by dave onion
“...body language and verbal skills got separated. I talk through a little window, this wide, this high and all I see is the face. I don’t see the body language. The people on the tier with me, you talk under the door. You don’t see people. This separation causes chaos in the human mind. This is what segregation units do to the human mind.... Segregation Units are an abomination. Prisons don’t work. They’re wrong in concept, they’re wrong in application. They’re wrong to the core. They’re an abomination.. Some people don’t survive this...” This was Bobby Dellelo describing his experience being housed in a Control Unit in Walpole. He still suffers from sleeplessness and is recovering from the experience.
Of the 2.3 plus million locked up in US prisons, thousands are kept in Control Units, places where prisoners are on permanent lockdown, usually in their cells 23 hours a day. Here prisoners live in near complete isolation. There is no contact with other prisoners, visits from outside are rare, more restricted and difficult and more often than not prisoners’ only human contact is with prison guards, who are often abusive and violent. Many prisoners in isolation experience beatings, and various forms of physical and mental torture. Even the experience of being put in isolation is considered by many a form of torture, as basic psychological and mental functions break down.
From May 30 through June 1st, hundreds converged on Temple University for STOPMAX, a conference focusing on solitary confinement in US prisons. For a few days, former prisoners, their families and loved ones and others, mostly folks already doing organizing in some way related to supermax prisons or control units brushed shoulders, shared experiences and generally exchanged ideas, tactics and visions for what many of us want to see emerge as a renewed prison movement to end Control Unit torture.
Many former prisoners represented vocally and the stories they shared were powerful reminders of why we were all there. At panels, in workshops, in casual conversations in the halls, conference goers talked about the abuse and torture that is the essence of the control unit. One workshop began with a showing of surveillance camera footage of a prisoner in a cell extraction being beaten and put in a restraint chair, itself a brutal form of torture. Others presented on psychiatric torture and forced drugging of prisoners. A workshop on Security Threat Groups laid out how street organizations are especially targetted in prisons. And a number of presenters spoke on specific instances of torture in US prisons as well as how Control Units create the psychological breakdown Bobby Delello described above, of witnessing their comrades coming apart at the seams. This is, after all, in many ways exactly the point of Control Units.
Former political prisoners turned out in force. For those doing disproportionately long sentences for their organizing and attacks on a repressive racist system, the reality of prisoner abuse comes as no surprise. But it was incredibly heartening to hear from the likes of Ray Luc Levasseur, Laura Whitehorn, Robert King Wilkerson, Bilal Sunni Amin, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin and others most of whom did bids in the notorious control units at Marion and Florence, prisons built with explicit intent of confining and breaking political troublemakers from grass roots struggles. Despite years of hell, our political prisoners for the most part managed to survived in tact. Hearing the sustained pride and defiance behind their actions despite years of attempts by the state to systematically break their spirits, was encouraging to say the least.
Robert King Wilkerson of the Angola 3 spent 29 years in isolation before being released. Speaking at the kick off event for the conference in front of Eastern State Penitentiary, King relayed some of this spiritual defiance:”Even though I was in prison, prison was not in me and I wasn’t going to allow it to get in me. I would not allow myself to get institutionalized. don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to minimize the impact of solitary confinement. It is true it is brutal, but at the same time I have to maintain control.”
An interesting history of the genesis of the Control Unit at Marion was recounted by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, former panther and author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution (a good book, check it out). With rebellions “breaking out everywhere you could look,” the state had worries about the spread of rebellions inside and outside of prison walls...According to Ervin, “in the mid to late 1960s, the revolutionary movement had taken over the prisons, just like for a time they’d taken over society. The Civil Rights movement, it birthed the Black Power movement and it birthed in turn the Black Liberation Army and all these movements came into the prisons. They were throwing people into prisons left and right, large portions of activists were thrown into prisons at this time, so when they resorted to the Control Unit, it was an expression of defeat. They were at their wits end as to what to do about revolutionary attitudes sprouting in the prisons themselves.” During a prison uprising, riding on the waves of Attica, Ervin was beaten and maced severely before being taken to the so called START program (officially ), in Springfield, MO a program run by psychologists specifically to break the wills of rebel prisoners. The program was shut down after a successful campaign, but only to lead to the opening of Marion, by some of the very architects of the START program. Marion was the first Control Unit as we know it and quickly became home to many of the political prisoners at the time.
Ray Luc Levasseur, a former political prisoner, utilized his military training (intended for him to use against the Vietnamese peope) to carry out direct actions against the state and corporations with tied to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Once the state caught up with him, he was tried and out of fear of his organizing potential sent directly to Marion, the only place they felt they could confine him. “They know political prisoners are motivated differently, we’re not motivated by greed, we’re not motivated by turf wars, we’re not motivated by drugs and they treat you like you have an infectious disease. They don’t want to see those ideals. They don’t want to see someone whose mind only knows what’s in their heart among the prisoner population,” recounted Ray during the conference.
Further encouragement came from the rare chance to be around hundreds of others in the trenches for what often feels like a very isolated struggle. Hearing from some of the successes in the various campaigns and struggles across the country reinforced this. Some highlights were: hearing about The TAMMS Year 10 coalition fighting a Supermax in Illinois, hearing about the AFSC’s report on Arizona control units, lawyers who’ve done some amazing work, hearing about journalists who shed light on prison torture and abuse leading to successful lawsuits, hearing of selfless work and a number of other small victories along the way will all no doubt serve as fuel for future collective action.
On the final night of STOPMAX was a performance of A Thousand Kites, a play written by prisoners and their families and performed at Stopmax by a number of different ex-prisoners and anti-prison organizers. Wrapping up what was a powerful and sometimes heavy conference was an amazing blowout with revolutionary brass backed NY rappers the Welfare Poets, who seemed tailored especially for the oppression fighting, conscious, uphill-battle-fighting type of crowd that made up the conference. Spontaneously joining them on stage was Bilal Sunni Amin veteran control unit survivor as well as former sax player with Gil Scott Heron. The beats and brass summed up the spirit of the weekend: the defiant power of love, solidarity and focused determined resistance that we had shared the last few days.
But then of course after the good vibes, we have the day to day to return to. At a regional organizing meeting in Pennsylvania and Virginia, ideas were tossed around about where we could go with the energy we’d brought to the conference. A good deal of ideas surfaced, but by the end of the at times chaotic meeting, some ideas sprouted that seem to have taken root in the weeks that followed: Principally a cross state campaign to expose and fight control units, specifically SCI Greene and SCI Fayette, the two worst in the state, ones which groups like the Human Rights Coalition have documented extensively. Other proposals backed by apparent enthusiasm were to help build the Emergency Response Network and stopping construction of new prisons. Here in Philadelphia, we’ve been meeting monthly, with monthly conference calls to the rest of the state. The campaign so far is still in its research phase, but look out for signs of an emerging kick ass coalition of families of prisoners, supporters and anti-prison organizers ready to bust down some prison walls.
In Philly STOPMAX meetings are held at the AFSC (www.AFSC.org). If you live in pittsburgh, get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org. More info at stopmax.org.