Another prison hunger strike is looming in California, where more than 200 inmates at the Pelican Bay supermax have been in solitary confinement for between five and ten years and nearly 100 have been shut off from most human contact for 20 years or more. Across the nation, on any given day, more than 100,000 inmates suffer in solitary – about 25,000 in the federal system and another 80,000 or so in state facilities. That’s the equivalent of locking up every man, woman and child in Charleston, South Carolina, in their own little 8 by 12 foot box – for an eternity. Nothing like this American form of mass human torment has ever existed on the face of the earth: systematic, industrial strength torture, multiplied 100,000 times per day. Solitary confinement as a form of routine, mass punishment is beyond barbarity. Nowhere in human history do we find barbarians who tortured hundreds of thousands of people every day for decades at a time. Only in America.
Solitary confinement, by its very nature, is designed to ensure that no one but the torturers hears the cries of the tormented. However, knowledge of such monstrous evil compels decent men and women to action, in solidarity with those who have been wronged. The prisoners of Pelican Bay, who went on hunger strike in 2011, have sent word that they will do so again, on July 8, if the state of California does not meet their core demands. One demand is fundamental: that inmates not be confined to solitary unless they have been charged, “and found guilty of, committing a serious offense… a felony!” Instead, inmates are consigned to a life of oblivion based on anonymous allegations that they are affiliated with a gang, or for exhibiting the slightest hint of political thought – or for no discernable reason, at all. Not only is lengthy solitary confinement unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, and a form of torture under international law, it is totally arbitrary and capricious.
In California, alone, more than 14,000 prisoners are held in isolation. The Pelican Bay inmates anticipate many of them will join the hunger strike, as thousands did in 2011, when 13 prisons were involved in the protest, and three inmates committed suicide. This time around, prison organizers have invited the participation of “all male and female prisoners across the U.S. prison systems,” both state and federal. Inmates in Georgia went on hunger strike in 2011 and again last year, pressing a range of demands.
If the California prisoners are forced to put their lives on the line again, on July 8, support networks need to be in place, beforehand. The Stop Mass Incarceration Network is putting out the call, so that the inmates at Pelican Bay and throughout the vast U.S. prison gulag will know that folks on the outside have their back. June 21, 22 and 23 have been designated as Days of Solidarity With the Struggle to End Prison Torture, and to immediately disband the torture chambers. You can sign up by going to StopMassIncarceration.org.
Before he retired, President Eisenhower warned of the emergence of a self-perpetuating “military industrial complex” producing weapons and provoking conflict for the sake of ensuring a market for more weapons. Likewise, America is increasingly in the grip of what some call a “prison industrial complex,” building and filling prisons for the purpose of ensuring fodder for more prisons.
The United States government does not run its foreign policy on any more enlightened or humane premise than it does its prisons.
The refrain “we are creating enemies faster than we are killing (or capturing) them” is a bit of truth that gets leaked to the media occasionally in recent years. Sometimes the sentiment is voiced by even the most senior military commanders and applied variously to any of several strategies, including night raids in Afghanistan, check points in Iraq, the prison at Guantánamo, and drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan.
As with prisons, United States military and diplomatic policies run contrary to their stated objectives of peace and public safety and yet they persist with little question. Prisons and the military, America’s dominant institutions, exist not to bring healing to domestic ills or relief for foreign threats but to exacerbate and manipulate them for the profit of the wealthiest few, at great cost and peril for the rest of us.
People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. … 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.
A sit-in at the university president’s office; calls for their resignation; a packed, campus-wide meeting that resolves nothing and opens the door to further conflict. Such actions are notable enough on their own, but we’ve never seen a protest movement quite like what’s happening at Florida Atlantic University. For the first time on record, hundreds of students are raising their voices against the renaming of their school’s football stadium. FAU decided to sell the stadium’s naming rights to Geo Group, a notorious private prison corporation, and students are saying, “Hell no.” Their efforts signal something even more significant than pushing back against the inviolate prerogatives of a school’s football program. It’s a high-profile sign of the growing movement against our system of mass incarceration otherwise known as “the New Jim Crow.”
Geo Group will pay $6 million over twelve years to rebrand the football stadium, home of the FAU Owls. Protesters have now also rebranded the stadium, calling it “Owlcatraz.”
Students marched and occupied President Mary Jane Saunders’ office last week, submitting a letter that read, “We are protesting because we believe that institutions of higher learning like FAU have the responsibility to stand up to the systemic racism, corruption and human rights violations that define the prison-for-profit system, and advocate instead for the equality and human rights.”
The students are, of course, correct. Private prisons are immoral, Orwellian institutions. To combat any trend against growing levels of incarceration, they spend millions on political lobbying to make sure that provably racist institutions like “the War on Drugs”, “three strikes” laws and, their latest ripe plum, the incarceration of undocumented immigrants, remain the rule of the land. But if private prisons are diseases, then Geo Group is the Ebola virus. Describing one of their juvenile jails in Mississippi, a judge called Geo Group’s facilities “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”
Throwing more gasoline on the fire, President Saunders’s initial response to Geo Group’s offer was pure, uncritical glee, calling it “delightful” and saying without a sprig of irony, “This gift is a true representation of The GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves.”
[…] This movement isn’t stopping despite President Saunders’s most fervent wishes. By, at best, not doing her due diligence or, at worst, valuing the money over any attendant moral or ethical concerns, Saunders has turned the school into a national punch line. By standing up to this synthesis of football and prison, and Geo Group’s uniquely American horror story, the students are trying to map a different way forward for the university. If it’s remembered as a place where a campus movement was finally launched against the private prison industry and the New Jim Crow, that will be a far prouder legacy than the place that sold their soul for the dirty money of a for-profit gulag.
For many, prison is not that much different from the street. It is, for some, a place to rest and recuperate. For the prostitute prison is a vacation from turning tricks in the rain and snow. A vacation from brutal pimps. Prison for the addict is a place to get clean, get medical work done and gain weight. Often, when the habit becomes too expensive, the addict gets herself busted, (usually subconsciously) so she can get back in shape, leave with a clean system ready to start all over again. One woman claims that for a month or two every year she either goes jail or to the crazy house to get away from her husband.
For many the cells are not much differt from the tenements, the shooting galleries and the welfare hotels they live in on the street. Sick call is no different from the clinic or the hospital emergency room. The fights are the same except they are less dangerous. The police are the same. The poverty is the same. The alienation is the same. The racism is the same. The sexism is the same. The drugs are the same and the system is the same. Riker’s and is just another institution. In childhood school was their prison, or youth houses or reform schools or children shelters or foster homes or mental hospitals or drug programs and they see all institutions as indifferent to their needs, yet necessary to their survival.
The women at Riker’s Island come there from places like Harlem, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Bronx and South Jamaica. They come from places where dreams have been abandoned like the buildings. Where there is no more sense of community. Where neighborhoods are transient. Where isolated people run from one fire trap to another. The cities have removed us from our strengths, from our roots, from our traditions. They have taken away our gardens and our sweet potato pies and given us McDonald’s. They have become our prisons, locking us into the futility and decay of pissy hallways that lead nowhere. They have alienated us from each other and made us fear each other. They have given us dope and television as a culture.
There are no politicians to trust. No roads to follow. No popular progressive culture to relate to. There are no new deals, no more promises of golden streets and no place else to migrate. My sisters in the streets, like my sisters at Riker’s Island, see no way out. “Where can I go?”, said a woman on the day she was going home. “If there’s nothing to believe in,” she said, “I can’t do nothin except try to find cloud nine.”
What of our Past? What of our History? What of our Future?
— Assata Shakur
Taken from her book “Assata: In Her Own Words” (pages 61-61)
[H]uman beings matter little in the corporate state. We myopically serve the rapacious appetites of those dedicated to exploitation and maximizing profit. And our corporate masters view prisons—as they do education, health care and war—as a business. The 320-bed Elizabeth Detention Center, which houses only men, is run by one of the largest operators and owners of for-profit prisons in the country, Corrections Corporation of America. CCA, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, has annual revenues in excess of $1.7 billion. An average of 81,384 inmates are in its facilities on any one day. This is a greater number, the American Civil Liberties Union points out in a 2011 report, ‘Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration,’ than that held by the states of New York and New Jersey combined. The for-profit prisons and their lobbyists in Washington and state capitals have successfully blocked immigration reform, have prevented a challenge to our draconian drug laws and are pushing through tougher detention policies. Locking up more and more human beings is the bedrock of the industry’s profits. These corporations are the engines behind the explosion of our prison system. They are the reason we have spent $300 billion on new prisons since 1980. They are also the reason serious reform is impossible.
Chris Hedges, Profiting From Human Misery
The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation.
Vermont, the most progressive state in America, spent over $14 million last year to lock up Vermonters in for-profit prisons like Lee Adjustment Center, located in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. Private prisons like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)’s Lee Adjustment Center offer no mental health, educational or rehabilitational services, but they do post massive corporate profits; CCA showed profits of $1.7 billion in 2011 alone. As best-selling author Michelle Alexander notes in her seminal book The New Jim Crow, more black men are under correctional control now than were enslaved in 1850. A recent New Yorker think piece noted more Americans are now incarcerated than there were imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags. Clearly a dialogue about the intersection of mass incarceration, budget crises, and privatization is unfolding. A group of Vermonters working out of Church basements and living rooms, is attempting to build a movement to push this conversation forward by passing a historic law banning Vermont’s use of for-profit prisons. [READ]
A federal judge ruled earlier this week the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) has violated the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners by not providing adequate mental health care. It had violated mentally ill prisoners by subjecting them to conditions that amounted to solitary confinement and only worsened their illness.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter in Indiana brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and a class of inmates with serious mental illnesses.
Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the US District Court of the Southern District of Indiana applied the following constitutional standard:
Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by … prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed.
The judge found “mentally ill prisoners prisoners within the IDOC segregation units”—in solitary confinement—were not receiving “minimally adequate mental health care” and the IDOC had been “deliberately indifferent” to prisoners in IDOC segregation units and the New Castle Psychiatric Unit.
She cited, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”
The judge concluded based on evidence presented that there were “three ways” segregation (solitary confinement) was harmful to prisoners with serious mental illness. First, “The lack of social interaction, such that the isolation itself creates problems. The second is that the isolation involves significant sensory deprivation. The third is the enforced idleness, permitting no activities or distractions. These factors can exacerbate the prisoners’ symptoms of serious mental illness. This condition is known as decompensation, an exacerbation or worsening of symptoms and illness.”
Decompensation, the judge added, can result as a prisoner experiences auditory or visual hallucinations, sleep disturbance, memory problems, anxiety, paranoia, depression, eating problems, or engaging in self-injury or suicide.” Symptoms can lead to behavior that poses a risk to the safety of staff or the prisoner himself. The symptoms can also induce paranoia and lead to prisoners refusing to leave their cell.
Evidence showed there were a “disproportionately high number of mentally ill prisoners within the segregation units within the IDOC.” [++]
Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”
Proposition 36, placed on the ballot in hopes of reducing prison overcrowding and preventing what proponents view as unfair sentences for minor crimes, has passed, according to the Associated Press. Backers pointed to thousands of California prison inmates serving long sentences after being convicted of nonviolent crimes. They argued that changing the three strikes law would save taxpayers $100 million a year. The ballot measure has a provision requiring a defendant’s ‘third-strike’ crime to be serious or violent, with some exceptions, before triggering a 25-year-to-life prison sentence.
Decades of penal expansion coupled with the concentration of incarceration among men, blacks and those with low levels of education have generated a statistical portrait that overstates the educational and economic progress and political engagement of African-Americans.
Dr. Becky Pettit, How Prisoners Make Us Look Good