Prisoner Responds to Bear Witness Appeal:

"The Nightmare Still Goes On..."

March 10, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


"An Appeal to the Brothers and Sisters Locked Down in this Society's Prisons: Bear Witness to Torture in U.S. Prisons and to All Law Enforcement Abuse" was issued in Revolution, February 3, 2013, by Carl Dix, representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party who was imprisoned in the military for refusing to go to Vietnam; Clyde Young, a revolutionary communist who was imprisoned in his youth; and Gregory Koger, a revolutionary communist who was imprisoned as a youth and spent many years in solitary confinement. The following response to this from a prisoner was received by the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund:

February 12, 2013

To the Bear Witness Project,

Torture. Sensory deprivation. Depersonalization. Cold Storage. These are all the terminologies that adequately describe what my state of existence has been like for the past six years, and for nearly 10 years all together—the latter being the title of a report by the Human Rights Watch in 1997 called Cold Storage: Super Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana. If anything in my disclosure in this letter seems a little farfetched and exaggerated, I can understand the skepticism, but you must understand that I've lived a farfetched and exaggerated existence for a long time now and the nightmare still goes on. Before there was a Guantánamo Bay or an Abu Ghraib, there was a MCC and SHU in Indiana and other states scattered across the United States, right here.

Professor Colin Dayan wrote a book called The Law is a White Dog, which was about this connection between domestic penological practices in America, the U.S.'s foreign policy and practices in its "detention centers" abroad and the ever-expanding justification for this form of torture in U.S. "civil" case precedents. In the Preface of her book, she writes:

Much of this book has a contemporary resonance—obviously Guantánamo and the secret prison sites in this country and round the world, where our country has made others complicit in its deprivation of rights and willful disregard of the laws of nations and the international obligations which this country, like others, has taken upon itself. This is a political book, then, but it is not a tract. What I have tried to do is show that the shame that is Guantánamo has a history, in our nation and its treatment of its own. (p.xiv)

My experience with residing in supermax facilities dates back to 2000. I had been in prison for little over a year. To give you an idea of the background of this particular prison and the type of circumstances which compelled me to be one of the rebellious "field slaves" throughout my whole bit and spend years on solitary confinement, I must explain what came BEFORE me being administratively sentenced to this domestic Guantánamo Bay indefinitely.

Within my first two months of being at this facility when I first came to prison in '99, a group of correctional officers, a lieutenant, and a casework manager had brutally beaten and murdered a mentally ill prisoner May 27, 1999, and had gotten away with it. Even the governor's office had been complicit in this cover-up. According to the official report, they claimed that this brotha had died from "choking on his own vomit." All the prisoners that were on that segregation unit unanimously told what really happened. One guy was so adamant about sticking to his statement, that they placed him on the SHU (the supermax facility) for a year for "false reporting." Just like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, supermax units are often not used to hold the so-called "worst of the worst" but to intimidate and break a guy's resistance in one form or another.

What had angered me the most about that situation, though, was not only that this brotha died senselessly, but the obviousness of how it was deliberately covered-up, all the way downstate. Here I was sentenced to almost 40 years for a robbery and hadn't killed NO ONE, but within my first two months in prison, individuals who had given an oath to that very same state—that sentenced me to decades in prison—had MURDERED someone and not spent a day in jail. Not a day! Instead they were permitted the freedom to continue ordering us around, writing us up for committing petty prison rule violations, and maintaining their dominance and "authority" over us. If there was one incident that completely delegitimizes their "authority" over me in my eyes, I would have to point back to that incident, especially once I realized that that incident really wasn't an aberration on their part. That was the unwritten rule, the norm.

With that background in mind, as I said, I started off my supermax stints in 2000. Most of the times I've been sent to the SHU was due to my resistance against the prison regime in one form or another. One of the assault cases I caught against a guard was to bring to light the murder of that brotha back in 1999 when I first arrived here. I felt at the time that the only way to put this facility on trial was to do so in a criminal trial setting. Although I beat that particular case on an appeal on technical grounds, I've spent many many years on the SHU due to it. One thing all prison regimes fear are those who aren't fearful of bearing witness to their crimes and refuse to relinquish their humanity even under inhumane conditions. Nowadays most guys who fit that category end up spending years, even decades on these sort of units.

The near decade that I've spent on the SHU (now known as the SCU) I've experienced and seen a lot. Not only have I experienced its effects upon my own self, but I've seen it time again affect others in a multitude of ways. It's impossible to enumerate all the techniques and practices in one letter in which they've employed to try to break a person's will to resist, but I'll name a few so that the reader can get an idea of what these types of units are like.

Normally shakedowns are used to look for prohibited "contraband," but many times shakedowns are used as a form of intimidation on these units more so than they are in general population. I've came back to my cell plenty of times, after my cell had been shookdown, with everything—my personal letters, pictures, legal paperwork, magazines, books, etc.—piled up high in what could easily be mistaken for a pile of trash in a landfill, with my wash cloth and towel floating in the toilet. This particular shakedown that comes to mind, they weren't looking for anything at all; they just wanted to trash my cell and rub it in my face because they could. (I can't even began to describe the degree of hate and bitterness that that gives rise to in you.) I've also known them to use the threat of shakedowns, like the above in order to deter others from coming out of their cells to take a shower or their one hour solitary rec. They do stuff like that occasionally only to lessen their work load for that day, since a lot of the guys will decline their recs and showers out of fear of having their cells trashed and having to spend a meaningless hour putting their cells back in order. Again, stuff like that breeds intense hatred in you for them every time you experience something like that, because you see it as an indirect attack to your humanity, your individuality, and your dignity as a man.

Other tactics of intimidations that I've experienced are the use of the bright lights in our cells. Every so often they may arbitrarily keep our bright lights on nearly 16 hours in a day, then several months later abruptly suspend that practice, before arbitrarily bringing it back a year later—claiming they're only doing so for "the safety and security" of the prison. If that was really the case, why isn't it like that 24/7? How is it about "the safety and security" 16 hours in a day and not a PRIMARY concern the other 8 hours or so hours in that same 24 hour period? Nah… it's about control, intimidation, and sensory deprivation. As simple as such a change is, it's a form of sensory deprivation which completely alters your sleeping patterns and moods. It's another form of behavior modification which is employed to instill helplessness into you. And in many cases, it's unfortunately effective.

Like I said, I've not only experienced some of these effects myself at times, but I've also witnessed how this has affected others in a multitude of ways. I know several guys over the years—both Black and white—commit suicide because they could no longer endure the SHU's sensory deprivation, its torture, and depersonalization. I've known others to cut themselves and light their mattresses on fire, not to kill themselves, but to just get transferred to a psyche unit so they could escape this place. I personally know one guy, who had cut off one of his testicles and handed it to a guard just so he could go to the hospital for a few hours. He was one of the most extreme cases and should've never been placed on the SHU in the first place for a variety of reasons, but back then over half the guys that were housed on the SHU were mentally ill. Fortunately for them and us, they can no longer house mentally ill prisoners on either of the two supermaxes in Indiana any longer. But back then they could, and I'm sure they still do in many other states.

That in itself adds a degenerative dynamic to such an environment. I remember when they did used to warehouse mentally ill prisoners on the SHU, the guards and the prisoners alike would exploit those dudes in all kinds of ways. As far as the guards, some of them would turn them into their personal "hit men" by giving them extra trays to gun down a prisoner they didn't like. (In prison terminology, whenever someone is "gunned down" that means someone had squirted them with a bottle of piss, liquidated feces, or a combination of them both.) For one who has ever experienced being "gunned down," that's probably the most humiliating experience that one can ever experience in their life. Afterwards you definitely don't want to become a victim ever again. It can even bring out the worst in the victim.

Back then, I remember also alot of the correctional officers used to get off by running in on a single prisoner five and six deep and beating their ass. The fact that all of us are held 23 hours a day in a single man cell, the odds are always against us whenever they find some justification to run in our cell and beat us up. And in the '90's and early 2000's, cell extractions were a normal part of every week. They used the littlest justification to carry out those cell extractions and beat your ass too. If someone got shorted two slices of bread and refused to return their tray out of protest, they would run in his cell, suited up, remove the tray from his room, and beat his ass in the process. For many of them that wasn't only "sport," but also a "sanctionable" means of retaliating against us for whatever reason, without having to worry about any repercussions. Around that time, I remember there being a number of deaths and dudes being severely injured in many of those cell extractions. There were a few officers who got fired, but most of the time those situations were covered-up just like that one had been when I first came to prison.

Although there has been some "reforms" that's been made over the years within Indiana's supermaxes, reform doesn't address what I believe is the most debilitating component of these sort of institutions: the psychological side of the equation. In Supreme Court cases like Wilson v. Seiter 501 U.S. 294 (1991) and Beard v. Banks 548 U.S. 521 (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court totally excludes the subjective psychological component of the prisoner's mental health, thus depersonalizing them. Instead of taking into consideration their mental health in relation to the severity of the conditions, the court only considers the prisons officials' intent. Professor Colin Dayan pointed out the absurdity of this approach, by writing that:

In this spectacle of deference to prison authorities, the Court seeks grounds and reasons after the fact. Evidence resides in the most obscure and unverifiable place: the private thoughts of prison officials. If the objective severity of conditions is judged unconstitutional only when the subjective intent of those in control is present, Eighth Amendment violations are wholly impossible to prove in practice. (p.194)

I've known a lot of dudes, who have undergone this experience and now are either "crazy" or so socially detached and different than they once were, that their "BEFORE" and "AFTER" profiles stand in stark contrast from each other. You wouldn't even recognize them, if you had known them "BEFORE." I've experienced this personally.

A few years ago a close friend of mine ended up getting to the SHU and being placed on indefinite status along side me. I've known this brotha for a number of years and I've always taken him to be a strong solid dude. After spending several years on this unit and being shuffled around a few times, the last time I bumped back into him on the same range (tier), it was immediately apparent to me that he wasn't the same guy I'd known for years. He had that distant, detached look in his eyes. And he later confirmed it, when he sent me a kite (letter) and told me how his mind had been playing tricks on him. He told me, although he knew what he was seeing wasn't really happening, that he often observed a herd of spiders invading his cell from under his cell doors. I think it was around the second or third day, that early in the morning I heard what sounded like a T.V. being smashed against the floor. Come to find out, he had smashed his T.V. on the floor, jumped on his bed, with shit smeared all down one side of his face. One guard later told me, when they arrived at his cell, he was looking up at the ceiling not responding to anyone.

Before they transferred him off the SHU, he stayed on the range with me long enough to shoot a few kites (letters) to each other. At first, I honestly thought he was just busting a move to get off of the SHU and was willing to pay the "psyche role," but I realized after reading his kites (letters) that my guy was really messed up psychologically. I actually shed a few tears that night after that incident because I've known others who have fallen victim to the SHU, but I just never expected that to ever happen to one of my own guys. The fact that he only had several more years in prison left and had already done 10 years, it messed me up that he just might be damaged for the rest of his life. I say that because I hear that he's still seeing stuff invading his cell.

As "crazy" as that stuff is even today, many psychologists have attested to these supermax facilities causing one's mental health to deteriorate too. Professor Dayan dedicated part of her book to this phenomenon, to highlight this very fact, in which she wrote:

After years of analyzing the effects of supermax confinement on inmates' mental health, Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian defined the environment as "strikingly toxic." What he has called "a specific psychiatric syndrome" caused by solitary confinement includes such symptoms as hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. Inmates have difficulty remaining alert, thinking, concentrating, and remembering due to prolonged sensory deprivation. During a 60 Minutes episode on California's "Pelican Bay" broadcast on January 15, 1995, Grassian complained, "In some ways it feels to me ludicrous that we have these debates about capital punishment when what happens in Pelican Bay's Special Management Unit is a form of punishment that's far more egregious." (p. 85)

There's not enough space to really paint a comprehensive picture of an experience such as this to the public in a letter, but I felt the need to write as much as I have because I know how psychologically damaging these types of places are. I didn't even comment on my own psychological struggles in enduring this, but I sincerely believe anyone who has ever done time on these sort of units, especially endured years, have been scarred in a number of ways. Not only does places like this need to be abolished and a movement built up to accomplish this task, but all the brothas and sistas leaving places like this need the type of social support which will help them to address those social and psychological issues brought about by these institutions. I'm sure some will leave experiencing post-traumatic stress and other maladies that will make it hard for them to socialize and connect with others for a while—not all, but some. People need to be aware of this, though.

Lastly, I think we should never lose sight of how these units are being used in context of the New Jim Crow phenomena of mass incarceration too. As many of us now know, the New Jim Crow was initiated to preempt the likes of another Black Liberation movement from ever emerging again as it did in the '60s and 70s, and becoming a revolutionary threat to the status quo. In order to accomplish that goal, they had to criminalize, stigmatize, and neutralize the Black male population. Once this particular demographics had been successfully ensnared by the "War on Drugs," racial profiling, and the crack epidemics, the most rebellious and radical segment of the growing population later found themselves totally neutralized on supermaximum lockdown units scattered across the nation. In effect, Sun Tzu's military axiom of what constituted the pinnacle of the excellence in war had been adapted to a civilian form. As Sun Tzu had said in The Art of War:

"For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." (Sawyer's trans. p. 177)

What better way to preempt a revolutionary situation from ever taking root and maturing than to neutralize that segment of the population that it's most likely to appeal to, on units which are designed to indefinitely break the will to resist out of the individual before they're ever politicized and seek out revolution in the first place? How many individuals on these units are Black and Latino nowadays? In the '60s and '70s many of these same guys would've been leaders of the Black Panthers, Young Lords and various militant organizations and parties back then. The prison that I reside at stop allowing us to receive any material about the Panthers several years ago, claiming that such material was a "threat to the security of the prison." Think about that!

I would argue that the supermaximum lockdown facilities across the nation is "the Final Solution" (a Nazis phrase) of this slow genocide which Carl Dix often speaks about in relation to the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration. It's an ever-expanding population of individuals like me, who embodies everything BAsics 1:13 represents, who find themselves on these units nowadays.

In closing, I would like to salute those guys out in California and other states around the country who've carried out those various hunger strikes, resisting these types of conditions. Not only should these kinds of resistance spread to the supermaxes in other states, but they must also come to see themselves collectively as being a part of this larger movement against the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration because while the two have their own particular contradictions, they are at the same time interconnected; they reinforce each other in practice. I would like to also commend Carl Dix, Clyde Young, Gregory Koger, and RCP as a whole for making this connection and building up a movement to once and for all bring to an end the The New Jim Crow of mass incarceration and these torture dungeons. I definitely stand in solidarity with you and will continue to do everything that I can in my own power to continue to Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution, too. That's really the only alternative that we really have.

The Struggle Continues,


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