Out of solitary confinement, yet the struggle continues

“Virginia Torture Chamber” – Art: Peter Kamau Mukuria (Comrade Pitt), 1197165, Red Onion Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound VA 24279

by Comrade Pitt

After seven years of being warehoused in Virginia’s Solitary Confinement under the most restrictive status, never knowing when I would be released, I have finally been released into General Population. This would not have happened had I not been named plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit filed by Virginia’s ACLU in partnership with the White and Case law firm seeking to end Solitary Confinement at two maximum security prisons – Wallen’s Ridge and Red Onion state prisons – which for years have been disguising the practice of Solitary Confinement under a rehabilitation program titled “Challenge Series Step Down Program.”

Warehousing prisoners in a single cell for 22-24 hours a day for years with no release in the foreseeable future is, according to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Department of Justice, the precise definition of Solitary Confinement, which is deemed cruel and unusual punishment. Virginia’s dexterity in word play, evident in their objection to calling what they practice Solitary Confinement, calls it “Restrictive Housing.” They avoid using the term “Solitary Confinement” because in a 1985 consent decree Virginia’s Department of Corrections [VDOC] agreed to never again practice Solitary Confinement in any way.

When the two aforementioned prisons opened in 1998, they needed bodies to occupy the empty cells and the only way to do so meant violating the 1985 settlement. When the “Challenge Series Step Down Program” came along it created the opportunity VDOC needed to fully practice long term Solitary Confinement disguised under this program.

They classified prisoners as either Special Management (SM) or Intensive Management (IM). As for the former, they were provided a clear-cut path back to General Population, whereas the latter not so much so. Once a prisoner is placed on that status, despite completing the program or being in compliance, the ultimate goal of getting back to General Population will be a Sisyphean struggle and, in many cases, impossible. The furthest an IM prisoner can progress is to yet another solitary unit.

This clearly was never about rehabilitation of prisoners, and it further speaks of the culture of cruelty, not just in Virginia but prisons nationwide.

In 2012 upon arriving at Red Onion prison, located deep in the mountains of Appalachia, in handcuffs, shackles and an electric belt around my waist, I was met by a sea of prison guards and administrators who braggadociously looked me in the eyes and told me, “You will never see General Population again.”

Well! I’m beyond elated to be released from Solitary Confinement. However, I remain committed as a class member and a class representative to seeing this class action lawsuit all the way through, for there remain plenty of other prisoners unjustifiably being held in Solitary Confinement for no other reason than to occupy a cell. So, whether in Solitary Confinement or General Population, the struggle continues.

Comrade Pitt is Virginia’s deputy chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party. Send our brother some love and light: Peter Kamau Mukuria, 1197165, Red Onion State Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound, VA 24279. Enjoy his art at Instagram@PittPanther_art.