november 2006


Three letters written from Afro-american political prisoners

Some Effects of Long-term Lock-down Facilities
by Sundiata Acoli

Long-term Lock-down Facilities usually come in two forms: Lock-down Units and Lock-Down Prisons.
A Lock-down Unit is basically a hi-security housing unit for specified prisoners within a prison that also has other, regular housing units for its general-population prisoners.
Most prisons have two forms of Lock-down Units, one for short-term detentions and another for Long-term Lock-downs. "The Hole", formally called a Disciplinary Segregation Unit, is normally used for short-term detentions of 30 to 90 days or so. The CU, or Control Unit, is usually used for long-term detentions of years and decades.
A Lock-down Prison is one in which each and all of its housing units are high-security Lock-down Units. It contains no regular housing units nor does it have an open or general population where prisoners circulate freely. Typical Lock-down Prisons are USP (U.S. Penitentiary) Marion, IL, and the ADX (Administrative Maximum) at Florence, CO. Both are federal prisons and both are Long-term Lock-down Prisons.
The defining feature of a Lock-down Unit or Prison is that you are usually locked in your cell for 23 hours or more each day. This brings you into unavoidable direct and constant contact with guards whom you are totally dependent on for everything - from food and clothing to toothpaste and toilet paper - and who have total control over everything you need. The frequent contact with guards makes the likelihood of clashes higher and their absolute-control status makes the clashes more intense. As a result, Long-term Units (LTLU) generally inflicts serious physical and psychological damage upon their prisoners.

Physical Damage
The physical damage done by LTLUs is more noticeable because you can actually see, with the naked eye, the result of its injuries: scars from wounds, burn marks from mace, missing teeth or eyes, crooked fingers, walking limps, trick knees or elbows, separated shoulders and other injuries that flow from assaults by guards, fights with other prisoners, or sometimes even the self-inflicted razor-blade cuts of psychologically disturbed prisoners.
Other visible results are facial tics or twitches, bald patches in the scalp where hair has fallen out due to long-term intense stress; also skin rashes from mites in contaminated mattresses and/or the yellow jaundiced eyes of those infected with Hepatitis contracted from overflowing toilets that flood feces throughout the crowded unit.
Prisoners recently released from LTLUs are easily identifiable by their pale, ashy skin caused by lack of sunlight and skin lotion; also by their heavy hair dandruff due to lack of shampoo and hair dressing.
Less visible physical injuries are the bad backs caused by physical assaults or by years of confinement in strip-cells that lack chairs to sit in or by sleeping on iron or concrete beds or bunks with weak springs that curve the spine. Other such injuries are poor eyesight due to dim cell lighting or nearsightedness from years of close confinement with little opportunity to focus the eyes beyond the cell walls; chronic hoarseness due to the constant need to shout above the high noise level or from smoking loose or harsh pipe tobacco rolled in notebook paper or whatever other paper available; loss of voice volume from lack of speaking for long periods; hard of hearing due to the constant high noise level that echoes throughout the closed unit; flat feet from years of being forced to wear only shower shoes or deck-tennis shoes; ill-health from lack of fresh air, sunshine and fresh exercise in a crowded, unsanitary environment that breeds and spreads contagious diseases; infertility due to sleeping on fireproof asbestos-laced mattress covers; and other yet-to-surface maladies due to the many Lock-down Units and Prisons that are located on lands that were previously toxic dumps.

Psychological Damage
The psychological damage done by LTLUs is often less noticeable than the physical damage because most of the psychological injuries are internal: to the mind and psyche. An exception is those LTLU prisoners who were forced to take psychotropic drugs (Thorazine, Prolixin, Haldol, etc.) while confined there. Their easily detected symptoms are the vacant stares, tendencies to drift into trances, short attention spans, inabilities to focus at length, shuffling gaits, slurred speech, foam at the corners of the mouth, general muscle weaknesses, and tendencies to tire easily.
The psychological damage is harder to detect in those not medicated. Often the prisoner him/herself is not fully aware of the damage done; the LTLU experience being similar to someone injured during a fight. The adrenalin flow often keeps them from feeling or noticing the injuries until the fight is over; then the aches, pains and, awareness of injury set in.
Although the psychological damage is harder to detect because of the absence of physical scars, some indicators of the damage are the temporary difficulty the released prisoner has in adjusting to normal prison routines that require being on time, remembering and keeping appointments, talking with strangers, keeping one's voice loud enough to be heard in normal conversations, holding normal conversations with members of the opposite sex, shaking off feelings of tension or confusion when confronting new but ordinary situations, and ridding oneself of the insomnia, if one turned into a night-owl in LTLU, that comes from having to suddenly revert to a daytime schedule. Frequently, one finds that his or her temper is shorter than usual, paranoia is higher, dislike for authority figures is stronger and s/he temporarily engages in daydreaming and diversion fantasies more than previously.
Also some psychological damages are difficult to distinguish from the normal or accelerated effects of aging that bring on a noticeable loss of short and/or long-term memory that makes it difficult at times to recall names, people, time, place, and circumstances. Some damages are subtle, others are more pronounced. Some prisoners are totally destroyed by LTLUs while others survive, and some even thrive in LTLUs.
Those who survive or thrive are usually those who use the seclusion of LTLU, despite its constant all-around chaos, to strengthen and develop themselves (and others) in areas they are deficient through reading, writing (essays and letters), studying, and researching new topics or increasing their knowledge in familiar ones: politics, history, culture, law, martial and military arts, meditation, spirituality, religion; learning new hobbies in arts and crafts, chess, learning new lifestyles, new eating habits, and engaging in regular exercise and athletics to keep the body, mind, and spirit as fit as possible under the circumstances.
In a nutshell, whether one emerges stronger or weaker, LTLUs inflict serious physical and psychological damages on their occupants and no one escapes unscathed from their effects.

Sundiata Acoli (C. Squire) #39794-066
P.O. Box 3000
USP Allenwood
White Deer PA 17887 USA

(from 4strugglemag)


The Psychological Effects of Long-Term Imprisonment
by Herman Bell

Loneliness is a prominent fixture in a long-termer's life. S/he wakes with it and beds with it. It can lead to mental depression that is marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, to a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping, to feelings of dejection and hopelessness, and sometimes to suicidal tendencies. In such a state the will is fragile: Your hair might come out in clumps. You might pick at your skin, at your nose, or at both. Your lack of hygiene may cause noses to flair, people to talk about you, and even to avoid you. Another prominent feature of prison life is tension, which is so rife that it is worn like an extra layer of skin. Anger is yet another feature: an unpaid debt, a slight - real or imagined - a look, an unguarded word and it flares-up like a volcanic eruption. A person could well take a life or lose his or her own, or wear some hideous, disfiguring scar because of it.
I write this not as a critique of the practice of imprisoning human beings, which I believe is an unacceptable form of punishment, but as a commentary on my observations and experiences in prison. Years ago I read a behavioral science report that said to confine a person in prison beyond five years is potentially damaging to his or her mental health. I knew this pig would not fly. Given the stiff prison sentences meted out to the poor and people of color in america, a five-year stretch is like doing a day. A twenty-five-to-life sentence is more like the norm than the extreme. When judges sentence people, they have no discretionary sentencing power. For the most part they read from a legislated script. (Not to say they would be more lenient. In some cases judges rely on a legal-proviso called "enhanced sentencing" and add even more time to the sentence imposed.) The scale of american justice tilts toward political and corporate interests rather than toward social justice or rehabilitative ones.
Getting out of prison is far more difficult than getting in. From the streets to detention centers, to the courts, and finally to prison. Your rights, or what you imagined them to be, were unquestioned. Now everything is different. Even your family, friends, children, wives, girlfriends, former employers and the like are different. The noblest intention may have inspired you to commit your crime. You may have not even committed a crime or think yourself undeserving of the sentence imposed. It matters not. You are here now, alone, behind bars, and you may be here for the rest of your life.
As I think about the psychological effects of long-term imprisonment, I can only think of it in terms of day-to-day existence. Some days are better than others; none are ever great. In truth, I hate writing about prison. I hate reading or seeing movies about prison. Yet people need to know what goes on in them. Many prisoners and people on the outside fail to discern the political and economic interests that prisons serve. Unfortunately, the economics of prison will not be part of this discussion. While some prisoners see prison as a way of life, people on the streets see it as a necessary evil. But in the main, as regards prison, education, and health care in particular, the nation's citizenry has grown woefully lax in its civic duty. And as regard to administrations, the current one has embarked on a unilateralist doctrine coupled with a misguided foreign policy that has embroiled the nation in an unjustified war, which depletes precious economic resources and lets pressing domestic needs go unfulfilled. Our nation, as well as our uniformed young men and women who stand in harms way, deserve better. We all get in trouble and suffer when we fail to fulfill our duties and responsibilities.
I have been in prison 31 years. I am not sentenced to "life without parole", yet I can be here for life. Denied parole at my first parole hearing, I reappear in '06. If I am denied then, I reappear every two years after that until I am released on parole or by death. How does one grapple with a predicament like that and still feel optimistic? It is as much a physical blow as a psychological one. I cannot think about it. I cannot feel it. I can only "keep it moving."
I am keenly aware of my time spent in this menagerie, aware of each step I take and of having to decide what to do next. Through the years I have witnessed behavior reminiscent of my youth: the bully, the posse - both inmates and guards - the strong preying on the weak. I have known days when depression sagged my spirits, days when men gave themselves to violent acts against their fellow man, days when the law of the jungle superceded all others. Days that I considered a success because I made it through the day.
Often I have found myself having to choose between what I believe to be right as opposed to what is expedient. The choice taken defines who I am and what I think of myself. Because the conditions of confinement take everything else, all we have in here is our self-respect and "good word." To lose one is to lose the other. Life in jail is comprised of one decision-making episode after another, some large, some small. In this confusing, intricate network of pathways, the choices we take, what we decide to do in each one, leaves a lasting impression on the psyche. And the individual is compelled to choose how he will live his life in here (or someone will do it for him). Fence straddling is a non-option.
Locked behind gates and cars too numerous to count, the contact we have with the outside world sustains our sanity. Visits from family members and the occasional attorney provide a respite from the tedium. As our visitors provide mental snapshots of life on the outside, people you know - an ex-wife, an old girlfriend, an ailing relative, your son or daughter - we live in the moment with them. A visit is like a dream and when it's over your wonder if it ever happened. But the "life-giving" force inside you affirms that the smiles, the tears, the holding of hands, the style of dress, and the perfume were real. You hate to see your people go and they hate having to go. But the portal connecting one reality to another remains open only for a short while. Then suddenly, like ripples from a stone cast into water, they disappear as though they never were.
When my cell door suddenly unlocks and guards stand in front of it, hands sheathed in rubber gloves, ordering me to step-out for a cell search, crashing waves, instead of ripples, rush over me. The search is routine they tell me; it's never routine to me, regardless the number of recurrences. My private space is violated each time I go through this. It transforms me into a non-person, as if I were an object, to be lifted-up and set aside, during the search, and the disconnect magically vanishes when I am allowed back inside.
We prisoners are "trained" to be obedient to authority and "conditioned" to obey it. "Trained," which suggests, "however long it takes to achieve the desired mental state," bears more of a sinister connotation than does "conditioned". The "training" process is fixed in the management of prison operations: "Hands on the wall and don't move until ordered to do so,"; "I order you to ..."; "For violating rule # ..., I hereby sentence you to segregation ... with loss of phone and commissary privileges." The "conditioning" process presents itself through prison operations: that is, through rules, enforcement of rules, giving and withholding of privileges and the like. With everything else remaining equal, the jail runs itself. Authority and obedience to it plays big in jail. In absence of one's liberty, obedience or non-compliance to authority is the main bone of contention inside of prison - how much do you concede to authority weighed against how much it demands of you.
Because of its violent and coercive nature, authority, in prison, is tolerated at best. A prisoner soon recognizes that a certain look from a guard, hand gesture, facial expression, jangle of keys, and the like are a language that is as coercive as a verbal order. The prisoner even learns the unspoken "I'll get you later look." In this light, how much you concede to authority, weighed against its demands, is no small deliberation in the mind of a prisoner. Depending on the choice s/he makes, a slow methodical "weeding-out" process beings. At this point a prisoner affirms or gains some sense of who s/he really is as a person. At that point, whatever part of himself of him/herself s/he wishes to hold onto, s/he has to fight to keep it.
For a black prisoner, his or her choice is like the Sword of Damocles suspended over his/her head by a hair. The historic enslavement of blacks in america and their maltreatment by white slaveholders is well documented, though much of it still remains to be told. When Lincoln freed u.s. slaves, vestiges of the slave system remained firmly in place, and blacks remained subordinate to white authority. And while the intervening years and subsequent battles won black civil rights victories, some would argue that the more things would seem to change for blacks, the more they remain the same. For blacks, taking this history into account - arrested by white police, prosecuted by white prosecutors, sentenced by white judges, and confined in american jails and overseen by white guards and administrators - how much to concede to authority weighed against its demands is no small consideration indeed. This very construct evokes strong imagery of overseer and slave on the plantation and its psychological underpinnings.
Against this backdrop are people inside u.s. prisons who have fought long and hard against american social and economic injustice. They are political prisoners (pps) whose spirit is cast in the tradition of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and Malcolm-X, to name a few. In some quarters they are called Freedom Fighters. They display cat-like independence in prison, which is taboo in an environment that cultivates dependence and insecurity. Therefore special treatment for them is foreordained. They are imprisoned not for social crimes - robbery, murder for hire, extortion, drug sales, and the like - but for fighting racist, unjust laws and insensitive social and economic policies that ignore the needs of the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized.
Already sentenced to the maximum allowable time and severely penalized for prison rule violations, the pp as well as everyone else is damaged by the prison experience. And the longer they are in, subjected to years and years of unremitting anguish, the deeper the scars and, hopefully, the stronger the resolve ... .

Herman Bell #79C0262
P.O. Box 338
Eastern Correctional Facility
Napanoch NY 12458-0338 USA


Shut Down Control Units Wherever They Exist!
by Gary Watson

In speaking of Delaware's infamous segregation unit, commonly known as the Security Housing Unit (SHU), immediately images of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Attica Prisons come to mind. Such images arise similarly in speaking of every other prison with a SHU or control unit throughout fascist Amerikkka and abroad. Daily, prisoners in control units are subjected to mistreatment, suffering, brutal beatings, tear gas and mace, state sponsored terrorism, strip cells, and confinement to small cells 23-24 hours a day. They are fed a diet of cold, measly meals, psychological abuse, death threats, oppression, repression, depression, and insanity. These conditions breed emotional breakdowns, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts (occasionally successful).
Thus it is my hope that you-the people, the public-will not only become well informed about these instruments of torture, but also enraged, inspired, and poised to join with others who are just as furious and ready to ACT using whatever means are available to CLOSE DOWN these torture chambers that serve only to isolate, warehouse, and destroy.
Inside Delaware's SHU, as an example, there are no educational or vocational programs, no jobs (except one tier man job that pays only $9.60 per month), and no religious services. Nor is there access to typewriters, computers, or the law library (except occasionally via a written request). Medical care is poor or none at all. Indoor/outdoor recreational facilities are inadequate. The designated area consists of five small, empty cages strongly resembling dog kennels or some other animal confinement. Prisoners are strictly forbidden to interact with one another. Other than the pigs/guards, there is not human contact. Only one or two ten minute phone calls are allowed per month, and only one or two forty-five minute visits. All visits are through a plexiglass window. No brooms, mops, or buckets are available for prisoners to clean their cells. Etc. Etc. Whenever a prisoner is taken from the cell, he is forced to undergo a bondage ritual in which he ends up handcuffed in the back or front, chained, and shackled. This degradation is inflicted during visits with friends and loved ones even though they are through a plexiglass barrier.
This character of Delaware's SHU is shared, with local variations, in SHUs and control units across the country and around the world. To merely denounce SHUs and Control Unit Prisons will not suffice if out aim is to shut them down. We must do more than just speak out against these monstrosities. We have to communicate and coordinate, work diligently and vigorously to assure that we are effective and taken seriously. Verbal denunciation by itself will at best rattle some nerves or perhaps even achieve some cosmetic changes. At its worst, however, verbal denunciation alone will get us laughed at, dismissed, and ignored. Unless our protests are supported by ACTION, the chances of ending this inhumane policy of locking people up and throwing away the key will be slim to none. This is about a system that is ineptly formulated, incompetently administered, and now out of control. In addition to brutalizing prisoners, this system lowers the humanity of the people who operate it and oversee it and the citizens who condone it.
The system also breeds dishonesty. For instance, the Delaware Department of Correction in general, and Delaware Correctional Center's administration in particular, have become well known for their cleverness and treachery in falsifying, covering up, and deceiving both the media and the public about conditions and practices in the SHU. They thus paint a false picture on which to maintain support for continuing the SHU operation in which the state has already invested millions and for which the prison authorities will get millions more. Wasting this money on such a demonstrably counterproductive use hurts the public, and doing so on these false pretenses insults it.
Society should be just as concerned with shutting down control units as those it keeps in them. This is especially true considering the Patriot Act, the "war on terrorism", and the ever-rising police state amerikka. The powers the police have assumed under them are a clear indication of the erosion and infringement of basic consitutional, civil, and human rights. Many of the attitudes that allow the police state to treat the public as an enemy to be controlled at any cost can be traced to the treatment of "crime" and prisoners. Fewer rights and more repression means that everyone is closer to an SHU or control unit cell than they may think.
The problem SHUs and control units represent is not a black-white problem, nor a Latino or Asian problem. It is not about one religion against another or whose politics are more credible. Rather, it is a human problem that calls upon all of humanity to change the course of history, to bridge the divide and secure a culture that will enable future generations to live lives of real peace, democracy, and freedom.

All power to the people!

Gary Watson #098990
Unit SHU17
Delarare Correctional Center
1181 Paddock Road
Smyrna DE 19977 USA