September 3, 2010 opednews.com
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
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