by Baridi X Williamson
Part I: Upon leaving Pelican Bay SHU solitary confinement, my firsts (of many)
Leaving out of Pelican Bay solitary confinement torture prison facilities/units/cages for the first time on Jan. 23, 2015 – after arriving there Nov. 29, 1990 – I remember witnessing my first sunrise as the CDCr (California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation) “gray goose” transportation bus travelled up the mountainside along Highway 101. Staring out the window at the skyline as it transformed into a mixture of blended orange-red-violet-blue colors, I sat there in deep silence just appreciating the beauty of nature. It would be the first of many first time experiences of using my natural senses again after being buried alive in that concrete box deprived of the natural use of those senses for the last 25 years – a quarter century.
My next “first” was at the San Quentin Receiving and Release Center, where our bus stopped over. And while we were standing in small holding cages waiting to get back on the bus, another of the men in another cage asked to use the restroom across the hall. I was surprised when the guard walked over to the cage, unlocked the door, and let the guy walk out and across the hall – around other staff – unhandcuffed!
I knew that I had to experience this after years and decades being chained and cuffed like a 19th century slave. I asked to use the restroom, and the guard let me out to walk freely across the hall uncuffed. It was not far, but just the absence of cuffs made a world of difference between being treated like a chained animal and feeling human!
My next “first” may seem small to many outside hearing this, but for me it was special for my humanity. On Jan. 28, 2015, I arrived at SVSP (Salinas Valley State Prison) general population and was housed with a fellow human being named Malik. He gave me a brand new toothbrush that he was allowed to purchase from an outside quarterly package vendor.
This was not the 2-inch miniature size toothbrush (normally for brushing pet animals’ teeth) I had been using since the 1990s. This was the normal regular-size toothbrush used for brushing humans’ teeth. And each time I use it, the feel of being human is always at the front of my mind. With each stroke of the brush I humbly give in to the use of this part of my deprived senses.
There have been many more firsts since then over the course of this first year, but the one that is so close and dear to heart is my first visit – contact visit – with my family in my 30-plus years of confinement in CDCr. I was able to visit my sister, Donnita Benson, when she flew out from Oklahoma City and we hugged and kissed for the first time since 1980.
It was a memorable experience to go from tears of hurtful pain and suffering dating back to our childhood struggles – domestic violence, being separated when I was 10 and she was 14 – to realize we are “survivors.” She survived breast cancer and I survived being lost to the street jungles at age 15, then these concrete prison jungles, including decades in solitary confinement. We shared tears of joy, laughter and happiness as we enjoyed those two days together. She said I squeezed her hand so tight and would not let it go that it went numb – oops, my bad. I guess I subconsciously was that little child back home walking everywhere holding securely to my older sister’s hand.
I will close this off with a solidarity salute of respect, appreciation and honor to all of the PHSS-PHRM outside supporters who believe in our cause enough to keep the spotlight upon both this state’s massive dysfunctional system of mass incarceration, its evil solitary confinement torture use, non-rehabilitative and social re-entry parole opportunities, and their contributions for helping those released from long-term solitary confinement and its own unique post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome (PTSD-solitary confinement) identify, cope with and heal from from its effects. Thank you – Asante – to each and all.
When I entered this California branch of the New Jim Crow system of mass incarceration 32 years ago, there was nothing in my mind that could have prepared me for the torturous ordeal that awaited my arrival to this prison station along my life’s journey, especially the last 20-plus years of being buried alive in the state government’s solitary confinement torture prison tombs called various names – Ad-Seg (Administrative Segregation), SHU (Security Housing Unit) etc.
Yet it was the clear insight that was shared by a freedom fighter named George Jackson, who tells us in this internationally-acclaimed publication, “It takes some serious psychological adjustments to deal with prison life” (Soledad Brother). So you can imagine what it meant when having to come face to face with solitary confinement and either deal with it or run – debrief, snitch, lie on others – for years and decades under California’s “snitch, parole or die” mass validation indeterminate SHU scheme from the 1980s until recently.
And there I was staring this inhumane, cruel and torturous creature in its face, as I entered that strange man-made diabolical construct called Pelican Bay SHU in the early 1990s. And just as George said, “Nothing can prepare you for this.” In January 1995, U.S. federal court Judge Thelton Henderson described the conditions behind the Pelican Bay SHU walls and gates:
“The prison setting at Pelican Bay SHU offers a tremendous potential for abuse by guards who have powerful weapons and enormous manpower at their disposal and exercise nearly total control over the inmates under their supervision. Adding to this volatile mix is the fact that the prison setting of the SHU is far removed from the usual sights and sounds of everyday life. From the outside, the SHU resembles a massive bunker; from the inside, it is a windowless labyrinth of cells and walls, sealed off from the outside world by walls, gates and guards. The physical environment thus reinforces a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world and helps create ‘palpable distance from ordinary compunctions, inhibitions and community norms’” (Madrid v. Gomez, 889 Fed. Supp. 1146).
Sadly, it took decades for the outside world at large to learn the shocking truths about the inhumane, degrading, brutal and fatal horrors that were being secretly visited upon those of us inside the SHUs –including SHUs at Corcoran, New Folsom and Tehachapi as well as Pelican Bay. And it was only after the historic California Hunger Strikes (2011-2013) that we were finally able to break through CDCr’s secret redwood (Del Norte County and Crescent City) curtain wall of lies to hide their torture.
But by then the damage of Solitary Confinement Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had already been done. This is why it is taking some of us so long to try to share with you, humanity in the outside world, what we just experienced. It is the trauma that we must face to grasp an understanding of our experience and expose it to you.
During and following those peaceful Hunger Strikes, one of the interesting questions that those of you representing outside humanity either took the much-welcomed and appreciated time to write and/or come in and visit – shout out to everyone in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) — would ask me or several of us was, “How do you cope or deal with being in there all this time”?
I will not try to speak for others, because we each had to find our own personal ways to “cope and deal” with and most of all SURVIVE the traumatic torment we were subjected to in there. But I want to share that I am finally able to take a deep breath and learn about my personal struggles inside there.
During the first five to 10 years in PBSP SHU, I watched the guys around me outwardly showing their struggles as they slipped deeper into the abyss and ultimately lost their sanity. This was especially blatant for those whom the prison staff deliberately separated from the rest of us (within the other SHU units) and moved them to a separate torture place called VCU. Many of them were driven insane within months, perhaps due in large part to their already unstable mental state.
I recall how these guys would be taken from VCU and brought into the other SHU units where we were located and you could see that they were all the way gone. A guy would spread feces all over the cell and his body and be inside his assigned cage like that with no care.
And in the case of the young mentally-ill Black man named Vaughn Dortch, the staff – both medical and guards – forced Mr. Dortch into a tub of scalding hot water and held him down while they scrubbed his skin with a steel brush and his skin peeled away and hung loosely at his feet. (See a 1996 SF Gate article and Madrid v. Gomez or Google “Vaughn Dortch.”)
Another prisoner climbed atop the highest rail bars on the second tier and jumped off head first. Some guys banged their cups and spoons on the bars and screamed and yelled all night. And these are just a few examples of the blatant symptoms of SHU prisoners losing their sanity. Then there are those like myself who were able to find the wherewithal to battle and resist inside ourselves – often with outside humanity’s supportive help – to cope and survive.
As for me, I survived by trying to identify which ways our CDCr SHU tormentors were using to penetrate our inner being and manipulate and play on our vulnerabilities and weaknesses as human beings to try and break our minds and spirits – such as playing games, denying all natural human and social contact with anyone, including our families, depriving us of the normal use of our natural senses to see the grass, trees and sun, to feel the warmth of its rays, to smell or taste nutritional, wholesome food, to hear natural sounds like birds singing, human laughter etc.
We were physically entombed in a 3-walled concrete, windowless box with little holes at the front formed around a locked, rectangular slot that they shoved the food tray through. All we could see was a larger wall directly in front of the cage. I sensed the need to have some kind of defense around me inside. But how?
Once I saw that the entire solitary confinement “creature” was set up to attack my overall being, inside and out, I started trying to find effective ways to cope. For years, I relied heavily on mainly exercising my body and mind, reading, studying and writing. And whenever I felt the stress and strain of the “creature” tugging at my inner being, trying to pull my sanity over the edge into the abyss, I would quickly get to exercising.
That worked for awhile, but then came the mundane, everyday monotony of waking up and having to face and deal with the same ol’ tired, boring regimen, day in and day out. It would be at this stage of my internal struggles that I’d feel this “creature” tugging at me.
So I learned to go inside myself, find memories of my family and hug them, hold onto them for dear life. I would place us in a sacred place deep inside the heart and there we would remain throughout the duration of my traumatic ordeal. I would somehow fix my mind to shut down, block out and close off any noticeable access by our tormentors to get into that safe sanctuary of my heart and soul.
I erected some abnormal psychological walls to guard my self and my sanity – but I SURVIVED!
Send our brother some love and light: Baridi Williamson, D-34288; SVSP C1-118; P.O. Box 1050, Soledad, CA 93960. Baridi thanks all his supporters and sends a special shout-out to Sista Sharon, Cile and HRPP reps.