by Kevin Rashid Johnson
I am not one prone to fits of temper. But a few days ago I almost lost it. My outrage was prompted by witnessing the steady deterioration of another prisoner, resulting from particularly acute mental torture inflicted in Oregon’s Disciplinary Segregation Units (DSU), which duplicate almost exactly conditions of torture practiced at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary that were outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1800s. ((In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890).))
The prisoner, who’d been housed in a suicide precaution cell next to me in the DSU of Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), went into an immediate depressed state upon being put into the DSU. Initially, he talked a little. Then abruptly withdrew. He stopped eating, to which the guards were unanimously indifferent. Several taunted him, “If you don’t eat it, I will.” He then stuffed toilet paper and the cell’s mattress into the cracks around the edges of the door, apparently to seal off all outside sound and “barricade” himself in.
He blacked out the camera in the cell, and began talking to himself. He sat catatonic in the corner of the cell and naked for days on end. He was confronted only twice by mental health staff who indifferently left his cell when he wasn’t responsive to their half-hearted attempts to talk.
Only after I verbally protested the blatant apathy of mental health and medical staff to his condition, which was obviously due to their collaborating in his mental torture, was a nurse brought to the cell to physically examine him. Whereupon his blood pressure was found extremely low and both the nurse and accompanying guard expressed his mouth and skin showed obvious symptoms of severe dehydration. In addition to not eating, he’d also apparently not been drinking water for several days, although he was supposedly in a “monitored” cell.
The nurse had him immediately taken out of the unit, likely to the medical department since he didn’t return. The next day I was moved to another unit as well. That was on Nov. 14.
A high tide of suicide
I never learned his full name. The guards and other officials called him only “Acosta” (presumably his last name). In the DSU where we were confined together, there are six suicide precaution cells. I was housed next to one of them.
In 22 years of imprisonment, I have never seen such a consistently high and continuous series of suicide cases, which I immediately recognized to result from the extreme sensory deprivation of DSU housing.
These precaution cells have in-cell video cameras, and prisoners confined to them are generally given only a blue nylon smock-like garment to wear, a nylon blanket and a mattress. Throughout my DSU assignment at SRCI, these cells were always occupied and a constantly changing rotation of prisoners were kept on watch as a result of suicide attempts and ideations. In 22 years of imprisonment, I have never seen such a consistently high and continuous series of suicide cases, which I immediately recognized to result from the extreme sensory deprivation of DSU housing.
Compelling idle minds
Prior to my Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) assignment in February 2012, I’d spent 17 years in solitary confinement, enduring various extremes of sensory deprivation. During that time I witnessed numerous prisoners deteriorate mentally under the conditions of solitary. But in most cases, it took months to years because there was a limited amount of access to in-cell property and one could use the telephone periodically. However, in Oregon’s DSU no personal property is allowed, beyond a pen, writing paper, and, if one can afford it and has anyone to regularly correspond with, a few mailing envelopes. One cannot use the telephone to communicate with loved ones at all. One can’t have personal books even. Not even law books.
In DSU a prisoner may only receive up to three novels from a small rolling book cart kept in the unit. Many of which are missing bindings and pages. Such reading per se does little to stimulate the mind and denies one the opportunity and right to select his own subjects and fields of research and study. ((As the courts have held: “Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is often freedom to read … Forbid a person to read and you shut him out of the marketplace of ideas and opinions that it is the free-speech clause to protect.” King v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 415 F. 3d 634, 638 (2005).)) The three novels may only be exchanged from the cart once per week.
DSU prisoners are heard frequently complaining that having nothing else to do, they complete novels in two to three days, and are otherwise left completely idle and “bored out of their minds.” Meantime the deterioration sets in: the constant cell-pacing or catatonic states, incessantly talking to oneself, depression, irrational searches for stimulation, and of course, self mutilation and suicide attempts.
Torture by design
And ODOC officials know what they’re doing. They consciously use acute sensory deprivation (psychological torture) as a behavior modification technique, with the assistance of mental health staff whose professional role and concern are supposed to be maintaining prisoners in healthy mental states, not aiding in inflicting mental pain and injury on them. This is no different from the doctors and nurses who aided the gruesome medical experiments and tortures of concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany.
Indeed, I was moved from the DSU with the suicide precaution cells when I spoke out in protest to and against one of the DSU staff, D. Jennings, as she indifferently left Acosta’s cell. I asked why she was condoning his and all our mental torture under DSU conditions, referring to the high frequency of suicide attempts in the unit and citing numerous studies of psychiatric and torture experts on sensory deprivation and its being a known form of psychological torture and one of the most hurtful and damaging forms at that. Her response was to walk away with guards laughing. She then gave me a scornful stare as she left the unit.
This is no different from the doctors and nurses who aided the gruesome medical experiments and tortures of concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany.
I’ve learned from ODOC prisoners, officials and ODOC’s own publicly accessible policies – the Oregon Administrative Rules (OARs) ((All of the ODOC’s Oregon Administrative Rules can be read at www.arcweb.sos.state.or.us. The OARs relevant to this article are OAR 291-011 (Disciplinary Segregation), OAR 291-055 (Intensive Management Unit) and OAR 291-069 (Security Threat Management).)) – that ODOC officials very deliberately use psychological torture as a behavior modification technique, which is one reason the DSU is designed as it is. Those found in violation of minor or major prison rules are invariably sentenced to months of mental torture in DSU: typically four to six months at a time, which amounts to prolonged torture as a deterrent to rules violations.
Worse still is the ODOC’s Intensive Management Unit (IMU), where I am now confined. A housing status that lasts from seven months to indefinitely, during which a prisoner must pass through four levels – which requires that he reveal his every thought to his torturers.
Those housed in IMU who receive rules infractions are automatically placed on level one for a month, which is even more restrictive and extreme in sensory deprivation than DSU housing. And for every infraction he then receives, his level one assignment is extended. Such conditions often put prisoners struggling to maintain their sanity in a catch-22, where coping prompts resisting their torturing confinement and that very resistance prompts infractions which intensify and prolong that confinement. ((On this phenomenon see Dr. Atul Gawadne, “Hellhole: the United States holds thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?” The New Yorker, March 30, 2009.))
On the level one IMU status, the prisoner may have only one novel per week, and cannot even come out of the cell for fresh air inside the walled-in enclosure, with only a small patch of the sky visible, that passes for an exercise yard.
Then, too, as Security Threat Management (STM) Lt. Schultz here at SRCI boasted in my presence on Sept. 18, 2012, he personally imposes indefinite statuses on select IMU prisoners where they are left in completely empty cells all day, given bedding and linen from 10 pm to 6 am daily, and are allowed writing supplies for no more than four hours per day. He actually admitted to me this was torture and violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights, but proclaimed himself immune from all liability – i.e. above the law – because ODOC policy empowered him to do pretty much as he pleases to prisoners as an STM official. ((See OAR on STM, op cit. note 3.))
I in turn sent Schultz a written request that same day pointing out that he was not in fact immune for violating the law because he believes his policy-making superiors gave him authority to do so. I then pointed out the sort of character he and his colleagues are, who presume to punish others by imprisonment for breaking laws, when they in fact have no respect for the very same laws themselves – and the highest law of the land that they are under oath to uphold at that, namely the U.S. Constitution.
And although ODOC rules required that Schultz respond to my request within seven days, he never replied. ((Per OAR 291-109-1020 (4) ODOC staff are to reply to prisoners’ written requests (“Kytes”) within seven days.)) Yet, he sees to prisoners being tortured for violating ODOC rules.
One prisoner who’s been confined in the ODOC for some time – Damascus Menefee – informed me of an ODOC scandal a few years back, where it was exposed in the media that several DSU and IMU prisoners had committed suicide but were not discovered by officials for hours, because guards weren’t tending their posts and refused to make required security rounds in the housing units. As a result, the ODOC installed electronic devices in the DSUs and IMU that monitor and record the guards’ rounds in the units.
And although ODOC rules required that Schultz respond to my request within seven days, he never replied. Yet, he sees to prisoners being tortured for violating ODOC rules.
What was also exposed during this scandal was that the conditions of the DSUs and IMU were causing an extremely high incidence of suicides and suicide attempts in the ODOC. However, nothing was done to change these conditions that still exist, and, as I have observed, continue to drive prisoners at an extraordinary rate into suicidal ideations and actions.
History repeats itself
As pointed out, the DSU and IMU conditions replicate abuses outlawed over a century ago, at the Eastern State Penitentiary, where solitary confinement was first tried as a method of “reforming” criminals but only proved to drive them insane.
Whereas DSU and IMU level one prisoners are locked in solitary cells with only novels, at Eastern State they were confined in solitary with only a bible to read, where they were expected to ponder and make penance (hence the name “penitentiary”) for their wrongs. The actual effects of such confinement, as the Supreme Court found, were quite different:
“A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal were not reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of subsequent service to the community.” ((See op cit. note 1 on page 168.))
Unite to fight prison torture
Today, as the world joins U.S. prisoners in protest against ongoing solitary confinement in prisons across the country – from the United Nations denouncing the practice of torture ((On Oct. 18, 2011, U.N. torture expert Juan Méndez denounced U.S. solitary confinement practices as torture and called on all countries to ban its practice except in extremely exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. See “U.N. News: Solitary Confinement Should be Banned in Most Cases, U.N. Expert Says,” Oct. 18, 2011.)) to mass demonstrations in support of hunger striking prisoners protesting solitary ((On July 1 and Sept. 29, 2011, 6,000 and 12,000 prisoners respectively in California prisons went on hunger strikes lasting three weeks both times, protesting, among other things, long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units. Mass support for these hunger strikes spanned the country.)) – the ODOC has managed somehow to remain under the radar, where the most intense sensory deprivation is being inflicted on prisoners, and prisoners are literally dying to escape it. ((A prisoner confined next to me, as I write this, witnessed two suicides occurring during or about May and July 2012 at Oregon State Correctional Institutions Segregation Units in Salem Oregon. This witness is Zachariah Dickson.))
And it’s known torture – of the same sort inflicted in U.S. torture research labs like at Guantanamo Bay, where U.S. military personnel in collaboration with psychiatrists and psychologists inflicted, studied and refined various methods and effects of psychological torture on detainees – especially sensory deprivation – which came out in the U.S. military torture scandals of 2004 and led to ongoing mass protests to close down Guantanamo. Professor Alfred McCoy also wrote an extensive historical study and exposure of U.S. military and CIA involvement in refining techniques of mental torture for decades. ((Alfred McCoy, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror,” (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).))
The ODOC has managed somehow to remain under the radar, where the most intense sensory deprivation is being inflicted on prisoners, and prisoners are literally dying to escape it.
Experts in the field know very well that sensory deprivation causes suffering and injury at least as extensive and often more severe than physical torture and injury. As psychiatrist and torture expert Dr. Albert Biderman observed: “The effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved or deprived of sleep.” ((Albert Biderman, et al, “The Manipulation of Human Behavior” (New York, 1961) p. 29.)) Furthermore, studies find that sensory deprivation inflicted in solitary confinement even briefly actually causes physical brain damage.
“EEG studies going back to the 1960s have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, 57 prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward. The most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.” ((Op cit. note 4.))
As said, these hypocrites running the DOC are fully aware of what they’re doing. They know they’re engaged in torture of prisoners as lawless as if they were water boarding and electrocuting us. That they pretend to have a moral authority to punish others for breaking laws they don’t respect themselves is what fueled my outrage, as I watched others around me retreat into insanity, mentally deteriorate and literally resort to self-destruction in efforts to stop their suffering.
Here on the inside, the hypocrisy of those in power is blatant. Because we “in here” – so long disconnected from those “out there” – are powerless in the face of our armed captors, our torturers feel little need to sugarcoat reality and hide their true face as they do with the outside masses.
Here in Oregon, the public seems oblivious to the abuses carried out in their names within its prisons – abuses that also unbeknownst to them they stand to suffer from, because these tortured souls around me will be returned back to those communities from whence they left. So for the sake of all concerned, it’s in these communities’ interests to end this prison torture and hold those responsible to account.
That they pretend to have a moral authority to punish others for breaking laws they don’t respect themselves is what fueled my outrage, as I watched others around me retreat into insanity, mentally deteriorate and literally resort to self-destruction in efforts to stop their suffering.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
All Power to the People
Send our brother some love and light: Kevin Rashid Johnson, 19370490, Snake River Correctional Institution, 777 Stanton Blvd, Ontario OR 97914. And sign the RootsAction petition, which quotes Rashid: “Can solitary confinement be torture? Even George Will says yes.”