Abusing Prisoners Decreases Public Safety –An interview with educator, author and former prisoner Shawn Griffith

Abusing Prisoners Decreases Public Safety

–An interview with educator, author and former prisoner Shawn Griffith
By Angola 3 News
If given the attention it deserves, an important new book is certain to make significant contributions to the public discussions of US prison policy. The author, Shawn Griffith, was released last year from Florida’s prison system at the age of 41, after spending most of his life, almost 24 years, behind bars, including seven in solitary confinement. Facing the US Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong: An Ex-Con’s View of the Mistakes and the Solutionwas self-published just months after Griffith was released from what is the third largest state prison system in the US, after California and Texas.
This new book’s thoughtful analysis and chilling reflections on what author Shawn Griffith experienced while incarcerated is a remarkable illustration of why the US public must listen to the voices of current and former prisoners who have stories that only they can tell. Griffith writes that “by integrating my own personal experiences with statistics and examples from different corrections systems around the nation, I am attempting to discredit the general perception that the system is designed to enforce and protect justice for everyone. The U.S. criminal justice system is an economically and politically profitable enterprise for special interest groups in this country. The general taxpayer needs to understand how the abusive policies fostered by these groups worsen the U.S. prison problem and the debt crisis through wasted corrections expenditures.”

Florida’s state prisons are the book’s main focus because “the majority of prisoners are incarcerated in state institutions. As of 2010, the US incarcerated 1,404,053 prisoners in state correctional institutions. For that reason, and based on my own twenty years of experience… Florida serves as an especially relevant test case for the changes needed in the US correctional system for two reasons. First is the size of Florida’s prison population and some of the political causes of its growth… Second, Florida has enacted some of the toughest sentencing laws of any state, causing correctional budgets to soar while educational budgets have been cut repeatedly,” writes Griffith.
After reading about the many different ways prisoners are abused, the very notion that US prisons are designed to rehabilitate or improve public safety, can only be viewed as a sick joke. Griffith writes that “hidden behind the walls, huge numbers of human beings have their spirits broken daily. Secretly, many suffer false disciplinary reports, illegitimate confiscation or destruction of personal property, physical beatings, rape, and sometimes fraudulent criminal penalties. Substandard nutrition, indifference to serious medical needs, and policies that encourage laziness have also become common. These practices help to sustain rates of recidivism, which is defined as a return to prison within three years of release.”
“Indeed, the strongest factor in reducing the rate of criminal recidivism is education, especially higher education, the one correctional expenditure that federal and state politicians have slashed.  This course must be reversed,” writes Griffith, himself an example of the healing power of educational programs for prisoners. While incarcerated he began his long journey to full rehabilitation, gaining his GED and then taking over 40 accredited college correspondence courses with an emphasis on criminal justice, psychology, and marketing. He has a 3.5 GPA from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. As a teacher in prison, he helped hundreds of inmates gain their GEDs.
Since his release in 2012, Griffith has lived in Sarasota, Florida where he founded Speak Out Publishing to publish other works of non-fiction that focus on tackling some of societies’ most pressing issues. Copies of Facing the US Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong can be purchased directly from Griffith, through his website: www.speakoutpublishing.com, by mail: Speak Out Publishing, LLC at P.O. Box 50484 Sarasota, Florida 34232, or by phone: 941-330-5979.
Angola 3 News:         You write that this book “isn’t just a commentary on correctional problems and solutions…it is also to share the human side of the story.” Based on your experience of spending almost 24 years in a Florida prison, what is the human side of this story?
Shawn Griffith:         Sometimes I think people forget that prisoners and their families are people. The prisoners have committed crimes, but many of them come to prison with serious psychological issues, and they still have feelings like every person in this world. Most prisoners are not sociopaths, but instead human beings with more pain and trauma in their pasts than the average citizen. Committing crimes, for the most part, is a direct sign of their mental instability.
A good example was a murderer with the moniker, Arkansas. Arkansas was a real stand-up guy in prison. He was someone who kept his word, minded his own business, but had a violent father who instilled violent teachings into his head repeatedly during childhood. He would give a friend the shirt off of his back, but if you tried to harm him or get over on him, his training went into effect. He had some serious psychological issues that I saw him struggle with every day.
One day I walked into his cell and he had obviously been crying, although he tried to hide it. I asked him what was wrong, and he gave me the tough bravado treatment. But I have never given up easily, and after some coaxing, I learned that his mother was dying of cancer. Arkansas cleaned up his act immediately. He did everything by the book to get a hardship transfer closer to his dying mother, who was too sick to travel across the state of Florida.
After repeated attempts to get transferred, he gave up in total despair. His mother was the only person he had in this world. He turned his anger inward and sliced his wrists deeply. This got him transferred to the prison by his mom, since it had an Intensive Psychological Unit for suicidal inmates. This is the human aspect to which I refer. Neither Arkansas nor his poor mother should have had to deal with that in the only, heartless manner available.
Society should understand that 95% of prisoners will one day become their neighbors. Worsening people’s emotional trauma in this manner does nothing to increase these prisoners’ chances of becoming a productive, empathic citizen and neighbor. People should take an active part in reconsidering policies that ignore the human aspect of the story.
A3N:   You argue that “what is most striking about” the abuse of prisoners “is how successful the government has been at maintaining the invisibility of it through ‘perception management.’ Public affairs offices work around the clock to spin damage control for correctional improprieties into non-controversial, politically correct sound bites.  With 5,000 correctional jails and institutions dotting the U.S. landscape, prisoner abuses are common.  However, much of the abuse is overlooked by unconcerned reporters who simply regurgitate government press releases.”
Combating this ‘invisibility’ by spotlighting the abuse of prisoners is critical for making prison authorities more publicly accountable. However, even on the rare occasion when the humans rights abuses inside US prisons are documented and presented to the general public, there is often still a widespread acceptance of these conditions because of a stigma against prisoners that causes much, if not most of the US public to feel that prisoners are ultimately ‘getting what they deserve.’ How can we better challenge this stigma? What role can independent media play?
SG:     The primary challenge of media, whether radio, internet, or network, is ratings. Without positive ratings, popular media can’t sell advertisements. Considering that conventional media are already facing budget challenges as a result of new venues, particularly the internet, activist-style programming is not at the top of their agenda. Crime sells, but rehabilitation hardly brings in the ratings.
The goal of all media should be to interweave prison reform into popular crime programs, similar to the way Pat O’Connor does it at www.crimemagazine.com. He understands the public mindset, and entertains his audience with titillating pieces on crime, yet does an amazing job of showing the crimes of the system in making recidivism worse. This should be the first method for all media, whether through traditional network programs or through today’s internet blogs.
The second challenge is to put public corrections officials’ feet to the fire. The only true national magazine that does this in the U.S. is Prison Legal News. Many times I have personally witnessed mainstream media personnel come into a prison and print almost verbatim the perspective of guards or staff in the public-relations’ offices of many DOC central offices. Prison bureaucrats go to great lengths to cover improprieties. They know that if the public gets wind of how abhorrent conditions really are in most U.S. prisons, their jobs would be on the line. Thus, they only let in the media personnel who slavishly reprint their versions of public-interest stories. This is why many citizens share so many misconceptions about prisons, such as the common one that Florida’s prisons have air conditioning. It’s simply not true.
Media should reject such stifling of free speech by demanding to have less-restricted access to inmates, as they did in the late sixties and early seventies. Those prison officials that consequently restrict media access should then be lambasted with the truth, until they feel the heat, provide media access, and stop the abuses. Prisons are about prisoners, yet other than dramatized versions of prisons in shows like Lock-Up, rarely do people get the prisoners’ versions of conditions, until something extreme happens, such as killings of guards during riots. It shouldn’t have to reach that point.
There seems to be nothing independent about most mainstream media, at least not in dealing with prison issues, and that’s a shame in a country that supposedly prides itself on ‘free speech.’
A3N:   If you were given five minutes on a mainstream news show, and were therefore able to speak directly to the general public, how would you address the commonly held belief that abusive prison conditions serve to reduce ‘crime’ and  improve public safety?
SG:     I would start with the ‘three Rs’: Retribution, Rehabilitation, and Recidivism.
A3N:   Retribution?
SG:     There is a fine line between retribution and correction. The best way to bring this home to people is to use the analogy of a child being taught to behave. For the reader, I would ask:  “If you have an adopted child or even your own child who was mistreated in some way and maybe had a mental illness from some trauma in the past, would you try to fix that child by increasing the trauma further?” Of course not, unless you were an abusive parent.
Indeed, some people might have a difficult time relating a child’s misbehavior or need for a positive upbringing with a criminal. But the fact is that most prisoners have had some intense emotional trauma in their pasts, particularly sexual, physical, or emotional abuses during childhood. They act very similar to maladjusted children and most have not truly grown up. Research has repeatedly shown that prisoners have a very high rate of mental illness and also drug or alcohol dependencies.
Everyone understands the instinct for retribution. But that is the point; it is a primal instinct. Any society that bases its ‘corrections’ policies on instinct, rather than on scientific research, should not be shocked to see humans lash out like animals in response to further trauma resulting from societal retribution. Extreme punishment, and especially abuse, without a balance of love, creates rebellious, mentally-disturbed children. The public needs to understand that the same result, only ten times worse, occurs with prisoners subjected to punishment and abuse that does not have a balance of societal empathy. Any corrections policy must be balanced with both.
A3N:   Rehabilitation?
SG:     Social empathy is best implemented through the second “R” of Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation has gotten a bad rap, but true rehabilitation, as shown in the research statistics in my book, does work. It does reduce victimization and returns to prison.
This does not mean offenders should be treated with kid gloves or coddled. Instead, it means the prisoner should be viewed as a broken person who has little respect or belief in the law because abiding by the law has never coincided with that unbalanced person’s understanding of how to survive or deal with emotional problems.
The public at large has also been led to believe that the concept of rehabilitation has been discredited by scientific proof. That fallacy was responsible, in part, for the dismantling of prior reforms, especially in the South. The problem was not that rehabilitation did not work. There have been many effective examples that show that it does. Indeed, my own story serves as a relevant example of how rehabilitation can work. Rehabilitation has never truly been discredited. The problem is that it has not yet been properly and comprehensively implemented in most corrections systems.
I have offered a comprehensive program of solutions and rehabilitative policies in my book, ones that truly work, yet do you think anyone in corrections has called me to ask for help to implement these solutions? Not one person from any of the corrections systems in the fifty states has shown the slightest interest. Until society changes the general perception of what rehabilitation means, and how effective it can be when implemented properly, the U.S. prison problem will remain as it is.
A3N:   Recidivism?
SG:     This third ‘R’ is the indirect outcome of what society institutes. Right now the high rate of Recidivism in this country is a direct corollary to the corrections’ policies of this nation. As stated, retribution alone will create additional crime in an indirect way by worsening the inmate’s overall stability at the exact time when the stresses of release, bills, relationships, parenting, and other stressors fall upon the recently released felon.
From 1970-2010, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. increased over 1,000%. In April of 2011, a Pew Research Center report showed that we still had a recidivism rate of 43.3%—on data compiled from 2004 to 2007—showing the need for more improvement. Retribution, or the “Lock-em up, and throw away the key” application of corrections has failed miserably.
A3N:   You write: “As disturbing as this may sound, politicians and the bureaucrats who control the system have no incentive to reduce recidivism. To the former, passing tougher sentencing laws increases campaign dollars from prison construction companies, private corrections corporations, and law enforcement unions. To the latter, making policies that encourage prisoners’ ignorance and laziness ensures they will remain unemployable and increases their chances of returning to prison. More recidivism equals more prisons; more prisons equal more job security for prison guards and private corporations; more prison guards equal more members for correctional officer unions; and, more members and private profits equal increased campaign donations to the tough-on-crime politicians who cater to them. This is the main reason that Florida has one of the largest prison populations in the country, not an increasing crime rate. The same applies to the overall nation.” With this in mind, what alternative solutions do you suggest to lower recidivism rates and improve public safety in a practical way?
SG:     After years of contemplation, these are some of the primary solutions that I propose would decrease recidivism and increase public safety. However, hundreds of solutions are provided throughout the book:
  • Pursue criminal justice sentencing reforms that place ceilings on sentences, increase judges’ discretion to make downward departures, increase drug treatment and other community corrections alternatives, and abolish minimum-mandatory provisions for non-violent offenses.
  • Pursue policies of prisoner placement that reduce current intrastate distances from families by forty percent and completely abolish non-voluntary interstate placements. This would then be followed by increased contact between families and offenders at visitation. This has been shown to reduce the unnecessary burdens placed upon family ties, especially between children and prisoner parents, thus reducing intergenerational crime and recidivism simultaneously.
  • Pursue the reversal of corrections policies that diminish prisoners’ familial contact for disciplinary purposes, increase normal contact visitation, and establish a comprehensive private healthcare plan to augment Medicaid for children of prisoners.
  • Lobby legislators to pass laws that reverse pen-pal and religious-correspondence restrictions and other policies of isolation, while instituting other safeguards to ensure societal and penalogical security.
  • Seek the abolishment of policies that charge co-payments, reimbursements, and other double-taxation charges to prisoners’ taxpaying loved ones. This would include the pursuit of fair collect-call rates and profit margins on the commercial resale of all goods and services to prisoners and their families, since the families pay for both.
  • Pursue programs of inexpensive electronic video communications between prisoners and their children that apply to both genders of all incarcerated parents.
  • Seek increases in rehabilitative activities such as music, artwork, writing, and hobby craft that can be leveraged to reduce solitary confinement and visitation restrictions as positive behavioral incentives.
  • Present the statistics in support of increased drug and alcohol treatment programs and make early release credits dependent on successful participatory recovery.
  • Lobby state and federal leaders to institute mandatory GED classes and increased vocational and higher educational opportunities for prisoners. Reverse the laws of the 1996 prohibition against prisoners using the Pell Grant for accredited college correspondence courses.
  • Implement agricultural, industrial, and service economies that increase training and financial incentives inside the prisons, and teach personal responsibility for the expense of living and child support while incarcerated. Accompany this with the establishment of a Corrections Risk Factor (CRF) to employers of prisoners to provide a mathematical wage rate that is fair for both prisoners and the companies that hire or compete in the same industry. This would prevent the prior examples of private companies exploiting prisoners for their labor, and unfair competitive practices against companies that don’t hire convicts. The increased work ethic in prisoners would decrease the burden on taxpayers through a reduction in recidivism and correction expenditures.
A3N:   An article you wrote for Crime Magazine criticized the use of solitary confinement in US jails and prisons. In what ways does the practice of solitary confinement influence recidivism and public safety?
SG:     In fact, experts on solitary confinement have documented the effects of long-term solitary confinement to include PTSD, increased risk of suicide, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage, and visual & auditory hallucinations. Literally thousands of prisoners are released directly into U.S. society from these confinement cells every day. Instead of being exposed to rehabilitative programs while in prison, many have been subjected to the cruelty of solitary confinement and have turned into walking time bombs. They are then released into society with $50 and a bus ticket, and kicked out the door mad and emotionally disturbed.
Maybe the practice of using solitary confinement would be more tolerable if there were no alternatives. To the contrary, there are a number of positive, rehabilitative incentives that could be used to replace most of our dependency on solitary to control behavior. For instance, music programs, drug rehab, hobby-craft, and incentivized jobs could all be used to reduce violence and misbehavior. From 1990 to 2010, these programs were slashed, as the push for longer sentences became commonplace. With longer sentences came the need to build more and more prisons. This in turn created incentive to shift money away from rehabilitative programs, which then created the demand for solitary confinement units.
Without ordinary rehabilitative incentives at their disposal, prison administrators had little else to use for controlling prisoners’ behavior. The policy became one of suppression and debilitation at any cost, and the cost has been incalculable.
A3N:   Further illustrating ‘the human side of the story,’ cited at the beginning of our interview, your book examines another under-reported story: how prison policies affect the families of prisoners. To conclude our interview, why do you argue that it is the children of prisoners who suffer the most?
SG:     For starters, a policy increasing a financial burden just slightly can and does trigger the decision by some desperate mothers to give their children up to foster care. With their delinquency worsened by the absence of the imprisoned parent, many of these children end up going to juvenile detention centers. This is especially true for those who are unable to partake in contact visitation with their mothers and fathers because of the distance that separates them. Fathers are typically housed an average of 100 miles away and mothers an average of 160 miles away from their children.
Over half of all incarcerated parents reported having never received a personal visit from their children. Much literature on the developmental effects of separation from a primary caregiver has been produced. In one report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 66% of incarcerated mothers and 40% of incarcerated fathers reported being one of the primary caregivers prior to incarceration. The Urban Institute also showed in a study that there are specific character and behavioral traits in children that are directly affected by parent-child separation, especially complete separations that preclude contact visits.
These traits include, among others: feelings of shame, poor school performance, increased delinquency, loss of financial and emotional support, increased risk of abuse by new caregiver(s), impaired ability to cope with future stress and trauma, disruption of normal developmental progress, increased dependency and maturational regression, and intergenerational patterns of criminal behaviors.
These findings are made even more troubling when the age of these children is revealed.  In prior studies, 56% were shown to be between one and nine years of age.  An additional 28% of them were under the age of fifteen.
A3N:   Keep up the good work, Shawn! Because your book examines such a wide range of topics, our interview has only been able to scratch the surface. To read it for themselves, and to support your work as an author and self-publisher, we encourage our readers to get a copy of Facing the US Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong, purchased directly from you, by internet: www.speakoutpublishing.com, by mail: Speak Out Publishing, LLC at P.O. Box 50484 Sarasota, Florida 34232, or by phone: 941-330-5979.
–Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Files Lawsuit Protesting 22 Consecutive Years in Solitary Confinement –An interview with Dan Kovalik and Bret Grote

 (PHOTO: Maroon’s daughter, Theresa Shoatz, with Chuck D at NYC event.)

Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Files Lawsuit Protesting 22 Consecutive Years in Solitary Confinement
–An interview with Dan Kovalik and Bret Grote
By Angola 3 News
Earlier this week, on Wednesday, May 8, lawyers for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz filed a federal lawsuit regarding his placement in solitary confinement for over 22 consecutive years. The written complaint, directed at Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and the Superintendents of SCI-Greene, where Shoatz was last held, and SCI-Mahanoy, where he was transferred to on March 28, 2013, states that this “is an action for injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

Last month, when a 30-day action campaign was launched calling for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz’s immediate release from solitary confinement, the campaign promised to file this litigation if Maroon had not been transferred into general population by the morning of May 8. On Thursday, May 9 the lawsuit was announced at a press conference was held in Pittsburgh, outside the City-County Building.
An update released on May 1 argues that the campaign “can already claim a victory” because “Maroon’s case and his work has received more attention over the past month that at any time during his incarceration.” One new article about Maroon was published by Solitary Watch and co-authored by Kanya D’Almeida and Bret Grote, who is also interviewed below. D’Almeida and Grote write that maroon’s “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.” Furthermore, they note that Maroon has had only one violation since 1989 and “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.”
Underscoring their argument that Maroon’s confinement is politically motivated, they write that “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… 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.”
Other recent media coverage includes a new interview with Maroon, published by New Clear Vision, and conducted by Vanderbilt University Philosophy Professor Lisa Guenther. “Ironically,” Maroon writes in the interview, “the segment of the population that presently has the most potential to effect change in the PIC is those who usually have no direct — bodily — connection to this system. That is the taxpayers among the ninety nine percent. Without their massive yearly outlays of billions in taxes (taxes they’ve been bamboozled into believing serve a good purpose, but instead serve [to] keep active a police state machine) the whole house of cards would collapse!”
Last month, in part one of our report on Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, we interviewed activist Matt Meyer and Maroon’s daughter, Theresa Shoatz. Here in part two, we interview activist Bret Grote and Maroon’s lawyer Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit filed on May 8, the broader use of litigation to confront human rights abuses in US prisons, and the political economy of what Grote identifies as the ‘imperial police state.’
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He was counsel for Maroon in his first federal case challenging his solitary confinement.
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.
Angola 3 News:  An April 15 update reported on Maroon’s transfer from SCI-Greene to SCI-Mahanoy and accompanying statements from Secretary Wetzel that he was moved for the purpose of eventually being transferred into general population, where he will then, among other things, be able to physically embrace family and friends during visits. Have there been any more developments since the April 15 update?
Dan Kovalik:  Yes, on May 2, Maroon was told that he would be released to general population within 90 days of his coming to SCI-Mahanoy, which was March 29. Therefore, if all goes well, and with continued pressure, Maroon could be in the general population by July.
A3N:   At this point, following the 30-day campaign, how can our readers most effectively offer their support?
DK:     We believe that continued calls and letter writing to Secretary Wetzel, as well as letters to the editors of local Pennsylvania newspapers could help to ensure that Maroon is finally released into the general population.
A3N:   How have authorities officially justified keeping Maroon in solitary confinement all these years?
DK:     To the extent that officials have given clear justifications for Maroon’s solitary confinement, they have continued to claim that he is somehow an “escape risk” in light of his having escaped from prison as a much younger man three decades ago.
This claim is ludicrous on a number of levels. First, Maroon, on the eve of 70 years old, is not in any physical condition to escape from any prison.
Moreover, Maroon does not have the will to escape through extra-legal means, as he did before. At this point, he wants to struggle for his liberation through legal and legislative means. In the meantime, he wants to be able to have human contact with others, especially his family members, as everyone has the right to do.
A3N:   What are the arguments made in the lawsuit filed on May 8?
DK:     This litigation involves a lawsuit in federal court against the prison authorities alleging that Maroon’s long-term solitary confinement violates both international and domestic norms against “cruel and unusual punishment” as that term is used in the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.
We will also allege that his confinement violates his right not to be deprived of a significant liberty interest without due process – a right enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.
A3N:   How can this international pressure influence a country as powerful as the US, who has been openly violating international law for decades by repeatedly invading other nations without UN sanction, including the recent case of Iraq?
DK:     The US, while certainly powerful, has at times proven itself susceptible to the demands of world opinion.
One notable example, which I think few realize, is the US’ relationship with Latin America. It was not long ago that the U.S. would send in the Marines to overthrow populist governments that it opposed (for example, in the Dominican Republic in 1965), or launch airstrikes against non-compliant states (for example, against Panama in 1989 in which the US killed 4,000 civilians in a working class neighborhood).
Because of mass protest in the US against such conduct, and because of resistance in the countries of Latin America, such overtly violent means of regime change appear off the table. I think that we collectively have more power that we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
A3N:   Has this type of legal action been helpful in the past in to improve conditions for prisoners?
Bret Grote:    Yes. For example, in federal courts in Wisconsin and California, litigation has been successful in challenging solitary confinement of those with mental illness or developmental disabilities. In December, a federal court in Indiana came to the same conclusion in a class action brought on behalf of the mentally ill in that state’s solitary units.
A strong ruling out of a Texas district court found conditions in solitary units to be unconstitutional due to the units’ “extreme deprivations which cause profound and obvious psychological pain and suffering. Texas’ administrative segregation units are virtual incubators of psychoses-seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”
Other courts have held that procedural due process deprivations that place prisoners in solitary without hearings or meaningful reviews, is unconstitutional. This led to a significant reduction in Ohio State Penitentiary’s supermax population, to such an extent that prison officials reduced the security classification in order to keep the beds filled.
In the case of the Angola 3 in Louisiana, the federal district court found it obvious that 30 years or more of solitary confinement implicated the Eight Amendment, and the case was ordered to go to trial. That was 6 years ago, however, and there has yet to be a trial.
In all of these cases, it should be noted that even when prisoners were ordered relief by the courts, prison officials have typically found ways to keep these cells filled, whether through the application of superficial mental health treatment procedures or by lowering the criteria for placement in isolation. This is attributable to several factors, primary among them the lack of political power of poor and working class people in this country, and the judiciary’s infamous complicity in enabling state violence against oppressed communities.
A3N:   You co-wrote, with Kanya D’Almeida, an August 10, 2012 Al Jazeera News article entitled Solitary Confinement: Torture Chambers for Black Revolutionaries.While the story begins with a look at Maroon’s case, it then looks at the Angola 3 case, last year’s Senate hearings on solitary in US prisons, and beyond. While Torture Chambers argues that the topics of “race and revolution” have been mostly left out of recent mainstream critiques of solitary in US prisons, it does recognize the relative significance of these conversations actually making their way beyond the smaller group of anti-prison activists that have been fighting solitary for decades.
Just how significant were last June’s Senate hearings and the growing anti-solitary movement in the US?
BG:     The hearings definitely helped in raising the profile of this issue, as the so-called ‘free press’ usually refrains from covering prison or human rights issues until a court filing or legislative hearing serves as their permission slip to acknowledge the issue.
While the increased attention is welcome, no serious person can count on the US government to meaningfully address the issue in the absence of a powerful and growing grassroots movement that is part of a broader challenge to the imperial prison state.
We should caution against hoping for salvation from powerful figures in powerful institutions, and instead concentrate on building organizational depth and capacity based on a coherent understanding of why the U.S. ruling class has become dependent on prisons and solitary to control, stigmatize, disenfranchise, destabilize, and otherwise neutralize poor communities and communities of color.
A3N:   What role have the nation-wide prisoner hunger strikes of the last few years played in developing today’s anti-solitary movement? More broadly, what role have prisoners themselves had in building the movement and contributing to public discussions about the dismal state of human rights in US prisons that solitary abuses are symptomatic of?
BG:     The importance of the hunger strikes, in particular the two that originated in the Pelican Bay control units, cannot be overestimated. It is unlikely that there would have been any senate hearings without that courageous, disciplined, and principled act of non-violent resistance to torture. That act propelled the issue of torture in U.S. prisons to a level of visibility and outrage never before seen in the last 30 years, and has galvanized countless people across the country inside and outside the walls.
Any reform or abolitionist movement in relation to solitary confinement, or prisons more broadly, that does not take its vision and leadership from current and formerly imprisoned people does not stand much of a chance of achieving anything more than superficial reforms.
The irrepressible will to dignity and to remain human in the teeth of terrifying and grim odds by those inside the walls is the fire and inspiration that keeps the rest of us going. Without that, this movement is lost. With it we can, and must, dream bigger dreams and work tirelessly to abolish this monstrous prison state.
A3N:   As African American leader Malcolm X was developing his internationalist and anti-capitalist politics in the months leading up to his February, 1965 assassination, he spoke about the need to shift from a focus on ‘civil rights’ to one of ‘human rights.’ He announced further that he would be seeking assistance from the United Nations to rectify the human rights abuses being committed by the US government against the African American community.
At its best, how can pressure from the international community help to rectify human rights abuses carried out by governments? What are some recent examples of the international community doing this about solitary confinement and other human rights violations in US prisons?
BG:     Pressure from the international community is an effective and necessary tool for movements that aim to enforce human rights law on the US government, which is always an uphill battle.
The best recent example of meaningful international support for those of us fighting the federal and state governments’ administrative use of torture in prisons and jails is the report by UN Special Rapporteur JuanMendez, who concludes that longer than 15 days in solitary confinement should be considered a violation of the Convention Against Torture. This report is concise and illuminating, and an important tool for prisoners and their advocates.
Furthermore, we need to collaborate with popular movements outside the US, and to research how other countries deal with problems of drug use and violence without burying people in concentration camps.
Ultimately, however, the people of the U.S. need to rise up and fight back against the imperial prison state, which is also an imperial torture state, decimating minds, bodies, and souls throughout the country on a daily basis.
A3N:   Anything else to add for the interview?
BG and DK:  We should always remember that torture is a crime against humanity, and a government that engages in it on such a widespread basis loses its claims to legitimacy.
Of course, recognizing this is but a small part of the solution, as it will take mass organizing across many political fronts to meaningfully redress the worsening political, economic, and ecological crises that define our reality in this country.
We must organize, organize, and organize some more.
–Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.