What is solitary confinement?

by Abdul Olugbala Shakur

At first glance, and from its most simplistic perspective, the question, What is solitary confinement? appears to be rhetorical, if not insulting, but you would be surprised, if not incredulous, how many prison rights activists are at a loss when I pose it to them. Even more perplexing, many prisoners are only able to provide the standard but antiquated response, which is: a prisoner in a cell behind a solid door, in which he/she is isolated from other prisoners and human contact.

Alcatraz-solitary-confinement-cells-the-hole-c-2006-Betty-Malloy-300x216, What is solitary confinement?, Abolition Now!
With at least 20 prisoners on each tier, Alcatraz represented the dawning of a new theoretical concept, which was mass solitary confinement isolation. – Photo: © 2006 Betty Malloy

By no means am I implying that this is the incorrect answer. What I am implying, however, is: right answer, but wrong century!

From the beginning of the 20th century on and further back, this answer was applicable. But at the end of the 20th century and into the start of the 21st century, its theoretical concept remained, but its tactical application has transformed, directly due to two primary factors: 1) advancement in technology and 2) a deeper and more functional knowledge of the process, as a direct result of analyzing past applications of solitary confinement and its desired ramifications.

Yes, isolation is still the quintessential criterion that helps to identify and define what solitary confinement is, but in the 21st century, the answer is more complicated than just saying “isolated from all other prisoners.” The government and the Prison Industrial Slave Complex (PISC) love holding on to the old definition, where physical isolation is the only criterion for defining what solitary confinement is, knowing that the science of solitary confinement isolat­ion has expanded beyond its original applications.

I use Alcatraz Prison to both qualify and quantify our analysis, as it per­tains to the tactical evolutionary development of solitary confinement. No one can question or doubt that Alcatraz was the epitome of solitary confinement and isolation, but Alcatraz equally represented the new face of solitary confine­ment. Each unit consisted of multiple tiers, with at least 20 prisoners on each tier; they even went to the exercise yard together.

All these factors contradict the standard definition of solitary confinement; the isolation of a single individual prisoner was no longer a qualifying criterion to define what solitary confine­ment was. The Prison Industrial Slave Complex in its modern state has been able to achieve isolation, even where there are multiple prisoners located in a single unit or pod.

Alcatraz Prison illustrated an evolutionary development in the tactical application of solitary confinement or isolation. It dispels the notion that soli­tary confinement only applies to a prisoner who is isolated from all other pri­soners.

Marion Federal Prison is another example; no one has ever questioned that Marion isolation units did not meet the criteria for solitary confinement. When these particular units were opened, the federal government boasted of its isolation and specifically referred to it as solitary confinement. Yet these same units consisted of a row of multiple cells, where prisoners could communicate and see each other and, at one time, prison officials had placed TVs on the tiers for the prisoners to watch.

The federal prison at Florence is another exam­ple; each cell is issued a TV, and communication with other prisoners is open. But you will never hear the government or the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) say that Florence federal prisoners are not in solitary confinement.

San-Quentin-Adjustment-Center-by-National-Geographic-300x191, What is solitary confinement?, Abolition Now!
This is the entrance to the infamous Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison, another of California’s pre-Pelican Bay styles of solitary confinement. – Photo: National Geographic

San Quentin State Prison Adjustment Center, between 1968 and 1986, or Soledad Prison’s O Wing between 1969 and 1979 are examples to substantiate CDCr’s transformative tactical applications of solitary confinement.

The CDCr and the state government are using the same characteristics that I have identified in these other prisons to attempt to debunk the alle­gations that prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) are being held in soli­tary confinement isolation. During each of our hunger strikes, we heard repre­sentatives from both the state government and the CDCr try to refute the allegations that prisoners are being held in solitary confinement at PBSP.

Their basic argument consisted of: 1) Prisoners being held in the security housing unit (SHU) at PBSP are allowed to purchase and possess TVs; 2) Some of them are allowed cell-mates; and 3) The eight prisoners in a pod can communicate with each other. The three primary points in their argument are elements that you could find at Alcatraz when it was open, or Marion Federal Prison when it was considered the most secure prison in the U.S., and now Florence Federal Prison. No one questions whether prisoners in these prisons are held in solitary confinement.

People, this is why it is imperative for us to articulate in a compre­hensive way the transforming tactical applications of solitary confinement. So retrospection is a prerequisite towards navigating the people through the evolutionary development and stages of solitary confinement.

During each of our hunger strikes, we heard repre­sentatives from both the state government and the CDCr try to refute the allegations that prisoners are being held in solitary confinement at PBSP.

Alcatraz, Marion and Florence all represent a stage of development in the tactical and strategic evolution in the application of solitary confinement. But PBSP epitomizes that evolution – tactically, strategically, technically and scientifically. Pelican Bay State Prison redefined what solitary confinement is in America and how it can be applied even in an environment where there are multiple prisoners with TVs.

PBSP has taken isolation to a scientific level; it has become so sophisticat­ed in its execution that it is barely detected on the average prison rights activist radar. In fact, the average prisoner is often blind to the deliberate manipu­lation of the conditions that are now required to compliment the implementation of the new application of solitary confinement.

It is true that isolation is key to solitary confinement, and one cannot exist without the other, but what PBSP has mastered is the orchestrated con­ditions which identify and exploit the multiplicity of the tactical mecha­nics of isolation. Physical isolation is just one form of isolation, but if you were to dissect the anatomy of isolation, you will then discover its multiplici­ty, such as: 1) social isolation; 2) racial and cultural isolation; 3) ideological and political isolation; 4) religious and spiritual isolation and 5) geographical isolation.

Pelican Bay State Prison redefined what solitary confinement is in America.

Allow me to employ a civilian example to illustrate the utilization of the multiplicity of isolation, before I briefly elaborate on its utility within PBSP SHU. Let’s say I have an eight bedroom house, and each room has a TV; I pick eight people to live in this house. There are four rooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. I select the following four people to live in the upstairs rooms: 1) a Jewish Holocaust survivor, 2) a Nazi concentration camp guard, 3) a member of Hamas and 4) an Israeli soldier.

And downstairs I select the following four people: l) Nat Turner, 2) a slave-master that enslaved Brother Nat Turner’s family, 3) a liberal and 4) Rush Limbaugh.

I deliberately identified all contradictory bodies of politics; can you imagine the outcome of such an orchestrated dynamic? Even though there are no bars on the bedroom doors, I have orchestrated conditions designed to facilitate iso­lation. Most of these individuals would avoid each other and stay to themselves; I have manipulated conditions that produced a solitary state.

Though there are eight people in this house, there will be little to no communication. For the most part, they will stay to themselves, reinforcing conditions for isolation or solitary confinement. But it was I who orchestrated these conditions, knowing the inevitable outcome. These individuals will become isolated in a solitary state compelled by the conditions orchestrated by me.

Now, let’s replace the eight rooms with eight cells in a pod with the same racial, cul­tural, geographic, political, religious and socially diverse contradictions, but intensified tenfold. This is the new anatomy of solitary confinement isolation.

People, please understand, the new architectural structure of today’s prisons cannot accommodate the old forms of solitary confinement or isolation – or even torture. Their infrastructural designs have given birth to new forms of solitary confinement or isolation, as well as torture, thus redefining what solitary confinement is in the 21st century. The modern-day dungeons are more technically sophisticated, intricate and illusury to the average person in society.

Hunger-Strike-Rally-Corcoran-‘All-power-to-the-people-who-don’t-fear-freedom’-Jonathan-Jackson-071313-by-Malaika-web-300x200, What is solitary confinement?, Abolition Now!
A week after 30,000 California prisoners began a hunger strike, on July 8, 2013, recognized as the largest in prison history, their courage was saluted by hundreds of supporters who rallied at Corcoran State Prison, where some of the prisoners were able to see and hear them. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

I would be amiss not to use this medium to elaborate and expose the malevolent and nefarious parasitic nature of the CDCr’s methods for executing social isolation. Social isolation has a dual nature or function: 1) to facilitate the isolation process as it pertains to precision targeting of a specific prisoner, and 2) to serve as a tactical instrument in the service of the prison’s torture program.

As I have stated above, it is obligatory for me to use this medium to expose the tactics which are being used to implement social isolation as it relates to precision targeting for the sole purpose of increasing the degree of isolation for a specific target – i.e. a prisoner. These tactics are criminal and in violation of our allegedly constitutionally protected rights, and the CDCr agents of repression, such as the Office of Correctional Safety (OCS), Institutional Gang Investigations Unit (IGI) and the Investigative Services Unit (ISU), develop and deploy these criminal tactics with impunity, and I have been their primary target for extreme solitary isolation.

Social isolation has both an internal and external component. The internal component basically consists of placing a prisoner in a pod or unit with other pri­soners who are openly ideologically, geographically, socially or racially hostile to that particular prisoner. This ensures that he/she will not communicate and/or confide in other prisoners in his/her pod, thus isolating their target.

However, to complete this isolation, the CDCr agents of repression must execute the external component of social isolation, which simply means, destroy and/or sabotage the targeted prisoner’s primary outside support or contact. I will use my personal experience to illustrate the external component of the tactical application of social isolation.

My ex-wife, Gwendolyn James (Sharifa Shakur), my spiritual father, Dr. Donald R. Evans, and my spiritual brother and comrade, Rashid Ali, became the main targets for the agents of repression, and this was the diabolical scheme these pigs used to sabotage my connection with my loved ones. IGI and ISU had fraudulently accused my ex-wife and my spiritual father and brother of being drop-boxes for the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). A drop-box is an address that has been identified by authorities as a medium, where members from the same prison organization or group or gang communicate with each other, which is prohibited.

These allegations were false, but nevertheless they were banned from corresponding with me and I with them. These racist pigs destroyed my marriage and disconnected me from my spiritual father and brother.

During a 2005 evidentiary hearing, T.D. Hawkes, the head of TGI/ISU at the time, testified under oath that there is no evidence to support the allegations that my ex-wife and my spiritual father and brother were drop-boxes for the BGF. Even the judge in this matter, Judge W. Follett, in Marcus Harrison v. Pelican Bay State Prison, Case No. HCPB-04-5054, stated for the record, and I quote, “Well, the drop-box is a huge issue. If there was a drop-box, I think you would win hands down. There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence of a drop-box present.”

BUT YET I WAS PUNISHED FOR THESE FRAUDULENT ALLEGATIONS, ALONG WITH MY LOVED ONES. EVEN AFTER THAT DECISION, IGI and ISU continued to use those false allegations to justify the continued ban on my correspondence with my ex-wife and my spiritual father and spiritual brother.

After 13 years of being disconnected, my spiritual father and I reconnected in 2013, but our reunion was filled with grief. He had informed me that his spirit­ual son, my spiritual brother, whom these pigs had unjustly banned me from writing to, had passed away. He is now with the ancestors.

My spiritual father and I decided to resume our working relationship but, as anticipated, a new crew of IGI and ISU launched their illegal attacks with hope and intent of sabotaging our reunion. This time, they accused my spiritual father and me of being co-conspirators in an illicit organization. See http://nabsio.org/ for more information.

By the way, my spiritual father is 87 years old and has been a New Afrikan freedom fighter over 50 years, fearlessly serving our people and community, only to be criminalized by a bunch of racist, cowardly pigs!

Occupy-San-Quentin-signs-decrying-solitary-022012-by-Bastique-Flickr-300x168, What is solitary confinement?, Abolition Now!
Demonstrators boldly placed signs decrying long-term solitary confinement against the barricades set up to keep the prisoner supporters away from the main gate during the large Occupy San Quentin rally on Feb. 20, 2012. – Photo: Bastique, Flickr

These recent attacks are docu­mented, and I have shared the documentation with attorney Carol Strickman during a recent visit and have sent copies to Mary Ratcliff, editor of the Bay View newspaper. As you can see, there is no limit to what the agents of repression at CDCr will do to execute their task of isolating one of their primary targets – and everyone out there is fair game.

Before the death of my beloved mother in 2008, she became a target along with others, but the agents of repression, IGI and ISU, employed a different scheme. As most people know, I am a New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalist (NARN) Muslim. I had been connected with my spiritual identity for over 30 years, but suddenly my spiritual name was considered fictitious. I was no longer allowed to use my spiritual name in my outgoing mail or address it on my envelopes for a two month period.

IGI and ISU confiscated approximately 20 outgoing letters, two of which were to my mother. When I received a card from my mother inquir­ing why she had not heard from me, it was her concern for me that compelled me to temporarily set aside my beliefs so I could write my mother. It was like the mini-series “Roots,” when the slavemaster forced Kunta Kinte to proclaim his slave name: Toby! Instead of a whip, they used the pain they inflicted on my mother to compel me by proxy to proclaim my slave name: James Harvey.

However, by this time it was too late. I was later informed by my counsellor that my mother had passed away, so she never had the opportunity to read my letter. Though I would eventually win an out-of-court settlement concerning this issue, it did not compensate for the pain these racist pigs caused me and my beloved mother!

People, the tactics IGI and ISU use to achieve social isolation are not only cruel, but criminal. Our families and loved ones are unjustly targeted and victimized by these racist, cowardly pigs in the name of 21st century solitary confinement!

People, the new form of solitary confinement is more precise in its execution. Its inherent flexibility, its pliable tactical application and precision targeting are evident within the daily functions of Pelican Bay State Prison.

Instead of a whip, they used the pain they inflicted on my mother to compel me by proxy to proclaim my slave name: James Harvey.

Before I conclude this analysis, I would like to provide an additional example to illustrate the utility of the CDCr applications of socio-ideological isolation. As I previously stated, each pod has eight cells, four on the top and four on the bottom, but each individual cell in that pod is subjected to different degrees of isolation. Some are more isolated than others; this illu­strates its precision.

When IGI and ISU first moved us to the Short Corridor, they had designated one cell per pod specifically for New Afrikan revolutionary prisoners. This was a conscious effort to isolate our New Afrikan revolutionary class – not just a physical isolation, but political, ideological, cultural, racial and social isolation as well.

Some of us are more isolated than others, making our solitary confinement more complete. But make no mistake about it, the security housing unit (SHU) represents the modern day solitary confinement!

Our families and loved ones are unjustly targeted and victimized by these racist, cowardly pigs in the name of 21st century solitary confinement!

Most people in society are perceptively trapped within an antiquated theoretical concept of what solitary confinement isolation is, while totally overlooking the fact that even Alcatraz for the most part did not meet the same criteria that characterize solitary confinement. In fact, Alcatraz represented the dawning of a new theoretical concept, which was mass solitary confinement isolation.

Alcatraz was a clear prognosticator of what was to come, i.e. the maxi-max control unit prisons!

So, back to the question: What is solitary confinement? It is no longer a simple question with a simple answer, and the PISC is fully aware of this, because they know for the most part the vast majority of the people in society have an antiquated picture of what solitary confinement isolation is.

The public doesn’t realiz­e that under the new architectural structure of the maxi-max control unit prisons, the theoretical concept of solitary confinement has evolved. And it is incumbent upon us as activists, both inside and outside the walls, to re-educate the masses!

People, by no means is this a complete analysis and/or description of solitary confinement isolation, but I believe it is the first analysis that speaks to the evolutionary development and multiplicity of solitary confinement. If you have any questions concerning this analysis, feel free to reach me, Abdul Olugbala Shakur, s/n J. Harvey, C-48884, PBSP SHU D1-119, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.