the chest and torso. Riddle was then locked back in his cell, where his pleas for medical attention were ignored, according to the lawsuit.
It took 11 days before prison staff took Riddle to see a physician assistant, who ordered an X-ray. He was diagnosed with multiple rib fractures.
In another instance of brutality by Central Prison corrections officers, the Associated Press reports:
Chardan Whitehead got in an altercation with a guard. One sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and two officers took him to “The Desert.”
There, the lawsuit said three officers beat the restrained inmate unconscious. He was later taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a concussion and received several sutures to sew up cuts on his head and face. He was also blind in his left eye for several weeks.
Whitehead was later released after serving about six months for larceny of a motor vehicle.
This is not the first time prisoner abuse at Central Prison, where around 600 people are held in “Close Custody,” or solitary confinement, has come to public light. In 2012, Solitary Watch reported that people held at the facility had launched a hunger strike in protest of various prison conditions, the demands of which included “[a]n immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers” and “[t]he end of cell restriction.”
Today we arrive in London, where on Thursday we will speak at a forum entitled “Extradited to a Future of Torture: The Reality of Solitary Confinement in America.” Hosted by the International State Crimes Initiative (ISCI) at Kings College London, the event features the premiere of a film made by the Yale Visual Law Project, The Worst of the Worst, about Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s supermax prison. It will also include talks by Tessa Murphy of Amnesty International and Hamja Ahsan, the brother of Talha Ahsan, a young British national who is currently being held in pre-trial solitary confinement at Northern.
Talha Ahsan is one of five UK residents extradited last year to the United States to face terrorism-related charges. The story of their extraditions was not big news in the United States (though we covered it on Solitary Watch, here, here, and here). In the UK, however, it was a huge and controversial story involving inside British politics and the European Court of Human Rights. The story of the extraditions–and particularly, of Talha Ahsan, who suffers from Asberger’s Syndrome and is accused under vague “material support” charges of participating in a jihadist website–is told in dramatic detail by the ISCI’s Ian Patel in a recent New Statesman article, “The Impossible Injustice of Talha Ahsan’s Extradition and Detention,” which deserves to be read in full.
Talha Ahsan is a poet who has continued to write throughout his imprisonment. The following poem was composed while he was being held in (comparatively unrestrictive) detention in Her Majesty’s Prison Long Lartin. It refers to ADX Florence federal supermax prison in Colorado, which is where Ahsan, with good reason, fears he will end up.
. . . . . . . . . .
Five years ago they brought me to a cell
and ever since a waiting game plays here.
As they decide on sending me away,
my parents grow so grey and sad at home.
How will they manage visiting me there
or must they wait until the end of time?
Ma, hear my oath, by him whose hand is time,
bars stand in worship with me in this cell.
So even if I’m extradited there
and taken from my humble parents here,
then tell them paradise is our true home
whose gardens years will never fade away.
To Florence prison I’ll be sent away
It doesn’t matter what will be my time.
No prison ever can be called my home,
how ever long they put me in a cell.
A higher power occupies me here
who’s closer to me even over there.
Perhaps they’ll clean their hands of me once there.
And then my country feels I’m wiped away.
Though germs stay always floating from me here:
these particles will gather born in time,
a culture breeding from a tiny cell,
to carry on infecting every home.
Theresa May, a minister at home
though feeble servant to her masters there;
a solitary torture chamber cell,
To put me in, she’ll simply say, ‘Away!’
So let me while I can devote my time
to work for my own justice over here.
I pitch a tent for battle waiting here.
And in this heart of mine you’ll find a home,
free from the crumbling effects of time
or any rotting thoughts of being there.
It is a sin for me to run away
As patience brings my glory to this cell.
For time will be a brief sojourning here,
and there, or anywhere I make a home -
Away! A caravan escapes my cell.
–HMP Long Lartin, 19 July 2011
• Media coverage on the urgency of closing Guantanamo was heavy throughout the past week, with an estimated 100 of the 166 detainees hunger striking. Most recently, Al Jazeera publishes a Guantanamo prison military document exposing the brutality of the force-feeding. According to the story, detainees “undergo a brutal and dehumanising medical procedure that requires them to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled in a restraint chair for as long as two hours…”
• The New York Times reports that New York City is planning to change the way it disciplines incarcerated people with mental illness, creating alternatives to the use of solitary confinement. “[T]he city Correction Department will transfer severely mentally ill inmates to an internal clinic where psychiatrists will administer treatment and medicine, and the less seriously mentally ill will go to counseling programs designed to help them change their future behavior.”
• The Los Angeles Times publishes an editorial on the harm inflicted on kids who are subjected to isolation, stating “[s]olitary confinement is ultimately a mental health issue for anyone who goes through it, and the practice, if it is to continue, should at the very least be documented for public review and monitored by mental health professionals.”
• The Seattle Times reports on a new program at Washington State Penitentiary seeking to to ease violence in some of the most dangerous units inside the prison, minimizing the liklihood of reoffending. “Rival gang members — Norteños and Sureños, Bloods and Crips, white supremacists — all brought together to discuss ways to stay out of trouble, both in prison and when they get out.”
• Angola 3 News reports on a federal lawsuit filed by Russell Maroon Shoatz’s lawyers protesting his 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement. The story also features a recent interview with activist Bret Grote and Shoatz’ lawyer, Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit and confronting human rights abuses in U.S. prisons.
• Momentum builds to end the solitary confinement of youth, with The Nation calling for support in urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the use of solitary confinement on youth. The post links to an open letter “in support of a call by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the ACLU imploring [Holder] to ban the practice of holding young people in federal custody in solitary confinement.”
• The Republic reports on a federal lawsuit alleging that correctional officers at North Carolina’s Central Prison brutally beat prisoners held at the facility, using “blind spots” to avoid being seen by security cameras. “An amended complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says the beatings occurred in Unit One, a cell block known as “The Hole” where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.”
• NDTV reports on the solitary confinement of Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at a high-security housing unit at a federal medical detention center in Massachusetts. “The only time Tsarnaev gets out of his tiny cell, that contains a sink, toilet, shower and a bed bolted to the floor, is for an hour of recreation every day.”
• The Colorado Independent reports that Colorado’s El Pueblo Boys and Girls Ranch held Kiondre Davison, a 14-year old with an array of developmental disabilities, in solitary confinement for 25 days. “Of particular concern is imposing isolation on developmentally delayed kids. Kiondre is typical of such cases. He struggled to understand what was happening to him and so only loosely tied his actions at El Pueblo to the consequences they brought.”
• Alan Prendergast reports that the legal team of Troy Anderson, who is currently incarcerated at Colorado’s supermax prison, has filed court papers contending that Department of Corrections officials have failed to comply with a previous ruling by a federal judge that Anderson is entitled to three hours a week of outdoor activity. Anderson’s attorneys assert that “their client is worse off than before, with less effective mental health treatment, following a transfer from the supermax to solitary confinement at the Sterling Correctional Facility.”
• In an op-ed published on Times Union, Donn Rowe, President of New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, responds to a recent story on the harm inflicted on mentally ill people who are subjected to solitary confinement. According to Rowe, “Special Housing Units are for inmates who are a danger to others and themselves.”
• SFGate reports that Colorado has banned a youth treatment center in El Pueblo from placing teens in solitary confinement. The state found three violations of Colorado regulations in its investigation, which followed complaints by the ACLU that the program was violating the constitutional rights of youth.
• Black Agenda Report reports that people held in isolation at California’s Pelican Bay may once again go on hunger strike, stating that “more than 200 inmates at the [facility] have been in solitary confinement for between five and ten years and nearly 100 have been shut off from most human contact for 20 years or more.” The story also calls for outside support, emphasizing the importance of having support networks in place beforehand.
• New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm denounces solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual” in a recent editorial, stating “[a]s a matter of fundamental human rights, how the DOC uses solitary confinement must radically change.”
• The Boston Globe reports that the use of segregation units has come under increased scrutiny in Massachusetts, where approximately 500 of the state’s 11,000 prisoners are held in isolation on any given day. According to the story, “Prisoner-rights advocates, legislators, and even corrections commissioners in other states are increasingly denouncing the use of solitary confinement, while others defend the practice as an essential part of prison management.”
Thanks to our amazing Social Media Manager, Lisa Dawson, Solitary Watch now features a large and growing archive of multimedia resources on solitary confinement, including audio, video, and infographics. Art and photography are coming soon!
Send suggestions for additons to the multimedia pages to email@example.com.
Shawn Fisher, who is serving a life sentence at Massachusetts Correctional Institution–Shirley, has written to Solitary Watch making the argument that the treatment of many elders in prison is in fact a form of solitary confinement. An organization of lifers in Massachusetts has urged the state legislature to adopt some sort of compassionate leave act that would let the old out to die in the free world. There is no hospice in the Massachusetts corrections system. So far, nothing has happened. For more on aging prisoners in Massachusetts, read my article ”The Other Death Sentence.” –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . .
I would contest that the “Skilled Nursing Facility” (called the Health Services Unit [H.S.U.]) falls under solitary confinement. The cells are 4-5 man wards but they are locked in that ward for 24 hrs a day. They are not permitted to leave the HSU area for any reason. They cannot attend religious services, programs, or Law Library. There are also several single cells that house four permanent inmates. Those inmates are in their cells, alone 24 hours a day. One inmate has nothing but a mattress and a chair in the cell. NOTHING ELSE. He suffers from dementia and stands at his window, talking through the glass to no one in particular for long periods of the day.
Another inmate who suffers from the same thing, lays in his bed all day long, with no one to engage or talk with. The argument can be made that they don’t know where they are, but just the same it is the most inhumane site you will ever witness.
Here at MCI Shirley prison, the effects of the aging prisoner have already had an impact on the population at large. In the last five years several elderly inmates have died in the bowels of the hospital services unit (HSU) called the “skilled nursing facility.” Most, if not all, died alone with nothing but a bed to comfort them in their last days. What’s even more disturbing is oftentimes friends of these men who are housed in the general population do not hear of their passing for days, sometimes weeks later. For some this may seem like a trivial matter but it is indicative of a more serious issue that is slowly taking root among many of the lifer population; hopelessness, particularly the younger men serving life sentences.
Policies enacted here at MCI Shirley prohibit inmates from visiting anyone housed in HSU area, that is, unless they work in the HSU as runners. This policy further prohibits anyone who lives in the HSU from leaving the HSU to attend programs, library, and religious services; in effect punishing individuals for being sick. Many of these men have served 10, 20 and 30+ years in prison. In that time some have lost contact with family and friends who live on the outside. In most cases, they’ve been incarcerated for so long that there’s just nobody left to contact. In almost every instance these men have formed bonds with other prisoners that they’ve serve time with—creating a family unit amongst each other. Men serving long term sentences serve more time living together than the ideal family unit, and yet, when one becomes sick it’s very likely that neither of them will see each other again.
Imagine being told that a hospitalized “family” member is not your concern, nor can you visit them! Imagine being that individual who is terminally ill and knowing that you can no longer see, talk, or spend time with the very person you care for and consider “family.” It is a dire situation that the younger population sees and realizes, “this is what my future holds for me!” The hopelessness that instills deep within one’s soul is palpable. To know that the only thing you have to look forward to at the end of your days is not friends or family or religious community, but rather, a bed and four walls which the D.O.C. considers a humane way to die.
The restrictive policy of denying ill prisoners a sense of humanity in their dying days creates a climate of hopelessness that in turn creates resentment toward a system they truly feel is “killing them.” So much so, that this dark, bleak, and foreboding outlook has become a reality to them. This “reality” has generated conversations among lifers that no one should ever have to have. Some of the men have expressed a desire to commit suicide before they get to that stage; some have even made pacts with someone they know to have them be smothered with a pillow; some have even gone so far as to make promises to one another that they will slip the other some medication to die of an overdose. In many instance inmates are refusing treatment and refusing to seek medical attention so as to avert being placed in the HSU area. The idiom among the men is to refer to HSU placement as a “death sentence.”
A new article from Creative Time Reports highlights the role played by politically engaged art in the campaign to shut down Tamms supermax prison in southern Illinois. Tamms closed its doors for good in January, but only after a protracted battle in which family members of the incarcerated, grassroots activists, and artists–joined to form the group Tamms Year Ten. Their goal was to “End Torture in Illinois”–the message of the mud stencils that members painted on walls and sidewalks across Chicago.
Creative Time showcases one of the campaign’s most resonant projects, “Photo Requests from Solitary.” As Laurie Jo Reynolds and Stephen F. Eisenman of Tamms Year Ten describe it:
“Photo Requests from Solitary” was one of many projects launched by Tamms Year Ten to build publicity for the campaign. The men in Tamms were invited to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined. The resulting requests were touching and often surprising. They included: the sacred mosque in Mecca, comic book heroes locked in epic battle, Egyptian artifacts, Tamms Year Ten volunteers and a brown and white horse rearing in weather cold enough to see his breath. Willie Sterling III asked for a photograph of a vigil at Bald Knob Cross on top of a hill in southern Illinois to pray for his deliverance from Tamms and to be granted parole…
Photographers from across the country offered to fill photo requests for men in isolation. Chicago animator Lisa Barcy, Dutch photographer Harry Bos and Baltimore filmmaker Stephanie Barber each orchestrated a version of one prisoner’s detailed request for a lovesick clown: “A lovesick clown: holding a old fashioned feathered pen: as if writing a letter: from the waist up: in black and white. As close up as possible: as much detail as possible: & the face about 4 inches big.”
• Media coverage on the urgency of closing Guantanamo was particularly heavy this week, with numerous organizations and groups calling on President Obama to take immediate action. Most recently, The Economist described the prison as “a deeply un-American disgrace” in a story entitled “Guantanamo: Enough to make you gag,” an obvious reference to the unethical force-feeding of hunger strikers by authorities at the prison. The story outlines the U.S. government’s failure to take action to close the prison camp, concluding ”Mr. Obama should think about America’s founding principles, take out his pen and end this stain on its history.”
• The Los Angeles Times reports that California Gov. Jerry Brown “appealed for relief from court orders over prison conditions” within just 24 hours of unveiling his plan to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which, according to another Times story, “would free some inmates early to ease crowding, but still miss court’s target.”
• The Los Angeles Times reports that people held in isolation in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison are seeking class-action status in their federal lawsuit “alleging the state’s segregation policies equate to cruel and inhumane treatment.” In the motion filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland, the plaintiffs assert that they have been subjected to prolonged confinement in ”windowless cells… with little meaningful contact with others, restricted food, limited communication and no access to educational or treatment programs.”
• The Denver Channel reports that Evan Ebel, who is suspected of killing Colorado’s prison chief, filed two grievances in the final days of his incarceration in which he appealed his being kept in isolation up until his release, writing ”Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimatize ‘dangerous’ inmates to being around other human beings prior to releasing them into society after they have spent years in solitary confinement & if not, why not?”
• Slate publishes a three-part series of excerpts from the declassified memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay for almost 11 years. The story describes Slahi’s handwritten 466-page manuscript as “a harrowing account of his detention, interrogation, and abuse.”
• WHYY Public Media discusses the history of solitary confinement and the contemporary controversies surrounding these isolation practices in a Radio Times program. Guests include Sean Kelley (Senior Vice President and Director of Programming and Public Relations at Eastern State Penitentiary), Jules Lobel (University of Pittsburgh Law Professor and President of the Center for Constitutional Rights) and Shirley Moore (Executive Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania DOC).
• Stars and Stripes reports on “life under lockdown” for Guantanamo detainees, stating that “[w]ith nearly every one of the 166 Guantanamo prisoners now under lockdown — back in solitary existence after years of communal living — the military has reverted to a battle rhythm reminiscent of the Bush administration.”
• Sharon Herald reports on the federal lawsuit filed by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the ACLU charging that the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill people in Pennsylvania prisons qualifies as a violation of Constitutional rights. The lawsuit, which is seeking “changes in the way prisons respond to the mentally ill,” describes the state’s use of solitary confinement on mentally ill people as a “Dickensian nightmare.”
“The Ten Worst Prisons in America,” our eleven-part article, premiered yesterday over at MotherJones.com with the notorious ADX Florence federal supermax. A new worst prison will be published each weekday (with some dishonorable mentions at the end), so please check in from time to time for new postings. What follows is the introduction to the series.
“If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” So goes the old saying. Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment.
Doing time is not supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These, however, are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.
The United States boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate, with close to 2.3 million people locked away in some 1,800 prisons and 3,000 jails. Most are nasty places by design, aimed at punishment and exclusion rather than rehabilitation; while reliable numbers are hard to come by, at last count 81,622 prisoners were being held in some form of isolation in state and federal prisons.
Thousands more are being held in solitary at jails, deportation facilities, and juvenile-detention centers. Nearly 1 in 10 prisoners is sexually victimized, by prison employees about half of the time—more than 200,000 such assaults take place in American penal facilities every year (PDF), according to estimates compiled under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. Suicides, meanwhile, account for almost a third of prisoner deaths, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while an unknown number of fatalities result from substandard nutrition and medical care.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of these problems, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We’ve compiled this subjective list of America’s 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy. We will be rolling out profiles of the contenders over the next 10 days, complete with photos and video.
Read the rest at MotherJones.com.
The following poem was written by Nicholas Zimmerman, who is currently incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. He has been in prison for twelve years, and in solitary confinement for ten of those years. He writes: “Since being in The SHU [Special Housing Unit], I have had a stroke, I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and I have tried to commit suicide twice, and very often get these thoughts, but I fight really hard to keep my mind!…It is very hard to cope, but If I can get help on the outside…from all of you reading this! This all can change for me and for many other prisoners like me! Thank you for listening!” The poem was provided to Solitary Watch by Nicholas Zimmerman’s wife Desiray Smith, who works against solitary confinement with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. –Jean Casella
. . . . . . . . . .
You are the most profound form of cruel and unusual punishment know to mankind, yet the Eighth Amendment of the United States seems to have no effect on you.
Your are only 6 feet by 8 feet in size, but your impact is devastating and long lasting.
You are a silent killer, slipping on and out of prison cells late at night to claim your next victim.
You are the Department of Corrections’ most effective weapon in inflicting mental and physical torture upon its captives.
Your existence is undeniable; you’ve been around for hundreds of years.
Numerous experts have complained about you for decades to no avail.
You are the cause of my depression, my high blood pressure, my anxiety, my sleepless nights, and my restless days.
I’ve watched you kill people with out laying a hand on them.
I’ve watched people hang themselves from your support beams with in minutes of being in your clutches.
I’ve have seen people slice and dice themselves with hopes of escaping your misery.
And I’ve also watched the Correction Officers and mental health staff enjoy every minute of it.
You’re a Bitch in my eyes, not man enough to show your face and fight me one on one, but coward enough to attack me while I’m sleeping and inject fatal thoughts of suicide into my dreams….
Through lawsuits, maintenance, funding and security, you cause taxpayers billions of dollars per year to stay afloat, yet they know very little about you and how unnecessary and counterproductive you really are.
Lately, you have been under fire by the media, however. But will this end your reign of terror? Only time will tell.
I’ve been battling you for the past 10 years and everyday I look at you and grin knowing that you are on your last leg. Your defeat is imminent, but your history will be legendary. Tomorrow you might be the thing of a thing of the past, but today at the very minute, as I write these words, you are torturing another soul and plotting your next murder.
And you legally get away with all of this simply because you are who you are!
“Control unit facilities cannot be allowed to exist,” writes Russell Maroon Shoatz in a piece called “Death by Regulation.” “They serve no purpose other than to dehumanize their occupants. Our collective welfare demands that we do everything within our power to bring about an end to this form of imprisonment and torture.”
Shoatz, a former Black Panther who will turn 70 years old in August, has been held in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons since 1983. His only time in the general prison population in the last 30 years was an 18-month stint spent at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth that ended in 1991.
Maroon has had only one misconduct since 1989. His most recent violation was in 1999, when he covered a vent in his cell that was blowing cold air in an attempt to stay warm.
From 1995 until the end of last month, Maroon had been held at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania. Without warning Maroon was transferred on Thursday, March 28 to SCI Mahanoy in the eastern part of Pennsylvania.
A growing grassroots national movement had been mobilizing to win his release into the general population. This transfer appeared to be a response by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the gathering legal and political pressure.
On April 8, 2013, Pennsylvania prison officials were given 30 days notice to release Maroon from solitary confinement. If he is not in the general prison population on May 8, his legal team will file a major civil rights lawsuit the following morning.
Represented by Stefanie Lepore and Rick Etter from the international firm Reed Smith, Dan Kovalik of the United Steelworkers, and Dustin McDaniel of the Abolitionist Law Center, Maroon has drawn support from a growing number of civil society groups as well. More than 20 organizations around the country, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Friends Service Committee New England Region have joined the call and mobilized to demand his release from solitary.
On Monday, April 15, the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz announced that Maroon and his legal team had been told by prison officials that Secretary John Wetzel personally ordered his transfer to SCI Mahanoy to remove him from solitary. Still, Shoatz remains in solitary confinement, and the campaign cautioned that he has been misled in the past about re-entering the general prison population.
He was given the name Maroon after his second escape from prison in 1980. Originally convicted in 1972 for his alleged role in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer, Maroon had escaped twice, in 1977 and 1980. As he explains in his new book, Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz, “maroon” communities were fugitive-slave societies that existed throughout the Americas during the era of chattel slavery where runaway slaves, indigenous people, and at times even Euro-Americans lived outside of and at war with the colonizing, slaveholding European settler societies.
Although he twice escaped imprisonment, it was not his second escape that triggered his nearly 30 years of solitary confinement. In 1982 he was released into the general prison population at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh. Upon return to the general population Maroon became involved with the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers (PAL), a prison-approved organization that was supposed to further the interests of life-sentenced prisoners. At the time he became involved only 5-6 people attended meetings. Maroon says his sole interest in the organization was working with prisoners to persuade their family members and supporters outside the walls to build a political movement that could successfully lobby for the repeal of life without parole sentences in Pennsylvania.
Maroon’s reputation and the respect other prisoners had for him led to a dramatic increase in participation in the PAL. More than 100 prisoners would attend meetings in the early part of 1983. On the night that the old leadership was impeached and Maroon appointed interim president pending new elections, he and other new leaders of the PAL were placed in solitary confinement. The others were eventually released from solitary. Maroon remains in isolation to this day.
In a hearing on solitary confinement in front of Pennsylvania state legislators in August 2012, LuQman Abdullah testified that Maroon’s mentorship “saved his life,” inspiring him to become a community activist once he was exonerated after spending 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit – five of them in solitary confinement. This is a story that has been repeated by a number of former and current prisoners in conversations with legal and political supporters of Maroon.
“The men in this prison are serving the full range of sentences and many of them will be released back into your communities someday, perhaps soon. Yet even they are under a sentence of death. They’re under a sentence of ‘spiritual death,” Maroon wrote in “Message from a Death Camp,” an essay in his new book.
According to Maroon: “The torture technicians who developed the paradigm used at the control/housing units realized that they not only had to separate those with leadership qualities but also break those individuals’ minds and bodies and keep them separated until they are dead.”
And though the prison administration has attempted to keep Maroon separated from other prisoners, those “under a sentence of ‘spiritual death,’” it is possible that the massive wave of support building behind him may bring an end to 30 long years of control unit confinement.
Kanya D’Almeida is an editor for the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency, and is based in New York City.
Bret Grote is an organizer with the Human Rights Coalition, the Executive Director of the newly founded Abolitionist Law Center, and a member of the legal team for Russell Maroon Shoatz.
• The Queens Chronicle reports on efforts by activists and New York City Council Members to increase transparency and and place stricter limits on the use of solitary confinement in New York City’s jails.
• Susan Greene, in the Colorado Independent, continues her reporting on how years of solitary confinement may have affected Evan Ebel, prime suspect in the killing of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements.
• Albany Times Union reports on the widespread use of solitary confinement on people with mental illness in New York State. The damage caused by solitary is illustrated in the story of the formerly incarcerated Jeff Rockefeller, who to this day struggles with uncontrollable crying, difficulty sleeping and nightmares.
• Human Rights Watch reports that 93 of the 166 detainees have joined the hunger strike at Guantanamo.
• The Houston Chronicle reports on two bills currently under consideration by the Texas Legislature (House Bill 1266 and Senate Bill 1003) that would call for an examination of the state’s use of solitary confinement in order to identify feasible alternatives the practice. In the article, Texas death row exonoree Anthony Graves provides a powerful account of the tortuous conditions to which he was subjected in his over 18 years of administrative segregation.
• The Sidney Hillman Foundation announces Shane Bauer as a a 2013 Hillman Prizes recipient for his article “No Way Out: A Special Report on Solitary Confinement from Former Hostage Shane Bauer.” The prize is awarded to “journalists whose work highlights important social and economic issues and helps bring about change for the better.”
• The ACLU reports on a series of proposed bills that would restrict the use solitary confinement on youth in Texas. The story also details the state’s “failure to take into account age when determining if a kid should be placed in solitary and a disregard for the mental-health of children held in isolation.”
• KUT News reports on the abusive use of solitary confinement on youth in Texas, stating “juvenile offenders in Texas were placed in solitary confinement 36,820 times last year.”
• Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz speaks out against the use of solitary confinement on youth, calling for support of a proposed bill in California (SB 61) that would “lead the way nationally in increasing access to rehabilitation and reducing harm for our young people.”
• Prisoners rights group NCTT-Cor-SHU alleges that, in a blatant disregard of California state policies, administrators at Corcoron SHU instructed staff to cease all medical treatment of hunger strikers at the facility.
• Angola 3 News features an interview with Teresa Shoats, daughter of Russell Maroon Shoats, who has spent 28 of the last 30 years in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons, and is now the subject of an activist campaign to win his release from isolation.
Andrew Cohen continues his coverage for the Atlantic of two potentially groundbreaking lawsuits directed at the treatment of those incarcerated in the notorious ADX Florence, where about 400 men live in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for years or decades. Today he reports on a federal judge’s decision to allow the lawsuits to proceed, rejecting the federal governments efforts to have them dismissed.
In a rebuke to the Obama Administration, a noted federal judge in Denver Tuesday refused to dismiss two pending civil rights lawsuits filed last year against Bureau of Prisons’ officials accused of the widespread abuse and neglect of mentally ill federal inmates at the sprawling ADX-Florence prison facility in Colorado. If the allegations of the detailed complaint are true, said U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, “you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to know something is wrong” inside Supermax, America’s most famous prison.
The judge’s order keeps alive for now Vega v. Davis, a wrongful death action brought in May 2012 by the family of Jose Martin Vega, an inmate in Colorado who hanged himself in his cell in 2010 following what plaintiffs’ lawyers say was an extend period of mental illness left untreated by prison staff. Judge Matsch also permitted to proceed further toward trial a case styled Cunningham v. Bureau of Prisons, a broader civil rights challenge alleging longtime patterns of abuse and neglect of the mentally ill at America’s most famous federal prison.
The essence of both cases is that federal prison officials at ADX-Florence are violating the rights of mentally ill inmates to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. The inmates allege that they have been tortured and abused by their jailors and deprived of basic medical and mental health needs by prison doctors. Many of the inmates have taken to self-mutilation in their cells, while mental health counseling remains sporadic and ineffective. ”Why shouldn’t we be addressing that?” Judge Matsch asked early in the hearing.
The lawsuits’ detailed revelations of abuse and suffering–often rising to the level of torture–at ADX Florence are especially disturbing in light of the federal government’s recent decision to open a second supermax prison, to be called “ADX USP Thomson,” at a recently purchased property in Illinois.
Dr. Terry Kupers, Institute Professor at the Wright Institute in San Francisco and Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, is among the foremost national experts on the mental health effects of solitary confinement. Dr. Kupers delivered the keynote address at the Strategic Convening on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, sponsored by the Midwest Coalition on Human Rights, on November 9, 2012, in Chicago, Illinois.
In his address, which is presented in the four videos below, Dr. Kupers provides a comprehensive overview of the psychological damage inflicted on people subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, detailing how use of the practice qualifies as an intentional human rights abuse. He also addresses the use of confinement in supermax prisons and the lacking quality of and inaccessibility to mental health care to those held in isolation (people who clearly urgently require adequate counseling to cope with the extreme distress of their isolation). Finally, Dr. Kupers touches on the detrimental impact of sexual abuse that takes place in detention facilities.
• According to a piece by Susan Greene in the Colorado Independent, the “Colorado ACLU reports young people are being forced to spend lengthy stints in cement isolation rooms referred to as ‘reflection cottages’” at the El Pueblo treatment facility. “People need to know what’s going on in there. They need to know that they’re torturing kids,” said the father of a 14-year-old who spent a month in solitary at one of the cottages.
• The Associated Press reports that a man serving a 10-year sentence in a North Carolina prison died after swallowing multiple objects. The prisoner “had been cited by prison staff at least 25 times for infractions related to attempts to harm himself. He was in solitary confinement when he died.”
• According to a radio piece by WKUT in Austin, “An estimated 25 percent of Texas inmates in solitary confinement suffer from mental health issues. A bill in the Legislature would create a task force to find out more about these prisoners and provide them with safer alternatives.”
• In a powerful commentary, CNN’s John Sutter argues that “No kid should be in solitary confinement.” The piece links to an online petition drive launched by the ACLU, urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to “ban the solitary confinement of youth held in federal custody.”
• The Guardian reports on the European Court of Human Rights’ decision to block the extradition of a UK-based terrorism suspect who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. It did so on the grounds that removing him to an American supermax prison would constitute “inhuman or degrading treatment” under international law. (Other British suspects, including Asberger’s sufferer Talha Ahsan, were extradited and are now in extended pre-trial solitary confinement.)
• The Pennsylvania-based Human Rights Coalition launched a month-long campaign to have Russell Maroon Shoats released from isolation. Shoats has spent a total of 30 years in solitary, including the last 22 consecutive years.
• The Other Death Penalty Project, an organization led by life-sentenced prisoners, launched a campaign to print and distribute a collection of writing by lifers, aimed at “raising awareness nationwide that life without parole sentences are the death penalty and must be abolished.”
• California’s Stop the Torture Campaign, described as “in support of the prisoner-initiated human rights movement to end long term solitary confinement in California,” ramped up its activism with a series of events in the Los Angeles area featuring a model of a cell from the Pelican Bay SHU.
• As the week began, hunger-striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay were violently forced from their communal cellblocks into solitary confinement cells. According to Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, “The pre-dawn operation took place hours after delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross left the remote island prison and during a blackout of news media access to the crisis in the prison camps.” And the resultant “scenario described by the military—individual men locked one to a cell, maximum-security style, in a facility designed for communal medium-security confinement—returned the prison camps to an austere detention approach dating back to the Bush administration.”
Angad Bhalla is the director of Herman’s House, a documentary film that examines the injustice of solitary confinement by exploring the creative journey and friendship between artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace. Forty-one years ago today, Wallace was placed in solitary confinement following the murder of a corrections officer at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. He is believed to have spent more time in solitary than anyone in the history of the American penal system.
Bhalla’s previous projects include U.A.I.L. Go Back, which was used widely as an organizing tool to successfully pressure a multinational corporation to withdraw from a project in rural India that would have exacted a tremendous human and environmental toll on the community, and Writings on the Wall, a short documentary on the lives of Indian street artists. He also contributed to the editing of Families Under Threat, a documentary short produced for the Center For Constitutional Rights, and Tootie’s Last Suit, which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. He is a 2012 recipient of a Soros Justice Fellowship.
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Someone once told me that the key to a good documentary is access. I somehow decided to make the film Herman’s House with no access to one of my main subjects, Herman Wallace, or to my primary location, his prison cell. Making a film about a man who has spent more than four decades in solitary confinement, I decided that this turn this lack of access into a creative opportunity.
Considering his status as one of the renowned Angola 3, I never expected to get access to film Herman in his solitary confinement cell. Herman Wallace, along with Albert Woodfox and Robert King, were Black Panther activists targeted and framed to quash their dissent. Several great documentaries on the Angola 3 were released before I finished Herman’s House, and none of them had been permitted access to interview Herman or Albert, so when I received my refusal notice arrived, I was not surprised.
But after reading James Ridgeway’s “Fortresses of Solitude,” in the Columbia Journalism Review, I discovered that keeping my camera out of Angola’s isolation unit was far from unique. Given the pattern of keeping journalists away from solitary cells around the country, my experience only confirms a pattern of keeping our country’s torturous policies hidden from public view. What does it mean for our democratic project when filmmakers and other journalists are denied access to the solitary confinement cells that house upwards of 80,000 of our country’s residents?
The prison industrial complex has always functioned to disappear large segments of our population. Solitary confinement cells are often described as prisons within the prison, so disappearing those within them requires more than the standard practice of locating the prison in a rural hinterland away from any population center. As we are seeing, disappearing those in solitary requires full state censorship.
With Herman’s House, I hope to use this censorship to my advantage. I felt that, if done right, not having access to Herman or his cell could only reinforce his confinement and separation from the audience. I also was telling the story of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell–imagining Wallace’s “dream home”–so I had a palette of other visuals to work with.
Only audiences will be able to decide whether my choices of animation and other effects convey the true horror of what spending 23 hours a day in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for years on end might feel like. But of course, to actually end this torturous practice in our prisons, using our imaginations is just the first step in a journey that will require us to stop the state from concealing solitary cells from our view.
Staughton Lynd is a lawyer, historian, educator, author, and lifelong activist for peace and justice. For four decades, he and his wife, Alice Lynd, have worked on prisoners’ rights issues, especially in Ohio where they live. The Lynds were of counsel in a landmark 2001 class action suit, Austin v. Wilkinson, which challenged the constitutionality of conditions the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. Among Staughton Lynd’s many books is Lucasville, the story of one of the longest prison uprisings in U.S. history, which took place twenty years ago this week at the maximum security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
According to the publisher’s description: “More than 400 prisoners held L block for eleven days. Nine prisoners alleged to have been informants, or ‘snitches,’ and one hostage correctional officer, were murdered. There was a negotiated surrender. Thereafter, almost wholly on the basis of testimony by prisoner informants who received deals in exchange, five spokespersons or leaders were tried and sentenced to death, and more than a dozen others received long sentences. Lucasville examines the causes of the disturbance, what happened during the eleven days, and the fairness of the trials. Particular emphasis is placed on the inter-racial character of the action, as evidenced in the slogans that were found painted on walls after the surrender: ‘Black and White Together,’ ‘Convict Unity,’ and ‘Convict Race.’ Lynd has stayed in touch with the Lucasville Five, and in this essay he champions their right to tell their own stories–a right that has been challenged by the state.
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What is it like to be behind bars and try to tell your story to the world outside?
The old poem doesn’t see a problem, because: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage/Minds peaceable and quiet/Take them for a heritage.”
King Lear was almost anxious to go behind prison walls with his daughter Cordelia.“Come, let’s away to prison; We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage; When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down. And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tell tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies . . . and we’ll wear out, In a wall’d prison, packs and sets of great ones That ebb and flow by the moon.”
However, few who go behind stone walls and spend their days behind bars attain the peace of mind to “take them for a heritage.” For that matter, few so confined are able to share that solitude with a favorite daughter.
More common, and more appropriate, is the attitude of the imprisoned 19th-century German workers who composed the song “Die Gedanken sind frei” (thoughts are free). No matter where they put us, sang the embattled workers, our thoughts will burst our chains and cause the prison walls to crumble in two.
Preserving One’s Humanity
There are two arguments for free communication by prisoners, especially by those in solitary confinement. The first and no doubt the most important is, thereby one seeks to preserve one’s humanity.
My wife Alice and I first came into contact with prisoners confined alone when the State of Ohio decided to build its first supermaximum security prison in Youngstown, near where we live. The Mayor pronounced the event a “home run.”
While the new prison was still under construction, members of the Workers’ Solidarity Club and Youngstown Peace Council organized a community forum at a small church near the entrance to the facility. Alice sought contact with persons who had experienced solitary confinement elsewhere in Ohio. One man wrote us that what was done to him was so much more harmful than anything he had committed that he had lost his ability to forgive.
At the same forum we met the sister of George Skatzes (pronounced “skates”), one of the five men sentenced to death after the 11-day uprising in April 1993 at the maximum security prison in Lucasville, Ohio.
Alice and I made the first visit to a prisoner in the Youngstown supermax when we visited George in June 1998. He was locked on one side of a small cubicle. We were placed on the other side, separated from George by a panel of some transparent material. Although George was securely confined in his side of the cubicle, throughout our visit a guard sat just outside it. And throughout our visit, which lasted about two hours, George Skatzes, as he sat on a concrete stool with no backrest, was handcuffed behind his back.
Conditions have improved in the fifteen years since that experience. Yet until recently no visit to a prisoner at the Ohio State Penitentiary could be a “contact” visit permitting the prisoner to hug or touch a parent, a spouse, or in the case of Keith LaMar (another of the Five), his little niece and nephew.
A few days ago there was a meeting about Lucasville at the local university. After the Attorneys Lynd made presentations, Keith LaMar was able to speak to the group by telephone as a photograph of him was projected on a wall.
The most intense moment of the occasion came when a student from Saudi Arabia asked Keith what had been the high point and the low point of his almost twenty years of living alone in a cell. The high point was the day his family had been come for his first contact visit. The person managing the photos projected a picture of Keith, with an enormous grin, as little Kevin sat on his shoulders and Kayla sat close beside him.
The low point proved more difficult. Keith said it was when his granddad, on his death bed, called Keith at Lucasville to tell him to turn his life around. After the call (here Keith was unable to continue and Alice, who has been editing Keith’s memoir, took over the narrative), Keith asked the guard whether he could make a follow-up call to tell his granddad that he understood for the first time what the person who meant most in his life had been trying to tell him. The guard said No, Keith had had his call for the month. He could use the telephone again after his grandfather was dead.
By this time people at both ends of the telephone line were weeping.
The next day Alice and I received an e-mail from a man who had been in attendance. The e-mail said in part:
I found the phone conversation with the prisoner at the Youngstown Supermax overwhelmingly powerful. After hearing LaMar’s words last night, and the tone in which they were spoken, I think the punishment he has suffered–seventeen years in solitary confinement–far outweighs the crime for which he is being punished.
Politics don’t matter in this issue. I am a military veteran, and one of six registered Republicans in Mahoning County. But I am a human first, and this is a human rights issue. What our state is perpetrating on these five prisoners is inhumane and immoral.
The Whole Truth
But the prisoner’s ability to express his humanity, and the civilian’s ability to receive and perceive it, are only one aspect of the absolutely necessary communication between those inside and outside walls and bars.
There is also the fact that George Skatzes and Keith LaMar are sentenced to death and only a broad campaign outside both prisons and courts of law has any hope of saving them. Determining the truth is an indispensable part of such a campaign. And seeking the truth of what really happened and did not happen during the eleven days of the rebellion at Lucasville in 1993 requires the participation of those who know most about it: the men who were there. And that participation can only come about adequately if journalists, trained to cross-examine and assess the information they receive from others, are permitted full access to all categories of prisoners.
The indispensability of media access is wonderfully articulated in a dissent by Justices Powell, Brennan and Marshall in a Supreme Court case captioned Saxbe v. WashingtonPost. In that case, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the District Court to determine the “extent to which the effective reporting of news has a critical dependence upon the opportunity for private personal interviews.” The District Court heard testimony from six expert witnesses, the last of whom had been counsel to the New York State Special Commission on Attica.
The explanation of the necessity for face to face interviews is too long to quote here in full. Suffice it to say that all six witnesses agreed that personal interviews are crucial to effective reporting in the prison context, and the District Court found as a fact that an absolute interview ban “precludes accurate and effective reporting on prison conditions and inmate grievances” (417 U.S. at 853-54).
For twenty years, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has imposed such an absolute interview ban on journalists seeking access to any and all prisoners convicted of crimes during the so-called Lucasville “riot.” Access has recently been denied to James Ridgeway, Chris Hedges. Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, Professor Derrick Jones of Bowling Green State University (who is making a documentary film about the Lucasville events), and the Associated Press.
Raphael Sperry is an architect, green building consultant, teacher, and outspoken advocate on the role of architecture in social justice issues. He founded and directs the “Alternatives to Incarceration / Prison Design Boycott Campaign” of the non-profit Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) and has presented his research at numerous professional association conventions and architecture schools. He teaches the Green Architecture studio at Stanford University’s Architectural Design program and has championed sustainability strategies for a wide variety of institutional and commercial projects. Sperry was named a 2012 Soros Justice Fellow for the project he describes in the following essay, which originally appeared on the website of the Open Society Foundations.
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When I say that I’m an architect researching criminal justice, many people think that I want to design “better” prisons. In fact, I want architects to stop designing supermax prisons altogether. As the incoming president of the small non-profit organization Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, I have just launched a campaign asking my mainstream professional organization, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), to amend its code of ethics to ban the design of spaces intended for execution and prolonged solitary confinement.At its root, this is a human rights campaign. The human rights community agrees that the death penalty should be ended and that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture. AIA’s code of ethics already calls on architects to “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,” and so you might think that this would be a relatively simple amendment. But this ethics code is not currently enforceable; a new 500-bed solitary isolation prison is now out for design bids in Arizona and as recently as 2010, the State of California redesigned and rebuilt their death chamber. I am hopeful that AIA will do the right thing, but know that there is a fear of challenging government and general misconceptions about the public’s view of the death penalty and harsh treatment of prisoners. Many architects will need to more fully understand the issues before things can change.
I have begun contacting chapters of the AIA and other architecture and design organizations, looking for opportunities to speak to their members and encourage their decision-makers to consider endorsing our campaign. AIA is a member-oriented organization, but architects hold public licenses and have public responsibilities. We care about public opinion.
Professional responsibility is a major theme of this campaign. Architects are responsible for, among other things, protecting public “health, safety, and welfare” in the buildings we design. It shouldn’t be asking too much to ensure that our buildings aren’t intended to hurt or kill members of the public. In this respect, I take inspiration from doctors and nurses. Their professional associations prohibit members from participating in executions or torture. Medical professionals understand that they cannot agree to government requests to hurt or kill their patients; it would violate their ethics. I expect that public respect for architects will increase as we expand our own commitment to human rights.
At the deepest level, this campaign challenges the culture of violence that infects our society. The easy acceptance of violence as a legitimate way to solve problems extends from the interpersonal level – evidenced in the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. – to the international level – where we see the U.S. engaged in a continual pattern of warfare, bombing, and military coercion. In U.S. domestic governance and community life, this culture has led to misguided “tough on crime” policies. State-led violence does not solve the problem of personal violence; it actually reinforces it. Violence won’t end through the application of superior force by police or through building increasingly punitive prisons. Instead, we must build a culture of non-violence. As one man recently released after serving many years for a murder conviction put it (speaking at a panel organized by Soros Justice fellow Nancy Mullane), the state shouldn’t be setting a bad example for our children about how to respond to someone who has caused harm.
Prisons are the concrete and steel forms of our culture of violence. Execution chambers and supermax prisons in particular are the harshest buildings we create. They are supposed to handle “the worst of the worst,” but the way I see it, these buildings themselves are the worst of a bad lot. These buildings, when operated as intended, violate human rights. They also make possible the system of mass incarceration that perpetuates violence, racism, poverty, and other social injustices.
Ending the culture of violence and building a society based on mutual respect, tolerance, and love is a tall order. But I believe that to move forward, everyone to find a way to do their part. I’m hoping that, with enough public support and private reflection, AIA’s leaders will see that the profession of architecture can take this step.
The Obama Administration’s 2014 budget request for the Department of Justice, released this week, confirms that the federal government will open a second ultra-secure supermax prison within the next two years. The new prison will be an “Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary.” Administrative Maximum is a security classification currently held only by the notorious ADX Florence in Colorado, where some 400 individuals are held in isolation and sensory deprivation so extreme that it has been challenged in a series of lawsuits and widely denounced as torture.
The new supermax will be created by renovating Thomson Correctional Center, an unused maximum security prison in Illinois, which was purchased by the federal government last year. Originally, the Obama Administration envisioned Thomson as a future home for Guantanamo detainees–a move that was blocked by Republicans in Congress. Instead, while Guantanamo remains open, the Bureau of Prisons is moving ahead with plans to open hundreds, and perhaps thousands of new isolation cells at Thomson to “reduce crowding in high security facilities.”
The following summary appears in a Budget Fact Sheet on “Prisons and Detention,” released along with the federal budget numbers last week:
The FY 2014 Budget requests a total of $8.5 billion for federal prisons and detention, a 3.5 percent increase over the FY 2012 appropriated level. Of this amount, $6.9 billion is requested for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which is a 4 percent increase ($195.1 million) over FY 2012…
For BOP, the current services level includes resources to fully activate two prisons: Federal Corrections Institution (FCI) Aliceville, AL, and FCI Berlin, NH. These prisons received partial activation funding in FY 2012, and full activation will increase federal prison capacity and alleviate overcrowding and related security issues.
Program increases totaling $236.2 million provide for the activations of newly constructed prisons and for new contract beds, allowing BOP to keep pace with the increased number of inmates. Specifically, increases for BOP include $53.4 million to begin activating two prisons: FCI Hazelton, WV (1,280 beds), and U.S. Penitentiary Yazoo City, MS (1,216 beds), for which construction will be completed in FY 2013. There is $15 million to renovate the Thomson Correctional Center and $43.7 million to begin activating the facility as an Administrative-Maximum U.S. Penitentiary in FY 2014. [Emphasis added.] The request also includes $26.2 million to procure 1,000 new contract beds. These resources are essential for ensuring the secure detention of a growing inmate population.
A subsequent section of the Budget Fact Sheet, detailing “Program Increases,” states that Thomson will have 2,100 beds, employ 749 corrections officers, and cost $58.7 million to renovate and operate.
ADX USP Thomson, IL: $58.7 million and 1,158 positions (749 correctional officers)
$15 million to renovate the Thomson Correctional Center for high security federal prison use. $43.7 million to begin activating ADX USP Thomson (2,100 beds) as an administrative-maximum high security facility. ADX USP Thomson is expected to reduce crowding in high security facilities from 59 percent by 43 percent by the end of FY 2015…
Solitary Watch has requested additional information from the Bureau of Prisons to determine precisely what conditions of confinement will be for the 2,100 prisoners held at Thomson. When we asked about Thomson for an article published back in February, BOP spokesperson Chris Burke said in an email that “Thomson will be a high security prison holding inmates with various security needs, including SMU and ADX type inmates.” Federal SMUs, or Special Management Units, such as those found in Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, hold their prisoners in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in two-person cells. At ADX, prisoners are in 23- to 24-hour solitary confinement. Both are forms of long-term isolated confinement, and both have been denounced by human rights and prisoners rights groups as an inhumane and ineffective form of punishment often amounting to torture.
The Bureau of Prisons is planning to open new supermax cells even as it agrees to undergo a “comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons.” The assessment, to be conducted by the National Institute of Corrections, will reportedly be oriented toward reducing the population of “segregated” prisoners in the federal system. In fact, according an announcement made in early February, the BOP has already “reduced its segregated population by nearly 25 percent. In addition, it has closed two of its Special Management Units, a form of segregated housing, due to the reduction in the segregated population.” As we reported following the announcement:
When asked by Solitary Watch why the BOP needed to build new supermax cells despite reducing its segregated population, spokesperson Chris Burke replied: “The reduction in our special housing unit population does not lessen the need for these beds. The Bureau of Prisons has not constructed any new ADX type units since 1994, when our population was only 85,000 (our current population is approximately 218,000).”
He continued: “‘Special Housing’ refers to units within our prisons where inmates are placed on a temporary basis as a result of misconduct or as a result of circumstances that warrant their separation from the general population.” The distinction suggests that Thomson will be used for long-term, sometimes indefinite segregation of the kind common in ADX and the SMUs–in other words, for the most extreme forms of isolated confinement.
The lucrative sale of Thomson to the feds was engineered largely by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin…Ironically, Durbin, the Democratic Assistant Majority Leader, is also widely credited with drawing attention to the issue of solitary confinement and pressing for national reform. In June he chaired the first-ever Congressional hearing on the practice. According to Monday’s press release from his office: “In his hearing last year, Durbin emphasized the importance of reforming the way we treat the incarcerated and the use of solitary confinement in prisons and detention centers around the country. Following that hearing, Durbin has twice met with Bureau of Prisons Director Samuels to push for additional reforms and encourage a sufficiently robust assessment of the Bureau’s segregation practices.”
When asked about the fact that Thomson would include supermax cells, Durbin spokesperson Max Gleischman responded with the following statement: ”As the first member of Congress ever to hold a hearing on solitary confinement, Senator Durbin is committed to reforming America’s segregation policies and practices. As a part of his efforts, Senator Durbin has met with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and continues to work with its director to reform BOP’s segregation policies and practices. One important step in solitary confinement reform, and prison reform generally, is to reduce high rates of overcrowding. The BOP’s acquisition of Thomson prison will greatly reduce this overcrowding crisis and Senator Durbin will work with BOP to ensure that all of its inmates are treated fairly and humanely.”