Category: Solitary Confinement

Jan 06 2015

New Resource Available: Teaching About the PIC & Criminal Legal System

As classes have resumed this week for high school and some college students across the country, my organization, Project NIA, is making a new resource available to educators and organizers today.

My friend and long-time NIA volunteer Dr. Michelle VanNatta wrote and compiled an invaluable guide last year. “Teaching about the Prison Industrial Complex and Criminal Legal System: Exercises, Simulations, Resources, and Discussion Ideas” offers activities that can be adapted, shared, and transformed to meet the needs of different groups. These activities are offered as potential tools in the hopes they may be useful in sparking discussion and in the development of more curricula.

Anyone who is interested in the guide can complete a short survey below to receive the link to download a copy at no cost.

The guide is in no way meant to provide a comprehensive look at issues in the prison industrial complex or criminal legal system. This is not a systematically developed, integrated group of exercises intended to provide a thorough view and analysis of all the critical issues about the prison industrial complex that communities, students, and activists need to learn about. Rather, it’s a set of tools intended to be adapted and integrated into curricula, popular education, or training efforts by teachers, organizers, and community builders.

I want to thank Michelle for her generosity in creating this resource and making it freely available. I also thank my friend Jacqui Shine for lending her design talents.

Finally, while this guide is offered at no cost to those interested, it is not “free.” Lots of time and effort went into creating the resource. Project NIA is a small organization that relies heavily on individual donors to do our work. If you want to contribute to the work, you can mail a check to us here. In addition, you can read our 2014 year in review highlights here.

I hope that these resources are helpful in building knowledge about aspects of the PIC. Please feel free to share the link to the survey with others who might also like to download the guide. As a courtesy, we are asking that everyone first complete the survey before accessing the guide.

You can complete the survey below and then download the guide.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Mar 05 2014

Prison IS Violence…

Warning: This post includes descriptions of extreme violence and brutality.

There have been a couple of stories in the recent news exposing the brutality of prisons in the United States. First, the on-going travesty at Tutwiler women’s prison in Alabama was revisited by the New York Times over the weekend:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.

I’ve highlighted the situation at Tutwiler here a couple of years ago. Are sexual violence and brutality new for women prisoners? Of course not! In fact, in the mid-19th century after visiting Auburn State Prison in New York, the prison chaplain, Reverend B.C. Smith, remarked on conditions there: “To be a male convict would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death” (Rathbone, 2005).

Randall G. Shelden (2010) wrote about how women prisoners were treated in the 19th century:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison Annex for women on the grounds of Sing Sing in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839. The governor of New York had recommended separate facilities in 1828, but the legislature did not approve the measure because the washing, ironing, and sewing performed by the women saved the Auburn prison system money. A corrupt administration at the Indiana State Prison used the forced labor of female inmates to provide a prostitution service for male guards (p.134).”

The guard who beat Rachel Welch so brutally was named Ebenezer Cobb. He was convicted of assault and battery and fined $25. He was allowed to keep his job.

The second development in the past few days involves the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern Law School which brought a class action lawsuit against Cook County Jail alleging a “sadistic culture.” Conditions are described as “hellish.” As someone who has had to visit the Jail pretty regularly, I concur with this assessment. I have written about the fruitless struggle to reform Cook County Jail dating back to the 1870s. Still, today, detainees continue to be abused and harmed even after countless lawsuits and federal intervention.

Read more »

Mar 03 2014

Still Torturing Children…

New York is banning solitary confinement of children under 18 along with implementing other reforms. But as the Center on Investigative Reporting points out:

“…the rule does not apply to city and county jails, like New York City’s Rikers Island, which houses hundreds of minors as young as 16. Although most of them have not been convicted, they still can be punished as adults for breaking jail rules. That often means weeks or months in solitary confinement.”

Some of you reading this might be surprised that any state would use such a practice at all. A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a wrenching report about the scope and impact(s) of solitary on children. Basically, they reaffirmed that the practice amounts to physical and psychological torture. HRW produced the video below to accompany the report.

Solitary confinement or what many prisoners call “the hole” can only accurately be considered torture. Charles Dickens recognized as much in the 19th century. Too often, however, the practice is either ignored or discussed euphemistically. America has ALWAYS been pro-torture of certain people. I offer as exhibit A the spectacle lynching of black people in the U.S. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that we still torture so many people in prison through the use of solitary as well as other forms of physical, psychological, and emotional brutality. CIR produced an excellent animated video to illustrate how solitary confinement is experienced by children. I recommend that everyone watch it.

We should end solitary confinement in general as a practice in our prisons. We should abolish prisons.

Dec 17 2013

15 Things That We Re-Learned About the Prison Industrial Complex in 2013

The engine of the prison industrial complex unfortunately kept on chugging in 2013.


I wanted to highlight some of the key developments as I saw them during this year. There are so many things that I could have included and it was difficult for me to only choose fifteen to list. Truth be told, I initially only planned to feature 10 issues. That didn’t work out. Some things that aren’t on the list include the plea deals that Federal prosecutors coerce from drug defendants under threat of long prison sentences, the treatment of LGBTQ immigrants in detention centers, the political imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, Marissa Alexander leaving jail pending her March 2014 trial and more. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

1. The Federal prison population has grown to 219,000 people, an increase of 27% over the last decade.

Since 1980, the Federal prison population has exploded by 790 percent. Almost 50% of these prisoners are there for drug offenses. According to a new report (PDF) by the Urban Institute, Federal prison overcrowding will worsen if policy changes aren’t implemented. Federal prisons that are now 35 to 40 percent over capacity could reach 55 percent over capacity by 2023. The Justice Department’s budget for the federal prison system has increased from $5 billion in 2008 to $6.9 billion today.

The Government Accountability Office released a report this month about the Bureau of Prisons. In the report, the GAO attributes the increase of the Federal prison population to several factors including mandatory minimum sentences. In an attempt to address overcrowding, this summer, Attorney General Eric Holder gave “new instructions to federal prosecutors on how they should write their criminal complaints when charging low-level drug offenders, to avoid triggering the mandatory minimum sentences.”

[The Sentencing Project published an excellent fact sheet (PDF) outlining trends in U.S. corrections for those who want to learn more the scope of incarceration. Rosa Brooks’s essay in Foreign Policy provides a good overview about the incarceration nation.]

2. We were still sterilizing women in U.S. prisons as late as 2010.

This summer, the Center on Investigative Reporting broke the story that:

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future

The state of California held hearings this fall to collect more information.

Below is a documentary titled “Sterilization Behind Bars” produced by the Center on Investigative Reporting released just last month.

3. Prisons are still sites of violence and abuse.

In April 2013, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had launched an investigation of Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. I had written about the allegations of abuse and violence last year. The DOJ announcement came several months after a scathing report about conditions and abuses at the prison was released by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

Tutwiler Prison was named by Mother Jones Magazine as one of America’s 10 Worst Prisons earlier this year.

Read more »

Oct 13 2013

Herman Wallace… We Speak Your Name & Those of the Ancestors

Herman Wallace would have turned 72 years old today. Instead on October 4th, he died in his sleep, his body ravaged by liver cancer. Wallace had just been released from a Louisiana prison three days earlier after having spent over 40 years in solitary confinement in a 6 by 9 cell.

Among his final words, he is reported to have said: “I am free. I am free.” It’s a minor miracle that he was able to die surrounded by friends instead of in a prison hospital. A judge overturned his 1974 conviction for the murder of a guard at Angola prison and ordered his immediate release. Only a couple of days later, while he lay dying in his hospital bed, the state of Louisiana filed charges to re-indict him. There was actually a question as to whether he might be re-arrested. Louisiana was determined that Wallace should die in prison by any means necessary.

Read more »

Sep 24 2013

Expert Reports Filed in ACLU Settlement with Illinois Youth Prisons

From the ACLU:

“Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a lawsuit (R.J. v. Bishop) against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), challenging conditions in the facilities across Illinois where juveniles are detained. Concurrent with filing the lawsuit, we filed an agreement with the IDJJ. That agreement called for the retention of three nationally-recognized, court-appointed experts to conduct an exhaustive analysis of IDJJ’s facilities, and make recommendations on how to move forward with improvements.

The three final expert reports now have been filed with the federal court in Chicago where the lawsuit was filed. These reports confirm the plaintiffs’ initial allegations of systemic deficiencies, especially in education, mental health, solitary confinement, and continued IDJJ confinement for lack of a community placement.

These reports now become a baseline for the ACLU of Illinois to work with the IDJJ in order to solve these problems and improve conditions for children detained by the State of Illinois. We will continue to post updates on this case.”

Read all three reports HERE.

by Rashid Johnson

by Rashid Johnson

In his overview of mental health services, Dr Krause stated: It is difficult to fully assess the workings of mental health treatment at the IDJJ, because: 1) they do not have a full complement of services, and 2) even with the groups they have right now, a number of the facilities cannot function because of the paucity of services, and essentially are not getting youth to groups or are getting them there significantly late so they cannot run the program.

A similar assessment was made of education with conclusion that there was “inadequate instruction and inadequate opportunities for students to learn” – in St Charles, the expert concluded that in a two month period (March through April of 2013) the students received the equivalent of six to eight full days of school.

Not surprisingly, the experts conclude more resources are needed – particularly more staff. However, Dr. Barry Krisberg concludes in part that two key issues are addressing the number of youth who stay past their discharge date (some just to complete programming), and addressing the need to provide “non-custodial sanctions” in the community and/or within their families for those youth who do not pose a serious threat to public safety.

Over 40% of the admissions in FY12 were of parole violators and over 10% were for misdemeanor offenses. Merely closing the door to parole readmissions and misdemeanors would decrease the population by half – freeing up resources and sufficient staff to address the education and treatment needs of the remaining youth.

Jul 11 2013

From Death Row at San Quentin: Letter from Carlos M. Argueta (includes Hunger Strike Action Items)

I open this with a salutation to all those of like-mind, who in solidarity stand as one. My name is Carlos M. Argueta. I come to you from San Quentin´s Death Row. Here in the Adjustment Center (A/C)[1], like other S.H.U. units, we have endured mental as well as physical torture and injustice by the administration and correctional officers for decades. However, the time has come to respond to this injustice and remain silent no longer.

Never again will we be quiet about the discrimination, the inhumane treatment and torturous practices that take place behind these walls. The misuse and abuse of authority by Prison Officials and Correctional Officers can no longer continue to be kept quiet. The injustice being done here needs to be exposed, with the hope that it may be brought to an end.

Maybe then we can be treated with the dignity and self-respect that is entitled to all human beings. For though we are Death Row prisoners who have already lost our physical freedom, we have not ceased to be human and still have the same rights as everyone else: Human Rights and Civil Rights. When we were sentenced to death, we weren’t sentenced to be mistreated, humiliated, discriminated against, psychologically tortured and kept in solitary dungeons until the day of our executions. Never once did the judge say that was to be part of our sentence.

This is why now is the time for us to make our voices heard. To shed light on the injustice that continues to take place here. The time has come to seek to be treated fairly, with human dignity and have our human rights recognized.

For here in the infamous San Quentin State Prison resides a population of prisoners that have been shunned by the state, allowing prison officials to get away with too many rule violations for far too long. That group of prisoners resides in the Adjustment Center. A prison within a prison and a solitary confinement torture unit used to seclude prisoners from the rest of the prison population. It´s a `punishment unit` otherwise known as a S.H.U.[2] for those who have committed an alleged infraction of the rules. Some are immediately placed in the A/C without any due process afforded or write-up. It is supposed to be only for a set amount of time; after that rule infraction is adjudicated. Once that set amount of time expires they are supposed to be released back to general population. Yet, some are held here without any further rule violations or without ever having had one to begin with. It is supposed to be a unit of “Temporary Punishment” of sorts for rule violators. However, it has only been a unit of torture, sensory deprivation and mental abuse. It is where no prisoner wants to go.

Unfortunately for death row prisoners, there´s no choice but to start serving our death sentence here in this unit upon our arrival from county jail. It is home to 102 prisoners and over 90% of us are death row inmates. Many of us have not left this unit since our arrival at San Quentin, never being given the opportunity to program as moderate inmates, which can be considered a custom afforded to all prisoners when sentenced to state prison. We are held here indefinitely since our arrival, with most of us never having violated a single rule. We have been subjected to a different form of treatment and in truth, we are being punished without merit. We have been housed here in this unit under the false pretense that we are being monitored before we can be given a regular program. The reality though is we have been treated to a harsh and psychologically torturous environment. One where throughout the day and late at night, you can hear the screams of those who have been driven over the edge and into mental illness by the circumstances they are forced to live in. We have been subjected to a different set of rules called `I.P. No. 608`[3]. This is a set of rules that mirrors the CDCR Title 15 Rules book[4] (that governs all CDCR inmates) but gives more authority to death row prison officials and administration to do as they please with us and to violate our rights under the cover of “The Law”, to discriminate against us and hold us here in the A/C –Solitary Confinement indefinitely. This concerns a set of certain prisoners for whom they seem to hold disdain and dislike. As that set of prisoners is only a small fraction of the condemned, they have been able to get away with this for decades.

However, the issues mentioned are only the tip of the iceberg for the problems here on Death Row go far beyond this. To cover them all, we need more time, space and patience from you. We want to disclose it all so you can understand why we also choose to peacefully protest this injustice being done. Why we, too, will be joining the national hunger strike, pitching our own demands for change. The change needed here and everywhere else where there is the continued abuse of authority and solitary confinement torture units. That all needs to come to an end for the greater good of humanity.

In solidarity,



Jun 16 2013

Image of the Day: Closing TAMMS…

I’ve written a lot about the TAMMS Year Ten Campaign on this blog. It’s because I have such admiration for my friends and allies who were involved in the (more than) decade long struggle to close that torture chamber. Anyway, artist Paul Kjelland has created a poster to celebrate the closing of TAMMS Supermax prison. You should read his description of the process for creating the poster.

by Paul Kjelland

by Paul Kjelland

Mar 03 2013

Image of the Day: Girls in Solitary, 1946-49

New York State, 1946-49, Hudson School for Girls, "reformatory" by Marion Palfi

New York State, 1946-49, Hudson School for Girls, “reformatory” by Marion Palfi

Suffer Little Children by Marion Palfi

Suffer Little Children by Marion Palfi

Feb 01 2013

Infographic: Anatomy of the Supermax Prison