By Bonnie Kerness
In 1986, I received a letter from Ojore Lutalo who had just been placed in the Management Control Unit at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. He asked what a control unit was, why he was in there and how long he would have to stay. We knew little of control units then, except what we learned from the many prisoners who reached out to the AFSC to mentor those of us trying to give voice to what was - and is still - happening.
Today the continued use of these instruments of torture coupled with the persistent misunderstanding and mislabeling of prisoners as Muslim extremist threatens the security of Americans both inside and outside prison walls, and eats away the moral and spiritual compass that purports to drive American justice.
After Ojore's letter, we began hearing from people throughout the country saying that they were prisoners being held in extended isolation for political reasons. We heard from jailhouse lawyers, and prisoner activists, many of whom were Muslim who found themselves targeted and locked down in 24/7 solitary confinement. The AFSC began contacting people inside and outside the prisons to collect testimonies of what was going on in those isolation units which by definition are forms of torture. We had no idea how many people were experiencing this, the conditions in those units and how many control units there were.
One woman wrote "the guard sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn't take my clothes off in front of five male guards. They carried me to my isolation cell, laid me down on a steel bed and took my clothes off, leaving me with that pepper spray burning my face.
"Some of the saddest letters are from prisoners writing on behalf of their mentally ill peers 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 percent of the skin off him.
"How do you describe desperation to someone who is not desperate?" began a letter to me from Ojore Lutalo. He described everyone in the Trenton Control Unit being awakened at 1 a.m. every other morning by guards dressed in riot gear and holding barking dogs. Then the prisoners were forced to strip, gather their belongings while the dogs strained at their leashes and snapped at their private parts. He described being terrorized, intimidated, and the humiliation of being naked and not knowing whether the masked guards were male or female.
If we think back to slavery and to images of the modern Civil Rights Movement, we understand that dogs have been used as a device of torture in the U.S. for hundreds of years.These testimonies and more are from men, women and children being held in isolation and experiencing the use of devices of torture in human cages where there are few witnesses.
I have received thousands of descriptions and drawings of four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, chain gangs, black boxes, tethers, waist and leg chains.
Control units first surfaced during the 1960s and 70s, when many in my generation genuinely believed that each of us was free to dissent politically. In those years, people acted out this belief in a number of ways. Native peoples contributed to the formation of the American Indian Movement dedicated to self determination. Puerto Ricans joined the movement to free the island from US colonialism. Whites formed the Students for a Democratic Society and more anti-imperialist groups, while others worked in the southern Civil Rights movements. The Black Panther Party was formed. And there was a rise in the prisoner rights movement. Nightly television news had graphic pictures of State Troopers, Police, the FBI, and the National Guard killing our peers.
I saw on the evening news coverage of the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton shot in his sleep by police, and coverage of the killings by National Guard members of young people protesting the Viet Nam War on the Jackson and Kent State Universities campuses. Other civil rights workers were killed with impunity, so many that we felt there was no opportunity to stop mourning because each day another activist was dead. These killings and other acts of oppression led to underground formations such as the Black Liberation Army.
In response to this massive outcry against social inequities and for national liberation, the federal government utilized "Counter Intelligence Programs" called COINTELPRO conducted by a dozen agencies, which aimed to cripple the Black Panther Party and other radical forces. Over the years that these directives were carried out, many of those targeted young people were put in prisons across the country. Some, now in their 60s and 70s, are still there.
While the U.S. denied that there were people being held for political reasons, there was no way to work with prisoners without hearing repeatedly of the existence of such people, and the particular treatment they endured once imprisoned. As early as 1978, Andrew Young, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was widely quoted saying, "there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of people I would describe as political prisoners" in U.S. prisons.
Across the nation, we saw an enhanced use of sensory deprivation units often called "control units" for such people in an attempt to instill behavior modification. It was this growing "special treatment" which we began monitoring. At the time, a former warden at Marion, Illinois, said at a congressional hearing, "The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in society at large."
People throughout the world are beginning to understand what the prisoners have been saying to us for decades about the oppressive, war-like tactics of the U.S. government toward criticism or resistance. People in prison have warned us that what happens inside finds its way out here.
In a May 5th 2009 article in The Trentonian, Afsheen Shamsi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says that their coalition "is upset over what it says is increasing surveillance in mosques." The group reflects the concerns of Muslims who have grown tired of being stopped at airports, constant questioning and relentless security years after the attacks of 9/11.
The department of corrections system is more than a set of institutions; it is a state of mind. It is that state of mind which expanded the use of isolation, the use of devices of torture, the Counter Intelligence Programs, and the Department of Homeland Security, against activists, both inside and outside the walls.
Ojore, who first contacted us in 1986, exemplifies the history of control units and the misperceptions of all Islam as a threat. He was released from the control unit via litigation in 2002, after 16 years in isolation. In 2004, he was placed back into isolation with no explanation. When I called the N.J. Department of Corrections, I was told that this was upon the request of Homeland Security. In a 2008 Classification decision, this was confirmed in writing which said the Department "continues to show concern regarding your admitted affiliation with the Black Liberation Army. Your radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution. "
After a total of 22 years in isolation, Ojore was released from prison in August of 2009 via court order. On January 26th 2010, he was disappeared from an Amtrak train, accused of "endangering public transportation" and arrested in La Junta, Colorado. Because of his unusual name, newspaper articles had him being Muslim and talking about Al Qaeda neither of which were true. A judge dismissed all charges one week later.
Control units' latest mutations are as "security threat group management units." This egregious designation is beyond offensive because it is the government which gets to define "security threat group."
According to a national survey done by the U.S.Department of Justice, the Departments of Corrections of Minnesota and Oregon named all Asians as gangs, which Minnesota further compounds by adding all Native Americans. New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania go on to list various Islamic groups as gangs.
The "Communications Management Units" in federal prisons use isolation to restrict the communication of imprisoned Muslims with their families, the media and the outside world.
In 2004, four Islamic prisoners in California were indicted on charges which included conspiracy to levy war against the U.S. government. One result of this was a 2006 report called "Out of The Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization" by George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. The report states that the "potential for radicalization of prison inmates poses a threat of unknown magnitude to the national security of the United States," noting that "every radicalized prisoner becomes a potential terrorist threat." The report states that it focuses, "in particular on religious radicalization in conjunction with the practice of Islam."
Also in 2006, USAToday reported that the FBI and Homeland Security were "urging prison administrators to set up more intelligence units in state prisons, with an emphasis on background checks to ensure that extremist Muslim clerics don't have access with prisoners."
For those of us who've monitored U.S. prisons over decades, the targeting of radicalization, the targeting of specific groups, the surveillance and infiltration of those groups feels very familiar. There can be no doubt that Islam is being targeted. In one recent case concerning four Islamic men, known as the Newburgh 4, the judge herself noted that " 'Equal Justice Under the Law' are words that can be found on many courthouses, but far too often, where it applies to the socially and or politically marginalized, these are words devoid of meaning."
The U.S. government continues to lock down people for their beliefs, and is still seeking to identify those who have the potential to politically radicalize others. After each Homeland Security Code change, Prison Watch is flooded with calls from people reporting Islamic loved ones being removed from general prison population and placed in isolation.
I have no doubt that Islam itself is suspect to the U.S. government, and that any Muslim, no matter how law abiding, is suspect. Our work today needs to be embedded in struggle against this system and its continued use of isolation and torture as a tool of behavior modification, religious and political repression.
How U.S. prisons function violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and a host of other international treaties.
The AFSC recognizes the existence and continued expansion of the penal system as a profound spiritual crisis. 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 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 religion is violence. And that poverty and prisons are a form of state-manifested violence created by public policy.
I've been part of the struggle for civil and human rights in this country for over 45 years. We need to alter the very core of every system that slavery, white supremacy and poverty has given birth to, particularly the criminal justice system. The United States must stop violating the human rights of men, women and children. US policies including solitary confinement, and use of devices or torture have nothing to do with safe and orderly operation of prisons or society and everything to do with the spread of a culture of retribution, dehumanization. The restriction of civil rights is something we can and should debate regularly as a society. The violation of human rights, and fundamental human decency, simply is not negotiable.
Coordinator Prison Watch Project
Healing and Transformative Justice Program
New York Metropolitan Region
American Friends Service Committee
522 Valencia StreetSan Francisco, CA 94110