Category: Solitary Confinement
Illinois Residents, We need your HELP!
Just a couple of days ago, Governor Pat Quinn’s vetoes of funding for several correctional facilities in Illinois were overridden in the Illinois Senate.
Now advocates are pressing hard to prevent an override in the House. We would ask that you contact as many House members as you can over the next three business days (11/30, 12/3, 12/4) and ask them to vote NO on an override.
Here is a fact sheet on the facility closures for you to share with legislators. The basic argument is that these facilities are underutilized and empty. For instance, Murphysboro contains no youth, and Tamms only contains 200 inmates. Existing facilities can absorb and manage these populations. Keeping these facilities open will result in the layoff of 530 DCFS employees, while all Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice employees affected by the closures have been, or will be offered, positions at existing facilities.
Additionally, keeping these facilities open harms vulnerable children by unnecessarily separating them from their families during a period of critical growth and development. We need the money from these facilities to prevent more children from entering into costly State foster care, protect at-risk children from abuse and neglect, and provide adoption assistance necessary to place children in safe and loving homes. Cuts in critical programs at DCFS harm children throughout the entire State.
Ultimately, we cannot afford to keep underutilized, empty facilities open at the expense of vulnerable children. In this time of budgetary crisis, it does not make sense to keep these facilities open when cost-effective alternatives exist.
Please contact your House representative. District telephone numbers can be found here. Make sure to ask them to vote NO on the override of SB 2474. Please email your House representative’s response to Laurie Jo Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org each day before the conclusion of business on 11/30, 12/3, and 12/4.
For some inspiration, please watch this fun video which is meant to encourage everyone to call your legislators about this important issue.
The Masai warriors usually greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera” or “How are the children?” The traditional answer is “All the children are well.” I really like this greeting because it clearly underscores the priority that this culture puts on the well-being of its most vulnerable members.
I was thinking about this when I read the recent Human Rights Watch report “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.” The Huffington Post published an article describing the findings of the report:
The report is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 young people in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states.
Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimate that in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people held there.
Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can exacerbate short- and long-term mental health problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop. Young people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.
Below is a video with interviews of youth who experienced solitary confinement:
It would serve us all well in the U.S. if we began to greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera.” Perhaps this would be a reminder to us not to torture our children…
One of the prisons that the Governor will close is TAMMS-Supermax which I have written about several times on the blog. Simply put: TAMMS is a torture chamber where prisoners are kept locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day. Many groups, particularly TAMMS YEAR TEN, have been advocating for years to close the facility. It is almost too much to believe that this might be coming to pass.
As a reminder of the mental torture that is incarceration, I want to share an excerpt from another letter written by Alfred Hassan, a prisoner whose letters were published in a 1972 book titled “Maximum Security: Letters from Prison.” His words are searing and powerful and true.
When I mention the name Martin Sostre, what comes to mind? For many, his name will conjure no images or words. Yet he was a man who made a real impact in terms of prisoner rights in the United States.
Martin Sostre was the owner of the Afro-Asian Bookstore in Buffalo, New York. On July 14, 1967, the police raided his store and arrested Sostre on “narcotics, riot, arson, and assault charges.” After the riot and arson charges were dropped, Sostre was tried by an all-white jury and convicted of selling $15 worth of heroin. He was given a sentence of 31 to 41 years in prison.
This short summary does not of course do justice to Martin Sostre nor to his legacy. Prior to the 1967 police raid, Sostre had already spent a dozen years between 1952 and 1964 locked inside Attica prison on a narcotics conviction. He was known to the police in Buffalo and suspicion surrounded him because he had converted to Islam (in the 50s while he was incarcerated) and was also outspoken against the injustices of racial and class oppression.
The past week has just been beyond busy for me. I’ve wanted to participate in several actions that have been taking place across my state of Illinois addressing mass incarceration but have not been able to. However thanks to my friends and to the internet, I have been able to keep up with some of the happenings. It’s not the same as being there by any measure but it allows me to feel connected in some way.
Yesterday, my friends at TAMMS Year Ten organized a powerful and from what I hear poignant direct action to amplify the voices of mothers and family members of men who are currently locked up at TAMMS Supermax prison. This is just part of the many actions that the group has been engaged in for over 10 years now.
The Chicago Tribune covered the Mother’s March:
The group of mothers stood beneath the sun in downtown Chicago on Wednesday, taking turns at a microphone to tell how the state’s controversial super-max prison has changed their sons.
One described her son’s precipitous weight loss since being incarcerated in the facility in Tamms in southern Illinois 21/2 years ago. Another spoke of her son’s slide into depression and hopelessness because of his extreme isolation. And a third detailed a maddening daily routine: In order to stay active, she said her son now spends hours walking in small circles in his windowless concrete cell.
“You did a crime, you need to pay for it,” said Geneva Mullins, whose son was convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy in a murder and is now at the Tamms super-max. “But you wouldn’t treat an animal like this. It is inhumane.”
Read the whole article here. Please also take a moment to visit the TAMMS Year Ten website to find out how you can support efforts to close this torture chamber. We have never been closer to seeing this prison closed. Governor Quinn has recommended its closure. Now it is up to the legislature to make sure that it happens.
My friend Sam took some beautiful photographs at the action and I want to share them with you.
I am pissed off at Lil Wayne and it isn’t even his fault…
When he was incarcerated at Rikers Island, I started a blog series titled “Prison is NOT a Country Club (Contra Lil’ Wayne).” This was my humble attempt to push back against the media coverage (which he contributed to) depicting Wayne as somehow living “the good life” in jail.
When Wayne was released from jail, I penned a post underscoring the reasons that I did not want to write about his release.
Today I find myself irrationally pissed off at Wayne. Why? Because he has barely discussed his incarceration in a public forum since his release in late 2010. The appropriate question to throw back at me is: “Why the hell should he have to do this?” and it would also be right to ask: “Do you expect this from other formerly incarcerated individuals who are not named Lil Wayne?”
The correct answers to both questions are: 1. He should in fact not have to speak about his incarceration in a public forum; 2. No, I do not expect other formerly incarcerated individuals not named Lil Wayne to take to the airwaves discussing their jail or prison experiences. I would add that I also don’t demand that all formerly incarcerated people come back into the community with a fully formed analysis of the prison industrial complex.
So the question remains: “Why am I pissed off at Lil Wayne?” I told you that my frustration with him is not rational. I want something from him and he is under no requirement to deliver. I want him to be doing more… He is considered an artist by some. Perhaps I hoped that he would create art that could be used in the fight against mass incarceration. It is my ongoing lament that hip hop artists in particular (who are so targeted by the PIC) aren’t doing more to bring attention to the ravages of incarceration. It’s unfair, I know. A few months ago, I wrote about banality of incarceration in hip hop culture. Here is a bit of what I had to say:
A number of rappers offer prison as a setting for their lyrics, album covers and videos. Yet how often have you heard these performers actually talking about prison abolition or even reform? The answer is simple… very rarely. Why is this?
I have a theory that it is because incarceration among young black men has been and is naturalized in actuality and in representation. I think that hip hop artists don’t talk about reform or abolition because to them prison has been and is a part of the experience of being young and black in America. It is a black boy’s rite of passage so to speak. I have no empirical evidence of the truth of this claim. I am just making an assumption based on very limited knowledge. This will no doubt prove to be problematic when it is shown that I am completely wrong.
So I want Lil Wayne to become an anti-prison organizer. Again, I am not being rational. I just want him to do more… Maybe you will too after you read this excerpt from an interview that he gave back in March. In Interview magazine, he and former inmate Paris Hilton discussed his time in solitary confinement:
EHRLICH: I was reading that during your last month in prison, they put you in solitary confinement for having an iPod or something like that. I’ve heard that being in solitary is the most torturous thing in the world. What was that like for you?
WAYNE: For me it was okay, because it just meant that I was alone with my thoughts. There were times when it was pretty tough to be by yourself, and to have no television, no sort of nothing. That was kind of tough. But I didn’t have to be in there long. It was just a month. I was okay. I did fine.
EHRLICH: So literally a month without talking to any human beings except the guards. You’re totally isolated?
WAYNE: Nah. There were guys next to me and things like that. You could speak through the walls and stuff. It wasn’t totally silent like you would think it is.
EHRLICH: Can you still work out when you’re in solitary? Do you get time in the yard?
WAYNE: Yeah, yeah. I got an hour in the yard every day, so I was able to do all those things.
HILTON: I had to do 24 nights in solitary. [Hilton was held in a separate cell as a safety precaution.]
WAYNE: Oh, so you know how it is.
HILTON: Yeah, I know how it is.
EHRLICH: Wayne, did anybody try to fight with you at all in prison? Or did everyone just kind of respect you?
WAYNE: You know, we are men and we argue about things. That’s the aggression in us. So, yeah, I got into arguments. But there wasn’t ever anything too bad.
HILTON: How happy are you to have your freedom now?
WAYNE: Words cannot explain.
HILTON: Yeah, I know how you feel. [laughs] It’s the best feeling in the world when you come out.
EHRLICH: Does it make you feel almost like you appreciate every little thing in a different way now-like you have a new lease on life?
WAYNE: Exactly. You’re definitely more in tune to what you’re doing. You’re definitely more humble. I think that most people who come out of that situation just want to make the most of life afterwards. Honestly it was just one big humbling experience.
HILTON: I agree. So you’ve been all around the world. What is your favorite place in the world to go?
I just can’t bring myself to comment on this. For information about the torture that is solitary confinement, I recommend that folks read the excellent blog Solitary Watch. I wish that Lil Wayne would read it too. I want him to become a prison abolitionist or at the very least perhaps he could take a stab at producing art in the tradition of the amazing Rebel Diaz. Is that too much to ask? Don’t answer that.
I just want Lil Wayne to do more…
We throw around the words solitary confinement in a very cavalier way in the U.S. Thanks to efforts like Solitary Watch public awareness is being raised about the brutality and torture of solitary confinement. This is a good thing. Today there is an excellent Op-Ed by Colin Dayan in the New York Times about the plight of prisoners at Pelican Bay and also about their resistance through hunger strikes. Yet I find something missing in our consideration of isolation in prison. We need to hear more of the voices of those who have experienced this torture.
A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated. Here is some of what he wrote:
The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.
It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” A brother had just been murdered by the guards who worked in the hole, and rather than go through that type of thing, I pretended to be institutionalized. Fortunately, my stay only lasted fourteen days and I was returned to the general inmate population.
Life in the hole is epitomized by one big question mark. Uncertainty is the order of the day. Your visitors are turned around at the gate when they come to see you. The food quantity and quality is drastically reduced to the level of subsistence. You might get a shower and you might not — depending upon whether or not the guard’s wife was good to him the night before. I believe that it is the hole that is the most memorable aspect of the prison experience. They are all the same, and yet they are totally different from one another.
Today, Critical Resistance is hosting a national conference call about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike. All of the relevant details are below:
Monday, July 18th
6pm EST/ 5pm CST/ 4pm MST/ 3pm PST
toll-free call in number: 1(800)868-1837 (new number)
participant code: 62435226
As part of my ongoing attempt to feature original writing from prisoners, I would like to share this essay by Joseph Dole who is currently incarcerated at TAMMS Supermax Prison. Special thanks to my friend Lois of The Real Cost of Prisons Project who shared these powerful words with me. If you are moved to do so, feel free to send a note to Mr. Dole to let him know your thoughts about his writing. He can be reached here:
K84446 Tamms CC
8500 Supermax Rd
Tamms, IL 62988
The Meaning of “Life”
By Joseph Dole
Rarely am I asked what it’s like to serve a life-without-parole sentence. Arguing for a death sentence for my first felony conviction, the State’s Attorney implored the judge not to allow me to spend the rest of my life on a virtual “vacation” in prison. I can unequivocally state that it is not vacation.
A life-without-parole sentence means a million things, because, as its name suggests, it encompasses a person’s entire remaining life.
It means enduring being reduced to a second-class citizen in the eyes of most people. It means decades of discrimination from the courts and public. “Prisoner”, “inmate”, or “convict” each have a strictly pejorative use in the media or pop culture. Those terms become the sole defining characteristic of a man’s entire character.
It means that courts will turn a blind eye to any act against you unless it causes “atypical and significant hardship”. A free man may find protection in the courts from emotional and mental harm, but a prisoner can only find protection from “atypical and significant” physical harm, and that’s dependent on finding an objective and unbiased judge and enough citizens who can set aside their personal biases against prisoners to fill a jury box and render a fair verdict – a nearly impossible feat. So when you’re stripped naked and left in a concrete box with nothing but a toilet for four days without cause, as a prisoner you have no recourse in the courts. When you’re beaten to a bloody mess while handcuffed, as a prisoner you’re more likely to encounter a jury that will conclude you deserved what you got, regardless of the circumstances.
It means that after being “spared” the death penalty and receiving your life-without-parole sentence, you lack all the procedural safeguards against a wrongful conviction that a death sentence would have entailed, solely because you were found undeserving immediate death. How ironic it is that the worse you are deemed to be, the better chance of proving your innocence and regaining your freedom.
It means a lifetime of censorship, where you’re told what books and magazines you can read, what movies can watch, even what hairstyles you can sport, and where every letter coming in or going out is subject to inspection.
It means a complete lack of privacy forever, and a complete indifference to your physical and medical health until someone fears being sued.
It means a constant, heightened risk of catching a deadly disease. You’re captive in an environment where staph infections run rampant, where people still die from tuberculosis, where the population has twice the rate of HIV infection compared to non-prisoners, and where up to forty percent are infected with hepatitis. An environment where there’s nowhere to run from many of these diseases because you’re forced to use communal toilets and showers.
It means three meals a day of the poorest quality food that the least amount of money can buy without killing the inmate population.
It’s a daily existence where trust is non-existent and compassion is not allowed. Not only is compassion viewed as a sign of weakness in the prison milieu, but it is, ironically, actively discouraged by the prison administration. If your neighbor is destitute and you want to assist him by giving him soap, paper, or even a snack to supplement the meager meals, you can only do so at risk of being written a disciplinary ticket for “trading and trafficking”.
It’s a never-ending pressure cooker where the stress and anxiety compound daily as you constantly have to watch your back. Soldiers returning from Iraq understand this. It’s a major factor in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The constant fear for your safety and the need for 24-7 situational awareness Frays at your nerves. Now imagine not a 12-month tour but a lifetime deployment.
It means you’re constantly being told that you aren’t worth rehabilitation and thus are ineligible for nearly every educational or vocational program. Your life sentence disqualifies you from any state or federal grants to pursue an education and even the Inmate Scholarship Fund (founded by a prisoner) has no qualms about telling you that you’re ineligible for a scholarship because you’re never going to get out and contribute to society.
It means convincing yourself daily that your life has value even when the rest of the world tells you you’re worthless. It’s a lifetime spent wondering what your true potential really is, and yearning for the chance to find out.
It mean decades of living with double standards, where any guard can call you every profanity ever invented without any fear of punishment, but where if you were to utter a single one in response, or say anything that even resembles insolence, you’ll be written a disciplinary ticket, lose privileges, such as phone calls and commissary, and be subjected to a month of disciplinary segregation.
It means the state constitution is irrelevant where lifers are concerned. Article 1, Section 11 of the Illinois Constitution states: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship”, but the courts have decided that politics, revenge, and hatred of “criminals” trumps the constitution, and have thus rendered the above section essentially meaningless by their refusal to rule life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional, even if it is the defendants first felony conviction on a theory of accountability, as is my case. This also put the lie to the American maxim that everyone deserves a second chance.
It means that you’re especially vulnerable to incomprehensible punishments, such as a lifetime of disciplinary segregation. I was give indeterminate disciplinary segregation after being found guilty of my sole disciplinary infraction. That was 8 years ago, yet here I remain. I’ve been told (on more than one occasion) that I will never be allowed out of indeterminate disciplinary segregation. So I will continue to endure conditions for the rest of my life which are known to cause mental illness after just 3 months. It means that I will never taste another Hostess cake. Nor play softball or any group activity ever again. More importantly, it means that I will never have physical contact with another human being for the rest of my life, including my 11 and 12 year-old daughters.
It means being incapable of taking care of your grandparents and parents as they reach their final years.
It means missing out on every important event in your children’s lives, unable to raise them; impotent to protect them or assist them in any meaningful way. It means they’ll grow up resenting you for the thousands of times they needed you and you weren’t there.
A life-without-parole sentence means constant contemplation of a wasted life. A continual despair as to your inability to accomplish anything significant with your remaining years. A life spent watching as each of your family members and friends slowly drift away from you leaving you in a vacuum, devoid of any enduring relationships.
It’s a persistent dashing of hopes as appeal after appeal is arbitrarily denied. It is a permanent experiment in self-delusion as you strive to convince yourself that there is still hope.
It’s a compounding of second upon second, minute upon minute, hour upon hour, of wasted existence, and decade upon decade of mental and emotional torture culminating in a final sentence of death by incarceration.
These though, are simply futile attempts to describe the indescribable. It’s like trying to describe a broken heart or communicate what it feels like to mourn the death of your soul mate. The words to convey the pain do not exist. When you’re serving a life-without-parole sentence it’s as if you’re experiencing the broken heart of knowing you’ll never love or be loved again in any normal sense of the word, while simultaneously mourning the death of the man you could have and should have been. The only difference is that you never recover, and can move on from neither the heart break nor the death because the pain is renewed each morning you wake up to realize that you’re still here, sentenced to life-without-parole. It’s a fresh day of utter despair, lived over and over for an entire lifetime.