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We dare to win: The reality and impact of SHU torture units

November 11, 2011

A discussion in the wake of the Aug. 23 legislative hearing

by J. Heshima Denham, Zaharibu Dorrough and Kambui Robinson of the NCTT Corcoran Security Housing Unit (SHU)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” – “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Written Oct. 12, 2011 – These sage words by Dr. King are both appropriate to the discussion we’d like to have on indeterminate SHU confinement and cautionary as to who we are and what we allow as a society in these troubled times. This second point is very relevant to this discussion and we hope you’ll stick with us, as the subject matter is both broad and disturbing; it requires us to share some inconvenient truths.

At the rally in support of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s historic hearing on the hunger strike against SHU torture Aug. 23, Amber, the sister of a SHU prisoner told the crowd: “My brother has been in Pelican Bay SHU for the last 10 years. I’m here today to be the voice, not only for him, but for all of the prisoners who are suffering in the SHU and for all of the prisons in California. There are a lot of questions that I want answered. I want to know what our elected officials are going to do to change what’s being done? Why is it 30 days later (since the end of the first round of the hunger strike) and still nothing has been done when the CDC agreed to part of the prisoners’ demands? I want to know why my brother is tortured on a daily basis year after year. Why is he not fed correctly and why is he so pale and skinny? Why does my mom have to cry every time she goes to see him? Seeing everybody that has come out today just lights my fire, because I know that I am not alone and I can let him know that he is not alone.” – Photo and quote: Revolution Newspaper
Security Housing Units (SHUs) like those in Pelican Bay, Tehachapi and this one here in Corcoran are torture units. They are used to indefinitely house human beings in solitary confinement based on an administrative determination that they are “gang members” with impetus towards breaking their minds in hopes of eliciting information and coercing them into becoming informants or active agents in the state.

These units are the tombs of not only alleged “gang members” but political and politicized prisoners, imprisoned human rights activists and jailhouse lawyers alike, most anyone who, in the sole determination of institutional gang investigators and administrators, is not content to submit passively to his role as a commodity in the prison industrial complex.

These units are the tombs of not only alleged “gang members” but political and politicized prisoners, imprisoned human rights activists and jailhouse lawyers.

The U.S. and many of its media outlets, such as The New York Times and San Diego Union Tribune, prior to the U.S. War on Terror, routinely criticized China, Turkey, Syria and other nations for holding prisoners in indefinite solitary confinement under conditions of constant illumination, sensory deprivation etc. for expressing contrary political views. They universally condemned the practices as torture, citing the United Nations Human Rights Commission Treaty. Their hypocrisy was of course revealed after the policies of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and numerous CIA blacksite prisons was exposed.

Yet what has been America’s dirty little secret is that years before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, they were boiling men alive at Pelican Bay SHU, they were holding murderous “blood sport” style bouts here at Corcoran SHU and they had been holding people with left-wing political ideologies as “gang members” for decades in sensory deprivation torture units at Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi SHUs. Yes, indefinite solitary confinement and constant illumination is being used right now in California SHU units, in conjunction with a program of systematic isolation and experimental behavior modification to torture prisoners every day, without end.

The California and U.S. Supreme Courts, in blatant indifference to international and constitutional law, have repeatedly refused to intervene in most cases on behalf of prisoners in Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs who’ve lived in solitary confinement under constant illumination and daily psychological stressors for 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years straight. This is gross hypocrisy wherein your nation is torturing its citizens in your names.

The “United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment” defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

Banners at the rally by hunger strikers’ families and supporters held on the capitol steps prior to the Aug. 23 hearing spoke truth to power.
This virtually defines the validation, indeterminate SHU confinement and debriefing processes, which are all interconnected. We are routinely told, quite frankly, at ICC (Institutional Classification Committee) hearings, “You’ll only get out of SHU if you parole, debrief or die”; at parole board hearings the line is no different: The panel of law enforcement officials states, “If you want a parole date, you may want to think about debriefing.”

When, after serving 24 years, most of that in these indeterminate SHU torture units, for a crime where he was simply a 16-year-old bystander and had not had a single rules violation in over a decade, had family and community support and several job offers, Sondai Ellis was told that very thing as he was denied parole again. I was, and continue to be, so furious that it is only through the discipline and adherence to principled conduct instilled in me by brothers like Sondai that I’ve been capable of keeping that fury in check at such bald-faced injustice.

To debrief one must become an informant, an agent of the state, and decades of torture and withholding of freedom are strong state sanctions to compel some of us to make something up or simply parrot what we are told to say to get out of SHU or support a law enforcement agenda. In at least two recent online articles, we see debriefers doing just this: actually advocating the merits of the very torture units that reduced them to broken men and made them thralls of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) and its various units and affiliates. They – the Institutional Gang Investigations (IGI), Investigations Services Unit (ISU), prison guards etc. – are the ones who have an economic and political interest in maintaining the symbolism of these torture units as the final abode of “predatory gang leaders and organized criminals.”

The U.N. Human Rights Commission has stated prolonged solitary confinement for purposes of extracting information is prohibited as torture. SHUs are by definition torture units and specialty, experimental, ultra-supermax isolation units like Pelican Bay SHU’s D-Short Corridor and Corcoran SHU’s 4B1L-C-Section short corridor are specifically engineered to warp reality for purposes of breaking men’s minds.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission has stated prolonged solitary confinement for purposes of extracting information is prohibited as torture. SHUs are by definition torture units.

Torture, no matter the supposed justification, is never an acceptable practice for a humane society. The U.N. Convention Against Torture states, “No exceptionable circumstances whatsoever, whether a state or threat of war or political emergency, may be invoked as a reason for torture.” As it stands, your correctional department, courts, some of your elected officials, and all law enforcement agencies do feel torture is justified as long as it’s applied to those they deem “gang members.”

Your correctional department, courts, some of your elected officials, and all law enforcement agencies do feel torture is justified as long as it’s applied to those they deem “gang members.”

But there is a much more insidious socio-economic and political motivation for the maintenance and expansion of SHU torture units and indeterminate SHU confinement based on “gang” validation. It is sustained by manipulating your perception of truth and humanity and by controlling your perception of these things. The prison industrialists dictate your actions, reactions and inaction to their impact on your lives and communities.

As you may know, we embarked on a historic 24-day hunger strike in July and at this writing are 17 days into a second hunger strike that began on Sept. 26 in solidarity with the Pelican Bay SHU D-Corridor collective and the five core demands recognizing our human rights. We were joined by some 6,600 other prisoners across the state, 12,000 in this second effort and countless others across the nation, and we garnered the support of principled people all over the world.

On Aug. 23, a hearing was held in response to those issues. I want to take this time to use some of the distortions, misrepresentations of fact and outright lies by CDCR Undersecretary Scott Kernan, a key prison industrialist, to illustrate just what we’re talking about here. There is an articulable basis why state-sanctioned torture units are maintained in California and throughout the U.S. And before we get into Mr. Kernan’s comments, it is necessary for you to have a clear understanding of what they are so you can understand why he would contradict himself and openly lie to a legislative oversight committee.

The purpose of SHU torture units – and “gang” validations resulting in indeterminate SHU confinement – is to ensure your financial and political support for the expansion and maintenance of the prison industrial complex as a viable business model by maximizing your fear and capitalizing on your ignorance. The foundational cornerstone of their success is convincing you that “gang members are depraved, inhuman monsters hell bent on the rape, murder and predation of innocent people,” and only they, the “gang experts,” know who these monsters are and how best to “protect” you from them.

The purpose of SHU torture units – and “gang” validations resulting in indeterminate SHU confinement – is to ensure your financial and political support for the expansion and maintenance of the prison industrial complex as a viable business model by maximizing your fear and capitalizing on your ignorance.

These so-called malevolent, irrationally violent and predatory organized “gangs” are the source of all of society’s ills and the very origins of crime in our communities. By creating these torture units and proclaiming they are the abodes of “the worst of the worst,” they have a symbolic manifestation of the validity of their claims.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, chair of Public Safety Committee, speaks at the rally before convening his hearing on prison torture in the SHUs.
No one can refute their accounts or characterizations because transparency is non-existent. Prisoners have no voice. The CCPOA successfully lobbied to ban media interviews with prisoners so the public is left to a unilateral, state-sponsored view of prison conditions and their discontents. This allows them the ability to perpetuate the myth of the inhuman “gang member” unchallenged and, with tacit media support, to dehumanize an ever-growing segment of the underclass.

Have you not noticed how your local news reports on arrestees or incidents in these communities? If someone is arrested for DUI, a drive-by or petty theft, he or she is paraded on the news and the first identification made is “he’s a validated gang member.” When incidents occur in or around our children’s schools, the school is put on “lockdown,” a term derived from the California prison system to denote a prison yard being locked down after a riot or other incident.

These terms, “gang” and “gang member,” automatically conjure images of innocent drive-by shooting victims and prison rapes inspired by “Oz” and cinematic visions, divorcing these men and women from the human condition, dehumanizing them. These people, more often than not, were saddled with these characterizations because of the communities they come from and may well have never committed a violent or predatory act in their lives.

But you don’t know that. All you know is what you’ve been told by the TV anchor, police or CDCR spokesman. They know that because they’ve used millions of your tax dollars to engineer it that way.

The truth of the matter is there are no malevolent, irrationally violent predatory gangs roving the streets of your cities or the prison yards of CDCR, only desperate men and women forced to the bottom rung of society through institutional disparities in economic and race-based distribution of educational, employment and empowerment opportunities at virtually every point of human activity in the U.S.

Do gangs exist? Of course, but that’s not the relevant question. Where are they prevalent and why do they exist? This is what is of note. “Gangs” and, more centrally, gang violence are prevalent primarily in underclass – poor – communities.

The national unemployment rate – not counting the underemployed or those who’ve stopped looking – stands at 9.1 percent, yet in the New Afrikan (Black) community, it’s 17 percent and in the Latino community it’s 14.5 percent. Those without a high school diploma stand at 16 percent unemployed while those with a Bachelor’s Degree a mere 1 percent.

New Afrikans and Latinos make up 90 percent of the prison population but a scant 26 percent of the national population. The origin of crime is not gangs. Gangs are a social symptom of that origin. The origin of all crime is the disproportionate distribution of wealth, privilege and opportunity in our society.

The origin of crime is not gangs. Gangs are a social symptom of that origin. The origin of all crime is the disproportionate distribution of wealth, privilege and opportunity in our society.

This is not by chance or happenstance. It is by design. Wage-based employment and entrepreneurship are the only ways to “legally” create wealth in this society. When social conditions are such that a community contains a large population of surplus labor – either they are unemployed due to their lack of education or marketable skills, or the market simply cannot sustain that population of workers – the only alternative to survive is the underground economy, be that illicit services such as narcotics, the sex trade and gambling or predatory crimes such as extortion, robbery and identity theft.

There is a corresponding sense of socio-political impotence which accompanies the innate insecurity of poverty. Young men and women who have no power, no hope, no impact on their world form community-based organizations to fill that socio-political void in their existence. Those the state calls “gangs” and has decided to wage “war” on them, only furthering the isolation.

Young men and women who have no power, no hope, no impact on their world form community-based organizations to fill that socio-political void in their existence.

One of the reasons so few people vote in underclass communities is these disparities are institutional and systemic to U.S. capitalist economics. No matter who’s in office, their plight doesn’t change. Because these communities are a marginal constituency, public officials extend a corresponding indifference to their plight.

Families and supporters of prisoners from across California held a rally prior to the Aug. 23 hearing called by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano on the torturous solitary confinement in California SHUs.
Instead of “protecting and serving” those communities, law enforcement, judicial, legislative and correctional officers all too commonly have a containment, suppression and adversarial relationship with those communities and those who come from them. Yet the bell-curve theories and notions that young men and women want to stand on a street corner selling crack or want to risk their lives and freedom by engaging in unprovoked gang violence are simply untrue.

You pick any prisoner in these SHU units validated as a “gang member” and offer him a job making $20 an hour, and I can guarantee you he won’t break the law. But the environment in these communities and most assuredly the environment in CDCR prisons are not structured to produce such success or opportunity, which brings me to my next point:

The California corrections system is an environment designed and maintained by its administrators. Thus, any failures must be attributed to those who have precluded an environment for success. CDCR effectively retards rehabilitation especially among SHU prisoners – those who by the state’s own admission most need rehabilitation – by withdrawing the vital tech-based vocational training and higher educational opportunity needed to compete in today’s high tech world. It was primarily through the successful efforts of the CCPOA that funding through Pell grants for higher education was taken from prisoners.

You pick any prisoner in these SHU units validated as a “gang member” and offer him a job making $20 an hour, and I can guarantee you he won’t break the law.

Of course, what followed this repeal of the inmate bill of rights was an unprecedented boom in prison building and a population expansion by 800 percent in the last 20 years. Racial antagonisms are encouraged so as to preclude broad class cooperation amongst prisoners like the unprecedented unity shown statewide in the recent hunger strike.

Underdevelopment while in prison, coupled with an emphasis on seeking most any impetus for “violation” by parole officers once out of prison, is designed to preclude successful re-integration into society, maximize recidivism rates, and undermine the underclass communities from which those ex-offenders hail – all to maintain the steady social dysfunction and economic desperation in these family units so a consistent flow of bodies is exiting these communities to enter our jails and prisons, court systems and probation departments, ensuring a recession-proof industry of profit and expansion for the prison market and those who depend on your tax dollars to sustain their privilege.

The very structure of CDCR regulations is designed to promote dependency, destroy ingenuity and self-determination and deter unity. They actually have rules which bar prisoners from running a business, which always boggled my mind in an economically depressed recessionary capitalist cycle. If there are prisoners with the insight, talent and entrepreneurial acumen to make a meaningful contribution to this state’s economy and job market, men and women who the courts have determined owe some debt to society, why would you codify a basis for them not doing so?

The very structure of CDCR regulations is designed to promote dependency, destroy ingenuity and self-determination and deter unity.

Outside of the same “potential for impropriety” rhetoric they use to justify accepting unsubstantiated confidential information and mere suspicion as a basis for SHU confinement, there exists no justification for such a regulation. The only basis that follows reason is to prevent independence and promote dependency on the state, thus promoting institutionalization.

If you combine this with the psycho-social decimation of men’s minds resulting from prolonged and, in some cases, endless isolation in conditions such as these, is it any wonder psychologists universally agree this type of torture effectively destroys one’s ability to function in society? Which is the point.

As we’ve stated before, the modern criminal justice system – and correctional departments in particular – are the biggest conflicts of interest in U.S. history. Those entrusted with reducing the number of criminal offenders and protecting public safety have their potential profit margin directly attached to maximizing the number of offenders under their control at any given time.

Those entrusted with reducing the number of criminal offenders and protecting public safety have their potential profit margin directly attached to maximizing the number of offenders under their control at any given time.

This is why the CCPOA fought so hard to stop out-of-state transfers of prisoners to reduce overcrowding. The more prisoners under their control, the larger their budgets, the greater their salaries and benefits, and the more overtime hours they can bill to your tax dollars.

But most vitally, the more prisoners held and for ever greater durations, the more ensured they are of their long-term job security no matter the fragility of the economy in this current crisis. To be sure, an economic downturn to the rest of us is an economic upturn for those in the prison industry. It means an inequitable increase in human commodities: prisoners.

An economic downturn to the rest of us is an economic upturn for those in the prison industry. It means an inequitable increase in human commodities: prisoners.

According to CDCR, they spend an average $78,000 to house us in these torture unit cells each year. Perhaps a little more due to the added isolation features in 4B1L-C-Section and D-Corridor. We assure you it does not cost $78K to feed us the two small trays and sack lunch we receive each day or to keep this light burning 24 hours or power our small 13-inch TVs.

Besides being escorted in chains to the K-9 style dog cages for yard two to three times a week and five minutes in the shower three times a week, we never leave these cells. So I assure you that money is not being spent on prisoners being housed in the SHU. No, it’s spent on guards – on their salaries, benefits, equipment, training, guns and bullets – NOT US. The guard working the SHU makes the most money and with all the overtime they have action at, they can in essence write their own checks on your buck and at the expense of our minds, our bodies and, sometimes it feels, our very souls.

The CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association), the prison guards’ union, considers the California State Capitol in Sacramento its turf. It is the state’s most powerful lobby. No governor has dared challenge its power for decades, but the hunger strikers dared.
During the Aug. 23 legislative hearing, the CDCR panel representative, Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan, made such baseless, overly simplistic and outright false statements concerning prison life and conditions related to SHU and so-called “gangs” that they MUST be debunked with the truth. He stated “gangs” were responsible for “ordering ‘rapes’” in prison and are the primary threat for such heinous acts. This is not only an outright lie, but in fact quite the opposite is true.

For the vast majority of those housed in these SHUs, and virtually ALL those in these indeterminate SHU torture units, the forced sexual subjugation of anyone, not to mention another human in these conditions, is not simply frowned upon by SHU prisoners but forcefully opposed. Mr. Kernan’s assertion that men housed here would even condone such sickness is a testament to the fear and dehumanization-based rhetoric which has become the basis for prison industrialist propaganda over the past 20 years and is an insult to the humanity of all of us housed here.

We in the NCTT Cor-SHU collectively have over 100 years of experience existing in the most violent and reactionary prisons in California and can say with definitive confidence that the vast majority of the “8,000 assaults and stabbings the department has each year” has little to do with gangs, as Mr. Kernan states, and everything to do with overcrowded facilities and limited space.

Be it a dispute on the basketball or handball court, an unpaid gambling or dope debt, a cross word said in frustration at overcrowded conditions taken as disrespect, etc., these things have little to do with “gangs.” And in those instances where a gang member may be involved in a personal dispute – and according to CDCR everyone in CDCR runs with some gang – they report or record it as “gang related” when the “gang” in fact has nothing to do with the initial incident.

He went on to state “millions of tax dollars were ‘wasted’ each year, and ‘gangs’ would be identified as the primary problem.” Mr. Kernan has no factual basis for this statement. I can’t even conceive of the rubric by which he would venture this opinion when targeting educational and economic development programs in underclass communities and amongst criminal offenders has proven an effective means by which to reduce both predatory and market-based crime rates and reduce recidivism amongst prisoners, yet funding for such initiatives, due primarily to lobbying efforts by the CCPOA and their political cabal, has been repeatedly diverted to prison budgets under the auspices of public safety, an oxymoronic application of the term if ever there was one.

Mr. Kernan went on to state it’s “only 3,000 validated SHU prisoners in a population of 165,000 – that’s a very small number.” The Marquis de Sade is said to have tortured some 2,000 prisoners out of the 100,000 that passed through Elba – before honing his skills on women – when he was a gaoler (jailer) there. No one in the French aristocracy minded De Sade’s dalliances with prisoners much either. It’s this type of thinking that led to the use of CIA blacksites in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt and, yes, Libya under Qaddafi to imprison “under special conditions” terror “suspects” and torture them for years, continuing still, in the U.S. “war on terror.”

SHU survivor Jitu Sadiki speaks at the rally prior to the Ammiano hearing Aug. 23. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Three thousand torture victims in a population of 165,000 is 3,000 too many. Mr. Kernan went on to state, “We don’t allow media to talk to individual inmates for fear of their sensationalizing their crimes, like Charles Manson or Scott Peterson” – a patently absurd notion he knows full well was untrue. First of all, it was the media that “sensationalized” Manson and Peterson’s cases, not Manson and Peterson themselves.

But, more importantly, no one here wants to “sensationalize” their criminal convictions or past lifestyles. In fact there is a significant segment of the indeterminate SHU population, such as the NCTT, the Freedom, Justice and Human Rights Initiative, George Jackson University etc., who have dedicated their lives to not simply atoning for the damage to our communities as a result of our ignorance and lack of consciousness in the past, but putting forward meaningful programs and initiatives to improve life in those communities, such as those mentioned above.

The only prisoners in SHU that Mr. Kernan allowed the media access to, and the only prisoners such media outlets as the Sacramento Bee seem to be interested in quoting are debriefers, informants and agents of the state. Mr. Kernan did not allow media access to the D-Short Corridor collective, like Sitawa Dewberry, Todd Ashker or Mutope Crawford, or the 4B1L-C-Section collective because he did not want politically and socially conscious prisoners articulating the true basis of SHU and reason for the hunger strikes and the inescapable deteriorating psychological effects of SHU.

This is simply another example of state controlled media in a society that purports itself to be “free and open,” yet another manifestation of CDCR’s successful gambit to monopolize the conversation. I found it ironic that Mr. Kernan attempted to dismiss and redirect the blatant human rights violations which torture units represent by stating “the violence the gangs perpetuate is the human rights violation,” when the vast majority of the “8,000 assaults and stabbings” occurring in the modern CDCR are occurring on “sensitive needs yards” (SNYs) by the very debriefers and protective custody prisoners IGI has relied on, or broken, to manufacture uncorroborated and unsubstantiated “confidential information chronos” to put, and keep other prisoners in indefinite SHU confinement.

To be sure, the most violent “gang” in CDCR is “2-5” – half of “5-0,” the “prison gang” made up of debriefers and informants who directly work for IGI, ISU, SSU (Special Services Unit) and other law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Kernan was adamant that the courts have upheld the validation process and “though harsh, the SHU is not torture.” We’ve established without doubt this IS torture, so that brooks no comment.

But as to the comments on the courts, that’s not entirely true either. California courts, most judges having been elected with the backing of CCPOA lobbying dollars, rarely uphold the Constitution where prisoners, and especially SHU prisoners, are seeking human rights protection. But there are exceptions. For example, in the Koch v. Lewis case that the Supreme Court took up to address the equally harsh SMU II torture unit in Florence, Arizona, the court found that Koch’s solitary confinement violated his right to due process under the 14th Amendment, which is applicable to states because there was no evidence that Koch had committed any overt act to warrant such torture. The claim that he was an Aryan Brotherhood member was insufficient.

Substantive due process requires that evidence used must bear a logical relation to the specific deprivations. As Judge Moran stated, “The labeling of plaintiff Koch as a ‘gang member’ does not itself create legal concerns. Rather it is the placement in SMU II as a result of the alleged association that is constitutionally significant.” After hearing evidence of SMU conditions – identical to California SHU conditions – and the psychological harm Koch and all prisoners faced, the court not only found a significant liberty deprivation but also that the very practice of sending inmates to supermax torture units based on status alone, with no charges or evidence of misconduct, violated due process.

The court concluded that there must be some evidence of misconduct, some overt gang-related act, to justify placing Koch in SMU II for an indefinite – and very likely permanent – term. Yet, as Mr. Kernan stated, virtually lifelong supermax detention for alleged “gang members” in U.S. domestic prisons continues to be judged constitutional here in California despite the ruling in the Griffith case. CDCR still has not released him from SHU despite multiple rulings to do so.

It’s not that they, or he, does not know these torture units violate basic tenets of humaneness; they simply have an overriding interest in their maintenance: money and control. Your money, their control. This assertion by Mr. Kernan that these torture units are not torture units is so outrageous and insulting, it recalls Bush era admonitions that waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, and CIA blacksites in foreign countries weren’t torturous either. It is an absurdity, and a dangerous one.

This assertion by Mr. Kernan that these torture units are not torture units is so outrageous and insulting, it recalls Bush era admonitions that waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, and CIA blacksites in foreign countries weren’t torturous either.

Mr. Kernan’s dogged assertion that “gangs” and more certainly those of us housed in these SHU torture units are the source of perpetual violence in CDCR ignores the inescapable reality of gross overcrowding, intentional underdevelopment and dependency and the structural conditions they’ve created in California prisons, which is the actual origin of prison violence. And until these structural fallacies are addressed, violence in California prisons will continue no matter how many prisoners are consigned to these torture units, and he KNOWS this.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano leaves the rally to convene his hearing on solitary confinement and related issues raised initially by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU, whose hunger strike was joined by 12,000 other prisoners simultaneously. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Mr. Kernan stated the process being considered by “all state law enforcement, CCPOA, police, labor unions, national experts and the legislature itself” would allow prisoners to “earn a way out of the system by behavior and require the department to document when we feel it is not the case.” There are four things wrong with this approach:

1) the determining body developing the policy, outside of the legislature, consists exclusively of proponents of the prison industrial complex. Thus, whatever policy is developed will reflect the same draconian, profit-driven inhumanity that’s subjected us to these torture units thus far for decades without end;

2) most of us have not had any rules violations reports in decades. What do we need to “earn” through our “behavior” that’s not already been earned through a years-long proven record of disciplinary free conduct? Or must we subject ourselves to the behavior modification experiments developed in the Marion federal torture unit?

3) indeterminate SHU confinement cannot be allowed to continue to be based on what this department does or does not “feel is the case.” The primary issue here is the arbitrary nature of gang validation and subsequent indeterminate SHU confinement;

4) what Mr. Kernan is suggesting here is no different than the sham six-year inactive review that’s already in place.

Mr. Kernan stated the CDCR gang validation policy is “intended to protect inmates we are charged with and staff,” yet anyone who’s on this side of the door knows that’s a flat out lie. The CDCR gang policy is intended to maintain their control of prison budgets, silence prisoner critics, preclude prisoner unity and continue to scapegoat indeterminate SHU prisoners who’ve not had a single instance of documented misconduct in decades as a basis for extorting billions of taxpayer dollars through over-exaggerating the threat posed by prisoners housed indefinitely in SHU on the basis of gang validations.

The CDCR gang policy is intended to maintain their control of prison budgets, silence prisoner critics, preclude prisoner unity and continue to scapegoat indeterminate SHU prisoners who’ve not had a single instance of documented misconduct in decades.

As I’ve stated previously, if prisoners, staff and public safety were truly CDCR’s motive force, they would have developed a prison environment and programs geared toward true rehabilitation and successful reintegration and performance in society upon release. Such an environment runs contrary to their economic and political interests and unfortunately against a significant number of the peoples’ desire for vengeance against perceived offenders.

Now then, a particularly distressing lie Mr. Kernan relayed to the public safety panel was that “all evidence used to validate is corroborated.” Simply put, this is a flat out lie. There is no corroboration via independent sources of information of confidential informants’ statements or confidential informant chronos known as “1030s.” Why he would utter a lie that is so easily debunked is truly beyond me.

A SHU survivor addresses the Aug. 23 rally outside the capitol in Sacramento.
To give you an example of what Mr.Kernan and the IGI deem corroboration, they have little boxes on the 1030 chrono listed a)-f) which state why they consider such a source reliable. In a 2008 1030 used to deny a validated indeterminate SHU prisoner “inactive status,” a debriefer – who was briefly housed with the brother – told IGI the individual spoke of the merits of socialism, the history of political resistance to racism and socio-economic inequality in Amerika, and of the validity of the political and socio-economic views of Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh and George Lester Jackson. The IGI told the debriefer that the prisoner was providing “BGF education,” to which the debriefer quickly agreed and parroted what his IGI handler told him to.

Because the same prisoner wrote an article in California Prison Focus critical of CDCR and expressing some of these same political ideas (CPF Fall 2003), they considered this “more than one source independently provid(ing) the same information,” and “part of the information provided by the source has already proven to be true.” This expression of his political views and social criticism of the department’s practice of arbitrarily targeting and punishing left-wing political ideologies in prison in violation of the First Amendment and their own California Code of Regulations, Title 15, was sufficient to earn him another six years in SHU – though he in truth had no chance of release via inactive review.

Not only is political speech and expression protected by “the supreme laws of the land” – or is supposed to be – but it boggles the mind how an article in a publication CDCR not only allows into institutions, but the state delivers to our cell doors, can possibly be corroboration of a coerced informant’s scripted lies. This is what passes for corroboration in Mr. Kernan’s CDCR. The fact of the matter is there is no corroboration of evidence and no way to verify it if there was. IGI is the only one who gets to see the evidence used to consign men to these torture units forever.

Mr. Kernan went on to state, “These offenders are in the SHU with mountains of documentation of illegal criminal activities both out on the streets in public and in prison.” And it is just these types of irresponsible, intentionally dishonest statements which have cowed courts and legislators alike into turning a blind eye to wholesale psychological torture for decades in the California prison system.

A panel of professionals firmly opposed to the torture of solitary confinement – Laura Magnani, Dorsey Nunn, Terry Kupers, Craig Haney and Charles Carbone – prepares to testify at Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s hearing Aug. 23. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
The truth of the matter is most validated indeterminate SHU prisoners haven’t had a single documented instance of misconduct or rules violation report for ANY criminal act in decades. I assure you if such a “mountain of illegal activities” was documented, you’d have an equally high mountain of rules violation reports, district attorney referrals and indictments. This is a lie specifically designed to put forward a non-existent justification for that which, according to “the rule of law,” is unjustifiable: indefinite psychological torture to coerce men into becoming informants, agent provocateurs and advocates for the same heinous practices which broke their minds and subsumed their wills.

To be sure, Mr. Kernan contradicted himself in his next breath by stating, in response to the statistical data showing gang violence has only increased as sensitive needs yards – inhabited exclusively by the debriefers, informants and other protective custody designees Mr. Kernan is singing the praises of – have expanded, that “the state’s gang problem has even increased, but separating those offenders we have in SHU has led to a decrease.”

Upon hearing this absurdity, even the assemblyman had to call him on the contradiction. As the hearing wore on and the objective evidence in front of the legislative oversight committee continued to contradict the lies and distortions Mr. Kernan was offering as authority, he stated, “Let’s not lose focus on the real public safety threat perpetuated by gangs in our system.”

And it is this narrow and intentionally ill-informed perspective on public safety which has produced an 800 percent increase in the California prison population, a dysfunctional correctional and nonexistent rehabilitation system, and led to the state’s use and expansion of domestic human experimentation, torture units on the victims of a socio-economic arrangement that has forced us from the bottom rung of society into the bowels of Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs.

The lights in these SHU cells are never turned off, causing sensory deprivation that is another form of torture.
Mr. Kernan and the rest of the prison industrialists can lay the blame for society’s ills at the feet of “gangs” all they like, and the vicious cycle will only continue ebbing toward the inexorable decline of Western Civilization. Until such time as we all accept the fact that “gangs” are the inevitable outgrowth of capitalist contradictions, of educational and labor underdevelopment in underclass communities and your political and economic leaders’ unwillingness or inability to address the gross disparities between the haves and have nots as the true origin of society’s ills, “gang” violence and systematic criminality will continue to be part of the U.S. social fabric.

Luckily, as consciousness raising efforts like the global Occupy Wall Street Movement continue to sweep across the planet, these “leaders” will be forced to acknowledge the obvious. With a multi-billion dollar budget, Mr. Kernan and his department can make some significant contributions to a new approach. But as the continued intransigence of the department shows, true public safety is a remote concern of those you’ve invested with that responsibility.

The actual public safety threat lies in the underlying socio-economic relationship between poor communities and the prison industry, our society’s indifference to that conflict, and the apparent dogged pursuit of a law enforcement and correctional policy which has been both a dismal inhumane failure and economically unsustainable. The definition of “insanity” is pursuing the same course of action repeatedly and expecting a different result.

I’d like to address one final point Mr. Kernan raised that I believe is pertinent. He stated, “An offender that wants to rehab himself, he can’t because of an inmate telling him to go stab someone or he will be killed.” This is both a misrepresentation of truth and a dangerous exaggeration. There are numerous non-affiliates in the general population of CDCR and Mr. Kernan is well aware of it. Everyone in prison knows lumpen organizations or “gangs” in prison don’t force membership onto non-affiliates, because history has proven such prisoners always become informants, agents or are easily compelled to lie on those they formerly ran with.

But that’s not the core issue here. What is, is Mr. Kernan’s willingness to dispense such tripe as “facts” in hopes of somehow convincing the people that the perpetual torture of over 3,000 human beings is somehow legitimate. This type of thinking and speech MUST be confronted and debunked. Indefinite solitary confinement of humans in California, across the U.S. and throughout the world must be opposed, resisted and abolished.

Indefinite solitary confinement of humans in California, across the U.S. and throughout the world must be opposed, resisted and abolished.

In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, a document was drafted which stated “The protagonists of this practice of human experimentation justify their views on the basis that such experiments yield results for the good of society that are unprocurable by other methods or means of study. All agree, however, that certain basic principles must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical and legal concepts.” That was an excerpt from the Nuremberg Code.

The most passionate and powerful testimony at the Aug. 23 hearing came from SHU survivors and prisoners’ family members, especially Earl Fears and Glenda Rojas shown here. – Photo: Wanda Sabir
Have we as a society descended so far into the miasma of fear, hatred and dehumanization that we would condone the state-sponsored torture of thousands of humans from our communities, in our name?

I began this discussion with a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to illustrate the slippery slope we are on as a society. Maintenance of these torture units is an injustice; a continuation of the current law enforcement and correctional policy in relation to fundamental socio-economic disparities is inhumane. Injustice anywhere, even here in Corcoran SHU’s 4B1L-C-Section, is a threat to justice everywhere. Today it is us; tomorrow if may be someone you love or, God forbid, you yourself.

Have we as a society descended so far into the miasma of fear, hatred and dehumanization that we would condone the state-sponsored torture of thousands of humans from our communities, in our name?

It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” How civilized is this society? And to answer that question with another: How civilized are you, the people who make it up?

If this second hunger strike effort has taught us anything, it is that the power to transform an intransigent industrial interest such as CDCR must come from the will of the people, from exercising your limitless power. Prison authorities were fully content to let us die this time and even modified their medical responses to maximize the chance of permanent injury or death to hunger strikers, which makes the broader aspects of this struggle so significant.

The power to transform an intransigent industrial interest such as CDCR must come from the will of the people, from exercising your limitless power.

This is not over. It is a protracted struggle that does not end, yet simply begins, with the abolition of SHU torture units. It is the intent of the NCTT to ensure not another human is done this way, not another soul lost to such greedy and heartless people.

Participating in the first round of the hunger strike, 6,600 prisoners and in the second round 12,000 prisoners joined their comrades in SHU to demand an end to “gang validation” and the torture of solitary confinement.
It is our intent to fight for true rehabilitation and positive empowerment, not merely for current or ex-prisoners, but for the underclass communities we all too often hail from. If we can provide community-based initiatives and programs which address the inherent social inequalities in the class arrangement, this will eliminate the motive for property crimes – which make up 98 percent of all crime in the U.S. – and give us all safer and more prosperous communities, allowing us all to partake of the inalienable rights provided for in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The nature of California state and U.S. corrections must change. But to do that we must change society. Who dares to take up such a challenge? Who dares breathe life into the promise of the Declaration of Independence? Who dares champion the poor, the most disenfranchised and underdeveloped communities, the ghettoes, barrios and trailer parks of Amerika? Who dares champion the most vulnerable and urbanized in our society – the felon, the SHU prisoner, the poor?

Who dares champion the most vulnerable and urbanized in our society – the felon, the SHU prisoner, the poor?

Who dares do the right thing when the Scott Kernans of the world swear it’s wrong? Who dares to struggle? Who dares to win? We do, and we hope you do too.

Join us! This power to shape history and the future of the society is in your hands. We have faith you will uphold the highest standards of humanity. Our love and solidarity to all those who love freedom, justice and equality and fear only failure.

For more information on the NCTT or its work products and initiatives, contact Zaharibu Dorrough, D-83611, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #53, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212; J. Heshima Denham, J-38283, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #46, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212; Kambui Robinson, C-82830, CSP-Cor-SHU 4B1L #49, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212.

This letter was typed by Adrian McKinney.

 

One thought on “We dare to win: The reality and impact of SHU torture units

  1. bato

    words sent from SHU-Hell are best heard and seen from the perview of the humans who dwell there. How is it then.. that anyone can know or tell… what ordeals and miseries are there endured.. unless having in past or thru vile experience learnt such things now imprinted in our minds and psyche. Such inhumane treatment meeted out to another human being whether free or not .. endures propigates self…. and unltimately transffered onto the social tree of life. One humane community… one world.. tho' walls and barriers seperate the free from the unfree.. no one leaves here nor there… without the collective stain of silence and complicity… locked within the secret confines of ones concience. oheyo bato

    Reply

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