Liberate the Caged Voices

Cliff Joseph – artist, activist and therapist – and a group of other artists founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, to agitate for the inclusion of African American artists in New York museums. This, in the 60s before the term “artivist”would be coined. “Those who are at the head of the oppressive system know well the power of art and fear it in the hands of the people,” Joseph wrote. “That is why power structures throughout man’s history have sought to suppress and control the creative artist.” With a long history of ancestral resistance to being silenced, controlled and ignorant, the art of the struggle continues as New Afrikan revolutionary political thought and discipline affirms the humanity of the men and women subjected to the torture of decades of solitary confinement meant to break them. Joseph calls this piece “Ancestral Affirmation.”

Introduction by Bay View Editor Nube Brown

“Can’t stop, won’t stop,” the enduring motto that brings strength and solidarity to a people in perpetual struggle to be free, that I’m fairly certain I first heard from Ifoma, beautiful, strong New Afrikan and author of the following piece. The torture of solitary confinement continues, parole denials equaling a civil death continue, the dehumanizing nature of prisons continues – to be clear our elders, our political prisoners, our illuminated freedom fighters of principled revolutionary socio-political thought and practice continue to be caged, retaliated against for their beliefs and their courage to fight for their humanity and the humanity of their people. 

As we move from the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the historic California Hunger Strikes and into Black August remembrance and resistance, we understand the continuum that implores the meeting of the past with the present to guide our way forward to get our elders free, our people free and home to us, but ultimately our minds and spirits de-colonized and free from the destructive nature of a capitalist, imperialist, colonial-settler system that constructs new iterations of slavery and reasons to keep us unfree and disconnected from one another. 

The organizers, leaders and political prisoners of the historic California Hunger Strikers remind us that this is a constant struggle, but one steeped in love and shared humanity and we will never let them be forgotten nor silenced! 

Pathology of the SHU – the reason to Hunger Strike 

by Ifoma Modibo Kambon

Prisons mirror society. 

Surrounded by a landscape of electrified barbed wire fences, warning signs for trespassers and gun towers, they are concrete structures of pathological incubators which breed psychological trauma. 

This experience was especially true for thousands of men subjected to decades of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation in a restrictive environment. Not a single individual was unaffected or immune from the state’s repressive program of behavior modification. 

Young Daryel Burnett, stolen from his family and community would experience 30 years of solitary confinement torture, and after 46 years he is still caged as a political prisoner and freedom fighter. 

In its extremity, the mind is decapitated from the body, the body decapitated from the spirit. Pathology of the SHU (Security Housing Unit) is based on my personal observations and reflections on the systemic mental incapacitation of other human beings. 

Borne out of the initial shock of imprisonment, a dehumanizing process set in motion an idea that regarded some human beings’ worth or value to be less than other human beings. Their personhood became less valuable than a chimpanzee imprisoned at the local zoo. 

Stripped of the moral or ethical values of our human identity, our lives became viewed from within the prism of a concrete cage. The moral justification in considering prisoners as less than a human person is based on the pseudo-science of criminology. 

This is the same science that determines what constitutes criminology by the measurement of a person’s skull size. We became the “worst of the worst” without any redeemable qualities.

Decades of being warehoused inside an unnatural environment produced unnatural thoughts and behavior. Captivity robbed us of identity. 

Think for a moment about the common threads between prisons, circuses and zoos. Such an approach will give a better understanding of how many men lost their human spirit. The commonality between the three is the feature of denaturing. 

People by their very nature are social beings. Both their individual and collective identity is formed through their interaction with other people within a social context. 

What this basically means is who we are as human beings is forged by the reciprocal nature of our basic needs, wants and desires, how we work and play with each other, how we cooperate with each other in building networks, families and other types of relationships. 

My struggle is maintaining my self-respect, respect for others, dignity and integrity when everything around us stinks of broken minds and rotting flesh.

So, it’s easy to see how this environment breeds internal emotional conflicts and psychological damage. Its effect on humans is the transformation of some men into a domesticated, docile, passive new species.

Imagine living in an unnatural environment where any social interaction doesn’t produce experience or knowledge that has some utility value. Experience is only limited to the past in the form of meaningless, senseless stories with no productive value. 

Our individual struggle is how to make ourselves meaningful and relevant both inside and outside these walls, especially when our physical, social, mental and spiritual needs are controlled by administrations of these human warehouses. My struggle is maintaining my self-respect, respect for others, dignity and integrity when everything around us stinks of broken minds and rotting flesh.

So, my story is about how human beings became invisible and different. It wasn’t until my experiences at Folsom and San Quentin that I began to seriously take note of the psychological effects prison life was having on other prisoners. 

I began to reflect on all the horrors I personally observed. I concluded that the dependency complex is the source of the psychosis. 

At times, this complex borders on anxiety, stress, mild depression, frustration and alienation. Often the cause of the complex is putting up with the constant bullshit and denials. 

How do we cope with the denials and responsibilities of being men, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins and friends?

Some individuals became so lethargic they take on the behavior traits of a pigeon: eat, sleep and shit in order to pass the time.

The dependency complex also creates disappointment and anger. These reactions are the result of promised visitors who didn’t show up, mail that was never received or answered, money orders that were never received and other bullshit denials. 

The disappointments led to mood swings, loss of interest and restlessness. Some individuals became so lethargic they take on the behavior traits of a pigeon: eat, sleep and shit in order to pass the time. Others felt hopeless and helpless, losing their spirit to fight.

Some chose to deal with their pain by suicide, others chose self-mutilation. I also heard the deafening screams, cries and incomprehensible mutterings of men’s minds succumbing to madness. They became victims to the pathological incubator.

My 38 years of being warehoused inside the security housing unit (SHU) began when I was given a nine-month SHU term for a rule infraction, ultimately being warehoused in the SHU indefinitely. I was told by the administrators of these golden gulags that I was a threat to inmates, staff and the security of the institution. 

I am always asked how did I survive decades of solitary confinement? The SHU back then was structured like a university or school of higher learning. It was an environment that gave me guidance, direction and purpose. It was this era that gave birth to a new political conscious. 

I began to learn about human rights, liberation movements, history, world events, justice, racism, women’s rights etc. The environment was conducive to learning and teaching, because each one of us was held accountable for our actions by each other.

During daytime hours, we had quiet periods in which no talking over the tier was allowed. This time was used for self-reflection. There was a quiet period for both study and exercising. No time was loud; no disrespectful conversations were permitted over the tier. We existed as a community. 

It was here I rediscovered my humanity, and it was here we practiced community values. I was introduced to the book “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Most importantly, he showed me the possibility of change, transformation and redemption, the possibility of rebirth.

My early education in SHU challenged me to think before acting and made me understand that our strengths and courage are forged by our willingness to not be afraid or daunted by the challenges or the difficulties.

But this is not to say I was unaffected by the psychological sufferings of other prisoners. The continued years in SHU produced migraine headaches, for others it marked the endless engagement in self-dehumanizing acts. 

Now 66 years young, Daryel Burnett, now known as Ifoma Modibo Kambon, continues to assert his humanity, unbroken and adhering to New Afrikan revolutionary principals. Even after 17 parole denials Ifoma “can’t stop, won’t stop!”

I can recall waking up some mornings so stressed out that the veins in my head swelled from the flexing championship of my mind. Physically, I was beginning to undergo internal changes that neither will nor determination were able to resist. 

Some prisoners who were experiencing the same impulses acted differently. They reacted by throwing food, feces and urine and kicking on the cell doors, exemplifying the behavior of a caged animal on display at the local zoo.

In order to cope with the stress, I adopted a vigorous program of exercise, meditation, reading and playing chess. As time passed, even the infallible prisoners who through using constructive physical and mental exercises in restraint, found themselves expressing bitterness and anger in a descriptive manner. 

I also heard the deafening screams, cries and incomprehensible mutterings of men’s minds succumbing to madness. They became victims to the pathological incubator.

My only way of doing time had been interrupted; my tolerance snapped. I began hollering at those who I classified as fools, telling them to shut up or hang themselves. The noise was nerve-racking and disruptive to say the very least. Somehow my own humanity was under assault. 

I became argumentative with folks suffering mental problems. Instead of separating people suffering from mental trauma, the administrators mix them in with other prisoners. No one became immune from the psychological incubator.

The past always informs the here and now, so I am never forgetful of the horrors at Vacaville State Prison, where medical experiments were conducted on human bodies. Prisoners became guinea pigs for drug research and testing. 

Years later, these experiments took on a new form: behavior modification. Another manufactured virus was unleashed in the prison environment which produced mindless zombies, broken bodies. After being targeted and selected for extreme psychological torture, I was sent to Pelican Bay. 

The germ unleashed into the environment was called Boogey Man. It was based on fearmongering that led to the moral justification to subject human beings to solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Their strategy was to break the minds and spirits of men viewed as a threat to inmates, staff and the security of the institution.

The Classification Committee’s job is to determine whether a SHU prisoner is eligible for placement in general population. The only possible eligibility for placement in the general population was our willingness to submit to the classification terms for release. These terms are anchored to a process which entails informing (snitching) on prisoners by prisoners. 

It meant that we were allowed only a 15-minute phone call when our family member passed away. It meant 15 goddamn minutes to express condolences, listen and talk to people for the first time in decades.

The information may not be new or true. Year after year, decade after decade we were exposed to pathological conditions meant to ruin hundreds of minds.

Can you imagine being invisible, without a voice? Can you imagine being constantly told that the only way to gain relief from these conditions is if we debrief by becoming informants? 

Hundreds of men chose this path rather than suffer prolonged isolation; for others it meant becoming invisible. It meant having shit and piss thrown on you by the broken minds as a condition of internment. It meant the screaming and yelling of broken minds. 

It meant mail never received in its real time and space, because of the gang censors. It meant presumption and fearmongering became the new regulations. It meant parole denials because we refused to become rats. 

It meant the constant bullshit of denials one puts up with daily. It meant no human contact with family or friends. It meant no telephone calls to family and friends. 

It meant living in a dungeon for decades. It meant being told that the only way to better health care is if we debrief. It meant that we were allowed only a 15-minute phone call when our family member passed away. It meant 15 goddamn minutes to express condolences, listen and talk to people for the first time in decades.

It meant living in a prison hundreds of miles from home. It meant having to share a jacket with other prisoners. It meant having to use a dog toothbrush because regular toothbrushes were deemed security threats.

It meant constantly appealing to the courts for relief but being denied time and time again. It meant visitors behind glass and visitors being subjected to the disrespect of the guards. It meant little children unable to embrace their daddies.

I became tired of being so tired but kept on pushing. Culture and prison activism were criminalized. 

It meant the enormous grief, pain and resiliency of watching my father, mother, sister, son, brother, all die in consecutive years.

It meant the criminalization of dissent. It meant the criminalization of art. It meant the criminalization of assembly, speech and association. 

It meant through dehumanization we were deemed the “worst of the worst.” It meant walking everywhere in your shorts or having to squat and cough to go to the yard by yourself. 

It meant the state paid psychologists supporting the inhumanity of solitary confinement. It meant overwhelming stress from the violence of gunshots and stabbings.

It meant hearing your father’s voice for the last time. It meant feeling the guilt of not being there for family and friends in a meaningful way. It meant no phones while you awaited the news no one wants to receive – death phone calls. 

It meant after a year of not hearing from my mother and when I hear some news about her, she was given two weeks to live, but dies days later. It meant the enormous grief, pain and resiliency of watching my father, mother, sister, son, brother, all die in consecutive years.

This story is about struggle, pain, hope, suppression. Most importantly it is about the men whose spirits, minds and bodies survived. It was the bond that we had with each other that helped forge the courage and strength to resist the campaign to destroy our minds, bodies and spirits. 

This story is not only about me, but rather the community of men who understood that there’s strength in our commonality of struggle. We put aside our artificial differences and answered the revolutionary call to organize – to put aside our differences and build collective will and purpose. 

This is for the men who maintain their self-respect, dignity and honor.

In kindred spirit, 

Ifoma Modibo Kambon

Send our brother some love and light: Ifoma Modibo Kambon, slave name Daryel Burnett, B60892, Folsom State Prison, P.O. Box 715071, 2-A1-16, Represa, CA 95671.