First Step Act as seen from within the shadows of Florence ADX

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by Sabir Shabazz aka Elohim

Known as ADX, and nicknamed the “Guantanamo of the Rockies,” Florence is among the most secure prisons in the world – and one of the most isolating: Many of its cells, fashioned out of poured concrete with solid steel doors, are equipped with built-in showers and automated chutes that open onto private concrete “exercise yards,” such that occupants need never see a guard or fellow prisoner – much less a visitor. One former warden interviewed by 60 Minutes called it “pretty close” to hell.

Coco Das’ article, “Should we celebrate when a fascist regime endorses prison reform?” reached me at a particularly ripe time. None of the ironies observed about Trump’s endorsement of the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, were misconstrued, nor did I take them for granted.

The article goes on to mention Van Jones’ comment about trust being something you put on a dimmer switch, which caused me to form a menacing mental image: As a lamp is dimmed it brings the light bulb into focus for an observer. The surrounding objects receive less light and so become swathed in shadow. Here is an idea of what exists within the shadows:

Presently some phone companies have partnered with government agencies to devise plans that protect U.S. consumers from scammers. An article in USA Today newspaper projected the programs to begin early next year. The programs use some algorithm to recognize if fake numbers and unknown or private calls are “scam likely.” It then proceeds to either block the call or allow it through, without any consent from the customer.

However, it has already begun. All prison numbers appear on caller ID as private or unknown. I have not been able to call my mother since August. She is trying to find a way I can call and poor folk don’t have money to just switch carriers as they please – many of them having gone through changes just to obtain the affordable plans they’re on! Some older folk aren’t very tech savvy either, which is understandable.

So this is a haphazard policy being implemented with the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of prisoners one way or another. For many of us, the exigencies of prison life itself along with lengthy sentences have dwindled our contact with the outside to one or two people, and to be cut off from them is to effectively be severed from the world.

For prisoners in long term solitary confinement (like myself) specifically at USP Florence ADX, this seemingly helpful policy can have deadly consequences. The psychological harms of solitary confinement have been thoroughly researched and widely published. In a Neuroscience paper by Dana G. Smith titled, “Neuroscientists make a case against solitary confinement,” she wrote, “Robert King spent 29 years living alone in a 6-by-9-foot prison cell.”

For prisoners in long term solitary confinement (like myself) specifically at USP Florence ADX, this seemingly helpful policy can have deadly consequences.

Even in less extreme cases than that of the Angola Three, prolonged social isolation, feeling lonely, not just being alone, can exact severe physical, emotional and cognitive consequences. It is associated with a 26 percent increased risk of premature death, largely stemming from an out of control stress response that results in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation.

Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of suicide. “We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who was on the panel with King.

“We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

There is also a Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) policy being implemented here at USP Florence ADX since May 16, 2018, that prohibits us from having the same contacts any other prisoner in the FBOP whether the other prisoner is family, a friend or stranger. It is yet to be seen if this policy is nationwide or specific to this facility.

To be fair, this policy is probably meant to combat gang, criminal or illicit activity. But what it means is if you and I are relatives, friends or even total strangers communicating with the same outside contacts, then suddenly one day we wake up and all our contacts are blocked. This policy’s blanket application, indefinitely, absent any form of due process for prisoners who have committed no crimes – nor have their friends and families in the “free world” – who aren’t gang affiliated, is cruel and unusual punishment.

This policy’s blanket application, indefinitely, absent any form of due process for prisoners who have committed no crimes – nor have their friends and families in the “free world” – who aren’t gang affiliated, is cruel and unusual punishment.

Another dimension of this policy is that if you, a law abiding citizen, wanted to send me and another prisoner money, it would automatically be frozen under the assumption you’ve aided some illicit activity. And then an investigation takes place.

This is even being done to lawyers representing several prisoners fighting death penalty cases. To help cope with the burdens of fighting for your life and being in a solitary confinement, such prisoners are sent books, magazines and a small monthly courtesy to purchase commissary items like hygiene, food, coffee, tea etc.

I’ve seen investigations concluded and money unfrozen within a week’s time, but at what point does junk food, coffee and hygiene ever compensate for the absence of human interaction?

Like myself, prisoners who are striving to shed the criminal mentality and behavior and develop political consciousness within the context of the struggle, we are always grateful for those with the peace of mind to step back from this hectic world, send a card or a letter, send reading material or a few dollars, grateful for those who publicize the realities of the criminal justice system and global oppression and keep the light focused on things persistently shrouded in shadow.

Send our brother some love and light: Sabir Shabazz, 41119-086, USP Max, P.O. Box 8500, Florence CO 81226-8500.

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