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CI: Stand Against Solitary

February 26, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Stand Against Solitary
by nancy a heitzeg

For Roses in Concrete

prison-hungerstrike-poster

“Prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, but the duration and visibility of the hunger strike has helped make the subject politically urgent. Last week, New York State agreed to extensive new restrictions on whom it could confine to its SHU. This week, in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement.” Other states have also curtailed the use of isolation recently—Indiana, where change was compelled by a federal judge’s ruling, and Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, which had faced pressure from prisoners’-rights groups. These changes are too few to constitute a total rejection of the practice. But for the first time, it has begun to seem plausible that the American attachment to this special kind of imprisonment is not a national peculiarity so much as a generational one, and that a 25-year experiment may be ending.”  ~ “The Plot from Solitary”, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine

The struggle to end the tortuous use of solitary confinement is a grim one. Like the movement to abolish the death penalty, it forces us to grapple with horrifying details of life in box, buried alive, slow motion death – the gradual, state-sponsored decay of both body and mind. Worse still even,  victory in the abolition of these practices will never be enough. They are mere symptoms of the pathology of mass incarceration, mere branches never the root, that end up afflicting a numerical minority of those 2.3 million persons who languish, one way or another, in the context of the prison industrial complex. Yet resist we must.

Excessive and extensive use of long term solitary confinement is amongst the most egregious of the many human rights violations in US prisons and jails. The practice is now so pervasive that, according to Solitary Watch: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.” These stints are no longer the “proverbial “30 days in the hole” but regular conditions of confinement that last for decades, sometimes, as in the cases of Hugo Pinell and Albert Woodfox  ranging up to 40 years. There is widespread agreement that this is tantamount to torture.

The routinization and expansion of long term solitary confinement in the late 20th century is intended to control – not just individual inmates, but the general population as well. Indefinite and ambiguously administered solitary confinement looms as a threat to all. It is no accident that the proliferation of control units and SuperMax prisons emerges in the aftermath of successful inmate organizing and a growing connection between “imprisoned intellectuals “ and the community outside. ( See Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement –An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan ) Control units serve decidedly political functions – they are meant to quell dissent and stymy inmate organizing.

Despite some particular and short-lived successes, even here the Carceral State has failed. The legal victories noted below all emanate from inmates themselves who have managed to be heard, to reach out, to organize and mobilize, even from 6 feet under. Roses that grew in concrete. More power to them.

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde

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CI: A Voice from the Tombs

July 31, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Editors Note: Many thanks to Victoria Law for forwarding this letter from Saiyd Muhammad #0295512, who writes from a High Security Control Unit in North Carolina. The letter is reprinted in full below. It more than speaks for itself.

Mr. Muhammad’s story is a sadly familiar tale, one shared by more than 80,000 inmates kept in restricted housing in our nations prisons and jails. This includes the California Prison Hunger Strikers, who numbered more than 30,000 on the first day. This is the second major California strike, as prisoners continue to seek basic human treatment via their 5 Core Demands. The strike is now on Day 24, and has already resulted in one death, that of Billy “Guero” Sell, whose art may be found here.

The torturous details of life in solitary are difficult to read, but please do. And then Act – please support Mr. Muhammad, the California Hunger Strikers, and inmates everywhere  however you can..

Thank you..

Voices from the Tombs of HCON!
from Saiyd Muhammad #0295512

If prison is considered the “Belly of the Beast”, then surely the prison’s solitary confinement units are its bowels.  I am one of approximately 96 inmates currently being held in North Carolina’s Super-maximum Security Units.  These units may also be known as High Security Control Unit (HCON), solitary confinement segregation, “the hole”, and others.  I however, as a result of  enduring mistreatment  and cruelty from certain prison personnel, choose to refer to North  Carolina’s super-maximum security units as the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety TORTURE CHAMBERS!  Yes!  State sanctioned torture!!

shackles2Torture: “…the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment  or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.” This is the only word that I can find to accurately express the horrific inhumane treatment I endure here on a regular basis in HCON.  Unlike NC’s death row unit in Raleigh where men and women wait for a possible execution by whatever means the state and federal courts declare humane, here on HCON at the Polk Correctional facility in Butner, NC, we are executed psychologically every moment of everyday.  The 96 men are confined in what can only be described as a concrete box much like a mausoleum tomb.   It is like being in a tomb, a stone building for en-tomb-ment of the dead above ground!  Yes!  A mausoleum best describes the 96 concrete boxes they call cells to house its inmates.

Concrete vaults! They hold us locked in 24 hours a day; only unlike an actual mausoleum that houses the dead, these concrete vaults house the living!

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Herman’s House: Resisting the Cage

July 08, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

beyond-large

Herman Wallace may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States—he’s spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing he vehemently denies. Herman’s House is a moving account of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell. Imagining Wallace’s “dream home” began as a game and became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. The film takes us inside the duo’s unlikely 12-year friendship, revealing the transformative power of art. Premiering on PBS’s POV July 8, 2013.

CI: Still Starving for Justice

May 01, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Imperialism, International Law, Intersectionality, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Still Starving for Justice
by nancy a heitzeg

In the face of unrelenting repression and no sign of relief, refusal becomes the last refuge of prisoners. Prisoner hunger strikes proliferate again, at Guantanamo, Pelican Bay and Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia.

Defying the Tomb.

The Green Diamond Eat The Red Diamond Die, Robert Indiana, 1962

The Green Diamond Eat The Red Diamond Die,
Robert Indiana, 1962

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CI: The Campaign to Free the Angola 3 Intensifies

March 06, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights, White Privilege

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

The Campaign to Free the Angola 3 Intensifies
–Amnesty International responds to Albert Woodfox’s third overturned conviction

By Angola 3 News

(The video embedded above is a trailer for an upcoming UK documentary film about the Angola 3.)

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CI: Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement

February 20, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement –An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan

by Angola 3 News

Author and longtime activist Nancy Kurshan’s new book, entitled Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, has just been released by the Freedom Archives. Kurshan’s book documents the work of The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which she co-founded in 1985 as a response to the lockdown at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. It quickly turned into a broader campaign against control unit prisons and human rights violations in US prisons that lasted fifteen years, until 2000.  The following excerpt from Out of Control details CEML’s origins:

I had been living in Chicago for about a year when I heard the news that two guards had been killed by two prisoners in the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, 350 miles south of Chicago. Although it was an isolated incident with no associated riot conditions, the prison was immediately placed on lockdown status, and the authorities seized on the opportunity to violently repress the entire prison population. For two years, from 1983 to 1985, all of the 350 men imprisoned there were subjected to brutal, dehumanizing conditions. All work programs were shut down, as were educational activities and religious services.

book cover

 During the initial stage of this lockdown, 60 guards equipped with riot gear, much of it shipped in from other prisons, systematically beat approximately 100 handcuffed and defenseless prisoners. Guards also subjected some prisoners to forced finger probes of the rectum. Random beatings and rectal probes continued through the two-year lockdown. Despite clear evidence of physical and psychological brutality at the hands of the guards, Congress and the courts refused to intervene to stop the lockdown…

…Although the terrible conditions at the prison were striking, what drew us to Marion in particular was the history of struggle of the prisoners and their allies on the outside. When the infamous Alcatraz was closed in 1962, Marion Federal Penitentiary was opened and became the new Alcatraz, the end of the line for the “worst of the worst.”

In 1972 there was a prisoner’s peaceful work stoppage at Marion led by Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda. In response to this peaceful work stoppage, the authorities placed a section of the prison under lockdown, thus creating the first “control unit,” essentially a prison within a prison, amplifying the use of isolation as a form of control, previously used only for a selected prisoner. That was 1972.

 At this time, in 1985, after two years of lockdown, they converted the whole prison into a control unit. Importantly, because Marion in 1985 was “the end of the line,” the only “Level 6” federal prison, there were disproportionate numbers of political prisoners—those who were incarcerated for their political beliefs and actions. These included people such as Native American Leonard Peltier who had spent years there until recently, and now (in 1985) Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli and Sekou Odinga, Puerto Rican independentista Oscar López Rivera, and white revolutionary Bill Dunne. These were people we knew or identified with, activists of the 1960s and 1970s incarcerated for their political activities. Marion, like its predecessor Alcatraz and its successor ADX Florence, was clearly a destination point for political prisoners.

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CI: Cruel and All Too Usual

October 03, 2012 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Cruel and All Too Usual
by nancy a heitzeg

“Do you think you can be this man? Do you in your freedom think enough right now to understand? What a man endures in captivity daily, by his lonesome? Do you think your mind, heart and spirit contains the strength to maintain focus? Behind this steel door 23 hours a day. Or more likely 24 hours. Don’t test your freedom–stay free! This is truth of SMU experience in Georgia by Mr. BigMann.”

Excessive and extensive use of long term solitary confinement is amongst the most egregious of the many human rights violations in US prisons and jails. The practice is now so pervasive that, according to Solitary Watch: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.”

These stints are no longer the “proverbial “30 days in the hole” but regular conditions of confinement that last for decades, sometimes, as in the cases of Hugo Pinell, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace — ranging up to 40 years.

The Pelican Bay Hunger Strike of 2011 revealed the pitfalls of this practice in California  – the state with the highest number of isolated prisoners -  and elsewhere. Still more than 1 year later, inmates at that infamous Supermax have gotten little relief and no satisfaction regarding their Five Core Demands:

1.Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2.Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3.Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
4.Provide adequate food;
5.Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

Despite a recent denial of additional media access to inmates by Governor Brown, the spotlight on solitary continues to intensify. Amnesty International has just published a new report — The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.

The essence of the report is best captured here in an infographic worth more than my 10, 000 words.

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CI: Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law? — An interview with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl

August 29, 2012 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, International Law, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

Do US Prisons Violate European Human Rights Law?

–An interview with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl

By Angola 3 News

On April 10, 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued judgement in the case of Babar Ahmad and Others v The United Kingdom, thereby making a landmark ruling on the legitimacy of solitary confinement, extreme isolation and life without parole in US supermax prisons (view ECHR press release and ruling). The ECHR denied the appeal filed jointly by six appellants, consisting of four British nationals (Babar Ahmad, Haroon Rashid Aswat, Syed Talha Ahsan, and Mustafa Kamal Mustafa—aka Abu Hamza), an Egyptian national (Adel Abdul Bary) and a Saudi Arabian national (Khaled Al-Fawwaz) who have been imprisoned in the United Kingdom, pending extradition to the United States for alleged terrorism-related activities.

This judgement is now being appealed to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, with a decision expected in September regarding whether or not the appeal will be heard. Arguing against their extradition to the US, the six appellants have asserted that the risk of imprisonment in the United States (with specific citation of long-term isolation at the notorious federal prison in Colorado, ADX Florence—also the subject of both a June Senate Hearing and a recent civil rights lawsuit initiated by prisoners alleging human rights violations there) would breach their right under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights not to “be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Ruling against the appellants, the ECHR argued in their April 10 ruling that isolation in a US Supermax prison is “relative” and will become a violation of Article 3 ECHR (which prohibits torture), only if it extends indefinitely.

A third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights in this case was jointly submitted in 2010 by INTERIGHTS, Reprieve, the American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School National Litigation Project, arguing that “U.S. legal protections against ill-treatment in imprisonment fall short of those provided under Article 3 ECHR.” Furthermore, “it is submitted that any protection the applicants will receive under U.S. law is speculative at best. The past two decades have seen a strong trend of limiting prisoner access to courts overall and restricting judicial oversight, particularly in the absence of overt physical harm. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution affords little in the way of real protections against the documented harms of prolonged sensory and social deprivation…To the extent the United States suggests that Petitioners will be adequately protected by administrative review, the record in cases involving ADX Florence is that such procedures are largely illusory.”

In this interview we speak with Hamja Ahsan and Aviva Stahl–two London-based activists working around this case. Aviva Stahl works as the United States researcher for CagePrisoners.com, a London-based human rights organization that is committed to defending the due process rights of detainees of the War on Terror. Her current work focuses on the criminalization of Muslim communities on American soil, and draws on the parallel past experiences of other communities of color. She also helps run a pen pal program in Britain that links folks across prison walls, with the aim of building relationships based on solidarity and mutual support.

An artist and curator by profession, Hamja Ahsan is the younger brother of appellant Syed Talha Ahsan, and leader of the Free Talha Ahsan Campaign. Declaring that Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and writer with Asperger syndrome imprisoned since 2006 “deserves freedom or a fair trial in the UK,” www.freetalha.org details how “Talha Ahsan was arrested at his home on 19 July 2006 in response to a request from the USA under the Extradition Act 2003 which does not require the presentation of any prima facie evidence. He is accused in the US of terrorism-related offences arising out of an alleged involvement over the period of 1997-2004 with the Azzam series of websites, one of which happened to be located on a server in America. He has never been arrested or questioned by British police, despite a number of men being so from his local area in December 2003 for similar allegations. All of them were released without charge. One of them, Babar Ahmad, was later compensated £60,000 by the Metropolitan police after a civil case in March 2009 for the violent physical abuse during his arrest. It was evidence from this incident which formed the basis of Talha’s arrest two and a half years later.”

In this interview, Ahsan and Stahl discuss the extreme importance of the upcoming Grand Chamber ruling on a personal level for the six appellants fighting their extradition, as well as the ruling’s broader significance for all US prisoners and the communities around the world targeted by the US’ so-called “War on Terror.” Among the many prominent human rights activists speaking out is US author Noam Chomsky, who asserts that “with the sharp deterioration of protection of elementary civil rights in the US, no one should be extradited to the country on charges related to alleged terrorism…the prisons and the incarceration system in the United States are an international scandal,” and “the shallow and evasive charges” in Ahsan’s case “strongly reinforce that conclusion.”

Robert H. King of the Angola 3, released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary, recently met up with Ahsan and Stahl (read Stahl’s interview here) while touring the UK with Amnesty International, as part of their campaign demanding the immediate release of the Angola 3′s Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace from solitary confinement, where they have now been for over 40 years (sign Amnesty’s petition here).

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