This article was first published by the New Black August Prisoners’ Collective on Aug. 10. For more information, go to blackaugustcollective.wordpress.com.
By Sehu Kessa Saa Tabansi
SCI Greene, Waynesburg, Pa.
Power to the People!
We need prisoners’ empowerment! We need participation in the broader movement fighting U.S. imperialism. This here blog post is intended to initiate an inaugural platform for conscious and politicized prisoners to discuss overall prison conditions in direct relationship to the current state of existing struggles worldwide. We are encouraging readers and writers to think in the context of internationalism and global solidarity.
This being the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966, we should highlight some of the events of the past that continue to affect the present conditions of confinement in U.S. prisons.
I. U.S. prison conditions
The cofounder and chairman of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Huey P. Newton (R.I.P.), upon his imprisonment found himself inside a totally blacked-out abyss, under complete sensory deprivation, void of hygiene, forced to relieve himself in a hole in the floor and systematically starved. That hellhole was infamously described by the revolutionary as the “soul breaker” cell.
The national tone of U.S. prison conditions has historically been established with brutal conditions in Eastern State Penitentiary, seclusion in Pennsylvania, and banishment to the island of Alcatraz in California, culminating in the new designs of repression with Marion, Illinois; Pelican Bay Supermax; and the current ADX, Colorado.
Reflecting back 50 years ago, the brutal conditions that the old school prisoners faced were not at that age linked to private businesses. Today corporate companies, in contracts for capitalist gains, support torture. There has been a great leap in the technological weapons of oppression, from men and women being beaten with batons to, nowadays, being shocked with handheld taser devices or shot with electric prods and electrocuted with 50,000 volts.
There is a U.S. company called ERC, Inc., that markets the “torture chair” — the sanitized terminology for the public is the “compliance chair” or the “restraint chair.” The official website illustrates a calm prison official resting comfortably restrained to the apparatus. There is no visual footage of the permanent spinal and neck damage with circulation complications that thousands of prisoners are left with that causes pain and suffering.
Private businesses profit from the manufacture and sale of instruments of torture. The financial interest in chemical munitions has evolved from pepper sprays to advanced nerve and cardio stun aerosol agents. In the past the Black Panther Party attorney was successful in stopping the use of the soul breaker, but fast forward to the present in Pennsylvania, where there are no 1960s and 1970s people’s lawyers. In a class action lawsuit — Pennsylvania Disabilities Rights Network v. John E. Wetzel, Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections — the capitalizing attorneys for the plaintiffs billed the cost of their litigation at $700,000. Nevertheless, the original complaints of 24/7 torture lights, torture hard cells and torture extraction teams mysteriously disappeared from the settlement agreement. This points to a longstanding pattern of lawyers hijacking prisoner lawsuits, used consistently in Pennsylvania and beyond for at least the last thirty years.
The 21st century prisoners on the U.S. plantations are up against the likes of Keefe Food Group (Commissary Corp.), Wexford Medical Sources, Inc., and subsidiaries like Correct Care Solutions, Inc. While there has been one recent success with national prisoners’ phone rates against the corporate greed of Verizon, T-Netix, Global Tel-link and the others, all across this country private companies are still conspiring, profiting and giving financial kickbacks to state and local government officials and county prisons. Think Correctional Corporation of America, Prison Health Services, Inc., Wackenhut (G4S), Aramark Corp. — from medical supplies to food services to security, business is booming with the prisons. Every single prison has a plantation or sweatshop! The old penal institution model of locking prisoners in dungeons to languish isolated from all society has been replaced with a new model of for-profit production lines. Some states are straight slavery — no wages — but others are more sophisticated with peonage at 17 cents per hour for six hours, and no more than 42 cents maximum per hour of slave labor.
In summation, no prisoner 50 years ago had to pay for basic hygiene necessities in confinement, or be subject to sick call medical charges, have their state allotment of envelopes cut or prison welfare (a general monthly allowance of $14 to $19 for prisoners who were not employed). Simultaneously, with the absence of the stipend, prisoners are having to contend with the corporations marketing their consumer products — computer tablets, iPods, MP3 players, digital satellite cable packages, flat screen televisions — sold to poor prisoners at inflated prices to force their poor families that support them into debt. Everything — cheap labor and high prices in the midst of psychological torture and medical experimentation (eugenics programs), generic test drugs, contaminated food from so-called Third World countries, hedge fund contracts and outsourcing labor — makes this prison industry a profitable behemoth.
Prisoners’ HIV infections, hepatitis C virus and other contagious diseases are allowed to spread by prison staff. Preventative and treatment measures for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, general poor health and prison obesity are all withheld. Mix that in with epidemic mental illness, and then force prisoners to be traded as commodities by companies that control all the treatments, and you’ve got a source of profit so vast that it justifies any amount of torture and repression to keep it intact.
II. Solitary isolation
The modern-day design for solitary isolation can be traced to the Marion, Ill., lockdown. Ex-Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army fighter Elder Sundiata Acoli — political prisoner/prisoner of war — found himself there completely excommunicated from supporters and visitors and isolated from correspondence.
However, its roots extend back further still. U.S. imperialism adopted its so-called Security Housing Units and Control Units from the Stammheim Model of Nazi Germany of the 1940s. In the early 1970s U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ official criteria for incarceration in isolation were: “[A] prisoner’s past or present affiliation, association or membership in an organization which has been demonstrated as being involved in acts of violence, attempts to disrupt or overthrow the government of the U.S. or whose published ideology includes advocating law violations in order to ‘free’ prisoners.”
An entire, systematic method was devised to separate leaders and split mass movements through political detainment, under the guise of criminality. Once contained, the state subjected prisoners in isolation to what has been defined as Biderman’s Chart on Penal Coercion.
A lesser known fact due to the prevailing biases in U.S. prisons is that women were also harshly segregated inside the famous Lexington, Ky., isolation unit. These isolation units began underground, folks. We’re talking about inside the tunnels of the earth, a cave, a grave! Today these tombs are used more than ever, despite only selective media reports on the courageous sacrifices which included loss of life by conscious prisoners politicized in California, struggling against isolation and awakening a revolutionary spirit throughout the nation.
Dr. Frankenstein has transported his evil practices from Pennsylvania to California in the personification of Dr. Jeffrey A. Beard, Ph.D., a seasoned and skilled clinical psychologist in concentration camps. Dr. Beard for over 30 years perfected his craft with the creation of the Long Term Segregation Unit in Pennsylvania, located on the roof of the Western Penitentiary, a.k.a. SCI Pittsburgh.
The conditions designed for the so-called “worst of the worst” went through legal hurdles all the way to the nation’s top court. Unsurprisingly, Supreme Court justices upheld the new forms of tampering with the mind in isolation — absolutely nothing, total deprivation of newspapers, magazines, reading publications. The cutting off of all information.
The California revolutionary Abdul Olugbala Shakur wrote a very enlightening zine, published by Chicago ABC Zine Distro. It’s called “What Is Solitary Confinement?” (Black August 13, 2014) It elaborated extensively and expertly on these new designs and effects in the environment of highly charged racial, religious, ethnic divides orchestrated by the state officials.
The Pennsylvania incarnation at Eastern State Penitentiary — based off the Puritan approach of solitary confinement to make prisoners repentant through, at that time, Biblical coercion — is now reincarnated to use any means the state has: physical, pharmaceutical and enhanced torture devices. While the long term segregation unit in name is defunct, it was rebirthed in the form of the RRL (Restricted Release List). It is a cold, cruel irony that Nazi German mad scientists also had such a list!
These RRL prisoners can now be in seclusion at any facility. The 23 and 1, and mostly 24-hour days in the cell daily routine, is equivalent to sweat lodges in the spring and summer and a walk-in ice box in the fall and winter months. Little attention has been paid, whereas in the past the Coalition to End the Marion Lockdown brought attention to the past conditions of Elder Sundiata Acoli. International political pressure from the former Soviet Union on President Ronald Reagan highlighted the treatment of women in Lexington, Ky. Prison litigations resulted in the dismantlement of the women’s segregation unit.
Today’s circumstances are spiraling out of control because of the current profits from medical sick calls, billed at $10 per medical issue for penniless prisoners. For prisoners with little or no income, this means paying much more relative to a public citizen who has both earned income and health insurance. Prisoners’ illnesses mean massive profits. And because other for-profit companies sell clothing, long johns, thermals, gloves at marked-up prices (make the connection to the cold air vents yet?), profits roll in from sales or from sickness, and usually both. This has been 50 years in the making, to the point where corporations sponsor enslavement and torture.
We have not even mentioned the so-called state guard union’s lucrative deals. It is an all-too-common theme for corrections officers to have family days and barbecues inside the prison. It is not an unusual sight that staff have hotdogs and hamburgers in their dining quarters. These celebrations on this slave ship on dry land recall to mind other shameless historical celebrations. In both periods of our history, law played a role in legalizing and legitimizing dehumanizing customs.
For us to truly evaluate what we are up against here, just looking back 25 years ago prisoners did not have to contend with T-Netix phone bills gouging our families and friends; Bob Barker billionaire (The Price is Right guy) products made in Mexico at cheap sweatshop labor; Secretary of State John Kerry (his spouse is Theresa Heinz) — well, we get Heinz peanut butter now, not just Heinz ketchup. You see, NAFTA ensures that the lowest-paid labor can be employed and the biggest offered contracts with kickbacks to the prison-industrial complex can be taken, and it’s all legal. Carcinogens in foodstuffs, chemicals in products, hazardous materials and defective goods are all of no consequences. It does not matter: prisoners die, prisoners buy.
Until today’s prisoners see themselves as laborers and consumers in a global capitalist market, they will be doomed to be pawns, powerless. Until prisoners see themselves as being at the mercy of the same interests plundering South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, our physical and political isolation will continue.
III. Post-prisoner-rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s
It is refreshing to witness California prisoners once again at the lead of the prisoner rights struggle, having waged numerous hunger strikes and agreed to the Peace Accords to End Hostilities Among Prisoners (sectarian warfare). Nevertheless, the gains in political consciousness and rights of prisoners of the 1960s and 1970s in places like San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad and Walla Walla out West, and Sing Sing and the notorious Attica Rebellion on the East Coast — where for limited times prisoners controlled and governed their own affairs — are on the decline nationwide, as whole new generations from the streets have been indoctrinated, miseducated and depoliticized.
The U.S. government has largely supported this cause through repression in the form of draconian laws eliminating court oversight of the prisons. The Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, the Anti-Terrorism Effective Death Penalty Act, and Pennsylvania’s amended Post-Conviction Act all constitute blocks and limitations nationally on prisoner organizing. Prisoners’ rights to access law libraries and the courts, as well as protection from arbitrary segregation and confinement for falsified misconduct reports with kangaroo disciplinary proceedings have all been wiped away by the reactionary, fascist, demigod dictators that sit on the nation’s highest courts.
In the face of this, lawyers nationwide with the American Bar Association have been conspiratorially complicit with this arrangement, banning publications, censoring mail, and showing utter silence and lack of solidarity for inmates who suffer routine staff brutality.
A quarter of a century ago, at the beginning of my interment into this penal madness, still in my political infancy, there was a North American newspaper out of Canada that was popular in America’s gulags called Prisoner News Service. It was published free by Jim Campbell of Canada (RIP) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It covered dialogue amongst prisoners of political standing. There was also Spear and Shield publications out of Chicago; their Crossroads Newsletter and Journal of Political Thought was published by James Sayles, a.k.a. Atiba Shanna (RIP). These pamphlets were foundational to many inmates’ political development. During that era this writer read the remarkable poem dedicated to Assata Shakur in exile by prisoner Shaka Shakur. This writer was introduced to the anti-imperialist Marilyn Buck (RIP) and many others through these publications.
Over 30 years ago Elder Sundiata Acoli encouraged prisoners to turn these cells into colleges — the prisons into universities of political thought. Elder Sundiata is a gifted computer engineer; I wonder if he foresaw this age of courts and corporations closely conspiring to eradicate printed publications for prisoners. Corporate-greed-driven ventures into e-books, computer tablets, kiosks, iPods, MP3 players all leave prisoners isolated without snail-mail or printed literature.
Every trick in the prison industry book is being used to suppress Books Through Bars organizations and literature over bogus rules of what constitutes acceptable reading material. Even cards from families and friends are being phased out; unless it’s in a white envelope, it is not being accepted. That’s white sneakers, white kufis, white rosary beads, white dhikr beads. Unless it’s white or clear, it’s not being allowed into prisons. If it has color it’s associated with gangs. Color means gang related? If this is not “white supremacy” I don’t know what is.
Another political prisoner, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who I hope was recently released this year (2016), once wrote to me that the most important thing that can be done as an individual prisoner today is to raise consciousness by recruiting and building cadre. It is in this spirit that the New Black August Collective intends to erase the prevalent ignorance, disorganization, undisciplined mentalities of gangsterism, which supports capitalism through genocide as well as other forms of exploitation. Unless we as prisoners educate, we can’t liberate! As Black Panther Party/Black Liberation Army alumnus Jahlil Muntaqim so eloquently wrote, “We are our own liberators!”
IV. In the absence of the Black Panther Party vanguard
For this writer, at 42 years old, one of the things I have yet to comprehend is how some revolutionaries in the U.S. retire. I’ve read of revolutionary organizations being destroyed. The revolutionaries are primarily killed. I’m still confused by how in the 1960s and 1970s when so many revolutionaries were killed, exiled or imprisoned — particularly with the Panthers, but others too — how can there be movie deals, book signings, speaking engagements, and marketing when a revolution should still be going on?
This is not to be judgmental, as I was not involved in the great sacrifices they contributed. But for clarity politically I’ve seen Ireland’s IRA, Palestine’s PLO, Colombia’s FARC, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, Spain’s separatists, North Korea, China, Russia, Cuba. Where do revolutionaries go to retire?
From the heydays of the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society, Weather Underground Organization, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Liberation Army, Republic of New Africa, George Jackson Brigade, American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, Los Macheteros/Boricua Independentistas (Puerto Rican nationalists), white American Anti-Imperialist, European Anti-Imperialist, MOVE Organization, white POWs and political prisoners like Tom Manning, Bill Dunn, David Gilbert, deceased freedom fighters like Richard Williams and Marilyn Buck (RIP), Natives like Leonard Peltier, internationalists like Silvia Baraldini — all these races and ethnicities of revolutionaries and 50 years into the present, at this stage in 2016 the 4 Struggle magazine out of Canada and the ABC-Zine Chicago with political prisoner/prisoner of war Jaan Lamaan doing the 4 Struggle and prisoner supporter Anthony Payson running the ABC Chicago zine, these are the ground zero of collectives of prisoners attempting to desperately cling to the past struggles and survive the present onslaught of complete global military and economic domination of American New World Order imperialism (Pax Americana). “Austerity” is alive and well in the streets and in the prisons. The public is a prison outside looking in on us, and we are prisoners looking back outside into a prison. With the exception of supporting anarchist communes, Anarchist Black Cross Federation and others near and abroad, where is the revolutionary dialogue and movement inside the U.S.? Where have the revolutionaries retired to?
This writer is personally grateful to Workers World Party (WWP) for the opportunity here to present the summation of where do we go in the absence of the Black Panther Party since the early 1980s. The Black Lives Matter and similar grass-roots organizations are becoming popular. New generations need solutions to today’s struggles in terms they can identify and relate to. New organizations such as Human Rights Coalition are empowering families and friends of prisoners to stand up and empower themselves and their loved ones. Decarcerate PA is showing that economics in all this is a common theme: “spending on prisons is outrageous.” The reality is that labor interest can play a deciding factor going forward, being essentially all women, men and children confined are potential future laborers. It is being suggested that each one starts to teach one and build study groups around these issues, to build a coalition to stand against imperialism from within the belly of the beast: North American mass incarceration prison plantations. Prisoners need to become involved in the exchange of revolutionary ideas and active participants in the movement.
Thanks to WWP, Mattie (WWP); HRC Philly & Fed Up Pittsburgh, Layne and Sarah (Decarcerate PA).
Rebuild! Break the chains!