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This Is America? Men Tortured in Solitary for Having the Wrong Tattoo or Political Books

The only evidence needed to get someone thrown in solitary is a tattoo, letter, photo or piece of political material.

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Anne Weills, a lawyer representing the men, explained to AlterNet that the Pilot Program cannot remedy the wanton use of solitary because it “maintains the same matrix of violations that could be used to validate a prisoner as part of a gang—such as a George Jackson book, saying hello to another gang member, a photograph.”

Unlike many of the men who are serving decades long sentences in the SHU, Dewberry makes no attempt to hide his political leanings. From his cell, he has written about New Afrikan Nationalism for the San Francisco Bayview National Black Newspaper. According to Stanford historian James Campbell, the political views of New Afrikan Nationalism were ubiquitous in black urban life during the 1960s and '70s. But prison authorities conflate subscribing to the black nationalism and political analysis associated with New Afrikan Nationalism with participating in a prison gang, and thus Dewberry's open adherence to this ideology makes him a “threat."

Weills calls the New Afrikan Nationalists the next generation of the Black Guerrilla Family. “They see themselves as carrying on the philosophies of George Jackson, which includes class analysis, criticism of US imperialism and black nationalism.”

“I don't think the BGF are a gang in the traditional sense of being involved in blackmarket crime. I've talked to male guards there over the years who also don't believe they are a gang in the traditional sense. I believe this particular group has been unconstitutionally labeled a gang.”

Douglas Thompkins, a sociologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, told the  2006 Vera Institute's committee investigating the abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons that “race is often a 'proxy for dangerousness.'”

According to Reiter's data, in 2007 56 percent of the supermax population of California was Latino and 16 percent was black.

While an estimated  two-thirds of the prisoners held in solitary at Pelican Bay have been “validated,” a prisoner can also be placed in isolation for breaking a rule. In that case, they go through an administrative process and are sentenced to isolation for a fixed period of time—anywhere between six months and five years. The process of determining whether an inmate is placed in solitary is left to the discretion of the prison authorities.

Many inmates have been validated because other prisoners have accused them of being associated with a gang, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, La EME, the BFG and Nuestra Familia.

Paul Redd, 55, has spent 33 years in solitary confinement after being designated a BFG member based on classified statements that indicated he had communicated with other BFG prisoners.

George Franco, 46, has tried to escape his classification as a member of Nuestra Familia, but informants have told prison authorities that he maintains a role in the gang, and thus he remains in the SHU.

Short of being informed on, any hint of associating with a gang can be used to indefinitely isolate a prisoner in the SHU. Luis Esquivel, 43, has spent 13 years in solitary for possessing Aztec artwork that is associated with La Eme, the Mexican Mafia.

“The arcane system of validation allows everything to be secret. Most people have been validated because of secret informants—either guards or inmates—so they can't refute the evidence used against them because they can't even see it,” Weills explains.

Unreliable snitching is endemic to the system the CDCR has set up: the only way an inmate can be released from solitary is if they “debrief,” which means to confess every crime a prisoner has ever done—which Weills points out is a forfeiture of the Fifth Amendment—and then inform on other prisoners.

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