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The Shame of America’s Gulag
If, as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” then we are a nation of barbarians. Our vast network of federal and state prisons, with some 2.3 million inmates, rivals the gulags of totalitarian states. Once you disappear behind prison walls you become prey. Rape. Torture. Beatings. Prolonged isolation. Sensory deprivation. Racial profiling. Chain gangs. Forced labor. Rancid food. Children imprisoned as adults. Prisoners forced to take medications to induce lethargy. Inadequate heating and ventilation. Poor health care. Draconian sentences for nonviolent crimes. Endemic violence.
Bonnie Kerness and Ojore Lutalo, both of whom I met in Newark, N.J., a few days ago at the office of American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, have fought longer and harder than perhaps any others in the country against the expanding abuse of prisoners, especially the use of solitary confinement. Lutalo, once a member of the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers, first wrote Kerness in 1986 while he was a prisoner at Trenton State Prison, now called New Jersey State Prison. He described to her the bleak and degrading world of solitary confinement, the world of the prisoners like him held in the so-called management control unit, which he called “a prison within a prison.” Before being released in 2009, Lutalo was in the management control unit for 22 of the 28 years he served for the second of two convictions—the first for a bank robbery and the second for a gun battle with a drug dealer. He kept his sanity, he told me, by following a strict regime of exercising in his tiny cell, writing, meditating and tearing up newspapers to make collages that portrayed his prison conditions.
“The guards in riot gear would suddenly wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you,” he said when we spoke in Newark. “They had attack dogs with them that were trained to go for your genitals. You spent 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. If you do not have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive psychologically. Isolation is designed to defeat prisoners mentally, and I saw a lot of prisoners defeated.”
Lutalo’s letter was Kerness’ first indication that the U.S. prison system was creating something new—special detention facilities that under international law are a form of torture. He wrote to her: “How does one go about articulating desperation to another who is not desperate? How does one go about articulating the psychological stress of knowing that people are waiting for me to self-destruct?”
The techniques of sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation were pioneered by the Central Intelligence Agency to break prisoners during the Cold War. Alfred McCoy, the author of “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror,” wrote in his book that “interrogators had found that mere physical pain, no matter how extreme, often produced heightened resistance.” So the intelligence agency turned to the more effective mechanisms of “sensory disorientation” and “self-inflicted pain,” McCoy noted. [One example of causing self-inflicted pain is to force a prisoner to stand without moving or to hold some other stressful bodily position for a long period.] The combination, government psychologists argued, would cause victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and accelerate psychological disintegration. Sensory disorientation combines extreme sensory overload with extreme sensory deprivation. Prolonged isolation is followed by intense interrogation. Extreme heat is followed by extreme cold. Glaring light is followed by total darkness. Loud and sustained noise is followed by silence. “The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the existential platforms of personal identity,” McCoy wrote.
After hearing from Lutalo, Kerness became a fierce advocate for him and other prisoners held in isolation units. She published through her office a survivor’s manual for those held in isolation as well as a booklet titled “Torture in United States Prisons.” And she began to collect the stories of prisoners held in isolation.
“My food trays have been sprayed with mace or cleaning agents, … human feces and urine put into them by guards who deliver trays to my breakfast, lunch, and dinner… ,” a prisoner in isolation in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility at Carlisle, Ind., was quoted as saying in “Torture in United States Prisons.” “I have witnessed sane men of character become self-mutilators, suffer paranoia, panic attacks, hostile fantasies about revenge. One prisoner would swallow packs of AA batteries, and stick a pencil in his penis. They would cut on themselves to gain contact with staff nurses or just to draw attention to themselves. These men made slinging human feces ‘body waste’ daily like it was a recognized sport. Some would eat it or rub it all over themselves as if it was body lotion. ... Prisoncrats use a form of restraint, a bed crafted to strap men in four point Velcro straps. Both hands to the wrist and both feet to the ankles and secured. Prisoners have been kept like this for 3-6 hours at a time. Most times they would remove all their clothes. The Special Confinement Unit used [water hoses] on these men also. ... When prisons become overcrowded, prisoncrats will do forced double bunking. Over-crowding issues present an assortment of problems many of which results in violence. ... Prisoncrats will purposely house a ‘sex offender’ in a cell with prisoners with sole intentions of having him beaten up or even killed.”
In 1913 Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, discontinued its isolation cages. Prisoners within the U.S. prison system would not be held in isolation again in large numbers until the turmoil of the 1960s and the rise of the anti-war and civil rights movements along with the emergence of radical groups such as the Black Panthers. Trenton State Prison established a management control unit, or isolation unit, in 1975 for political prisoners, mostly black radicals such as Lutalo whom the state wanted to segregate from the wider prison population. Those held in the isolation unit were rarely there because they had violated prison rules; they were there because of their revolutionary beliefs—beliefs the prison authorities feared might resonate with other prisoners. In 1983 the federal prison in Marion, Ill., instituted a permanent lockdown, creating, in essence, a prisonwide “control unit.” By 1994 the Federal Bureau of Prisons, using the Marion model, built its maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo. The use of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation exploded. “Special housing units” were formed for the mentally ill. “Security threat group management units” were formed for those accused of gang activity. “Communications management units” were formed to isolate Muslims labeled as terrorists. Voluntary and involuntary protective custody units were formed. Administrative segregation punishment units were formed to isolate prisoners said to be psychologically troubled. All were established in open violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Kerness calls it “the war at home.” And she says it is only the latest variation of the long assault on the poor, especially people of color.
“There are no former Jim Crow systems,” Kerness said. “The transition from slavery to Black Codes to convict leasing to the Jim Crow laws to the wars on poverty, veterans, youth and political activism in the 1960s has been a seamless evolution of political and social incapacitation of poor people of color. The sophisticated fascism of the practices of stop and frisk, charging people in inner cities with ‘wandering,’ driving and walking while black, ZIP code racism—these and many other de facto practices all serve to keep our prisons full. In a system where 60 percent of those who are imprisoned are people of color, where students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, where 58 percent of African [American] youth … are sent to adult prisons, where women of color are 69 percent more likely to be imprisoned and where offenders of color receive longer sentences, the concept of colorblindness doesn’t exist. The racism around me is palpable.”
“The 1960s, when the last of the Jim Crow laws were reversed, this whole new set of practices accepted by law enforcement was designed to continue to feed the money-generating prison system, which has neo-slavery at its core,” she said. “Until we deeply recognize that the system’s bottom line is social control and creating a business from bodies of color and the poor, nothing can change.” She noted that more than half of those in the prison system have never physically harmed another person but that “just about all of these people have been harmed themselves.” And not only does the criminal justice sweep up the poor and people of color, but slavery within the prison system is permitted by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. …”
This, Kerness said, “is at the core how the labor of slaves was transformed into what people in prison call neo-slavery.” Neo-slavery is an integral part of the prison industrial complex, in which hundreds of thousands of the nation’s prisoners, primarily people of color, are forced to work at involuntary labor for a dollar or less an hour. “If you call the New Jersey Bureau of Tourism you are most likely talking to a prisoner at the Edna Mahan Correctional Institution for Women who is earning 23 cents an hour who has no ability to negotiate working hours or working conditions,” she said.
The bodies of poor, unemployed youths are worth little on the streets but become valuable commodities once they are behind bars.
“People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work,” Kerness said. “I’ve come to believe exactly the opposite—that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy. How is it that a 15-year-old in Newark who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college, can suddenly generate 20,000 to 30,000 dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system? The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, the court and police systems has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy which has been a boon to everyone from architects to food vendors—all with one thing in common, a paycheck earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business, and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.”
Prisons are at once hugely expensive—the country has spent some $300 billion on them since 1980—and, as Kerness pointed out, hugely profitable. Prisons function in the same way the military-industrial complex functions. The money is public and the profits are private. “Privatization in the prison industrial complex includes companies, which run prisons for profit while at the same time gleaning profits from forced labor,” she said. “In the state of New Jersey, food and medical services are provided by corporations, which have a profit motive. One recent explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America with the federal government to detain close to 1 million undocumented people. Using public monies to enrich private citizens is the history of capitalism at its most exploitive.”
Those released from prison are woefully unprepared for re-entry. They carry with them the years of trauma they endured. They often suffer from the endemic health problems that come with long incarceration, including hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV. They often do not have access to medications upon release to treat their physical and mental illnesses. Finding work is difficult. They feel alienated and are often estranged from friends and family. More than 60 percent end up back in prison.
“How do you teach someone to rid themselves of degradation?” Kerness asked. “How long does it take to teach people to feel safe, a sense of empowerment in a world where they often come home emotionally and physically damaged and unemployable? There are many reasons that ex-prisoners do not make it—paramount among them is that they are not supposed to succeed.”
Kerness has long been a crusader. In 1961 at the age of 19 she left New York to work for a decade in Tennessee in the civil rights struggle, including a year at Tennessee’s Highlander Research and Education Center, where Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. trained. By the 1970s she was involved in housing campaigns for the poor in New Jersey. She kept running into families that included incarcerated members. This led her to found Prison Watch.
The letters that pour into her office are disturbing. Female prisoners routinely complain of being sexually abused by guards. One prisoner wrote to her office: “That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers.” Other prisoners write on behalf of the mentally ill who have been left to deteriorate in the prison system. One California prisoner told of a mentally ill man spreading feces over himself and the guards then dumping him into a scalding bath that took skin off 30 percent of his body.
Kerness said the letters she receives from prisoners collectively present a litany of “inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation often lasting years, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism.” Prisoners send her drawings of “four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains.” But the worst torment, prisoners tell her, is the psychological pain caused by “no touch torture” that included “humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat” and “extended solitary confinement.” These techniques, she said, are consciously designed to carry out “a systematic attack on all human stimuli.”
The use of sensory deprivation was applied by the government to imprisoned radicals in the 1960s including members of the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian Movement, along with environmentalists, anti-imperialists and civil rights activists. It is now used extensively against Islamic militants, jailhouse lawyers and political prisoners. Many of those political prisoners were part of radical black underground movements in the 1960s that advocated violence. A few, such as Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, are well known, but most have little public visibility—among them Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Imam Jamil Al-Amin (known as H. Rap Brown when in the 1960s he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Jalil Bottom, Sekou Odinga, Abdul Majid, Tom Manning and Bill Dunne.
Those within the system who attempt to resist the abuse and mistreatment are dealt with severely. Prisoners in the overcrowded Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, staged a revolt in 1993 after years of routine beatings, degrading rituals of public humiliation and the alleged murders of prisoners by guards. The some 450 prisoners, who were able to unite antagonistic prison factions including the Aryan Brotherhood and the black Gangster Disciples, held out for 11 days. It was one of the longest prison rebellions in U.S. history. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed by the prisoners during the revolt. The state responded with characteristic fury. It singled out some 40 prisoners and eventually shipped them to Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a supermax facility outside Youngstown that was constructed in 1998. There prisoners are held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in 7-by-11-foot cells. Prisoners at OSP almost never see the sun or have human contact. Those charged with participating in the uprising have, in some cases, been held in these punitive conditions at OSP or other facilities since the 1993 revolt. Five prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb, George Skatzes and Namir Abdul Mateen—involved in the uprising were charged with murder. They are being held in isolation on death row.
Kerness says the for-profit prison companies have created an entrepreneurial class like that of the Southern slaveholders, one “dependent on the poor, and on bodies of color as a source for income,” and she describes federal and state departments of corrections as “a state of mind.” This state of mind, she said in the interview, “led to Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo and what is going on in U.S. prisons right this moment.”
As long as profit remains an incentive to incarcerate human beings and our corporate state abounds in surplus, redundant labor, there is little chance that the prison system will be reformed. It is making our corporate overlords wealthy. Our prisons serve the engine of corporate capitalism, transferring state money to private corporations. These corporations will continue to stymie rational prison reform because the system, however inhumane and unjust, feeds corporate bank accounts. At its bottom the problem is not race—although race plays a huge part in incarceration rates—nor is it finally poverty; it is the predatory nature of corporate capitalism itself. And until we slay the beast of corporate capitalism, until we wrest power back from corporations, until we build social institutions and a system of governance designed not to profit the few but foster the common good, our prison industry and the horror it perpetuates will only expand.