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.”
• Developments surrounding the systemic failures in California prisons were covered heavily by the media. Most recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on California judges’ threat to find Gov. Jerry Brown in contempt of court if he and the state do not “quickly produce a plan to remove thousands of convicts from California’s packed prisons.”
• In a strongly worded editorial, Bloomberg View denounces on the inhumane practice of solitary confinement in the U.S., stating that its use in “prisons and detention centers has broken the bounds of reason and decency.”
• The Toronto Star reports on the high-profile inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, the teen who died in solitary confinement in Canada. Lawyers representing Smith’s family and advocacy groups “want to ensure the inquest leads to significant reductions in the use of segregation in Canadian prisons, and a ban on it for mentally ill offenders.”
• Susan Greene, writing in the Colorado Independent, reports on a recent statement by fellow Colorado State Penitentiary prisoner Troy Anderson, that Evan Ebel’s suicide note shows he was “‘ruined’ by solitary and ‘bent on revenge.’”
• Writing on The Hill’s Congress blog, Ian Kysel, author of Growing Up Locked Down, urges the U.S. government to ban the use of solitary confinement on children in federal custody. While solitary is harmful to adults, Kysel writes, ”the potential damage to children, who do not have the maturity and resilience of an adult and are at a particularly vulnerable, formative stage of life, is much greater.”
• The ACLU of Colorado calls on the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) to end the solitary confinement of kids in Colorado’s El Pueblo Residential Treatment Center.
• The New York World reports on the torments experienced by Rasaun Bullock during his 49 months in solitary confinement on Rikers Island.
• The Investigative Writing Workshop reports on the government’s review of solitary confinement practices in immigration centers in the U.S. The article referenced new government data (first revealed by the New York Times) showing that “about 300 immigrant detainees are in solitary in the top centers around the country while they wait for a finding of their legal status.”
• Guantanamo detainee lawyer Cori Crider tells The Huffington Post that his client, Adel Bin Ahmed Bin Ibrahim Hkim, made a failed attempt to kill himself in solitary confinement.
• Democracy Now! speaks with animal rights activist Andrew Stepanian, formerly imprisoned in the federal Communication Management Unit in Marion, Illinois, on “eco-terrorism” charges, about the secretive prison units as well as the use of solitary confinement to suppress prisoners’ contact with the media and the outside world.
• ReasonTV reports on the two-month long solitary confinement of anarchists Katherine “KteeO” Olejnik and Matt Duran at Sea-Tac Federal Detention Center in Washington state for refusing to testify on “acts of vandalism during a May Day protest last year.”
• WTHI-TV reports on Professor Laura Bates’ work at Indiana prison Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, where for the last 15 years she has taught Shakespeare to people held in solitary confinement. In a similar story, KOAT News reports on a program at the New Mexico Penitentiary which provides education to people in solitary confinement, giving them the opportunity to leave prison with a GED.
• Shawn Griffith describes his experience in solitary confinement during the almost 24 years he spent in Florida prisons. The article, published by Crime Magazine, also discusses the different types of solitary confinement, as well as alternatives to its use.
• Metro and the Amsterdam News both report on New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm’s plans to introduce two bills regulating the practice of solitary confinement in New York City jails (view their stories here and here). As stated in the Metro article, “One bill calls on the Department of Correction to file comprehensive reports on solitary confinement, and the second calls for an end to the practice of putting people returning to jail into solitary confinement to complete time owed from their previous period of incarceration.”
• The National Law Journal reports on the federal government’s abusive use of isolation on immigrant detainees who are gay, stating that detainees suspected of being gay are held in solitary until their hearings.
• The National Immigrant Justice Center reports that over 100 organizations are calling on New York Senator Charles Schumer to address solitary confinement and other humans right abuses in the U.S. immigration detention system.
• The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls for all member nations to abolish the use of solitary confinement on children and persons with mental disabilities.
The following poem is by Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s prison system for almost 41 years, mostly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Convicted of killing a guard at Angola, Wallace and fellow prisoner Albert Woodfox, both members of the Angola 3, were placed in solitary in 1972, where, with the exception of a few brief periods, they have remained ever since (read more about Wallace, Woodfox and the Angola 3). Wallace is now housed in a maximum security prison near Baton Rouge, subjected to conditions which some claim are worse than those at Angola.
In his poem, “A Defined Voice,” Wallace describes being moved to levels of varying security, each more restrictive and oppressive than the one before. (The “Supermax of Camp J” refers to the most punitive solitary confinement unit at Angola.) He asserts that, try as they might, his handlers are unsuccessful in their efforts to destroy his spirit–which on the contrary, grows ever-stronger. Click on the link that follows the text of the poem to hear Herman Wallace read “A Defined Voice.” —Lisa Dawson
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
A Defined Voice
They removed my whisper from general population
To maximum security I gained a voice
They removed my voice from maximum security
To administrative segregation
My voice gave hope
They removed my voice from administrative segregation
To solitary confinement
My voice became vibration for unity
They removed my voice from solitary confinement
To the Supermax of Camp J
And now they wish to destroy me
The louder my voice the deeper they bury me
I SAID, THE LOUDER MY VOICE THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME!
Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness.
Click here to listen to Herman Wallace read his poem.
Sarah Shourd is a writer, educator and prison rights advocate currently based in Oakland, California. She had been living in the Middle East for over a year, teaching Iraqi refugees and living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, when she was captured by Iranian forces somewhere along an unmarked border between Iran and Iraq in July 2009, and held in solitary confinement for 410 days. She has written for the New York Times, CNN, and Newsweek’s Daily Beast and is currently writing a book with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal about their experience as hostages in Iran.
The following essay was written as an introduction to a report released last week by Physicians for Human Rights, on the use of solitary confinement on people held in federal immigrant detention facilities. It is reprinted here by permission of Sarah Shourd and PHR.
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Sitting in a nearly empty cell — a metal sink, the blank stare of the white walls, fluorescent lights that never turn off — all you have are your own thoughts. Sometimes they race through your head like freight trains; other times a thought can get stuck in a loop, tormenting you for days or weeks at a time, grating the inside of your skull like metal on flesh. Your days are restless, your eyes constantly wandering around your cell, and you never, ever stop asking yourself — when am I going to get out?
The Iranian government held me in solitary confinement for 410 days. For that entire time I was imprisoned alongside my now-husband Shane Bauer and our friend Josh Fattal. We were captured on July 31, 2009, while hiking behind a waterfall in the proximity of an unmarked border between Iraq and Iran. I was on a break from my teaching job in Damascus, Syria — our friend Josh was visiting from the States — and we decided to travel to the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, a part of the Middle East with a burgeoning tourist industry where the mountains are unusually green and no American has been killed or kidnapped in recent decades.
The soldiers drove us to Evin Prison in Tehran, where for 131⁄2 months I spent 23 hours a day in a private cell and one hour in a slightly larger open-ceiling cell, where a camera watched as I ran in circles under a blue sky crisscrossed with thick bars. They said the isolation was for my own safety — that there were no “appropriate” cellmates for me — but I was never safe from my own mind.
In prolonged isolation, the human psyche slowly self-destructs. On my worst days, I screamed and beat at the walls. I experienced hallucinations — bright flashing lights and phantom footsteps — nightmares, insomnia, heart palpitations, lethargy, clinical depression, and passive suicidal thoughts. I would pace my cell incessantly, or crouch like an animal by the food slot at the bottom of my cell door, listening for any sound to distract me. When I finally got books and television, I found it difficult to concentrate. I would sometimes spend an entire afternoon trying to read the same page, until I got fed up and threw my book against the wall.
The only thing I thought about for over a year in solitary was the day that I would no longer have to be alone, but, ironically, it wasn’t that simple. When I was finally released, I found it hard to make eye contact or be touched. My breathing remained labored and many of the symptoms I experienced in prison — insomnia, hypertension, and anxiety — persisted on the outside. Like many people with post-traumatic stress disorder, I sometimes drank too much to try and escape my symptoms. More than once I became belligerent, dangerously paranoid, or hopelessly depressed — sometimes walling myself up in my house for days at a time.
When I began to research the use of solitary confinement in the United States, I was shocked to learn that tens of thousands of people are subject to no-touch torture or prolonged isolation on any given day. I learned that immigrants and people deemed a “national security risk” are held in indefinite detention without legal representation or the right to due process, just like I had been. How could I fail to draw a connection between their treatment and my own?
When Josh, Shane, and I were picked up near the unmarked Iran-Iraq border, the instant the soldiers looked at our passports it was clear the odds were stacked against us. Due to decades of animosity between our governments, being an American under suspicion by the Iranian government puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Likewise, being profiled as “illegal” — an immigrant living without papers in the United States– puts you at a disadvantage in our legal system. You can be subject to “civil” confinement in conditions identical to prison — including solitary confinement, which is often applied arbitrarily as a disciplinary measure — for months or years in pretrial detention and ultimately deportation as the result of something as small as a traffic violation.
A host of factors — many of which I experienced myself as a foreigner imprisoned in Iran — can add to harmful psychological effects of isolation for immigrant and national security detainees. One is language — when I was arrested I didn’t speak a word of Farsi. Even after over a year in detention I could barely communicate my basic needs. Likewise, many detainees in our country aren’t fluent in or can’t speak English. Not being able to speak the language of the guards and other prison and legal authorities puts detainees at a distinct disadvantage. It increases isolation — effectively walling you off from what little opportunity you have for social interaction — and also makes it harder to secure a lawyer, advocate for your rights, challenge your conditions, and defend yourself effectively in court.
In addition, immigrant and national security detainees are often victims of prejudice and racism while in detention based on their “illegal” status, race, ethnicity, or country of origin. When I was in prison, a certain Iranian guard refused to touch or speak to me. Every day, she made me pick up my tray of food from the floor, rather than handing it to me as she did for the other prisoners. Once, I got angry and confronted her with the help of another guard who spoke some English. I asked her why she hated me. She said it was because I was “American… and I crossed the border.” The situation is not all that different for immigrant and national security detainees in the United States, especially considering that the dominant discourse in the country labels them as “terrorists” or “illegals” — a few examples among a trove of unsavory xenophobic and racist expletives — based on the widely held belief that they are our ideological enemies and/or the source of our country’s economic woes.
Even though — like many detainees in our country — I had no idea when I would get out of solitary confinement or prison itself, I never lost hope completely. I knew that our case was visible enough that we would never be forgotten, that countless people were fighting for us on the outside, and that eventually the Iranian government would be forced to let us go. For immigrant and national security detainees in this county, however, the opposite is true. They have no way of knowing how long it will take before they have their day in court or what the outcome will be. Their isolation alone is enough to cause lasting, irreparable psychological damage, yet they are also subject to prejudice, unable to communicate, and transported against their wills to detention facilities sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles from home — essentially invisible. My situation was unique and in many ways unprecedented. Sadly, however, being stripped of one’s rights, deprived of liberty, and treated like a criminal solely on the basis of one’s country of origin is far from unusual, even in our own backyard.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s bid to end federal control over the state prison system’s mental health system was denied in federal court on Friday, April 5, in a sharply worded ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. In the 68-page ruling, Judge Karlton determined that “systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs.”
The ruling comes following months of campaigning and litigating by Governor Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to end federal oversight of the California prison system. Friday’s ruling is the latest enforcement of the 1995 case Coleman v. Wilson, a federal class action suit filed against then-California Governor Pete Wilson, which resulted in federal oversight over CDCR’s mental health and medical treatment that continues under the jurisdiction of Judge Karlton.
An additional federal class action lawsuit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger was merged with the Coleman lawsuit and in 2009, California was ordered to reduce it’s prison population to 137% capacity, as it was determined that Constitutionally acceptable medical and mental health delivery was hindered by the beyond-capacity prison population, which was deemed an 8th Amendment violation. California in turn appealed the order to reduce it’s prison population and in 2011, in Brown v. Plata, the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce it’s prison population by 30,000 inmates. Governor Brown has an additional appeal of this order before U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson.
Governor Jerry Brown has gone on the record to claim that California has “one of the finest prison systems in the United States,” and no longer requires federal oversight. In a January 2013 press release, Governor Brown stated: “After decades of judicial intervention in our correctional system and the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars, the time has come to restore California’s rightful control of its prison system.” In February, CDCR announced the completion of a new mental health treatment building at the California Medical Facility, and declared that the facility “reinforces CDCR’s ongoing commitment to provide a constitutional level of mental health treatment in California’s prisons.”
Judge Karlton’s ruling, however, strongly rebukes these claims by Brown and CDCR, saying “based on defendants’ conduct to date, the court cannot rely on their averments of good faith as a basis for granting termination. There is overwhelming evidence in the record that much of defendants’ progress to date is due to the pressure of this and other litigation.”
A major factor in Judge Karlton’s ruling was the significant rate of suicides in the California prison system, which has previously been reported to be well above the national prison average.
“In summary, for over a decade a disproportionately high number of inmates have committed suicide in California’s prison system describable inadequacies in suicide prevention in the CDCR,” Judge Karlton writes,”Defendants have a constitutional obligation to take and adequately implement all reasonable steps to remedy those inadequacies. The evidence shows they have not yet done so. In addition, while defendants represent that they have fully implemented their suicide prevention program, they have not. An ongoing constitutional violation therefore remains.”
Judge Karlton cited the overuse of solitary confinement, particularly among individuals with severe mental health problems, as a continuing problem in the California prison system. The ruling states that such individuals “face substantial risk of serious harm, including exacerbation of mental illness and potential increase in suicide risk.”
The State of California argued before the court that they have “developed and implemented procedures for placing and retaining inmates with mental health needs in any administrative segregation or security housing unit.” Further, the State of California argued that while individuals diagnosed as “mentally ill” are placed in segregation units, their needs are “being appropriately met.” Judge Karlton dismisses this claim, stating that “this contention is not supported by defendants’ own experts.” He goes on to write that the State of California’s experts “describe the ‘environment of administrative segregation’ as ‘generally non-therapeutic.’ They recommend that housing inmates with serious mental disorders be ‘as brief as possible and as rare as possible.’”
Judge Karlton notes that this does not appear to be the case, and notes that the California’s own experts have commented that these prisoners should be at the top of the list for receiving transfers to mental health facilities. “These issues, until remedied, mean that seriously mentally ill inmates placed in administrative segregation units continued to face a substantial risk of harm,” Judge Karlton writes.
The high rate of suicides in California’s segregation units, where most individuals are held in solitary confinement, has been heavily documented by Dr. Raymond Patterson, a court appointed consultant to CDCR.
In a 255-page report filed in March of this year, Dr. Patterson blasted CDCR for it’s repeated failures to instate any of the suicide prevention measures he has suggested over many years. Dr. Patterson announced in his 14th annual review of prison suicides that was quitting, as “it has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort.”
The report reviewed 15 of 32 suicides in 2012.
In brief, the report found that:
- 9 of 15 (60%) committed suicide in single-cell status
- 9 of 34 (60%) had a history of suicidal behavior
- 11 of 15 (73.3 %) had a history of past mental health treatment
- 6 of 15 (40%) committed suicide in Administrative Segregation
- 1 of 15 (6.6%) committed suicide in the Security Housing Unit
- 3 of 15 (20%) suicides were discovered after the process of rigor mortis had begun, indicating 2-3 hours had passed before the individuals were discovered
- 13 of 15 (86.6%) cases showed significant indications of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention
The 2012 report notes that people in solitary confinement have a 33 times higher likelihood of committing suicide in the California prison system.
On page 16 of the 2012 report, Dr. Patterson writes:
- “In 2011, CDCR’s average daily combined population in its segregated housing units (administrative segregation units, SHUs, and PSUs) was 3,771. In 2011, there were 15 suicides in these units, for an incidence of one suicide per every 251.4 inmates in segregated housing units, and for a rate of 397.77 suicides per 100,000 inmates in segregated housing units.
- In 2011, CDCR’s average daily population in non-segregated housing was 158,047. In 2011, there were 19 suicides in non-segregated housing units, for an incidence of one suicide per every 8,318.26 inmates in non-segregated housing units, and for a rate of 12.02 suicides per 100,000 inmates in non-segregated housing units.”
The report of Dr. Patterson on the 34 suicides in the California prison system in 2011 provides a similarly bleak picture.
In brief, the report shows that:
- 24 of 34 (70.6%) committed suicide in single-cell status
- 20 of 34 (61.8%) had a history of suicidal behavior
- 30 of 34 (88.2 %) had a history of mental health treatment
- 9 of 34 (26.5%) committed suicide in Administrative Segregation
- 2 of 34 (5.9%) committed suicide in the Security Housing Unit
- 1 of 34 (2.9%) committed suicide on death row
- 5 of 34 (14.7%) suicides were discovered after the process of rigor mortis had begun, indicating 2-3 hours had passed before the individuals were discovered
- 25 of 34 (73.5%) cases showed significant indications of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention
In the report, Dr. Patterson reported that “the high rate of inadequacy in assessment, treatment, or intervention is generally consistent with previous years, and remains unacceptably high.”
The report also adds further, and disturbing, details to cases of suicides previously reported by Solitary Watch. Pages 211 to 217 document the case of Armando Cruz, who committed suicide on September 20th, 2011 in California State Prison, Sacramento’s Psychiatric Services Unit. Cruz, who was incarcerated at the age of 17 for an attack on a police officer, entered the prison system in 2003 with a highly documented history of schizophrenia. Cruz was repeatedly placed in isolation units for behaviors that were largely committed during hallucinations and bouts of psychosis over the course of eight years. Cruz repeatedly engaged in self-harm, including self-strangulation and self-castration, yet was determined to have a low chance of suicide.
Solitary Watch obtained Cruz’s CDCR documents in late 2012. Documentation of Cruz’s final months, however, were missing from the documents CDCR sent. In April and May, Cruz was noted in the documents to have invented an imaginary family living with him in his isolation cell; he was also noted to have been placed on suicide watch between April 29th, 2011 until May 10th, 2011. Documentation available to Solitary Watch runs out after July. Though the Patterson report fills in this gap and reports previously unknown information:
However, at the end of August 2011, he head-butted and pushed a correctional officer during escort. Subsequently, the inmate received an RVR, a mental health assessment, and was seen by a psychiatrist and by his primary clinician. The last mental health contact was by the primary clinician on 9/09/11. However, according to the suicide report, the inmate did not see a clinician as per guidelines the following week because his primary clinician was away from the institution and there was an emergency absence by the backup clinician. The inmate committed suicide on 9/20/11.
The Patterson report states that when Cruz was found hanging in his cell, he was not given CPR for ten minutes following his discovery, a violation of the prison’s own policy.
The report also sheds light on the final day of Alex Machado, who was incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit. Pages 228 to 237 discuss his suicide. Dr. Patterson found that Machado’s death “appears to have been both foreseeable and preventable. The inmate quite clearly had a history of suicidal ideation and at least one suicide attempt. He was noted to have been decompensating, particularly during the month of October 2011 and especially in the 24 hours prior to his death.”
Dr. Patterson also describes the extent to which Machado had been agitated on his final day:
During the early afternoon at 12:05 p.m., the psych tech checked the inmate’s blood pressure at his request and the inmate said that he would take a PRN medication if it would help….The inmate was again reported as having chest pains at 11:40 p.m. and 11:50 p.m. The log book indicated that the RN was on the unit to see the inmate and the inmate “seems very confused.” The inmate was returned to his cell at 12:15 a.m. Welfare checks were completed between 12:05 a.m. and 12:15 a.m., and again at 12:45 a.m., when the inmate was discovered hanging in his cell.
Friday’s ruling might force CDCR to undertake more serious efforts to preventing more people in their custody from taking their own lives.
A graphic video (shown below) recently leaked to the public shows a team of corrections officers make liberal use of prison torture tactics on a man who was, at the time of the incident, incarcerated at Maine Correctional Center and had been held in solitary confinement for two months. A still of the explicit footage, originally obtained by the Portland Press Herald, captures Captain Shawn Welch spraying pepper spray directly into the face of the restrained man as the team of guards use brutal force to thwart any efforts at resistance.
The man, Paul Schlosser, who suffers from mental illness, was at the time taking several medications to treat his bipolar disorder and depression. Allegedly leading up to the incident, which took place in June 2012, was Schlosser’s refusal to go to the prison medical unit to be treated for a self-inflicted injury on his arm. Next, in what is referred to as a “cell extraction,” corrections officers wearing protective gear removed Schlosser from his cell, putting him into a restraint chair. At first, Schlosser was compliant, but, as reported by the Press Herald:
[W]hen one of the officers pins back Schlosser’s head, as his arms are being put into the chair’s restraints, Schlosser starts to struggle. When he spits at one of the officers, Welch sprays him with pepper spray, also called OC spray.
Schlosser becomes compliant and complains about not being able to breathe. One officer puts a spit-mask on him, trapping the pepper spray on Schlosser’s face.
Welch tells him he must cooperate to avoid similar treatment. Schlosser is in distress for 24 minutes before he is allowed to wash his face.
Welch, who sprayed the OC without warning, held the canister about 18 inches away from his target’s face, despite the fact that this particular canister type has the potential to stop multiple people dead in the tracks from over six feet away. After the story broke, Welch was terminated but, following an appeal that took into consideration his service to the Maine Department of Corrections, he was reinstated.
Upon viewing the footage, the investigator assigned to the case made an important observation:
In the 24 minutes between Schlosser being sprayed and when he can wash the spray off his face, Welch strolls in and out of the cell holding the OC spray canister, telling Schlosser that if he doesn’t cooperate, “this will happen all over again.”
“You’re not going to win. I will win every time,” he says.
Welch says repeatedly, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing,” suggesting that as long as Schlosser was complaining, he was not in serious medical distress. Welch does call for a member of the prison’s medical staff.
At one point, he whispers to Schlosser, “Useless as teats on a bull, huh … What do you think now?” an apparent reference to an insult Schlosser directed at him two days earlier, according to the investigator’s report.
The investigator concluded that Welch’s treatment of Schlosser was personal.
“Welch continues to brow beat Schlosser and it looks like he has made this a personal issue,” said Durst in the report. “There is not one incident of de-escalation and in fact Welch continues to escalate the situation even after the deployment of chemical agent.”
Welch later defended his use of the pepper spray to an investigator, stating his actions were not out of line since Schlosser, who has Hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.
In detailing what Schlosser may have experiences as a result of the spit-mask trapping the pepper spray, Pete Brook writes that “Pepperspray instantly dries out mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth causing intense and overwhelming pain. Pepperspray leads to a sensation of not being able to breathe, although a National Institute of Justice study found it does not compromise a person’s ability to breathe.” Brook continues:
“It’s just like getting jalapeno pepper in your eye, only multiplied by a bunch,” said Robert Trimyer, a use of force instructor and OC trainer with the University of Texas Health Science Center Police Department in San Antonio.
Depending on the concentration, OC spray is roughly 300 times “hotter” than a jalapeno pepper.
“It’s painful, but it goes away. The people that have the problem breathing, it’s really more of the anxiety involved,” said Trimyer.
Yerger believes that putting the spit shield on top of the pepper spray would intensify the effect of the spray.
“I have never heard of any trainer I have ever worked with as a peer that would ever say, ‘Put a spit hood on someone after pepper spraying them,’” he said.
“They’re spinning out of control. Restraint, pepper spray, now cover their face — you’re just escalating the situation. In cases I’ve reviewed when people have died in a (restraint) chair, it’s not uncommon to see factors like that involved.”
Schlosser’s story is disturbingly reminiscent of an incident that took place in 2000, also involving a leaked video (shown below) of a brutal cell extraction in Maine. The footage, leaked to journalist Lance Tapley, shows the cell extraction of Mike James, who, like Schlosser, suffered from mental illness. The video shows officers forcibly removing James from his cell as he is maced by officers. The corrections officers then remove the incapacitated man’s clothing and place him in a restraint chair.
Ultimately, the horrific footage of prison torture and Tapley’s ensuing story added fuel to a growing movement against solitary confinement in Maine, which led to reforms in that state (described in a recent report from the ACLU of Maine).
In another story reporting on the incident, Tapley highlights the irony of the U.S. prison system’s treatment of mentally ill people who are incarcerated, stating:
Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.
James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantanamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons…
In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity…
[I]solation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.
• First Run Features announces the New York premiere of Herman’s House this week. The film, which explores the “injustice of solitary confinement and the transformative power of art,” will be opening April 19,2013, at Cinema Village in New York City.
• WUSA9 reports that Christoper Harper, who suffers from mental illness, is being held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. Harper’s mother says that Harper, 40, has the mental capacity of an 11-year-old.
• Truthout reports on “The US Criminal (In)Justice System” and the mistreatment of incarcerated people, citing the “widespread, abusive and counterproductive” use solitary confinement as a prime example of this.
• Andrew Cohen calls into question the BOP’s policies in dealing with behavior frequently accompanied by mental illness, including suicide attempts and self-mutilation, pointing out that regulatory body’s “inmate policies” actually call for more severe punishment of behaviors typical of people with mental illness.
• Former prisoner Daniel McGowan writes that court documents prove he was put in Communication Management Units (CMU), a form of segregation, for his political speech.
• The New York Times publishes an editorial about the use of arbitrary and abusive solitary confinement on immigrant detainees in the US, emphasizing that the unbridled use of solitary by ICE ”is not a model of humane incarceration.”
• Ian Urbana discusses the excessive use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees in the US on the Leonard Lopate show. For those who missed the show, listen to the audio at WNYC .
• The New Yorker reports that a shocking proportion of the detainees at Guantanamo are hunger striking, reaching a total 37, or almost one in four of the 166 people imprisoned there. A story in The Atlantic states that the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay will likely be ineffective since the people doing the striking are a ” group of foreigners whose prison is synonymous with the War on Terror,” as opposed to “sympathetic, politically popular characters.”
The following was written by Chris Yingling, reflecting upon the three years he spent in California State Prison, Corcoran’s Security Housing unit from 1994 to 1996. He was subsequently transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison “when the Feds set up shop at Corcoran because of the gladiator fights.” The “gladiator fights” were the subject of federal investigation following widespread reports of prison guards setting up fights between rival prisoners, fights that Yingling reports he was a part of. He reports lingering psychological difficulties resulting from his time in the California prison system. “I suffer depression, and harbor some serious resentments toward our corrections system. I have rage. Every once in awhile ill come to tears over the way humans treat each other,” he says.
Yingling contacted Solitary Watch after reading an article about the 2011 suicide of Pelican Bay administrative segregation inmate Alex Machado. Yingling and Machado had met each other in the California Youth Authority in the late 1980s. He told Solitary Watch, “I read this article just prior to reading my kids a bedtime story and it brought it all back. I know more stuff about Alex that I saw that no human should have to endure much less a 15 year old kid. He did not have an easy life. May god rest his soul. I will remember Alex. I am no longer in chains.” –Sal Rodriguez
In white jumpsuits chained in groups of four
they pulled our bus onto the yard
made to face a concrete wall
two gunners and many a guard
10 toes, your chin and chest
keep upon that wall
unlock your knees it’s a 105 degrees
if one goes down you all fall
welcome to the SHU this is hell
you committed a crime in CDC
don’t fuck around we’ll put a bullet in you
In a very short time you will see.
What is your name? Why are you in the shu?
I caused Great bodily injury in a riot.
He slammed my face against the wall
The rest of the line still and quiet.
One man was pulled right off the chain
He was surrounded and beaten a long time
Great bodily injury caused by the cops
Apparently isn’t a crime
they removed the waist chain choking me with a stick
the cuffs bit into my hand
they pulled my jumpsuit around my knees
“now do you think you’re a man?”
What I experienced for the next 3 years
Made me wish I could die
Although physically I left in one piece
Parts of my mind did not survive.
Men were shot, men were stabbed
Some guys lost their minds
We had to fight while they shot at us
Hit with baton rounds eleven times.
I’m not trying to whine not trying to cry
Because my life is so much different today
I was 21 years old when I stood on that wall
It seems like a lifetime away
Not trying to act tough or exaggerate the facts
Just wanna get out what’s inside
I was only a kid trying to get through
They made me hate and hurt my pride
There’s a huge system right in societies face
That is just another criminal enterprise
I understand these people did bad things
My own part I now see and realize.
These are our brothers and these are our sons
prejudice and mistreatment is not an answer
our society doesn’t just doesn’t have a cold
we got mother fuckin cancer!
So I lean toward the left in my political views
Because I saw too damn much of “the right”
Biases interfere with things of this nature
If you think that I’m biased you’re right.