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StopMax: The Fight Against Supermax Prisons Heats Up

With former prisoners and their families at the helm, the movement to abolish supermax prisons and end solitary confinement is gaining ground.
 
 
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"When I left Angola," says Robert King Wilkerson, who spent 29 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana's notorious Angola State Penitentiary for a crime he was later found innocent of, "I said, 'I may be free of Angola, but Angola will never be free of me.'" Since his release seven years ago, the vow has taken him to rallies, churches and talk shows across the globe. Earlier this summer, it brought him to Philadelphia for the first-ever StopMax Conference, where he told stories, analyzed the state of the American prison system and collaborated with a throng of like-minded activists determined to "end the use of solitary confinement and related forms of torture in U.S. prisons."

Wilkerson is a former member of the Black Panther Party and one of the Angola Three. He spent more than 30 years in prison for the killing of a prison guard, along with two other former Black Panthers -- Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace -- before being exonerated by the state of Louisiana in February 2001. Woodfox and Wallace still languish in prison. They are the longest-held prisoners in solitary isolation to date in the United States.

On a Friday early this summer, Wilkerson addressed a crowd composed of both supporters and curious passers-by outside Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened its doors in 1829 as the first institutionalized experiment in long-term solitary confinement. Over the past 40 years, with modern advances enabling an unprecedented level of isolation and control, the practice has been systematized, standardized and forced upon thousands of people across the country, from murderers to drug addicts and petty thieves.

Wilkerson was one of many modern-day solitary survivors who brought focus and momentum to the StopMax Conference, organized by the American Friends Service Committee. Bonnie Kerness, Prison Watch coordinator for the AFSC, said that over the past two decades, the organization has received an "astounding" number of letters from people in solitary confinement describing the abuse that occurs in their desolate cells. She told AlterNet that "they describe in excruciating detail," among other things, "the uses of devices of torture -- forced medication, restraint beds, restraint chairs …"

"And now we're also starting to hear from juveniles," she says, "so it's almost at a point where, how could we not respond?"

According to Kerness, alongside the piles of letters from prisoners, the AFSC has seen a corresponding rise in phone calls it receives from people around the country wanting to know more about the issue of solitary confinement and looking for ways to help friends and family in isolation stay mentally strong and combat the abuse. The conference, then, she says, was "a natural way to move forward."

The crowd that assembled at Philadelphia's Temple University for the StopMax Conference included a motley crew of about 400 people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Members of the United Church of Christ dined alongside dreadlocked media activists. Traditional Aztec dancers rubbed shoulders with psychologists and doctors. Native American religious leaders joked around with young college students and black-clad anarchists. An older, soft-spoken lawyer and community activist co-facilitated a workshop on the New Jersey Department of Corrections gang unit program with a prominent leader in the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation.

All of these people and hundreds more spent three days strategizing, comparing notes and working toward a common goal: to end the use of solitary confinement running rampant, and largely unchecked, in the U.S. prison system.

Prison Nation

The United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, at 2.2 million people as of 2006, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. At any given time, an estimated 10 percent of those prisoners are being held in isolation, according to a new analysis of prison data compiled by Dr. Terry Kupers, a mental health adviser to prison facilities and a leading expert on the effects of solitary confinement. That translates into roughly 220,000 local, state and federal prisoners held in solitary confinement at any given moment.

Although U.S. prisons have always used isolation as a form of punishment, it wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that a new kind of penitentiary -- the "supermax" -- began imposing it wholesale as a long-term population management strategy. The skyrocketing prison population, ushered in by the "war on drugs," made isolation an attractive option for prison officials eager to control their inmates, legislators eager to appear "tough on crime," and prison industry executives eager to build more technologically sophisticated, and thus lucrative, institutions.

Sometimes referred to as "secured housing units," "special management units" or "control units," supermax facilities are considered by critics to be modern dungeons, where inmates are locked away for 23 to 24 hours a day, fed through small slits in their cell door, and often monitored by cameras in lieu of prison guards. Prisoners have little to no outdoor activity, and temperatures inside their cells can fluctuate between freezing cold and unbearable heat, depending on the season. While many prisoners endure these conditions for a year or two, others remain, uncertain of how to earn their way out, for 10, 15 or, in Wilkerson's case, 29 years. With no meaningful educational opportunities to stimulate the mind or rehabilitative programs geared toward easing re-entry, the system has been repeatedly denounced by international bodies, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, who in 1996 called the system "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

Nonetheless, according to the AFSC, 44 states as well as the federal system continue to operate supermax facilities to this day.

Although the supermax is billed as a maximum-security facility for the "worst of the worst," it is too often the troublemakers and rabble-rousers who land there, at the pleasure of the prison officials who transfer them out of general-population facilities. Over-represented among supermax inmates are "jailhouse lawyers" -- those who file lawsuits, advocate on behalf of themselves and other prisoners, or otherwise irritate prison guards. Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois openly admits this on its Web site, stating that the Tamms control unit houses "some of the most litigious inmates in the department's custody."

Since people are sent to supermax facilities because of their behavior inside prison walls, rather than offenses committed on the outside, many of the prisoners in supermax prisons are thus serving time for relatively small crimes, such as possession of drugs or burglary. For example, David Tracy, a 20-year-old prisoner who hung himself in a Virginia supermax in 2000, was serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for selling drugs at the time of his death.

Tracy's case, sadly, is not unique. The suicide rate in supermax facilities is often twice that of general population facilities. Despite the fact that only about 10 percent of the prison and jail population is held in isolation at any given time, according to the Correctional Association of New York, more than 40 percent of completed suicides occur in segregation. In part this is due to the fact that, within the prison population, the most over-represented group in isolation is prisoners who are mentally ill. At some institutions, such as Indiana's Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, officials have admitted that the mentally ill comprise "over half" of their supermax population. According to David Fathi, director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, this has much to do with the dismantling and underfunding of numerous social services -- most notably large, public mental health institutions -- that coincided with the rise of the supermax prison. People with mental illnesses, particularly those with impulse control problems, tend to be among the most bothersome in a normal prison setting, and guards, usually ill-equipped to deal with mental illness, have a penchant for sending them to supermaxes, which Fathi calls an "asylum of last resort." (For more on the mental health effects of supermax prisons, see "Torture in Our Own Backyards.")

Resistance on the Outside

The rise of supermax prisons has long been accompanied by a growing movement to shut them down.

The use of long-term solitary confinement was systematized in October 1983, when the murder of a guard at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois led prison officials there to "lock down" the entire facility, keeping prisoners in their cells 23 hours a day and severely limiting their movement and communication with each other and the outside world. Resistance to those policies sprung up almost immediately -- both behind prison walls and on the outside, through a group called the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown. Two years later, the AFSC published a pamphlet highlighting and denouncing what was happening inside Marion. It did not realize at the time that what was occurring marked the beginning of a trend in prison management. As "The Lessons of Marion" was distributed across the country, the AFSC effectively became a polestar for prisoners trapped in extreme isolation, as well as for loved ones on the outside who wanted to understand what was happening and advocate for them.

As "control units" were constructed in different areas around the country, local organizations sprouted up organically to denounce their existence as inhumane and destructive. Among them was California Prison Focus, started in 1990 by lone activist and physician Corey Weinstein, who set about to document and denounce the conditions at the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California. Today, the organization is going strong, with a combined volunteer and paid staff of more than a dozen. With a strong presence at the StopMax Conference, California Prison Focus continues to be a vocal advocate for prisoners' rights.

As local initiatives grew, a national push began to form. In 1994, the AFSC spearheaded the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, bringing together pockets of resistance from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Three years later, with the help of dozens of letters sent back and forth from prisoners who were successfully withstanding life in solitary confinement, the campaign produced a "survivor's manual," which, according to Kerness, is still requested thousands of times each year.

Former Prisoners and Family Members at the Forefront of the Movement

Resistance to long-term solitary confinement, fueled by a string of recent victories and driven by former inmates and their family members, has been heating up for years. At the StopMax Conference in Philadelphia, it came to a rolling boil. Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, a former member of the Black Liberation Army who was imprisoned in Marion and released in 1985, has been speaking out against solitary confinement and the prison industry ever since. He told AlterNet in Philadelphia, "Our prospects for victory are better, because if we do this correctly, we could possibly bring hundreds, thousands, even millions of people into the struggle." In truth, the rising rates of incarceration have drawn more and more families and loved ones to the cause, and thanks to the Internet and other advancements in communication technology, activists are able to educate one another and further disseminate the message.

But still, the effects of supermax prisons are felt far beyond the organizations that were represented in Philadelphia. The majority of family members continue to feel disempowered and disenfranchised -- creating an additional challenge for activists. "We're going to have to go into the communities and educate people as well," Komboa says. "Our consciousness is not the same as people in the 'hood. … We've got to let them know what's happening, get agitation and activation out of that."

The Chicano Mexicano Prison Project has been working on that front in San Diego since 1993, through publication of a quarterly newsletter, Las Calles y La Torcida , and dozens of workshops and teach-ins aimed at exploring the impact of the prison industrial complex on Raza communities.

"Most prisoners don't know why they are in prison, and most parents think their kids deserve to be there," Ernesto Bustillo, educator and member of the CMPP, told attendees at the group's conference workshop. Part of the CMPP's mission, then, is to "raise political and social consciousness of Raza prisoners, educate the Raza community as to the realities of the prison system."

Friends and Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, which also held a workshop at the StopMax Conference, is working on the same front in Louisiana, reaching out to and educating parents in low-income communities on how to advocate for their children and understand the dynamics of the prison system, with the goal of shutting off the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Meanwhile, groups like the Friends and Families of Prisoners' Emergency Response Network, led by a proactive community of family and friends of prisoners in Pennsylvania, is working to document the experiences of people inside the prison system while building a network of people ready to make noise whenever any one of their loved ones behind bars is suffering a legal or medical emergency.

One of the crucial strengths of these organizations is that for many, the driving forces behind their work are current and former prisoners and their family members. Gale Muhammad, the StopMax Campaign family organizer and a key driving force behind the conference, is one of them. She says she became active in the cause in 1997 while advocating for her late husband, Tarik Mohammed, who fell ill in isolation and died that year. She says she is driven by a desire to not let Tarik's death be in vain, and by her determination not to let their son, who is currently incarcerated, meet a similar fate. "I'm still here," she yelled to the crowd at the conference's opening celebration. "I'm here because we have got to save our children."

Creating Change

Chicago organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds, of the Tamms Year Ten Campaign, came with an agenda: to learn about places where activists have had success in achieving humane conditions in supermax facilities and apply those lessons to her fight to do the same at Tamms Correctional Center's closed maximum-security facility (CMAX). Tamms Year Ten persuaded the Illinois General Assembly Prison Reform Committee to hold a public hearing on April 28. That hearing led lawmakers to introduce a bill on May 24 that would put an end to indefinite sentences at Tamms CMAX, remove people with mental illness from isolation and establish clear criteria, and time limits, for assignment in the facility.

Similar legislation was passed in New York in January of this year after a six-year battle led by Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, a coalition of more than 60 organizations in the New York area. The new law bans solitary confinement for people with psychological disabilities. However, at the urging of the New York State Correctional Officers Union, discretion is allowed "if an inmate is going to hurt himself or others."

"This is a victory -- and we have to celebrate our victories," Alexandra Smith, a New York organizer, said during a panel titled "Counter-Abuse Campaigns and Resistance Strategies." "But it is a partial victory, and so we have to remain vigilant."

Other localities face more resistance to reform. AFSC's Prison Justice Program Coordinator Matthew Lowen, in Tucson, says there is little hope for winning the support of state lawmakers, who "tend to be cowboys," so he and his colleagues have instead entered into a round of discussions directly with the Arizona Department of Corrections. The Tucson AFSC office compiled and released an in-depth study on the overuse of solitary confinement in the state, which gave the group some bargaining power with state corrections officials, which Lowen hopes to leverage for meaningful reforms from within.

Meanwhile, other groups have taken their battles to the legal front.

In 2007, a lawsuit brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Holland & Knight against the Mississippi Department of Corrections succeeded in overhauling an overzealous system that, at the time the lawsuit was filed, was holding more than 1,000 prisoners in long-term isolation at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, in Parchman, Miss. Through what attorney Steve Hanlon of Holland & Knight called "beat(ing) them up successfully in the courts, and then bring(ing) them to the table to negotiate," the legal advocates were able to slash that number to 130, with more prisoners still being weeded out and transferred.

The victory was born of a strategy that brought together an array of experts across various fields, including James Austin of the JFA Institute, a D.C.-based justice and corrections research and consulting firm. Austin, who has a long history in prison work, examined Parchman's placement system, or lack thereof, and developed a precise set of entry and exit criteria that everyone -- wardens and advocates alike -- could agree on. He then applied those criteria to the prison population. According to Austin, the new system included clear definitions of what constitutes good behavior and incentives (such as recreational time or access to a television) for conforming to those guidelines. The Parchman experiment, then, significantly reduced the supermax population simply by creating a centralized, defined, prison-wide assignment process to replace the process lacking in accountability that prevails at most supermax facilities and simply leaves placement up to the guards, with little or no opportunity to challenge that placement or identify its basis.

In Philadelphia, Austin spoke at a workshop on "The Successful Overhaul of Mississippi's Supermax Prison," saying that all he did was help Mississippi prison officials "understand that when you give incentives to prisoners in a normal, humane way, it makes for a safer place." "That's not advocacy," he said, "that's science." Austin was also one among a team of experts who similarly restructured the supermax system in Ohio in 2003, and, he says, "they have not had one prisoner come back."

The Fight Against Supermax Prisons Continues

Strategies like the ones described at the StopMax Conference have led to a successful reduction in the number of supermax prisoners and have helped remove mentally ill prisoners from their ranks. But they still fall short of the campaign's ultimate goal: abolishing solitary confinement. Multiple legal challenges claiming that prolonged isolation is "cruel and unusual punishment," and thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment, have failed. For example, in Madrid v. Gomez , a 1995 case filed on behalf of more than 3,000 prisoners at California's Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit, federal district court Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that "while the conditions in the SHU may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate," they were not "cruel and unusual." However, in his decision, Henderson did rule that mentally ill prisoners should not be placed in isolation. Since that case, every federal court to weigh in on the issue has followed suit and has found solitary confinement unconstitutional in the case of the severely mentally ill, while deferring the ultimate decision about the isolation of mentally sound prisoners to the states.

However, one high-profile case revisiting the question of whether extended isolation qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment" was recently determined to have "merit to proceed" by the United States Supreme Court. In a pending civil case, the Angola Three are challenging the conditions of their confinement as well as what they call the "sham" review process that allowed them to be held in isolation for so many years. Wilkerson, Woodfox and Wallace v. the State of Louisiana et al is still pending and could have far-reaching consequences.

"At one time I thought that which was legal was ultimately moral," Wilkerson told conference attendees in Philadelphia. "But my years -- my 29 years in solitary confinement and my 31 years serving time for a crime that the state knew I hadn't committed -- has taught me a lesson: that legality and morality are not friends. Legality does not equal morality."

Wilkerson pointed out to the crowd at the StopMax Conference that slavery and other abhorrent practices of racism, classism and sexism have also been legal at certain periods in history, but that, through the hard work of those who believe in equality and justice, they, too, were abolished.

"Abraham Lincoln gets credit, and other politicians get credit, for abolishing slavery," he continued, "but it really wasn't Lincoln. You know, Lincoln only did the will of the people. It was the abolitionists, people who looked at slavery and saw it as being something that was terrible."

"That is why it is so important that the struggle continues."

Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and independent journalist living in Chicago.