estimated 80,000 men, women and even children are being held in
solitary confinement on any given day in US prisons.
Last Modified: 10 Aug 2012 18:04
torture technicians who developed the paradigm used in (prisons')
'control units' realised 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." -
Russell "Maroon" Shoats has been kept
in solitary confinement in the state of Pennsylvania for 30 years after
being elected president of the prison-approved Lifers' Association. He
was initially convicted for his alleged role in an attack authorities
claim was carried out by militant black activists on the Fairmont Park
Police Station in Philadelphia that left a park sergeant dead.
not having violated prison rules in more than two decades, state prison
officials refuse to release him into the general prison population.
family and supporters claim that the Pennsylvania Department of
Corrections (PA DOC) has unlawfully altered the consequences of his
criminal conviction, sentencing him to die in solitary confinement - a
death imposed by decades of no-touch torture.
severity of the conditions he is subjected to and the extraordinary
length of time they have been imposed for has sparked an international campaign to release him from
solitary confinement - a campaign that has quickly attracted the
support of leading human rights legal organisations, such as the Centre
for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild.
than two months after the campaign was formally launched with events in
New York City and London, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment
or Punishment, agreed to make an official inquiry into Shoats' 21 years of solitary
confinement, sending a communication to the US State Department
representative in Geneva, Switzerland.
the liberals won't tell you
the state of Pennsylvania has remained unmoved in this matter so far,
some in the US government are finally catching on. Decades after rights
activists first began to refer to the practice of solitary confinement
as "torture", the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution,
civil rights and human rights held a hearing on June 19 to "reassess"
the fiscal, security and human costs of locking prisoners into tiny,
windowless cells for 23 hours a day.
to say, the hearing echoed in a whisper what human rights defenders
have been shouting for nearly an entire generation: that sensory
deprivation, lack of social contact, a near total absence of
zeitgebers and restricted access to all intellectual and emotional
stimuli are an evil and unproductive combination.
hearing opened a spate of debate: with newspapers in Los Angeles, New
York, Washington DC, Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Ohio and elsewhere seizing
the occasion to denounce the practice as "torture" and call for a
reversal of a 30-year trend that has shattered - at a minimum - tens of
thousands of people's lives inside the vast US prison archipelago.
as happens with virtually all prison-related stories in the US
mainstream media, the two most important words were left unprinted,
unuttered: race and revolution.
discussion on solitary confinement begins and ends with a number: a
prisoner is kept in his or her cell 23 or 24 hours per day, allowed
three showers every week and served three meals a day. According to a
report by UN torture rapporteur Mendez, prisoners should not be held in
isolation for more than 15 days at a stretch. But in the US, it is
typical for hundreds of thousands of prisoners to pass in and out of
solitary confinement for 30 or 60 days at a time each year.
Human Rights Watch estimated that there were
approximately 20,000 prisoners being held in Supermax prisons, which
are entire facilities dedicated to solitary confinement or
near-solitary. It is estimated that at least 80,000 men, women and even
children are being held in solitary confinement on any given day in US
jails and prisons.
thousands have spent years and, in some cases, decades in such
isolation, including more than 500 prisoners held in California's
Pelican Bay state prison for ten years or more.
the most notorious case of all is that of the Angola 3, three Black Panthers who have been held
in solitary confinement in Louisiana for more than 100 years between
the three of them. While Robert King was released after 29 years in
solitary, his comrades - Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace - recently
began their 40th years in solitary confinement, despite an ongoing
lawsuit challenging their isolation and a growing international
movement for their freedom that has been supported by Amnesty
all these numbers fail to mention what Robert Saleem Holbrook, who was sentenced
to life without parole as a 16-year-old juvenile and has now spent
the majority of his life behind bars, pointed out: "Given the control
units' track record in driving men crazy, it is not surprising that the
majority of prisoners sent into it are either politically conscious
prisoners, prison lawyers, or rebellious young prisoners. It is this
class of prisoners that occupies the control units in prison systems
across the United States."
observation is anything but surprising to those familiar with the
routine violations of prisoners' human rights within US jails and
prison discipline study, a mass
national survey assessing formal and informal punitive practices in US
prisons conducted in 1989, concluded that "solitary confinement, loss
of privileges, physical beatings" and other forms of deprivation and
harassment were "common disciplinary practices" that were "rendered
routinely, capriciously and brutally" in maximum-security US prisons.
study also noted receiving "hundreds of comments from prisoners"
explaining that jailhouse lawyers who file grievances and lawsuits
about abuse and poor conditions were the most frequently targeted.
Black prisoners and the mentally ill were also targeted for especially
harsh treatment. This "pattern of guard brutality" was "consistent with
the vast and varied body of post-war literature, demonstrating that
guard use of physical coercion is highly structured and deeply
entrenched in the guard subculture".
while broad patterns can be discerned, these are the numbers that are
missing: how many of those in solitary confinement are black? How many
are self-taught lawyers, educators or political activists? How many
initiated hunger strikes, which have long been anathema to the prison
administration? How many were caught up in the FBI-organised dragnet
that hauled thousands of community leaders, activists and thinkers into
the maws of the US "justice" system during the Black liberation
movement of the 1960s and 1970s?
Warden of United States Penitentiary Marion, the prototype of modern
supermax-style solitary confinement, Ralph Arons, has stated: "The purpose of the Marion Control
Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in
the society at large."
of these revolutionaries is Russell "Maroon" Shoats, the founder of the
Black Unity Council, which later merged with the Philadelphia chapter
of the Black Panther Party. He was first
jailed in early 1970.
from the gang-war-torn streets of West Philadelphia, Shoats escaped
twice from prison system, first from Huntingdon state prison in
September 1977 and then again in March 1980.
escapes - the first of which lasted a full 27 days, despite a massive
national search complete with helicopters, dogs and vigilante groups
from predominantly white communities surrounding the prison - earned
him the nickname "Maroon", in honour of slaves who broke away from
plantations in Surinam, Guyana and later Jamaica, Brazil and other
colonies and established sovereign communities on the outskirts of the
white settler zones.
it was not until Shoats was elected president of the prison-approved
Lifers' Organisation in 1982 - the closest thing to a union for
inmates, through which they demanded basic rights such as proper
visiting hours, access to legal documents and healthier food - that the
prison system decided he was a "threat" to administrative stability and
placed him in solitary confinement.
the past 30 years, Maroon has been transferred from one "torture
chamber" to another, where his best efforts to interact with his fellow
prisoners or resurrect his old study sessions for the younger
generation are thwarted at every turn.
most mainstream authorities on the prison system in the US - such
as the eminent scholar Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim
Crow suggests that the prison system is racially "biased" - do not
come close to touching on the phenomenon of political prisoners, let
alone on the inmates who take up the cudgels on behalf of their fellow
detainees and attempt to carve out niches of justice in a massive
chamber of terror.
discussion of solitary confinement as a violation of a basic human
right comes five decades after Malcolm X first began to preach that
black people in America should take their grievances not to the US
Supreme Court, but to the United Nations, to appeal not for civil
rights, as white bourgeois parlance would have it, but for basic human
rights, as a colonised people.
argued not for "integration" into a system that had brutalised and
enslaved "Africans in America" for years, but for an overhaul of that
system and a transfer of power away from those who created and
maintained it. Not master walking hand-in-hand with slave, but an end
to mastery and slavery altogether.
black revolutionary, Malcolm X's words were largely painted over by
mainstream historians. But if the struggle to end inhumane treatment
inside prisoners is to become anything more than a largely apolitical
movement for so-called "civil rights", it must put two long-ignored
points back on the agenda: race and revolution.
D'Almeida is an editor for the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency,
currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Grote is an investigator with the Human Rights Coalition, a
Pennsylvania-based prison abolitionist and prisoner rights organisation.
The views expressed in this article are the
author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial
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