november 2007 - february 2008


There are more than 2.2 million men, women and children being housed in the US prison system. People are being held in federal prisons, state prisons, county jails, juvenile detention centers, immigration detention centers and municipal lock ups. The 2.2 million do not include municipal lock ups. There are also many millions under other forms of state control known as probation and parole.

Conditions vary. Our biggest concerns are the number of supermax or isolation prisons and units within prisons. Federal, state and county lock ups each have isolation units. Most of the reports of the uses of devices of torture come from the isolation prisons or units. The most recent units being built are called “Security Threat Group Management Units”, which they say are for purported “gangs”. The use of STGMU units post 9/11 has increased dramatically. Whenever the “terrorist alter” changes color, Islamic prisoners are often pulled out of general population and placed into isolation for no known reason. Ojore Lutalo, was released from the Management Control Unit in NJ in 2002 after winning a law suit. In June of 2006, he was re-placed back into the control unit. When I called to ask why, I was told that it was at the request of Homeland Security”. The man has been in prison since 1982 and is  New Afrikan Anarchist. He was a member of a Black Liberation Army formation in the 1970’s. After 25 years in prison, it is hard for me to understand what kind of threat he could possibly be to the US government.


The comparison in the States would be the STGMU isolation units where the only way to be released form them is to renounce your “gang” membership and, in some cases, your religious beliefs. It is a form of behavior modification and many people in prison believe that isolation and security threat group management units are designed to break the minds of the people in those units. Since the 1990’s, the building of these isolation prisons and units have been subsidized by the federal government. I once had a Commissioner of Corrections tell me that his state did not need a supermax prison, but the government was paying him t o build it so he would.


When the Marion, Illinois federal prison changed into a control unit in the 1980’s, the Warden Raplh Arons was asked to testify before a Senate sub-committee. He said that the control unit would help to control “revolutionary attitudes in the prison and in society”. This was a period of great activism by young people in this country.


Many of us trace the development of control units to the tumultuous civil rights era when many activists found themselves in US prisons. Sensory deprivation as a form of behavior modification was used with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Independentistas, members of the American Indian Movement, white radicals and prisoners involved in the growing prisoners rights movement.  In later years, we found jail house lawyers,  Islamic militants and ethnically based prison gangs, many of whom were highly political. A number of these groups posed potent challenges to the balance of power inside prisons. The concerns raised by all of these groups about racism, brutality, overcrowding, and prison conditions garnered considerable visibility and support. What we didn’t know then, but do know now is the role of the FBI Counterintelligence Program called COINTELPRO. Many of these groups were specifically targeted via COINTELPRO because of their involvement in activities which had a notable impact on broad segments of community opinion. Right now we are seeing HOleland Security becoming active in targeting certain people I prison in the US for monitoring.  


In New Jersey, prisoner Ojore Lutalo was been held in the Management Control Unit in New Jersey State Prison from February 4, 1986 through January of 2002.  Ruchell Magee lived under these conditions in California for more than 20 years. Russell Shoats continues to live in Pennsylvania isolation units for over 25 years. It’s no surprise that Ojore, Ruchell and Russell are all connected in some way with either Panther or BLA formations, each of which are considered gangs by various Department of Corrections.


In recent years, the evolution of control units has resulted in the proliferation of the building of independent isolation prisons known by many names, most commonly supermax prisons. As the AFSC monitored supermax prisons we found a high percentage of the mentally ill, youth of color imprisoned as a result of the racist crack cocaine laws, prisoner activists and people who are and aren’t  members of gangs.


The US and its media would lead us to believe that there is one way to define “gang” and “gang activity”  They imply that a “gang” is a “band of anti-social adolescents” which engages solely in illegal activity. A look at Webster’s dictionary tell us, however, that a “gang” is a group of people with close social relations that work together. In essence, a gang is any group of people which has a common identity, purpose and direction.   


In 1997, the Department of Justice administered  a national survey on prison Security Threat Groups to Departments of Correction throughout the country.  The results of this state-by-state survey are revealing. The State of Kentucky notes that the Aryan Brotherhood is adversarial with all black groups, which is not true. I have known of many instances of the Brotherhood working with black militant prisoners. Minnesota and Oregon simply name all Asians as “gangs”, which Minnesota further compounds by adding all “Native Americans” as gangs. The State of New Jersey DOC lists the Black Cat Collective as a gang. The Black Cat Collective is my free foster son along with three of his friends who put on Afro-Centric programs in libraries.


While many of the states responding name a number of the gangs with whom we are more familiar, I find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with who is and who isn’t a gang, and what is exactly wrong with being a gang. It seems to me that the anti-crime hysteria and the anti-gang hysteria came along about the same time in history. The criminalization of poverty certainly serves to undermine actual and potential bases of contending power within oppressed communities. Many of the activists I know in inner cities are currently in the process of assisting gangs as they struggle to engage in a process of transformation into community groups that aim to combat some of the very real problems they are facing.


Prison gang policies occur, of course within the context of our larger society and the wider criminal justice system. Certainly, in the criminal justice system, the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison system and the politics of the death penalty are a manifestation of the racism and classism which governs so much of the lives of all of us in this country. Prisons are one of the largest growth industries and the criminalization of poverty has become a lucrative business.  I’ve heard many people note that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. I’ve come to believe exactly the opposite, that it works perfectly as a matter of both political and economic policy. The growth of gang units (or STGMU’s) is part of the landscape of the use of extended isolation and is part of  larger policy agendas in US prisons.


We don’t really know how many isolation units there are across the country.For instance, if you write to the NY Department of Corrections and ask them about supermax prisons, they say they “don’t have any”. From the testimonies coming in from people in prison across NY State, we know there any hundreds of isolation units.


Some of the saddest letters that I receive are from prisoners writing on behalf of the mentally ill – like the man who spread feces over his body. The guards’ response to this was to put him in a bath so hot it boiled 30% of the skin off him. These past years have been full of thousands of calls and complaints from prisoners and their families, describing inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation often lasting over a decade, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism. I have received vivid descriptions of four point restraints, five point restraints, spit hoods, black boxes restraint chairs, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, tethers, waist and leg chains.  There are many, many mentally ill prisoners being held in supermax prisons which is the most inappropriate placement for such people.


The rules vary. In some isolation prisons you are under 24/7 lock down, never getting outdoors. In others you can get out for one hour a day, often in an outside cage attached to your inside cage. Sensory deprivation is instituted by sound proofing the cages, and having steel doors which do not allow any view of the outside. If there are windows, they are often small slits in the concrete. One woman describes spending months clawing at the rubber around a window. After four months of doing this, she said she smelled fresh air for the first time in two years. Often, a person will not actually see another human being in months. Everything is electronic including the in-cage showers which are controlled electronically by personnel in a central hub. One political prisoner wrote me that he was rectally searched three times going to a window visit with his lawyer, and three times coming back. This, despite the fact that he had no prior human contract for over three months. The effects of living in isolation are often that people begin to cut themselves, just so that they can feel something. Sometimes they become paranoid and many describe feeling unable to deal with general population. One person, who was released, after many years in isolation, said the “noise and the feeling of being watched” drove him to commit and infraction which would result in his replacement in isolation.  The American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Project, which I coordinate,  has assisted the people I prioson in putting together a booklet called the “Survivor’s Manual” in which people in isolation have written a manual on how to survive for people new to living in enforced isolation. That manual is available on and people have called it a “lifesaver”. This is one way that people in prison have helped others survive the torture of enforced and extended isolation.


I’d like to share with you some of the voices that I hear during my day through letters. The first two are from youngsters who have spent time in juvenile detention describing a system in which parents have no say so over what happens to their children and a system which prepares them for a future of imprisonment.


“I went in when I was 14. They have what they call an MCU there, and it’s like the “hole” in a regular prison. Kids that fight go in there. If you refuse they come and get you. You get a shower once a week and they bring the food to you. It was so cold in there. “


“I heard people scream, yell and holler. I saw boys get strung out on meds. The food was mostly Sloppy Joes and one cup of water. They make you take sleeping stuff in the needles. They used pepper spray on this girl who was fighting one time. They sprayed her directly in her mouth and she couldn’t breathe. They were hitting her. We kept telling them that she had asthma, but they wouldn’t listen”.


In Elizabeth, NJ, Eddie Sinclair, Jr. hung himself in the Union County Youth detention facility; Eddie was 17 and had stolen a bicycle. He had missed a court appointment, was picked up by the police and locked in isolation. It is not irrelevant that Eddie’s father is African and his mother is Puerto Rican. The head of the Juvenile Justice Commission in New Jersey said to me that prohibiting lengthy isolation in juvenile facilities is suicide prevention. Unfortunately, the practice of placing children in isolation continues daily throughout the country.


I also want to share haunting testimonies of torture being committed in US adult prisons: 


 “John was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine soaked pillow case was placed over his head like a hood. He was walked, shackled and hooded to a different cell where he was placed in a device called “the chair”, where he was kept for over 30 hours resulting in extreme physical and emotional suffering.”


Another person in prison describes having his clothes forcibly removed from his body, being knocked to the ground and kicked. He wrote us about being maced directly in his eyes, being told by guards that “this time we’re going to f… you up right”. The prisoner then gives a detailed description of the beating with shields and batons.


Another writes with a description of being placed in a restraint chair. He was stripped naked and placed in the chair with his buttocks several inches below his knees. His arms and legs were then cuffed and shackled to the legs of the chair to prevent him from moving. He was left uncovered and unprotected in pain for over 24 hours. Mobility was non-existent. He couldn’t relieve himself without soiling himself.


A woman in Texas writes “the guard sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of five male guards. Then they carried me to a cell, laid me down on a steel bed and took my clothes off. They left me in that cell with that pepper spray in my face and nothing to wash my face with.  I didn’t give them any reason to do that. I just didn’t want to take my clothes off.”


Another writes that when she refused to move into a double cell, she was dragged out of her cell and thrown on her back. She was beaten about the face and head and describes a guard sticking his finger in her eye deliberately. She says, “I was rolled onto my stomach and cuffed on my wrists with leg irons on my ankle. They stripped me.


The proportion of complaints coming from women has risen, with women describing conditions of confinement which are torture. They suffer from sexual abuse by staff with one woman saying, “That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers. Women have reported the inappropriate use of restraints on pregnant and sick prisoners including one woman whose baby was coming at the same the time guard who had shackled her legs was on a break somewhere else in the hospital.


In isolation units and supermax prisons, which are certainly experiments in social control, often visitation is limited, mail is censored, reading material is limited and on television (if you have one) are programs that they have decided you can see. There is little individual choice. While many political prisoners are still being held in isolation, a number are also in general population. President Clinton, freed a number of political prisoners on his last day in office including a number of the Puerto Rican Independentistas.


When the news about what was going on in Abu Ghraib broke, President Bush was quoted saying that “what took place in that prison doesn’t represent the America I know”. Unfortunately, for the more than two million US citizens and countless undocumented immigrants living in US prisons, this is the America that they, their family members, their lawyers and activists DO know and experience daily.  What happened at Abu Ghraib, what is happening at secret prisons all over the world and at Guantanamo Bay, are a reflection of the physical and mental abuse taking place every day to men, women and children living in the jails, juvenile detention facilities and prisons of this country. 


The conditions and practices that imprisoned men, women and children are testifying to are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the latter two of which the US ratified in 1994. US prison practices also violate dozens of other international and regional laws and standards and fit the United Nations definition of genocide.


Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture prohibits policies and practices that “constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment”. In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee stated publicly that conditions in certain US maximum security prisons were incompatible with international standards. In 1996, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture also reported on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in US supermax prisons.  In 1998, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women took testimony in California on the ill treatment of women in US prisons. In 2000 the United Nations Committee on Torture roundly condemned the US for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons and the use of torture devices, as well as the practice of jailing youth with adults. The use of stun belts and restraints chairs were also cited as violating the UN Convention against Torture. In May of 2006, that same committee concluded that the US should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermaximum prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation”.  Despite this long term international attention, such practices remain common throughout the US prison system, from federal penitentiaries to county jails and municipal lockups.


In 1998 and again in 2005, the AFSC Prison Watch Project contributed to the World Organization Against Torture and Prison Reform Internationale’s Shadow Reports on the Status of Compliance by the US Government with the International Convention Against Torture.  In these Shadow Reports, submitted to the United Nations, we found that the US was not meeting its obligations under that treaty. Given what has happened at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and secret US prisons throughout the world; and given that the Executive Branch of the US government seems to sanction torture, it becomes imperative we give more long term attention to what is happening to people in prison in the US.


Public health issues concerning people in prison who are coming out abound with mental and physical issues including frequent symptoms of post traumatic stress, Hep C, Tuberculosis, HIV and mental illness. I also think we are going to begin seeing the number of Iraqi war veterans in prison increasing, just as we did after the Viet Nam War. Dealing with these issues of cruelty and torture involve, among other things, serious public health concerns with both immediate and long term implications.


Oppression is a condition common to all of us who are without the power to make the decisions that govern the political, economic and social life of this country. We are victims of an ideology of inhumanity on which this country was built.  If we dig deeper into US practices, the political function that they serve is inescapable. Police, the courts, the prison system and the death penalty all serve as social control mechanisms. The economic function they serve is equally chilling. Just as in the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people dependent on the poor, and on bodies of color as a source for income; and a government which uses incapacitation as a form of social control. 


The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions. It is also a state of mind. That state of mind led to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. That state of mind led to the American Style ethnic cleansing that many say occurred in New Orleans. Sending the military into New Orleans instead of caretakers is yet another piece of US genocidal history. People in prison call freedom out here “minimum custody” with good reason.


The AFSC has always recognized the existence and continued expansion of the penal system as a profound spiritual crises. It is a crisis that allows children to be demonized. It is a crisis which legitimizes torture, isolation and the abuse of power. It is a crisis which extends beyond prisons themselves into school and judicial systems. I know each time we send a child to bed hungry that is violence. That wealth concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of many is violence, that the denial of dignity based on race, class or sexual preference is violence. And that poverty and prisons are a form of state-manifested violence.


I’ve been part of the struggle for civil and human rights in this country for the past 45years, 35 of which I have worked for AFSC. I have seen the horror that US government policies wreak. I have never seen anything like what I am seeing now in US prisons. My soul is shaken by what I read in my daily mail. We need to alter the very core of every system that slavery, racism and poverty has given birth to, particularly the criminal justice system. The United States government must stop violating the human rights of men, women and children.  We need to decriminalize poverty and mental illness, and in many cases, homosexuality. We must eliminate solitary confinement, torture and the use of devices of torture. We need to heed Malcolm X who, in his last speech, directed us to fight for human rights through the enhanced use of international law.  To take away someone’s civil rights is something we can and should debate regularly as a society. To take away someone’s human rights simply isn’t negotiable. Isolation, torture and the use of devices of torture violate not just international law, but human decency as well.


Bonnie Kerness
(AFSC Prison Watch coordinator)