AFRICANGLOBE – The much-publicized brutality and inhumane conditions suffered by prisoners in solitary confinement worldwide has once again sparked global debates on the unprecedented urgency of prison reform. Over the past two to three decades, the global penal system has turned increasingly roughshod and its practices have grown greatly abusive.
U.S. prison abolitionist groups, integrated largely by prisoners’ families and inside-outside solidarity-advocacy networks such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Ohio Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, and the Pennsylvania-based prison-activist organization Human Rights Coalition, have massively circulated evidence showing that female and male inmates in federal and state prisons are being subjected to the uttermost degrading treatment.
Evidence of abuse and extreme cruelty has been compiled and made public by prison solidarity groups on the outside through the circulation of correspondence, poems, drawings, medical and legal records, and collectively produced political documents containing riveting accounts by prisoners of the many forms of torture inflicted on them in maximum and medium security facilities, such as the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown and Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) and San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) in Northern California.
Recent developments in cross-race solidarity movements within prisons have attracted alternative media coverage worldwide, thus giving prisoners a forceful voice. In cooperation with inside-outside advocacy networks, U.S. prison coalition movements have inspired political demonstrations throughout the world.
Using mass hunger strikes and other forms of protest, victimized inmates have further risked their physical and psychological integrity to deliver a message of resistance by means of mutual aid and cooperation. A leading example of unprecedented interracial and political solidarity – occurring simultaneously in approximately 17 of the 33 prisons in the U.S. – is the one launched by the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective. This exceptionally well-organized initiative was recently solidified by a cease-interracial-violence consented resolution.
Two three-week hunger strikes in 2011 succeeded in raising local and international awareness about the psychological and physical ritualistic abuse experienced by prisoners in penitentiary facilities across the United States. The first hunger strike was launched in July and the second in September of 2011 with approximately 400 men refusing meals. Gradually, more than 12.000 inmates in prisons across the state joined in solidarity with Pelican Bay strikers.
Sentenced to life for second-degree murder in 1992 while serving a six-year sentence for burglary at Folsom State Prison, strike leader Todd Ashker has been housed at PBSP under strict solitary confinement for the past 26 years. Outrageous retaliation followed the non-violent hunger strikes and prison officials proceeded to install a plexiglass wall in Asker’s 8-foot by10-foot cell thus cutting him from all possible communication with other inmates. Ashker spends 23 hours in his cell and his visitation rights are limited to two “no contact” visits per month.
Although stimulating and hope-filled – given the dehumanizing conditions under which he has been kept and the kind of mass solidarity networks he has helped create – Ashker’s is but one among the many stories of cruelty and abuse that have come to light in the last decade. Hopefully, Ashker’s resilient struggle to bring prisoners together across racial divides acts as an eye-opener to the racialized logic of the U.S. penal system. Put differently, the criminal justice system indulges in practices specifically engineered to break potential bonds of solidarity among prisoners by pitting them against each other. These fragmentation strategies take many forms.
Forcing prisoners to inform on other gang members is one of the tactics. “Snitching” does not grant prisoners any benefits; rather, it prevents further torture or ill-treatment in the future. Indefinite solitary confinement is intended to break possibly “dangerous” bonds among inmates. Prisoners who have been labeled “the worst of the worst,” such as Todd Ashker, are kept in strict solitary confinement allegedly to prevent gang-related activity.
Recent reports reveal new abhorrent practices taking place in several prisons across the country. According to Aviva Shen (2012), “A group of current and former inmates filed a law suit against the St. Louis city workhouse, claiming guards forced them to fight each other in gladiator-style combat. The class-action suit claims guards took away inmates’ food and privileges and attacked them if they refused to fight. The ‘Workhouse Gladiators’ say they were also denied medical care for the serious injuries resulting from the fights, which included a broken jaw.”
Recent solidarity-related activity proves that prison officials have felt increasingly intimidated by the level of positive solidarity among prisoners. Such bonds have led to unprecedented collective action against ill treatment in several prisons across the world. Especial attention should thus be given to the immense potential for cooperation and increased resilience of prisoners acting in cohesion against an inhumane procedural justice system.
In broad strokes, the emergence of interracial solidarity as a political force can be traced back to the early 1990s. The launching of this solid interracial solidarity movement, which was spurred by increased abuse and inhumane living conditions in prisons across the U.S. galvanized politically conscious prisoners such as the renowned Lucasville Five to take collective action against a severely biased genocidal system.
Integrated by two men affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood racist prison gang and three African American men – all on Death Row – the Lucasville 11-day uprising resulted in an automatic death sentence for all five men. Following their conviction, the five men were transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary supermax in 1998. Inmates on Death Row in OSP live in restricted solitary confinement awaiting execution while their cases are appealed (Williams 1992; Lynd 2004).
II. A politics of death in the era of privatized punishment: The prison industrial complex
It is by narrating the horror stories of modern society’s most vicious institution, the prison system, that one can begin to understand the kind of epic resilience, interracial solidarity and cooperation taking place in U.S. penitentiary facilities today. What has led the penal system to turn so obscenely cruel? What are the real social and economic causes impinging on the basic human liberties of prisoners? What has led us, as a society, to turn a blind eye on each other’s suffering? What is it that has made us so arrogantly passive; so acutely indifferent?