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The criminality of solitary confinement

March 21, 2015

by Steve Martinot

Introduction

In this series of articles, we have traced the various mechanisms whereby the prison procedures of “gang validation” are used to deny the civil rights, the human rights and even the humanity of the prisoners. These procedures mark the criminality of the prison administration, the California Department of Corrections.

“Daddy’s Girl” – Art: Roger “Rab” Moore, G-02296, HDSP Z-168, P.O. Box 3030,  Susanville CA 96127

“Daddy’s Girl” – Art: Roger “Rab” Moore, G-02296, HDSP Z-168, P.O. Box 3030, Susanville CA 96127. Rab writes in a note titled “A message to my daughter”: “Words may never express the guilt I feel for leaving you out there alone. Who knew that the decisions I made would have such an impact on your life. Daughters and sons need their fathers. So many of us are behind these walls, and most won’t ever come home. We’ve left behind children who look up to us. I want to personally say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Forgive us.’ I will never stop trying to make this up to you. I love you.”

We have been considering the case of Abdul Olugbala Shakur, who has been in solitary confinement for decades. In the past, the administration had broken Shakur’s contact with his mother, his spiritual father and others. In its more recent attacks, it has charged him with “gang activity” for having written about certain matters in private letters to friends and compatriots.

In the various Rules Violation Reports on these charges, the administration has revealed its own criminality. In particular, it has engineered witchhunts in the name of gang control and despotically imposed extensive censorship on prisoners’ reading material and correspondence.

These engineered campaigns constitute aggression not only against prisoners but against all of us as well, insofar as we are barred from their information about their situation. In addition, the impunity of this criminal aggressiveness against the political thinking of prisoners demonstrates, more than anything, the necessity for political resistance by the prisoners themselves, for their psychological survival, which then gets called “gang activity.”

What many Black prisoners have adopted, in order to defend themselves against the administration, is an identification with the ideas of New Afrikan Nationalism, as a self-chosen identity. As self-chosen, it offers opposition, alternative and resistance against the identity traditionally imposed upon Black people by a discriminatory society.

In Shakur’s case, he is prosecuted for mentioning New Afrika, New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalism, Black August, George Jackson and the George Jackson University in private letters to friends – and given more time in solitary. It is to “outlaw” these ideas as well as identification with them that the administration has associated them with “gang activity.”

Since gang activity can be outlawed and punished, then so can the ideas associated with it. Thus, “gang validation” becomes the fraudulent and unconstitutional instrumentality for outlawing ideas.

Since gang activity can be outlawed and punished, then so can the ideas associated with it. Thus, “gang validation” becomes the fraudulent and unconstitutional instrumentality for outlawing ideas.

Imprisonment is an act of violence designed to separate a person from society. The rationale of “protecting” society against violent people fails in view of the fact that 70 percent of all prisoners are there for victimless crimes.

Censorship is designed to further isolate prisoners from society. But this patently contradicts the pretended “legitimate” purpose of prison, namely, to return a criminal to society as a better law-abiding person. To return to society, one must have maintained a relation to it. Insofar as censorship breaks that relation, it makes reentry difficult.

But we already know that the legislated obstructions placed in the way of former prisoners – barring access to social services, public housing and most employment – makes reentry practically impossible, essentially guaranteeing recidivism. “Reentry” becomes a fraudulent term whose real meaning is social exile.

Why would recidivism be built into the system? So that the administration can say that certain people, mostly people of color, are incorrigible and must be permanently removed from society. The real point of imprisonment, then, is not to establish respect for law and decency but to implement segregation.

It is not to correct bad behavior but to destroy people and communities. It signifies that “crime” is not the problem the judicial machine is constructed to resolve but rather the existence of Black and Brown people.

The real point of imprisonment is not to establish respect for law and decency but to implement segregation. It is not to correct bad behavior but to destroy people and communities.

Prison is today, for the most part, a project to rebuild the segregationism torn down by the Civil Rights Movement. Today, 75 percent of all prisoners are people of color.

We see this fact unfold in its extreme in the murder of Black and Brown people by the police in the streets. In 2012, over 600 unarmed people of color were killed by the police. In 2014, that figure rose to over 1,020 (the freethoughtproject.com). In 2014, as well, in the prisons of Florida alone, over 340 people were killed by the guards (Daily Kos, 1/14/15).

The criminality of extended isolation

Shakur had been in isolation for decades, along with 80,000 other prisoners in the U.S. It was to protest this fact that prisoners organized a hunger strike in July 2013. Its demands were simply for human rights, decent food, correspondence” with the outside, fairness in administration treatment and an end to indefinite solitary confinement. Since that hunger strike, Shakur has been attacked and harassed by the administration, using their rules violation procedures to do so (as outlined in the previous articles, “Prisons, gangs, witchhunts and white supremacy” and “The Black Guerrilla Family and human freedom”).

Shakur has described the reality of isolation in an essay (“What is solitary confinement?” previously published in the Bay View 10/18/14). To place a person in a small cell with a steel door and no personal contact with others is only the technical instrumentality of isolation.

According to the U.N., and recognized in the U.S., such isolation is sufficient to drive a person mad. It is a mode of torture whose purpose is the destruction of personhood.

But there are always other prisoners in an isolation cellblock. They can speak to each other through doors and corridors and hear the others’ screams. So the administration, as Shakur describes it, creates social, political and psychological isolation by engineering who the others in the cellblock will be.

To place a Black prisoner, for instance, adjacent to someone who aggressively hates Black people will be to subject him to a ceaselessly hostile and aggressive environment. Thus, the many hatreds inculcated in U.S. society – ethnic, racial, gender, ideological, demographic etc. – are used by the administration to assist in the further destruction of intellect and personhood.

Prison is today, for the most part, a project to rebuild the segregationism torn down by the Civil Rights Movement. Today, 75 percent of all prisoners are people of color.

That destruction is not permitted to any institution in this country by any law or ethic, which means that it is itself totally criminal behavior by the prison institution. What astounds is that the prison industry schemes about how to torture each prisoner with these extreme forms of institutional sadism.

Though the term “sadism” is a psychological term that refers to individual psychology, what the prison industry is proving is that these psychological terms can also refer to institutions. The fraud that disguises these procedures of torture politically lies in calling them “control” procedures, thus making them seem necessary, as if prison were not already absolute control.

The impossibility of justice amid punishment for thought

With respect to the rules violation write-ups by which people are kept in solitary, their purpose is punishment for thought. As indicated above, associating certain thoughts with gang activity gives the administration the power to ban those thoughts in the name of outlawing gangs. Though it rationalizes this as defense against anti-social disruption, it is the administration that defines gangs, and thus defines disruption. The real purpose remains to charge and convict people for what they think.

Associating certain thoughts with gang activity gives the administration the power to ban those thoughts in the name of outlawing gangs. The real purpose remains to charge and convict people for what they think.

We know how distant that is from law enforcement. Law enforcement means that, in the event a crime is committed, a person suspected of committing that crime is brought to trial to be decided by a jury of his/her peers.

In the U.S., this is what passes for “justice.” To be a real system of justice, there would have to be checks and balances against the ability of the police or prosecutors to frame a person for something they didn’t do. That doesn’t exist.

When George Ryan was governor of Illinois, he found out that one out of every six persons on death row was innocent of the crime for which he was to be executed – framed by the judicial system – and in 2003 ended the death penalty. Of course, the revenge ethic that is fulfilled by imprisonment already makes justice impossible because it doubles the criminality and violence in society simply through the violence and criminality of its vengeance. It also provides a role model for further social violence.

But beyond that, there are a number of corruptions of the “law enforcement” paradigm: 1) A person can be convicted because suspected of having committed some as yet unknown crime. 2) A person can be convicted for having thought about committing a specific crime. 3) A person can be convicted for having thought about committing some as yet unknown crime. 4) A person can be convicted of having thoughts that do not constitute crimes or criminality but simply for having such thoughts. 5) And finally, a person can be convicted for being suspected of having certain unspecified thoughts, which nevertheless are suspected to constitute crimes, simply because suspected.

The first occurs with racial profiling, in which the police commit an act of suspicion, and hold a person while they look for a crime the person might possibly have committed, depriving them of liberty while they do so. The second occurs every time someone is charged under a conspiracy statute, which means that the person, in conversation with others, thought about committing a crime. If the crime is actually committed, then the existence of that conversation can be considered pre-meditation, but then it is no longer “conspiracy.”

The third occurs when an officer shoots someone for disobeying a command and states that he, the officer, felt threatened by the suspect. In such a case, the officer is charging the suspect with felonious assault and then prosecuting, convicting and punishing the person by shooting him.

The fourth occurs when a police officer shoots someone who disobeys an officer’s command, for instance, by running away, thus assuming the criminality of the person’s thoughts and convicting by punishing him in the moment – as Officer Gonzales did when he shot Gary King in the back as King walked away in Oakland in 2007. The list of people to whom this has happened is longer than the list of people on death row in California.

The fifth occurs when a person is killed by the police for simply refusing to be handcuffed or refusing to open the door to the police. We can mention Kayla Moore, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Ramarley Graham … but again, the list is very long.

When an officer shoots and kills a person, as Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown as he stood 100 feet away with his hands up, and is exonerated of any wrongdoing, the state, in so exonerating him, is saying that the officer acted according to state policy. In other words, in acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, the officer has properly performed as an extension of the state’s judicial machinery.

The revenge ethic that is fulfilled by imprisonment already makes justice impossible because it doubles the criminality and violence in society simply through the violence and criminality of its vengeance. It also provides a role model for further social violence.

Only when involved in actual law enforcement are police officers not extensions of the judicial process. Then they are acting as actual police officers, policing the society according to the law. But in the other instances, the police have taken on state functions that are not given to them.

The witchhunting process by which prisoners are brought up on rules violation charges in California prisons, and thrown in solitary or kept in solitary for what they think or read, constitutes a conjunction of all these travesties of justice. The person in prison whose thoughts are defined by the administration as “evidence” of gang activity is not only suspected of criminality, but suspected of conspiring, of rule violations, of thinking about rule violations and of thinking about disobeying the rules in order to disobey in all these respects. Gang validation amounts to conviction on all counts.

“Trapped, Isolated” – Art: Roger “Rab” Moore (address above)

“Trapped, Isolated” – Art: Roger “Rab” Moore (address above)

The real travesty is that the prison administration pretends it is engaged in legitimate judicial process. In its hearing reports, there are sections labeled “due process,” “investigation,” “witnesses,” “plea” and “testimony” as if they were real.

Ironically, in every one of Shakur’s write-ups, the hearing officer denied Shakur permission to have a witness, declaring that what the witness would say would be irrelevant to the case. This not only cancelled the witness’s existence as a person, but it deprived the prisoner of a defense, as well as due process. The judge, in speaking for someone who isn’t there, thus ceases to be a judge, and becomes a despot.

Isolation is for the purpose of driving people mad

It is known that isolation will drive people mad. Like all torture, it is destructive and is understood to be so in law and in U.N. proclamation. Yet entire prison systems (Pelican Bay, Marion, Lexington etc.) are based upon facilitating solitary confinement. They are institutions built on the principle of destroying human beings.

The administration claims that isolation is necessary to punish people who are violent or who break prison rules. But these prisons were built first, before they had people to punish in this way. They were built with the knowledge that their operation would destroy people. Afterwards, strategies and policies were developed for filling them. The notion of gang validation is one of those strategies.

The purpose of torturing people is to destroy what they think without damaging the person physically – and without committing murder. The administration can say it is defending society against violence rather than committing it. But this simply dovetails with the rhetoric of “correction” (The Department of Correction), whose reality is to intentionally guarantee recidivism.

The false purpose of imprisonment

In light of this project which the prison system fulfills in the U.S., it is utmost blindness to uphold the idea that prisons have a role to play in dealing with people who assault others and who rape and murder them. We hear it all the time: “People have to take responsibility for what they have done to others. We have to get them off the street.”

This is empty if it does not also mean doing so to the perpetrators of institutional criminality – the guards and prison administration, the cops who shoot or beat people on the street, as well as those who legislatively legitimize – through inactivity – or even authorize the torture of solitary confinement. They all need to be held responsible for the violence they impose on society.

The perpetrators of institutional criminality are the guards and prison administration, the cops who shoot or beat people on the street, as well as those who legislatively legitimize – through inactivity – or even authorize the torture of solitary confinement. They all need to be held responsible for the violence they impose on society.

Unfortunately, none of this responds to the real issue of justice. It doesn’t even ask if imprisonment itself is unjust or not. In its silence on that issue, the call for imprisonment affirms that the question of justice is irrelevant.

Indeed, the very desperation contained in that question – “What are we going to do about violent people?” –names the injustice of imprisonment and of its administration. Instead, mass incarceration and solitary confinement are given legal rationalization, though they are forms of psychological destruction, in order that civil society can think that everything is OK and that justice is served.

There are two dimensions to the social acceptance of imprisonment. The first is tradition. Prison is the way Western society has always dealt with those who break the law. The second is violence, reflecting a desire to torture people. Removal from society inflicts pain, as does confinement to a cage.

If we are serious about halting anti-social transgressions – for which persons are ostensibly to be held responsible – then we have to find an alternative because imprisonment is by nature anti-social and transgressive, against persons, families and communities.

If we are serious about justice, then we have to recognize that the injustice of solitary confinement reveals a fundamental desire for injustice at the core of the culture of the U.S. It marks the real desire to deprive people of human rights – outside on the street as well as inside the prison.

Pain, suffering and psychological destruction are the intentions society manifests through imprisonment. It is true that it makes some people feel good about themselves and that the violence committed constitutes a mark of virtue for them.

As the implementation of a revenge ethic, prisons and imprisonment have no socially redeeming value. They are wholly corrupting, even of those people who support them as an institution.

But for that very reason, as the implementation of a revenge ethic, prisons and imprisonment have no socially redeeming value. They are wholly corrupting, even of those people who support them as an institution.

For those of us who believe in justice and democracy, the real crime problem in the U.S. is the prison system itself and its judicial machine. Together they are making justice and democracy practically impossible.

Steve Martinot is a human rights activist, organizer and writer and retired machinist, truck driver and professor, most recently at San Francisco State University. He has organized labor unions in New York and Akron and helped build community associations in Akron. He was a political prisoner in New York state charged with contempt of grand jury. He has published eight books, the latest being “The Need to Abolish the Prison System,” and can be reached at martinot4@gmail.com.

 

23 thoughts on “The criminality of solitary confinement

  1. Paul

    Well written paper. I'm an RN, not so great an author but trying. At CDCR, I worked in a torture chamber hiding as a "mental health treatment unit". Thousands of Black victims are held there not just in solitary for 24 hrs a day with no break, no sunlight, no human contact, they are poisoned, sexually and physically abused, medically abandoned and worse.

    Gov. Ryan found 1 of 6 death row inmates to be innocent. They are the most well investigated cases. I discovered that, at a minimum, 25% or 1 in 4 of the patients I tried to care for have big anomalies in their convictions. Indeed, many may not have had a trial at all. One repeating mechanism was being arrested, beaten, put on a bus and placed in solitary. No family contact, no lawyer, no trial, legal lynching.

    A warm body brings $ into the prison, more guards, pensions and big contracts for yet more prisons. Fallowing the money is always a good idea, but there is more. The intensive Tortures I saw and reported are taken from the N. Koreans, almost identical to those used in CIA "black prisons". The N Koreans found that isolation, combined with mind altering drugs, agony, sleep deprivation and, most importantly, psychological torture, cause brain damage and personality changes. They used this to break some of the best trained soldiers in the world. My patients "broke", in most cases, after just 6 days of torture.

    After "breaking" the victim, and several additional months of abuse, they are cycled out, a new victim taking their place. Returning to society, the survivors (not all live past the "treatments") are often unable to function as the fathers, mothers, wives and husbands that make up the backbone of any society, in this case Black society. With a sometimes false criminal record, no good jobs are open to them, even schools will reject them.

    My inmates were intentionally overdosed with massive amounts of drugs, reminding me of the dumping of drugs in Oakland and LA, apparently smuggled in on US Military aircraft. This assault on Black society is well organized and financed. Here in Ca. CDCR sucks in over 15% of the budget, causing layoffs of teachers, crippling disaster resources and causing an epidemic of murder and drug addiction in Black society, especially among children.

    Other effects include the targeting of white Officers by prison victims, a breeding ground for terrorists of all varieties and the loss of respect for an out of control legal system. Jews faced this in Hitlers Germany, Chinese faced this under Japanese rule, etc, etc. In America, the targeting of Blacks includes a license to kill unarmed minority children on sight, like 007 with a sheet.

    What reasonable Black person will surrender to a police officer when they know they will get none of the Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment? The foundations of our justice system- our prisons and legal system (grand juries, the U.S. Constitution)- are now thinly veiled raciest machines with one end in mine, the destruction of Black society in America.

    I saw officers allowed to purger themselves in court with repercussions. False testimony of confessions that ever happened, sworn admissions to crimes ignored. They consider themselves above the law, just as Eric Garners killers and so many others do. They treat the Constitution as a joke and violate State and Federal laws with impunity.

    Surrounded by an army of lawyers, armed with military equipment, including tanks and machine guns, they are funded by unlimited amounts of tax dollars. Officers can torture and kill Blacks without risking their pensions. The torture chamber I tried to report had only 84 cement boxes or so, yet thousands were harmed.

    When a Grand Jury reviewed the institution, they were told there were no ADSEG isolation beds there, so my mental health patients were not counted among the 80 thousand held in isolation nationwide. How many other hidden "treatment" facilities exist? Hundreds? Thousands? How many more deaths under torture will be ignored? Autopsy by CDCR MD's only. Is the end goal a race war as I suspect or just a way to prevent Black society from flourishing in America?

    The Law Enforcement Officers running this can never admit to the truth as they could loose their jobs, pensions and the freedom they so easily take from thousands of victims. Even when admissions to criminal activity do come out, as in my SPB trial, Law Enforcement ignores it. The FBI, the Federal Attorney General, and the U.S. President, himself a Black man, have not acted. I pray this will someday change. If anyone has any ideas on how to stop this out of control above the law "law enforcement agency" please post them as a reply or email me at Stopcdcrpt.abuse@gmail.com.

    Reply
  2. Lina

    I clearly not agree with these organizational gaps, which is why sometimes I think that prison may have more negative than positive effects. I don't know what to say about how they should manage this unfavorable situation, but I think there is a viable solution.
    Paula

    Reply
  3. Jeff M

    I worked at HDSP and improvements are needed. There are several legitimate points in this article, unfortunately much of it is ridiculous. Over-the-top articles and commenters like this block any potential reform from happening. All prison administrators need to do is point to the paranoid theories being promoted in articles like this and anyone interested in bringing reform get labeled as crackpots.

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  4. thinktenmediagroup

    Thank you for shining a light on this. The Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strikes opened our eyes up to this reality and motivated us to act. We connected with individuals who experienced solitary confinement and worked with them to create a media project that shows just how brutal solitary is. As the series grows, we'll be sharing stories like the one you've shared to continue to increase awareness and to invite others to get involved and make change. You can watch our pilot episode here: thewholeseries.com and individuals can support the continuation of the show and this work here: http://www.seedandspark.com/studio/whole.

    We'd love to connect with SF Bay View to share more about this project as we've seen how powerful it is in getting people to see just how barbaric this mass use of solitary confinement is.

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