Opening the Box: Sarah Shourd on Herman Wallace, California Hunger Strikers and Solitary Confinement

(PHOTO: Herman Wallace, without leg irons, using an exercise bike, following his recent transfer from solitary confinement. Herman wanted to show supporters he is fighting to survive. Photo by

Opening the Box: Sarah Shourd on Herman Wallace, California Hunger Strikers and the Horror of Solitary Confinement

By Angola 3 News

Last month, we were devastated to learn that the Angola 3’s Herman Wallace had been diagnosed with liver cancer, and that he was continuing to be held in isolation in a locked room at Hunt Correctional Center's prison infirmary. Reflecting on his confinement while battling cancer, Herman said: "My own body has now become a tool of torture against me."

On July 10, Amnesty International launched a campaign directed at Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, calling for Herman’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds (take action here). "After decades of cruel conditions and a conviction that continues to be challenged by the courts, he should be released immediately to his family so that he can be cared for humanely during his last months," said Amnesty USA campaigner Tessa Murphy.

In recent years, Amnesty has initiated other campaigns challenging the over 41 years spent in solitary confinement by Herman and Albert Woodfox, also of the Angola 3, including the April 17, 2012 delivery of a 67,000 signature petition to LA Governor Jindal demanding Albert and Herman's immediate release from solitary. Earlier this year, Amnesty called on Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell to not appeal the US District Court’s overturning of Albert’s conviction. More recently, accompanying their call for Herman’s release, Amnesty also expressed concern about “the worsening conditions of confinement” for Albert at David Wade Correctional Center, where he remains in solitary confinement. “For approximately two months, Woodfox has been subjected to additional punitive measures – including strip searches each time he leaves or enters his cell, being escorted in ankle and wrist restraints, restricted phone access, and non-contact visits through a perforated metal screen. Temperatures in the prison cells are reportedly extremely high, regularly reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” wrote Amnesty.

Public outrage intensified on Friday, July 12, when a letter citing the Angola 3 case, was sent to the Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department by Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the full U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-La.). The letter called for an investigation of the Louisiana Departments of Corrections for its “abysmal history of protecting the rights of its prisoners,” of which the “tragic story of the Angola 3 is a case in point.”

About Herman Wallace, the Congressmen wrote: “We have heard that he lost over 50 pounds within 6 months. Despite that dramatic weight loss, and at 72 years old, the prison did nothing to treat or diagnose him until he was sent to an emergency room on June 14.   Given the late stage of his diagnosis, his treatment options are now limited. He is frail and ill, but is still being treated as if he is a threat to security, and we hear that he remains under lockdown conditions. This is unconscionable.”

Within hours of the letter’s release, Herman Wallace was transferred out of solitary confinement, when Louisiana’s Hunt prison reduced his classification from maximum to medium security. Herman is now staying at the prison hospital in a 10-bunk dorm, with access to a day room, and does not have to wear leg irons anymore. While celebrating the more human conditions, Herman and the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 emphasize that the transfer from solitary is not enough. They are asking folks to continue supporting Amnesty International’s call for humane release. The Angola 3’s Robert H. King, himself released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement, says, “The wind is at our back and with your continued help our objective will be realized - freedom is in sight.”

The case of the Angola 3 is at the center of a 42-day fundraising drive begun for a touring play, entitled Opening the Box, that will focus on the use of prolonged solitary confinement in US prisons. The choice of fundraising for 42 days is a tribute to the almost 42 years spent in solitary by Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. The writer and producer of Opening the Box, Sarah Shourd, is herself a survivor, having spent 410 days in solitary confinement while held as a political hostage by the Iranian Government from 2009-2010. After returning to the US, she successfully fought for the release of her now-husband Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fatal.

Conceived specifically “to add to the momentum of a burgeoning movement” against solitary, Shourd will be working with Solitary Watch to “collect real stories from a diverse spectrum of people living in solitary confinement today--immigrants, children, lifers and women. Then, I'm going to write a play about it and go on tour.”

“While watching this play, I want the audience to breathe along with a young man having a panic attack after being denied a visit with his mother, to crawl inside the skin of an immigrant detainee terrified of being deported and to travel with a lifer on a magic carpet of memory--only to be pulled back into the stark, implacable reality of the hole. By hearing these stories, my hope is that the audience will be able to relate to the men and women enduring this torture in our prisons, to their pain but also to their resistance to the dehumanizing forces around them, their incredible resilience...and their refusal to be institutionalized,” explains Shourd.

In this interview, which Shourd dedicates to Herman Wallace, we take a closer look at her project, Opening the Box, as well as the ongoing prisoner hunger strike in California, the Angola 3 case, and the politics of prisons in the US. Currently based in Oakland, California, Shourd is an author and Contributing Editor at Solitary Watch. Before being captured by the Iranian government, Shourd was living in a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria, working as a journalist and teaching for the Iraqi Student Project. She’s written for The New York Times, CNN, Newsweek's Daily Beast and has a blog on Huffington Post. Her memoir (co-authored by Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal) will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2014. To learn more visit and/or follow her on Twiiter @SShourd.

(PHOTO: Sarah Shourd speaks in support of solitary survivor Bradley Manning)

Angola 3 News:         Why did you choose to spotlight the case of the Angola 3 with 42 days of fundraising?

Sarah Shourd:           I only knew a little about the Angola 3 before I was detained in Iran, but I thought about them when I was inside. I also thought about Mumia Abu Jamal, Nelson Mandela, my friend Jafar Saidi (who is being held in a Pennsylvania prison) and all the other prisoners I’d heard of being held in prolonged isolation. I reasoned that if these people found the strength to endure weeks, months or even decades alone, then that meant I could get through it too. Their example helped me believe that it was possible to survive indefinite solitary confinement, that with enough discipline and focus, I could learn to stay afloat, to ward off depression & hopelessness and even confront each day with some sort of dignity and purpose.

Now that I’ve studied Herman and Albert’s case, I know there is absolutely no evidence that either of them is guilty of the crime (murdering a guard) that landed them in solitary 41 years ago. The 70’s were an extremely volatile and politicized time inside Angola prison and prisons around the country. Herman, Albert and Robert were organizing and resisting mistreatment by guards inside Angola—and I believe that’s why they were targeted by prison officials and used to set an example.

Herman and Albert were given a sentence on top of their original sentence—life in solitary confinement. This ruling was made internally, without judge or jury, which in my opinion is unconstitutional.

A3N:   Following Herman Wallace’s recent cancer diagnosis and continued isolation, we are mobilizing public support for compassionate release. Can you say something in support of Herman’s medical release?

SS:      Herman deserves a release on compassionate, medical grounds more than any other prisoner I’ve ever heard of. It couldn’t be more obvious that he’s no danger to anyone and the yet extent of suffering that’s been heaped upon him over the last four decades is beyond comprehension. No human being, under any circumstances, should be subject to this kind of cruelty.

That said, there’s no changing what’s already been done. The best hope for Herman is that he be allowed to taste freedom and be with his loved ones for the last months or years of his life. After 41 years, Herman deserves much, much more than that—but all we can really hope for is that government officials decide to grant Herman a compassionate, medical release the most expedient way possible. This is the only way to make right even a fraction of the wrong that’s been done— before it’s too late.

A3N:   Last week, on the other side of the country, California prisoners began a hunger strike, following up on the demands first made by hunger strikers in 2011. How did the 2011 hunger strike affect you, following your release from Iran?

SS:      I’d been fighting non-stop for over a year when my now-husband Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fatal were finally released from prison in Iran. Just weeks later, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, issued a report condemning the long-term use of isolation on prisoners and calling it torture. Mendez went on to say that any period over 15 days in solitary can cause permanent psychological damage and should be subject to strict, mandatory review.

A few weeks later, the largest hunger strikes in history erupted in my home state, California. It was such an intense, mixed time for me. After more than two years since our initial arrests, the three of us were all finally together, free and back in the US. Yet, I was acutely aware of the tens of thousands of people in my own country, who were needlessly suffering the same kind of torture that the three of us had been subjected to.

I began speaking and writing about solitary confinement, connecting my own experience to what I saw happening around me. I knew the fight for justice wasn’t over for me—this was now a lifelong commitment.

A3N:   What do you think of the current hunger strike? Do you support the strike’s criticism of prison authorities’ response to the 2011 strike?

SS:      I’m angry that ten of thousands of prisoners have been forced to begin hunger striking again, but they have no other choice. The response from California prison authorities to the demands of the prison hunger strikers in 2011 was sorely inadequate. In fact, no tangible changes have been made at all. Prisoners in our country have next to no rights—they have to risk their health, safety and even their own lives in order to be heard.

I’m impressed, but by no means surprised, by how widespread resistance to solitary confinement has become inside our prisons—with 29,000 people refusing their food on the very first day. I think the renewal of this hunger strike is a sign that prisoners have reached a tipping point. They’ve made their grievances visible, so that now politicians, prison officials and the public can no longer afford to ignore the horrors happening inside our prisons.

A3N:   With over 2.4 million prisoners today, the US now has the most total prisoners and the highest incarceration rate in the world. How do you think this unprecedented level of mass incarceration relates to the widespread use of long-term solitary confinement?

SS:      Before I spent 410 days in solitary confinement, I knew that isolating a person was a cruel form of punishment. Still, it wasn’t until I experienced it myself that I realized it was torture. Long periods with little to no human contact violates a person’s psyche in the deepest, most insidious way—a way that usually leaves no physical marks but leaves most people psychologically damaged and changed forever

I see solitary confinement as the deep end of our very broken prison system. It’s the worst punishment our system dolls out. It’s also used routinely, often arbitrarily and with little to no oversight.

There are other ways to run prisons that are better for both prisoners’ individual health and public safety. However, instead of trying to deal with serious issues like prison violence (by inmates and guards) constructively, in U.S. we lock ten of thousands of people alone in cages where they lose their minds, often hurt themselves and commit suicide at a much higher rate than in the general prison population.

Still, prison authorities can’t keep them locked up forever. The majority of people that have been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement will one day be released back into society, where little to no services exist to help them recover, reintegrate and move forward in a positive way. That’s why so many ex-prisoners reoffend and the cycle continues.

Our prison system has veered so far from the path of rehabilitation over the last 30 years, there’s hardly even an attempt on behalf of prison authorities to give the impression they’re trying to provide inmates with resources or opportunities to change. Instead, prisoners are treated like raw material instead of human beings, warehoused away like surplus goods.

A3N:   Who, in particular gets targeted for solitary and why?

SS:      Solitary confinement is a perfect illustration of what our prison system has become. It’s used as a control strategy against anyone who presents any kind of hassle to prison officials and/or needs services that our prison system has neglected to provide. Guards use any excuse to get rid of people by sending them to the ‘hole,’ such as petty drug use, profanity and/or any small, petty (often non-violent) infraction.

The real reason many people wind up in solitary is because they have unpopular or threatening political beliefs, because they’re gay or transgender and need so-called ‘protection,’ because they’ve reported rape or abuse by prison officials and/or simply because they are mentally ill.

Human Rights Watch estimates that one-third to one-half of inmates in isolation had some form of mental illness before they were put there. Using solitary confinement instead of providing mental health and other rehabilitative services is inhumane, not to mention extremely negligent. This practice doesn’t serve society and that’s why we need to hold prison officials accountable and end this practice.

A3N:   Looking from an international perspective, how do other countries differ regarding the use of prolonged solitary confinement?

SS:      Many countries around the world only use solitary in their prisons as a very last resort. England, for example, tried implementing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. When prison violence increased, and they realized how expensive and cruel this practice was, they simply stopped relying on it. Today there are a few dozen prisoners held in prolonged solitary in the UK—compared to our estimated 80,000 on any given day.

The reason this mistake was caught and largely corrected in England was simple—they have a system of oversight in place, a government body that closely monitors what happens inside their prisons and keeps the public informed. In the U.S. we have nothing like this in place. As a result, this practice has gotten out of control and we’ve become by far the largest offender of this inhumane, senseless practice in the world.

A3N:   Why is theater a useful medium for telling these stories? How do you foresee this helping to build momentum against the practice of solitary confinement?

SS:      I believe a play can reach a new and different segment of the population with a human rights issue that should be of grave concern to everyone in our country. ‘Opening the Box’ also has the potential of humanizing this issue in a visceral, embodied way that an article or report can’t.

In the late 90s a play called The Exonerated—based on true stories of innocent death row survivors— came out and quickly spread like wildfire. Half a million people saw this play and actors like Susan Sarandon & Danny Glover did cameos and the Governor of Illinois was so affected by seeing the play he decided to commute all the existing death row sentences in his state to life in prison.

I believe that hearing, seeing and reading real, complex stories of people living through the daily hell of solitary confinement (there is also a book in the works, slated to be published in conjunction with the play) has the potential of effecting people in a way they can’t and won’t forget. The play is not only about entertainment, of course, we want it to be a catalyst for action, a humble effort to contribute to a nation-wide movement—one that’s gained more momentum in the last few years than it did over the last century.

‘Opening the Box’ is also a deeply personal journey—an attempt to understand what happened to me during the year I spent in solitary and to connect my own suffering to that of so many others.

--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Take Action: Join Amnesty International to Demand Compassionate Release for Herman Wallace Now!
Please take action here!

(RELATED: article by The Advocate: "Amnesty International wants Jindal to free one of the Angola 3")

Today, in response to the tragic news that Herman Wallace is terminally ill with cancer, Amnesty International has launched a campaign calling for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to immediately release Herman on humanitarian grounds.

Following his initial diagnosis on June 14, Herman continues to be held in isolation at Hunt Correctional Center's prison infirmary. Reflecting on his confinement while battling cancer, Herman says: "My own body has now become a tool of torture against me."

"After decades of cruel conditions and a conviction that continues to be challenged by the courts, he should be released immediately to his family so that he can be cared for humanely during his last months," says Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner, about Herman Wallace.

Amnesty International has long criticized the legal process and lack of evidence that has resulted in both Herman and Albert Woodfox's original murder convictions. In confronting Herman and Albert's continued cruel confinement in solitary for over 40 years, Amnesty has declared it to be in violation of international human rights law, as well as the US Constitution itself.

In today's statement, Amnesty declares that in the decades of Herman and Albert's confinement, the "prison authorities have broken their own policies to justify their continued incarceration in harsh and inhumane conditions." Amnesty also states that they are, "extremely concerned about the worsening conditions of confinement" for Albert in David Wade Correctional Center.

Creating public pressure for Herman is now more important than ever. We need Governor Jindal to get hundreds of thousands of emails demanding Herman's immediate release, so please take action now and help us spread the word by posting on Facebook and forwarding it to your friends.

--The full text of the 'take action' email to Bobby Jindal - Governor of Louisiana, Paul Rainwater - Chief of Staff, Emily Riser - Executive Assistant,  and Tammy Woods - Assistant Chief of Staff reads:

Subject: We Call For Humane Release!

As I write you, 71 year old Herman Wallace is being held in isolation in the infirmary in Hunt Correctional Center. After spending more than four decades held in cruel and unusual solitary confinement, he has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. The time to act is now. I ask you to release Herman to his family on humanitarian grounds, so that they can care for him during his last months on earth.

Both Herman Wallace and fellow 'Angola 3' prisoner Albert Woodfox have spent most of the past 41 years of their lives alone in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day. Such conditions are cruel, inhuman and degrading. Prior to Wallace's cancer diagnosis, these conditions had already negatively impacted both men's physical and psychological health. In fact, in 2007, a US federal judge ruled that the conditions constituted a deprivation of a basic human need and that prison officials should have been aware of the potential for serious harm to physical and mental health.

Contrary to requirements under both international human rights law and the US Constitution, Herman has had no meaningful review of his continued isolation. Herman's prison records do not demonstrate that he is a threat to the security of the institution, himself or others. Furthermore, there are substantial concerns about the fairness of the legal process that resulted in Herman's conviction; a conviction that is still being challenged before the courts today. Evidence suggests that the decision to keep him in solitary is based at least in part on his political activism and association with the Black Panther party.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are believed to have spent more time in solitary confinement than virtually any other US prisoner in recent history. Now, after surviving 41 years of a nightmare, Herman doesn't have much time left. Please release Herman to his family today.

(end of email text)

--Below is the full text of Amnesty International's July 10, 2013 press release.

Amnesty International Appeals for Release of Terminally Ill 'Angola 3' Prisoner, after 40 Years in Solitary Confinement

Contact: Suzanne Trimel,, 212-633-4150, @AIUSAmedia

(NEW YORK) – Amnesty International appealed to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal today to immediately release from prison on humanitarian grounds. Herman Wallace, one of the ‘Angola 3,’ is terminally ill with cancer and has been imprisoned in solitary confinement for more than 40 years.

“Herman Wallace is 71 years old and has advanced liver cancer,” said Tessa Murphy, USA campaigner at Amnesty International. “After decades of cruel conditions and a conviction that continues to be challenged by the courts, he should be released immediately to his family so that he can be cared for humanely during his last months.”

Wallace was diagnosed with cancer after being taken to hospital on June 14. He had been on medication for some time for what was diagnosed as a stomach fungus and over the last months, has lost considerable weight. He is now being held in isolation in the infirmary at Hunt Correctional Center.

Wallace and fellow prisoner Albert Woodfox were first placed in isolation in 1972; since then they have been confined for 23 hours a day to cells measuring 6 by 9 feet.

Both men were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1973, yet no physical evidence links them to the crime – potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost and the testimony of the main eyewitness has been discredited. Citing racial discrimination, misconduct by the prosecution, and inadequate defense, state and federal judges have overturned Woodfox’s conviction three times, while Wallace’s case is once again up for review before the federal courts.

The two men are believed to have spent longer in solitary confinement than virtually any other U.S. prisoner in recent history. During this time, prison authorities have broken their own policies to justify their continued incarceration in harsh and inhumane conditions.

Before Wallace’s cancer diagnosis, the harsh environment had already had an impact on both the man’s physical and psychological health as acknowledged by a federal judge in 2007. The severe toll of solitary confinement on inmates’ mental and physical health has been extensively documented in studies. In recognition of this damage, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has called on states to prohibit the practice in excess of 15 days.

Amnesty International is also extremely concerned about the worsening conditions of confinement for Woodfox in David Wade Correctional Center. For approximately two months, Woodfox has been subjected to additional punitive measures – including strip searches each time he leaves or enters his cell, being escorted in ankle and wrist restraints, restricted phone access, and non-contact visits through a perforated metal screen. Temperatures in the prison cells are reportedly extremely high, regularly reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists, and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.

Letter to DOJ by Reps. Richmond, Conyers, Nadler & Scott Calls for Investigation into LA Prisons
Below is the full text of the letter to the US Department of Justice and the accompanying press release issued today (view a PDF of the original letter).

For Immediate Release
Date: Friday, July 12, 2013 Contact: Andrew Schreiber (Conyers) – 202-225-6906
John Doty (Nadler) – 202-225-5635 David Dailey (Scott) – 202-225-8351
Monique Waters (Richmond) – 202-225-6636
Reps. Richmond, Conyers, Nadler, and Scott Lead Letter Calling for Investigation into Several Louisiana Prison Facilities

(WASHINGTON) – Today, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the full U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez calling for investigations into the alarming conditions in several Louisiana state prison facilities. Specifically, the Members expressed deep concern that the Louisiana Department of Corrections has, “engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the United States Constitution and federal law in its use of such confinement and detention practices.” In the letter the Representatives urge the Attorney General to begin an investigation into the use of solitary confinement, and other troubling detention practices, in numerous Louisiana prison facilities, especially in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana.

The full version of the letter transmitted to the Department of Justice can be found below:


July 12, 2013

Honorable Thomas E. Perez
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Assistant Attorney General Perez:

Under the authority granted to the Attorney General pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Prisoners Act (“CRIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, we urge you to begin an in depth investigation into the egregious and extensive use of solitary confinement and other troubling detention practices in various Louisiana prison facilities, especially the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana (“Angola”).  We have reason to believe that the Louisiana Department of Corrections (“Louisiana DOC”) has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the United States Constitution and federal law in its use of such confinement and detention practices. We believe that an investigation of conditions at Angola and other facilities under the control of the Louisiana DOC could yield evidence of knowing violations of the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause, the 8th Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, as well as numerous additional violations of prisoners’ statutory and constitutional rights.

The Louisiana DOC has an abysmal history of protecting the rights of its prisoners, and the tragic story of the Angola 3 is a case in point.  Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were charged with murder and convicted with evidence that has been called into question by numerous courts and stakeholders, including the victim’s wife. Another inmate, Robert King, was also subjected to decades of isolation after a wrongful conviction. His conviction was overturned and he was released in 2002.  Although held in isolation for being a purported threat to prison security, since his release he has toured the world speaking about his ordeal in isolation, and he was recently awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England.

Since their convictions (which are currently under review in federal court), Woodfox and Wallace have endured over four decades of isolation.  This is an unprecedented period of time by any standard, and quite possibly the longest any person has spent in solitary confinement worldwide.  Within the last five years, Woodfox and Wallace have been transferred from Angola to other facilities in the Louisiana prison system, including the David Wade Correctional Center (“Wade”) and the Evalyn Hunt Correctional Center (“Hunt”), where we understand the very same complained-of constitutional and statutory violations have been perpetuated.  We understand that upon their transfers, brand new Closed Cell Restricted (“CCR”) tiers were created at these facilities, and additional inmates are now also confined on these tiers.  We have reason to believe that, as at Angola, many of the inmates housed in the CCR tiers of Hunt and Wade suffer from mental health and other serious illnesses.  Woodfox and Wallace continue to be held apart from the general prison population, to the detriment of their mental and physical health.

Indeed, after years of what we have been informed was sub-standard medical care, Herman Wallace was diagnosed just weeks ago with liver cancer.  We have heard that he lost over 50 pounds within 6 months.  Despite that dramatic weight loss, and at 72 years old, the prison did nothing to treat or diagnose him until he was sent to an emergency room on June 14.   Given the late stage of his diagnosis, his treatment options are now limited.  He is frail and ill, but is still being treated as if he is a threat to security, and we hear that he remains under lockdown conditions. This is unconscionable.

We also have reason to believe that at the Wade facility, 68-year-old Woodfox, and all CCR inmates there, are being subjected to daily strip searches whenever they enter or exit their cells, even when there is no basis or reasonable suspicion that they might be in possession of contraband.  We have been told that even when Woodfox is removed from his cell to go to the exercise yard, where he is being kept under surveillance of guards and apart from any other inmates or prison visitors, he is strip searched when he leaves his cell and upon return.

Moreover, we have reason to believe that the Louisiana DOC continues to knowingly engage in behavior that violates the due process rights of inmates held in solitary confinement.  The requirements of the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause call for periodic, meaningful hearings on the question of whether a prisoner should be held for continued closed cell restriction.  Yet, we are told that in many Louisiana DOC facilities, officials orchestrate sham 90-day reviews that take no consideration of a prisoner’s conduct while he was in solitary or the prisoner’s state of mind, and do not attempt to determine, by any defined standard, whether the prisoner should be released to a less restrictive cellblock or dormitory.  We have been informed that there may be more than 100 inmates who have been subjected to these fictitious reviews.

In addition to the above-detailed due process violations, this use of prolonged isolation over a period of 40 years at Angola and other Louisiana DOC facilities is indicative of cruel and unusual punishment, and its blatant and persistent use suggests that this practice is pervasive and not confined to the Angola 3. We have reason to believe that there are other inmates who have received less attention from the press who have also been subject to such onerous, punitive periods of isolation.

We do not allege these apparently unconstitutional patterns and practices lightly. Over the past 6 years we have engaged officials, inmates and stakeholders in conversations about conditions at the prison, and most of what we have heard is alarming.  Recently, lawyers representing inmates on Angola’s death row filed suit in federal court alleging that the conditions of confinement there are inhumane because the tiers are not air-conditioned, and the heat index goes as high as 195 degrees Fahrenheit in summer months.  On July 2, 2013, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Brian Jackson in the Middle District of Louisiana issued an order in that case directing that temperature data be collected for 21 straight days in advance of an evidentiary hearing set for August 5.  Just as with the death row at Angola, the CCR tiers at Angola, Wade and Hunt have no air-conditioning in the scorching Louisiana summer heat.

Finally, we have reason to believe that Louisiana DOC employees have colluded with persons from the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General to fabricate violations of prison rules to unjustifiably punish inmates. Significant issues also exist related to prisoners’ personal safety, unhealthy environmental conditions, inhumane sanitary conditions and excessive use of force by prison staff.  We have been told that e-mails between the Louisiana Attorney General’s office and Louisiana DOC employees document that, in the Fall of 2008, staff of the Attorney General’s office and Angola prison “joined forces,” as a February 10, 2010 Order of the federal District Court describes it, to search a year’s-worth of Wallace and Woodfox’s recorded phone calls for “‘sufficient justification for stiff disciplinary action.’” Wilkerson v. Stalder, No. 00-304 (M.D.La.) (Doc. No. 374 at 9, 10).  This search coincided with proceedings related to Woodfox’s motion for bail after he was granted habeas relief by the federal District Court which was later overturned by a split Fifth Circuit panel.  We are told that as a result of their efforts to find pretextual disciplinary violations—which involved staff of the Attorney General’s office requesting and listening to privileged attorney-client calls—Wallace and Woodfox were written up for phone call violations; sentenced to a removal from the dormitory setting where they had peacefully resided for eight months; and placed back into isolation, where they remain today.  

In this day and age, the federal government simply cannot abide unconstitutional behavior of this magnitude from those who run corrections facilities. It simply cannot be that in this country, a state can subject men to inhumane solitary confinement conditions, for decades on end, with no standards for the review procedures in place to ensure that such profoundly harsh confinement is justified, without intervention by our federal government.  As the Supreme Court found in Brown v. Plata, “prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”

In this spirit, we ask that the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section use the Department’s statutory CRIPA authority to investigate and ultimately take all appropriate action to ensure that Louisiana’s prison system fully complies with the mandates of the Constitution and all applicable statutes.  The Division’s work in the Orleans Parish Prison and St. Tammany Parish Jail cases have sent a strong signal that the Department is serious about its obligation to protect the rights of institutionalized persons in the State of Louisiana.  The situation at Angola, especially the treatment of the Angola 3, is ripe for investigation and immediate action.  We look forward to your earliest response.

Cedric L. Richmond, Member of Congress
John Conyers Jr., Member of Congress
Jerrold Nadler, Member of Congress
Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, Member of Congress


Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice

Jocelyn Samuel, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice

Peter J. Kadzik, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legislative Affairs, Department of Justice

Jonathan M. Smith, Chief, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, Department of Justice

The Honorable Bob Goodlatte, Chairman, House Committee on the Judiciary 

Abusing Prisoners Decreases Public Safety --An interview w/ author and ex-con Shawn Griffith

Abusing Prisoners Decreases Public Safety
--An interview with educator, author and former prisoner Shawn Griffith

By Angola 3 News

If given the attention it deserves, an important new book is certain to make significant contributions to the public discussions of US prison policy. The author, Shawn Griffith, was released last year from Florida’s prison system at the age of 41, after spending most of his life, almost 24 years, behind bars, including seven in solitary confinement. Facing the US PrisonProblem 2.3 Million Strong: An Ex-Con’s View of the Mistakes and the Solution was self-published just months after Griffith was released from what is the third largest state prison system in the US, after California and Texas.

This new book’s thoughtful analysis and chilling reflections on what author Shawn Griffith experienced while incarcerated is a remarkable illustration of why the US public must listen to the voices of current and former prisoners who have stories that only they can tell. Griffith writes that “by integrating my own personal experiences with statistics and examples from different corrections systems around the nation, I am attempting to discredit the general perception that the system is designed to enforce and protect justice for everyone. The U.S. criminal justice system is an economically and politically profitable enterprise for special interest groups in this country. The general taxpayer needs to understand how the abusive policies fostered by these groups worsen the U.S. prison problem and the debt crisis through wasted corrections expenditures.”

Florida's state prisons are the book’s main focus because “the majority of prisoners are incarcerated in state institutions. As of 2010, the US incarcerated 1,404,053 prisoners in state correctional institutions. For that reason, and based on my own twenty years of experience… Florida serves as an especially relevant test case for the changes needed in the US correctional system for two reasons. First is the size of Florida’s prison population and some of the political causes of its growth... Second, Florida has enacted some of the toughest sentencing laws of any state, causing correctional budgets to soar while educational budgets have been cut repeatedly,” writes Griffith.

After reading about the many different ways prisoners are abused, the very notion that US prisons are designed to rehabilitate or improve public safety, can only be viewed as a sick joke. Griffith writes that “hidden behind the walls, huge numbers of human beings have their spirits broken daily. Secretly, many suffer false disciplinary reports, illegitimate confiscation or destruction of personal property, physical beatings, rape, and sometimes fraudulent criminal penalties. Substandard nutrition, indifference to serious medical needs, and policies that encourage laziness have also become common. These practices help to sustain rates of recidivism, which is defined as a return to prison within three years of release.”

“Indeed, the strongest factor in reducing the rate of criminal recidivism is education, especially higher education, the one correctional expenditure that federal and state politicians have slashed.  This course must be reversed,’ writes Griffith, himself an example of the healing power of educational programs for prisoners. While incarcerated he began his long journey to full rehabilitation, gaining his GED and then taking over 40 accredited college correspondence courses with an emphasis on criminal justice, psychology, and marketing. He has a 3.5 GPA from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. As a teacher in prison, he helped hundreds of inmates gain their GEDs.

Since his release in 2012, Griffith has lived in Sarasota, Florida where he founded Speak Out Publishing to publish other works of non-fiction that focus on tackling some of societies’ most pressing issues. Copies of Facing the US Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong can be purchased directly from Griffith, through his website:, by mail: Speak Out Publishing, LLC at P.O. Box 50484 Sarasota, Florida 34232, or by phone: 941-330-5979.

Angola 3 News:         You write that this book “isn’t just a commentary on correctional problems and solutions…it is also to share the human side of the story.” Based on your experience of spending almost 24 years in a Florida prison, what is the human side of this story?

Shawn Griffith:         Sometimes I think people forget that prisoners and their families are people. The prisoners have committed crimes, but many of them come to prison with serious psychological issues, and they still have feelings like every person in this world. Most prisoners are not sociopaths, but instead human beings with more pain and trauma in their pasts than the average citizen. Committing crimes, for the most part, is a direct sign of their mental instability.

A good example was a murderer with the moniker, Arkansas. Arkansas was a real stand-up guy in prison. He was someone who kept his word, minded his own business, but had a violent father who instilled violent teachings into his head repeatedly during childhood. He would give a friend the shirt off of his back, but if you tried to harm him or get over on him, his training went into effect. He had some serious psychological issues that I saw him struggle with every day.

One day I walked into his cell and he had obviously been crying, although he tried to hide it. I asked him what was wrong, and he gave me the tough bravado treatment. But I have never given up easily, and after some coaxing, I learned that his mother was dying of cancer. Arkansas cleaned up his act immediately. He did everything by the book to get a hardship transfer closer to his dying mother, who was too sick to travel across the state of Florida.

After repeated attempts to get transferred, he gave up in total despair. His mother was the only person he had in this world. He turned his anger inward and sliced his wrists deeply. This got him transferred to the prison by his mom, since it had an Intensive Psychological Unit for suicidal inmates. This is the human aspect to which I refer. Neither Arkansas nor his poor mother should have had to deal with that in the only, heartless manner available.

Society should understand that 95% of prisoners will one day become their neighbors. Worsening people’s emotional trauma in this manner does nothing to increase these prisoners’ chances of becoming a productive, empathic citizen and neighbor. People should take an active part in reconsidering policies that ignore the human aspect of the story.

A3N:   You argue that “what is most striking about” the abuse of prisoners “is how successful the government has been at maintaining the invisibility of it through ‘perception management.’ Public affairs offices work around the clock to spin damage control for correctional improprieties into non-controversial, politically correct sound bites.  With 5,000 correctional jails and institutions dotting the U.S. landscape, prisoner abuses are common.  However, much of the abuse is overlooked by unconcerned reporters who simply regurgitate government press releases.”

Combating this ‘invisibility’ by spotlighting the abuse of prisoners is critical for making prison authorities more publicly accountable. However, even on the rare occasion when the humans rights abuses inside US prisons are documented and presented to the general public, there is often still a widespread acceptance of these conditions because of a stigma against prisoners that causes much, if not most of the US public to feel that prisoners are ultimately ‘getting what they deserve.’ How can we better challenge this stigma? What role can independent media play?

SG:     The primary challenge of media, whether radio, internet, or network, is ratings. Without positive ratings, popular media can’t sell advertisements. Considering that conventional media are already facing budget challenges as a result of new venues, particularly the internet, activist-style programming is not at the top of their agenda. Crime sells, but rehabilitation hardly brings in the ratings.

The goal of all media should be to interweave prison reform into popular crime programs, similar to the way Pat O’Connor does it at He understands the public mindset, and entertains his audience with titillating pieces on crime, yet does an amazing job of showing the crimes of the system in making recidivism worse. This should be the first method for all media, whether through traditional network programs or through today’s internet blogs.

The second challenge is to put public corrections officials’ feet to the fire. The only true national magazine that does this in the U.S. is Prison Legal News. Many times I have personally witnessed mainstream media personnel come into a prison and print almost verbatim the perspective of guards or staff in the public-relations’ offices of many DOC central offices. Prison bureaucrats go to great lengths to cover improprieties. They know that if the public gets wind of how abhorrent conditions really are in most U.S. prisons, their jobs would be on the line. Thus, they only let in the media personnel who slavishly reprint their versions of public-interest stories. This is why many citizens share so many misconceptions about prisons, such as the common one that Florida’s prisons have air conditioning. It’s simply not true.

Media should reject such stifling of free speech by demanding to have less-restricted access to inmates, as they did in the late sixties and early seventies. Those prison officials that consequently restrict media access should then be lambasted with the truth, until they feel the heat, provide media access, and stop the abuses. Prisons are about prisoners, yet other than dramatized versions of prisons in shows like Lock-Up, rarely do people get the prisoners’ versions of conditions, until something extreme happens, such as killings of guards during riots. It shouldn’t have to reach that point.

There seems to be nothing independent about most mainstream media, at least not in dealing with prison issues, and that’s a shame in a country that supposedly prides itself on ‘free speech.’

A3N:   If you were given five minutes on a mainstream news show, and were therefore able to speak directly to the general public, how would you address the commonly held belief that abusive prison conditions serve to reduce ‘crime’ and  improve public safety?

SG:     I would start with the ‘three Rs’: Retribution, Rehabilitation, and Recidivism.

A3N:   Retribution?

SG:     There is a fine line between retribution and correction. The best way to bring this home to people is to use the analogy of a child being taught to behave. For the reader, I would ask:  “If you have an adopted child or even your own child who was mistreated in some way and maybe had a mental illness from some trauma in the past, would you try to fix that child by increasing the trauma further?” Of course not, unless you were an abusive parent.”

Indeed, some people might have a difficult time relating a child’s misbehavior or need for a positive upbringing with a criminal. But the fact is that most prisoners have had some intense emotional trauma in their pasts, particularly sexual, physical, or emotional abuses during childhood. They act very similar to maladjusted children and most have not truly grown up. Research has repeatedly shown that prisoners have a very high rate of mental illness and also drug or alcohol dependencies.

Everyone understands the instinct for retribution. But that is the point; it is a primal instinct. Any society that bases its ‘corrections’ policies on instinct, rather than on scientific research, should not be shocked to see humans lash out like animals in response to further trauma resulting from societal retribution. Extreme punishment, and especially abuse, without a balance of love, creates rebellious, mentally-disturbed children. The public needs to understand that the same result, only ten times worse, occurs with prisoners subjected to punishment and abuse that does not have a balance of societal empathy. Any corrections policy must be balanced with both.

A3N:   Rehabilitation?

SG:     Social empathy is best implemented through the second “R” of Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation has gotten a bad rap, but true rehabilitation, as shown in the research statistics in my book, does work. It does reduce victimization and returns to prison.

This does not mean offenders should be treated with kid gloves or coddled. Instead, it means the prisoner should be viewed as a broken person who has little respect or belief in the law because abiding by the law has never coincided with that unbalanced person’s understanding of how to survive or deal with emotional problems.

The public at large has also been led to believe that the concept of rehabilitation has been discredited by scientific proof. That fallacy was responsible, in part, for the dismantling of prior reforms, especially in the South. The problem was not that rehabilitation did not work. There have been many effective examples that show that it does. Indeed, my own story serves as a relevant example of how rehabilitation can work. Rehabilitation has never truly been discredited. The problem is that it has not yet been properly and comprehensively implemented in most corrections systems.

I have offered a comprehensive program of solutions and rehabilitative policies in my book, ones that truly work, yet do you think anyone in corrections has called me to ask for help to implement these solutions? Not one person from any of the corrections systems in the fifty states has shown the slightest interest. Until society changes the general perception of what rehabilitation means, and how effective it can be when implemented properly, the U.S. prison problem will remain as it is.

A3N:   Recidivism?

SG:     This third ‘R’ is the indirect outcome of what society institutes. Right now the high rate of Recidivism in this country is a direct corollary to the corrections’ policies of this nation. As stated, retribution alone will create additional crime in an indirect way by worsening the inmate’s overall stability at the exact time when the stresses of release, bills, relationships, parenting, and other stressors fall upon the recently released felon.

From 1970-2010, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. increased over 1,000%. In April of 2011, a Pew Research Center report showed that we still had a recidivism rate of 43.3%—on data compiled from 2004 to 2007—showing the need for more improvement. Retribution, or the “Lock-em up, and throw away the key” application of corrections has failed miserably.

A3N:   You write: “As disturbing as this may sound, politicians and the bureaucrats who control the system have no incentive to reduce recidivism. To the former, passing tougher sentencing laws increases campaign dollars from prison construction companies, private corrections corporations, and law enforcement unions. To the latter, making policies that encourage prisoners’ ignorance and laziness ensures they will remain unemployable and increases their chances of returning to prison. More recidivism equals more prisons; more prisons equal more job security for prison guards and private corporations; more prison guards equal more members for correctional officer unions; and, more members and private profits equal increased campaign donations to the tough-on-crime politicians who cater to them. This is the main reason that Florida has one of the largest prison populations in the country, not an increasing crime rate. The same applies to the overall nation.” With this in mind, what alternative solutions do you suggest to lower recidivism rates and improve public safety in a practical way?

SG:     After years of contemplation, these are some of the primary solutions that I propose would decrease recidivism and increase public safety. However, hundreds of solutions are provided throughout the book:

  • Pursue criminal justice sentencing reforms that place ceilings on sentences, increase judges’ discretion to make downward departures, increase drug treatment and other community corrections alternatives, and abolish minimum-mandatory provisions for non-violent offenses.

  • Pursue policies of prisoner placement that reduce current intrastate distances from families by forty percent and completely abolish non-voluntary interstate placements. This would then be followed by increased contact between families and offenders at visitation. This has been shown to reduce the unnecessary burdens placed upon family ties, especially between children and prisoner parents, thus reducing intergenerational crime and recidivism simultaneously.

  • Pursue the reversal of corrections policies that diminish prisoners’ familial contact for disciplinary purposes, increase normal contact visitation, and establish a comprehensive private healthcare plan to augment Medicaid for children of prisoners.

  • Lobby legislators to pass laws that reverse pen-pal and religious-correspondence restrictions and other policies of isolation, while instituting other safeguards to ensure societal and penalogical security.

  • Seek the abolishment of policies that charge co-payments, reimbursements, and other double-taxation charges to prisoners’ taxpaying loved ones. This would include the pursuit of fair collect-call rates and profit margins on the commercial resale of all goods and services to prisoners and their families, since the families pay for both.

  • Pursue programs of inexpensive electronic video communications between prisoners and their children that apply to both genders of all incarcerated parents.

  • Seek increases in rehabilitative activities such as music, artwork, writing, and hobby craft that can be leveraged to reduce solitary confinement and visitation restrictions as positive behavioral incentives.

  • Present the statistics in support of increased drug and alcohol treatment programs and make early release credits dependent on successful participatory recovery.

  • Lobby state and federal leaders to institute mandatory GED classes and increased vocational and higher educational opportunities for prisoners. Reverse the laws of the 1996 prohibition against prisoners using the Pell Grant for accredited college correspondence courses.

  • Implement agricultural, industrial, and service economies that increase training and financial incentives inside the prisons, and teach personal responsibility for the expense of living and child support while incarcerated. Accompany this with the establishment of a Corrections Risk Factor (CRF) to employers of prisoners to provide a mathematical wage rate that is fair for both prisoners and the companies that hire or compete in the same industry. This would prevent the prior examples of private companies exploiting prisoners for their labor, and unfair competitive practices against companies that don’t hire convicts. The increased work ethic in prisoners would decrease the burden on taxpayers through a reduction in recidivism and correction expenditures.

A3N:   An article you wrote for Crime Magazine criticized the use of solitary confinement in US jails and prisons. In what ways does the practice of solitary confinement influence recidivism and public safety?

SG:     In fact, experts on solitary confinement have documented the effects of long-term solitary confinement to include PTSD, increased risk of suicide, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage, and visual & auditory hallucinations. Literally thousands of prisoners are released directly into U.S. society from these confinement cells every day. Instead of being exposed to rehabilitative programs while in prison, many have been subjected to the cruelty of solitary confinement and have turned into walking time bombs. They are then released into society with $50 and a bus ticket, and kicked out the door mad and emotionally disturbed.

Maybe the practice of using solitary confinement would be more tolerable if there were no alternatives. To the contrary, there are a number of positive, rehabilitative incentives that could be used to replace most of our dependency on solitary to control behavior. For instance, music programs, drug rehab, hobby-craft, and incentivized jobs could all be used to reduce violence and misbehavior. From 1990 to 2010, these programs were slashed, as the push for longer sentences became commonplace. With longer sentences came the need to build more and more prisons. This in turn created incentive to shift money away from rehabilitative programs, which then created the demand for solitary confinement units.

Without ordinary rehabilitative incentives at their disposal, prison administrators had little else to use for controlling prisoners’ behavior. The policy became one of suppression and debilitation at any cost, and the cost has been incalculable.

A3N:   Further illustrating ‘the human side of the story,’ cited at the beginning of our interview, your book examines another under-reported story: how prison policies affect the families of prisoners. To conclude our interview, why do you argue that it is the children of prisoners who suffer the most?

SG:     For starters, a policy increasing a financial burden just slightly can and does trigger the decision by some desperate mothers to give their children up to foster care. With their delinquency worsened by the absence of the imprisoned parent, many of these children end up going to juvenile detention centers. This is especially true for those who are unable to partake in contact visitation with their mothers and fathers because of the distance that separates them. Fathers are typically housed an average of 100 miles away and mothers an average of 160 miles away from their children.

Over half of all incarcerated parents reported having never received a personal visit from their children. Much literature on the developmental effects of separation from a primary caregiver has been produced. In one report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 66% of incarcerated mothers and 40% of incarcerated fathers reported being one of the primary caregivers prior to incarceration. The Urban Institute also showed in a study that there are specific character and behavioral traits in children that are directly affected by parent-child separation, especially complete separations that preclude contact visits.

These traits include, among others: feelings of shame, poor school performance, increased delinquency, loss of financial and emotional support, increased risk of abuse by new caregiver(s), impaired ability to cope with future stress and trauma, disruption of normal developmental progress, increased dependency and maturational regression, and intergenerational patterns of criminal behaviors.

These findings are made even more troubling when the age of these children is revealed.  In prior studies, 56% were shown to be between one and nine years of age.  An additional 28% of them were under the age of fifteen.

A3N:   Keep up the good work, Shawn! Because your book examines such a wide range of topics, our interview has only been able to scratch the surface. To read it for themselves, and to support your work as an author and self-publisher, we encourage our readers to get a copy of Facing the US Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong, purchased directly from you, by internet:, by mail: Speak Out Publishing, LLC at P.O. Box 50484 Sarasota, Florida 34232, or by phone: 941-330-5979.

--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Files Lawsuit Protesting 22 Straight Years in Solitary Confinement (PART 2)

(PHOTO: Theresa Shoatz w/ Chuck D)

Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Files Lawsuit Protesting 22 Consecutive Years in Solitary Confinement

--An interview with Dan Kovalik and Bret Grote

By Angola 3 News

Earlier this week, on Wednesday, May 8, lawyers for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz filed a federal lawsuit regarding his placement in solitary confinement for over 22 consecutive years. The written complaint, directed at Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and the Superintendents of SCI-Greene, where Shoatz was last held, and SCI-Mahanoy, where he was transferred to on March 28, 2013, states that this “is an action for injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief for violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

Last month, when a 30-day action campaign was launched calling for Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz’s immediate release from solitary confinement, the campaign promised to file this litigation if Maroon had not been transferred into general population by the morning of May 8. On Thursday, May 9 the lawsuit was announced at a press conference was held in Pittsburgh, outside the City-County Building.

An update released on May 1 argues that the campaign “can already claim a victory” because “Maroon’s case and his work has received more attention over the past month that at any time during his incarceration.” One new article about Maroon was published by Solitary Watch and co-authored by Kanya D’Almeida and Bret Grote, who is also interviewed below. D’Almeida and Grote write that maroon’s “only time in the general prison population in the last 30 years was an 18-month stint spent at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth that ended in 1991.” Furthermore, they note that Maroon has had only one violation since 1989 and “his most recent violation was in 1999, when he covered a vent in his cell that was blowing cold air in an attempt to stay warm.”

Underscoring their argument that Maroon’s confinement is politically motivated, they write that “in 1982 he was released into the general prison population at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh. Upon return to the general population Maroon became involved with the Pennsylvania Association of Lifers (PAL), a prison-approved organization that was supposed to further the interests of life-sentenced prisoners… Maroon’s reputation and the respect other prisoners had for him led to a dramatic increase in participation in the PAL. More than 100 prisoners would attend meetings in the early part of 1983. On the night that the old leadership was impeached and Maroon appointed interim president pending new elections, he and other new leaders of the PAL were placed in solitary confinement. The others were eventually released from solitary. Maroon remains in isolation to this day.”

Other recent media coverage includes a new interview with Maroon, published by New Clear Vision, and conducted by Vanderbilt University Philosophy Professor Lisa Guenther. “Ironically,” Maroon writes in the interview, “the segment of the population that presently has the most potential to effect change in the PIC is those who usually have no direct — bodily — connection to this system. That is the taxpayers among the ninety nine percent. Without their massive yearly outlays of billions in taxes (taxes they’ve been bamboozled into believing serve a good purpose, but instead serve [to] keep active a police state machine) the whole house of cards would collapse!”

Last month, in part one of our report on Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz, we interviewed activist Matt Meyer and Maroon’s daughter, Theresa Shoatz. Here in part two, we interview activist Bret Grote and Maroon’s lawyer Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit filed on May 8, the broader use of litigation to confront human rights abuses in US prisons, and the political economy of what Grote identifies as the ‘imperial police state.’

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He was counsel for Maroon in his first federal case challenging his solitary confinement.

Bret Grote is an organizer with the Human Rights Coalition, the Executive Director of the newly founded Abolitionist Law Center, and a member of the legal team for Russell Maroon Shoatz.

Angola 3 News: An April 15 update reported on Maroon’s transfer from SCI-Greene to SCI-Mahanoy and accompanying statements from Secretary Wetzel that he was moved for the purpose of eventually being transferred into general population, where he will then, among other things, be able to physically embrace family and friends during visits. Have there been any more developments since the April 15 update?

Dan Kovalik: Yes, on May 2, Maroon was told that he would be released to general population within 90 days of his coming to SCI-Mahanoy, which was March 29. Therefore, if all goes well, and with continued pressure, Maroon could be in the general population by July.

A3N:   At this point, following the 30-day campaign, how can our readers most effectively offer their support?

DK:     We believe that continued calls and letter writing to Secretary Wetzel, as well as letters to the editors of local Pennsylvania newspapers could help to ensure that Maroon is finally released into the general population.

A3N:   How have authorities officially justified keeping Maroon in solitary confinement all these years?

DK:     To the extent that officials have given clear justifications for Maroon’s solitary confinement, they have continued to claim that he is somehow an “escape risk” in light of his having escaped from prison as a much younger man three decades ago.

This claim is ludicrous on a number of levels. First, Maroon, on the eve of 70 years old, is not in any physical condition to escape from any prison.

Moreover, Maroon does not have the will to escape through extra-legal means, as he did before. At this point, he wants to struggle for his liberation through legal and legislative means. In the meantime, he wants to be able to have human contact with others, especially his family members, as everyone has the right to do.

A3N:   What are the arguments made in the lawsuit filed on May 8?

DK:     This litigation involves a lawsuit in federal court against the prison authorities alleging that Maroon’s long-term solitary confinement violates both international and domestic norms against “cruel and unusual punishment” as that term is used in the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

We will also allege that his confinement violates his right not to be deprived of a significant liberty interest without due process – a right enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

A3N:   How can this international pressure influence a country as powerful as the US, who has been openly violating international law for decades by repeatedly invading other nations without UN sanction, including the recent case of Iraq?

DK:     The US, while certainly powerful, has at times proven itself susceptible to the demands of world opinion.

One notable example, which I think few realize, is the US’ relationship with Latin America. It was not long ago that the U.S. would send in the Marines to overthrow populist governments that it opposed (for example, in the Dominican Republic in 1965), or launch airstrikes against non-compliant states (for example, against Panama in 1989 in which the US killed 4,000 civilians in a working class neighborhood).

Because of mass protest in the US against such conduct, and because of resistance in the countries of Latin America, such overtly violent means of regime change appear off the table. I think that we collectively have more power that we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

A3N:   Has this type of legal action been helpful in the past in to improve conditions for prisoners?

Bret Grote:    Yes. For example, in federal courts in Wisconsin and California, litigation has been successful in challenging solitary confinement of those with mental illness or developmental disabilities. In December, a federal court in Indiana came to the same conclusion in a class action brought on behalf of the mentally ill in that state’s solitary units.

A strong ruling out of a Texas district court found conditions in solitary units to be unconstitutional due to the units’ “extreme deprivations which cause profound and obvious psychological pain and suffering. Texas’ administrative segregation units are virtual incubators of psychoses-seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”

Other courts have held that procedural due process deprivations that place prisoners in solitary without hearings or meaningful reviews, is unconstitutional. This led to a significant reduction in Ohio State Penitentiary’s supermax population, to such an extent that prison officials reduced the security classification in order to keep the beds filled.

In the case of the Angola 3 in Louisiana, the federal district court found it obvious that 30 years or more of solitary confinement implicated the Eight Amendment, and the case was ordered to go to trial. That was 6 years ago, however, and there has yet to be a trial.

In all of these cases, it should be noted that even when prisoners were ordered relief by the courts, prison officials have typically found ways to keep these cells filled, whether through the application of superficial mental health treatment procedures or by lowering the criteria for placement in isolation. This is attributable to several factors, primary among them the lack of political power of poor and working class people in this country, and the judiciary’s infamous complicity in enabling state violence against oppressed communities.

A3N:   You co-wrote, with Kanya D’Almeida, an August 10, 2012 Al Jazeera News article entitled Solitary Confinement: Torture Chambers for Black Revolutionaries. While the story begins with a look at Maroon’s case, it then looks at the Angola 3 case, last year’s Senate hearings on solitary in US prisons, and beyond. While Torture Chambers argues that the topics of “race and revolution” have been mostly left out of recent mainstream critiques of solitary in US prisons, it does recognize the relative significance of these conversations actually making their way beyond the smaller group of anti-prison activists that have been fighting solitary for decades.

Just how significant were last June’s Senate hearings and the growing anti-solitary movement in the US?

BG:     The hearings definitely helped in raising the profile of this issue, as the so-called ‘free press’ usually refrains from covering prison or human rights issues until a court filing or legislative hearing serves as their permission slip to acknowledge the issue.

While the increased attention is welcome, no serious person can count on the US government to meaningfully address the issue in the absence of a powerful and growing grassroots movement that is part of a broader challenge to the imperial prison state.

We should caution against hoping for salvation from powerful figures in powerful institutions, and instead concentrate on building organizational depth and capacity based on a coherent understanding of why the U.S. ruling class has become dependent on prisons and solitary to control, stigmatize, disenfranchise, destabilize, and otherwise neutralize poor communities and communities of color.

A3N:   What role have the nation-wide prisoner hunger strikes of the last few years played in developing today’s anti-solitary movement? More broadly, what role have prisoners themselves had in building the movement and contributing to public discussions about the dismal state of human rights in US prisons that solitary abuses are symptomatic of?

BG:     The importance of the hunger strikes, in particular the two that originated in the Pelican Bay control units, cannot be overestimated. It is unlikely that there would have been any senate hearings without that courageous, disciplined, and principled act of non-violent resistance to torture. That act propelled the issue of torture in U.S. prisons to a level of visibility and outrage never before seen in the last 30 years, and has galvanized countless people across the country inside and outside the walls.

Any reform or abolitionist movement in relation to solitary confinement, or prisons more broadly, that does not take its vision and leadership from current and formerly imprisoned people does not stand much of a chance of achieving anything more than superficial reforms.

The irrepressible will to dignity and to remain human in the teeth of terrifying and grim odds by those inside the walls is the fire and inspiration that keeps the rest of us going. Without that, this movement is lost. With it we can, and must, dream bigger dreams and work tirelessly to abolish this monstrous prison state.

A3N:   As African American leader Malcolm X was developing his internationalist and anti-capitalist politics in the months leading up to his February, 1965 assassination, he spoke about the need to shift from a focus on ‘civil rights’ to one of ‘human rights.’ He announced further that he would be seeking assistance from the United Nations to rectify the human rights abuses being committed by the US government against the African American community.

At its best, how can pressure from the international community help to rectify human rights abuses carried out by governments? What are some recent examples of the international community doing this about solitary confinement and other human rights violations in US prisons?

BG:     Pressure from the international community is an effective and necessary tool for movements that aim to enforce human rights law on the US government, which is always an uphill battle.

The best recent example of meaningful international support for those of us fighting the federal and state governments’ administrative use of torture in prisons and jails is the report by UN Special Rapporteur JuanMendez, who concludes that longer than 15 days in solitary confinement should be considered a violation of the Convention Against Torture. This report is concise and illuminating, and an important tool for prisoners and their advocates.

Furthermore, we need to collaborate with popular movements outside the US, and to research how other countries deal with problems of drug use and violence without burying people in concentration camps.

Ultimately, however, the people of the U.S. need to rise up and fight back against the imperial prison state, which is also an imperial torture state, decimating minds, bodies, and souls throughout the country on a daily basis.

A3N:   Anything else to add for the interview?

BG and DK: We should always remember that torture is a crime against humanity, and a government that engages in it on such a widespread basis loses its claims to legitimacy.

Of course, recognizing this is but a small part of the solution, as it will take mass organizing across many political fronts to meaningfully redress the worsening political, economic, and ecological crises that define our reality in this country.

We must organize, organize, and organize some more.

--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Why Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Must Be Released From Solitary Confinement (PART ONE)
Take action by telling Secretary Wetzel that you want Russell 'Maroon' Shoatz to be immediately removed from solitary confinement!

Why Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz Must Be Released From Solitary Confinement
--An interview with Theresa Shoatz and Matt Meyer
By Angola 3 News
This month, a 30-day action campaign was launched demanding the release of Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz from solitary confinement, where he has been held for over 23 consecutive years, and 28 of the last 30 years, in Pennsylvania prisons. On April 8, when the campaign began, Maroon’s legal team sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC), demanding his release from solitary confinement and promising litigation against the PA DOC if he is not transferred to general population by May 8.
The action campaign describes Maroon as “a former leader of the Black Panthers and the Black freedom movement, born in Philadelphia in 1943 and originally imprisoned in January 1972 for actions relating to his political involvement. With an extraordinary thirty-plus years spent in solitary confinement…Maroon’s case is one of the most shocking examples of U.S. torture of political prisoners, and one of the most egregious examples of human rights violations regarding prison conditions anywhere in the world. His ‘Maroon’ nickname is, in part, due to his continued resistance—which twice led him to escape confinement; it is also based on his continued clear analysis, including recent writings on ecology and matriarchy.”
Writing that Maroon “has not had a serious rule violation for more than two decades,” the campaign argues that he has actually been “targeted because of his work as an educator and because of his political ideas; his time in solitary began just after he was elected president of an officially-sanctioned prison-based support group. This targeting is in violation of his basic human and constitutional rights.”
On March 28, just before the campaign was launched, Maroon was transferred from SCI-Greene to SCI-Mahanoy  An update released by the campaign on April 15 reported that Maroon had been told by officials at SCI-Mahanoy that he had been transferred there with intent to move him into general population. Responding to the news, campaign co-coordinator Matt Meyer (also interviewed below) said: “We are encouraged by the words of the officials at Mahanoy, but we cannot rest until those words are followed by deeds: by the ultimate action which will end the current torture of Maroon.” Bret Grote, from the Pittsburgh Human Rights Coalition, who is himself a longtime legal and political supporter of Shoatz, added that, “while we are pleased that some of the concerns raised by the demand letter have been met,” including Maroon’s “access to his anti-embolism stockings and to a typewriter, we remain concerned that the timeline for release from solitary has been left vague.”
The April 15 update also reports that “the assistants at the office of PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel have confirmed that the Secretary personally ordered Maroon’s recent transfer from SCI Greene to SCI Mahanoy for the purpose of placing him in the general prison population. In conversations with some of the many people who have called in to the DOC central office on the first week of the 30-day pressure campaign, DOC personnel have suggested that Maroon supporters be patient as the process to get him into general population work its course. But Maroon and his family have been misled in the past about these issues.” While the campaign began by asking supporters to contact both Secretary Wetzel and SCI Mahanoy Supt. John Kerestes, it is now asking supporters to just focus on Secretary Wetzel, since he is the “ultimate decision-maker.”
This month also marked the release of the new book, entitled Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz (PM Press), co-edited by Fred Ho and Quincy Saul, with a foreword by Chuck D. The collected essays examine a wide range of topics that are perhaps most striking for their honest self-criticism and for his commitment to confronting male supremacy and misogyny in all its forms. For example, in one essay entitled, “The Question of Violence,” after Maroon criticizes “the worldwide misogynist ‘gangsta’ genre of the hip hop culture” for being “a male, macho parody of exhibitionist violence,” Maroon writes:
“More troubling is the fact that this male exhibitionist violence has also permeated the minds, practices, and circles of otherwise brilliant and well-meaning revolutionary thinkers. Such theorists as the renowned Frantz Fanon, icons like Malcolm X and Kwane Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and others have unconsciously conflated the necessary utilization of defensive revolutionary violence, in seeking meaningful revolutionary socioeconomic and cultural change, with what they believed was a need for males to use ‘revolutionary violence’ to also ‘liberate their minds and spirits’ from the subservience imposed on them by the vestiges of slavery and the colonialism /neocolonialism of their times. These individuals failed to recognize that their ‘revolutionary’ worldview would still leave in place the entire male-supremacist /patriarchal framework, an edifice that we can term the ‘father of oppression.’ The destruction of this edifice will signal the true liberation they sought. Otherwise, the ‘revolutionary violence’ they formulated must also be recognized for what it is: exhibitionist, ego-based male violence.”
Featured below is our interview with Theresa Shoatz and Matt Meyer. Theresa Shoatz is the daughter of Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz. Theresa has worked for decades as a public advocate for her father and through the Human Rights Coalition, she fights for all prisoners in Pennsylvania and beyond. This month, Theresa has been traveling around the US as part of a book tour promoting Maroon the Implacable, and this week she is in the SF Bay Area.
Matt Meyer, a native New York City-based educator, activist, and author, is the War Resisters International Africa Support Network Coordinator, and a United Nations/ECOSOC representative of the International Peace Research Association. Now the co-coordinator of the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz, Meyer also has a long history in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico. In 2009, Meyer edited Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners (PM Press), and in 2012, co-edited another book entitled, We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America (PM Press).
Please keep an eye out for part two our report on the 30-day action campaign, which will further examine the legality of Maroon’s placement in solitary confinement and take a closer look at his recently published book, Maroon the Implacable. In the meantime, you can stay updated on the campaign for his release from solitary here. Below is a video interview with Theresa Shoatz, released by Solitary Watch in 2011.

Angola 3 News:         Political prisoners are often seen as symbolic of what is wrong with the US government, but we don’t usually hear about the actual person and how their imprisonment has affected their families. As fellow Pennsylvania political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has commented, “I am a man, not a symbol.” To begin our interview, can you please describe your father, Maroon, for us, so we can better understand who he is as a person?
Theresa Shoatz:         Honestly, I can only define part of the man that Maroon is because I only know the man from which I engage with from behind the bullet proof glass. He is the man who pleads with me to save his life when he is not getting proper medical attention, and to fight for him when his living conditions are unbearable and his grievances aren't addressed.
However, there's so much more to Maroon. He loves his people. It’s what's keeps him going. His wisdom protects our family. Even while in solitary confinement today, he is still putting others first by denying any support for his freedom until his comrades are freed throughout the United States.
Maroon is extremely concerned with issues affecting single mothers and their children. He is drafting ways to not only put food on the table, but also to grow and prepare meals for the community. He's the man. Even when he's in no position to help, he connects to the outside with his attempts to heal the Black communities.
A3N:   How old were you when he was first forced underground?
TS:      I was about nine years of age when my dad was forced underground.
A3N:   What do you remember about Maroon from your early childhood?
TS:      My sister and I lived with him until I was five years old. I remember that back when my sister and I were only three and four years old, there was a black board hanging in the living room. Every morning, Daddy used that black board to teach us political education alongside physical education classes. Man, I love and miss those classes.
Daddy was cultivating young minds. With anything he did, I was right behind him. He was preparing us to be future leaders, but this preparation was halted when at the age five we were separated, and I stopped living with him.
A3N:   What has your relationship with Maroon has been like as you’ve grown older?
Ever since the age of nine, I have honored and admired my Dad. Today, he is still my hero. Maroon is a leader, educator, and father to many young black males behind bars. At his core, he is about peace and love for his people.
As Maroon approaches 70 years of age, he's a grandfather of ten. Since I can remember, he has tried to educate his biological children from behind bars. I can remember a prison contact visit from some thirty years ago, when I sat on my dad's lap, comparing our physical similarities, and him using the opportunity to update me on present-day issues.
After those few years of contact visits, I grew into womanhood and was forced to visit him from behind a thick bullet-proof glass. During one of our visits, I pointed this out, and through the thick glass while chained at the wrist and ankles, he said: "I had to step away from my family to protect my family and my community. I stepped away to secure a better future for you and the youth coming behind me. I couldn't allow you to be brutalized like those who came before and will come after you. I stepped away from my family for the love of my people.”
A3N:   How did that visit influence you?
TS:      Wow! That was so powerful. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Ever since that visit with Maroon, I’ve been motivated by the love of my people to do everything in my power to help us move forward, including my work with the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in Philadelphia, and the HRC FedUp! chapter in Pittsburgh, which Maroon started from behind bars.
I am also the Director of a free after-school program for youth with a loved one in prison.  Last year, I became a foster parent and I have since fostered eight kids in my home, caring for two seventeen-year-old teenagers, a thirteen-year-old, a three-month-old, a two-year-old, a six-year-old, a four-day-old, and a pregnant teen. This is all for the love of my people.
Some think I’m crazy, but they're crazier than I am when they pretend not to see how so many youth in our community are lost and headed towards the prison system. If they pretend not to see what the system is doing to our youth, shame on them. I love my people. I'm just like my daddy Maroon--it’s in my blood.

(PHOTO: Theresa Shoatz at a protest for Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia on July 4, 2008, outside the Constitution Center, across the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.)
A3N:   A key feature of your father’s being held in solitary confinement at, until recently, SCI Greene, a supermax prison, is to not allow contact visits with family and friends. If Maroon is transferred to general population, he will then be able to have contact visits once again. How long has it been since you had a contact visit with him?
TS:      It’s been almost thirty years since I've been able to touch my father.
A3N:   How has this aspect of his imprisonment affected you personally?
TS:      It is extremely painful and mentally challenging. I am still that little girl who craves hugs, and reassurance from her daddy.
A3N:   How has the policy of no contacted visits affected the rest of your family?
TS:      The no-contact visits cause stress, leading to emotional and physical breakdowns.  The fear this creates often paralyzes family members, and is so debilitating that it prevents some from visiting him.
A3N:   What is a no-contact visit with him like?
To reach the solitary no-contact visiting room, there’s a tunnel spanning two city blocks, and a barbed-wired fence surrounds this ‘prison inside of a prison.’ The visiting room is cold and 99 percent of the time there are no other family members visiting prisoners.
It is mind blowing to think of this 69-year-old man with both ankles shackled, both wrists shackled, all attached by a chained waist belt. This contraption forces him to walk hunched over, and appear older than his real age.
A3N:   To underscore the importance of the new campaign to have Maroon transferred to general population, how significant will it be, if he’s transferred, to have contact visits with him after all these years?
TS:      After so many years of no-contact visits, I could really use some contact with my daddy. It’s well overdue. Contact visits would be nourishing. My soul is constantly in an uproar and the pain runs deep, yet I continue straight ahead, keeping my eye on freedom.
Outside of my daddy, there’s no man on this earth who could turn this pain around. The remedy is an end to all control units, the present day prison system, and freedom for Maroon and all my extended family: the political prisoners who stood on the front lines for our freedom.
A3N:   Thank you, Theresa, for sharing such a personal story with us.
The second part of this article now begins by interviewing longtime activist Matt Meyer. Matt, the afterword for Maroon the Implacable that you co-wrote with Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge asserts: “We believe that all people who believe in peace and nonviolence must work for justice, especially in these most grievous cases of injustice and especially at times when oppressive forces would have us distanced from colleagues and comrades such as Maroon, who are cast as ‘violent criminals’ unworthy of our support...Russell Maroon Shoatz must be freed now. His release must become a priority for all human rights activists, peace activists, pro-democracy advocates, environmentalists, anti-imperialists, students, churchgoers, and even progressive Parlimentarians.”
Building on the quote above, why is it that you are going beyond the immediate call for Maroon’s transfer to general population, and also calling for his release from prison?
Matt Meyer:   For me, the position for peace activists working in the context of restorative justice is clear: there can be no reconciliation without release.
Nozizwe and I also say in our afterword that “we must face the truth about the uprisings of forty years ago.” As you know, Nozizwe herself was a chief negotiator in the process which ended legal apartheid in South Africa, and the two of us respect the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose commitment to truth and reconciliation has always been coupled with a commitment to ‘heal’ by working for people’s power and the rights of the most oppressed.
Here in the US, we must face the truth that the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s remain an open wound so long as key leaders such as Maroon are invisible to the majority of us, tortured in dungeons for decades upon decades.
Even one day of the type of treatment Maroon has faced would be wrong in any human rights framework that is not centered on simplistic revenge, hatred, and a cycle of murder and violence. The US criminal justice system, filled with the injustices of centuries passed--based as it is on land theft, slavery, and greed--cannot be understood as ‘democratic’ in any sense of that word so long as Maroon remains behind bars.
Aside from many questions which could be raised about the political context of the initial charges and court case against him, the length and nature of his sentence and the way it has been carried out signal grave injustices which make a mockery of any attempt to characterize US jurisprudence as fair or color-blind.
A3N:   What is the significance of Maroon’s identification of himself as a ‘prisoner of war’ (POW)? How is this different than simply identifying as a political prisoner?
MM:   The United Nations outlines the specific legal definition of the prisoner of war position, definitions which are generally accepted by most participating nation-states, including the US. This definition is rooted in history which goes back as far as 1660, when international military protocol accepted that anyone who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict, whether combatant or non-combatant, should be classified as a POW. After World War Two, with the Geneva Convention of 1949 to which the US is a signatory, conditions were clearly outlined which require that POWs be treated humanely.
For those who lived through the tremendous upsurge of the Black liberation movement of the late 1960s, the position underscores a clear analysis of the relationship between “the Black nation” and the US empire. That relationship, simply put, is one AT WAR. Though the battles may appear to many as covert, and the military powers deeply imbalanced, the position of extreme conflict is nonetheless expressed. This includes the position taken by some people of African descent (i.e., “Black folk, New Afrikans, African-Americans, etc.) that the political status of US citizenship was never chosen by them, but rather, was imposed.
In any case, by using the international legal term ‘prisoner of war,’ the question of humane treatment and appropriate jurisdiction in a case of extreme conflict must be squarely faced.

A3N:   You edited the book Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners and co-edited We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America. In your opinion how do popular movements resisting US military aggression abroad relate to movements at home seeking the release of COINTELPRO-era political prisoners & opposing the rise of the police state and mass imprisonment since COINTELPRO’s official end in the 1970s?
MM:   We must connect the dots between the military-industrial-complex and the prison- industrial-complex. We must begin with the fact that, on the one hand, the military has for too many become the job of choice in an era of vast economic depression and crisis. On the other hand, the ever-increasing rates of incarceration--where now there are more men of African descent behind bars than there were enslaved in the years leading up to the Civil War--suggest that cheap labor is being replaced by forced free labor as authorized by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, except for prisoners.
We must do more than understand that an empire in decline requires ever-cheaper means of producing whatever it can still produce and an ever-stretched military to police its dwindling holdings.
We must act, in ways faithful to the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called for a “true revolution” in the American practices of racism, militarism, and materialism. We must be moved to go beyond the false dichotomies of race, and the false splits of tactical difference which seek to make Martin and Malcolm into irreconcilable opposites.
We must build coalitions and united fronts against empire, ones which understand that the many US political prisoners represent not only acts of repression from past generations but reminders to current and future movements that we must never stray beyond the confines of polite protest, OR ELSE.
Freeing all US political prisoners is both a just and basic human rights demand, but it is also a necessary step in building future movements which can act with militancy, creativity, soul, and a free spirit which we need to envision the ‘beloved communities’ which will build just and peaceful tomorrows.
A3N:   How does Maroon’s case fit into this? What is the broader political significance of Maroon’s imprisonment and his contributions to radical political movements since?
MM:   One should not be reading this interview for the answer to that question. Maroon’s broader political significance, and his contributions to current movements, is well revealed through a careful reading of the essential new essay collection Maroon the Implacable.
His writings on his own reflections on the Black Panthers, on the nature of sexism and matriarchy, on the environment and the need for eco-socialism, on the Occupy movement and how to build effective new movements, go far beyond the current discourse which we find in blogs and what passes for the left press. It is a challenging course in building for lasting social change.

(PHOTO: Matt Meyer, LaKeisha Wolfe, Fred Ho and Theresa Shoatz at a Pittsburgh event for We Have Not Beeen Moved in February 2013)
--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

Solitary Watch: AG Caldwell now claims that the Angola 3 "have never been in solitary confinement"
A sketch by Herman Wallace of his solitary confinement cell

(March 21, 2013 article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, reprinted from Solitary Watch)

James “Buddy” Caldwell, attorney general of the state of Louisiana, has released a statement saying unequivocally that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two still-imprisoned members of the Angola 3, “have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system.”

In fact, Wallace, now 71, and Woodfox, 66, have been in solitary for nearly 41 years, quite possibly longer than any other human beings on the planet. They were placed in solitary following the 1972 killing of a young corrections officer at Angola, and except for a few brief periods, they have remained in isolation ever since.

The statement from Caldwell follows on the heels of a ruling by a federal District Court judge in New Orleans, overturning Albert Woodfox’s conviction for the third time–in this instance, on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. Subsequently, Amnesty International, along with other activists, mounted a campaign urging the state of Louisiana not to appeal the federal court’s ruling. In the absence of an appeal, Woodfox would have to be given a new trial or released.

Caldwell’s statement–which was rather mysteriously sent out to an email list that included numerous prisoners’ rights advocates who have supported the Angola 3–begins: “Thank you for your interest in the ambush, savage attack and brutal murder of Officer Brent Miller at Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) on April 17, 1972. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace committed this murder, stabbing and slicing Miller over 35 times.”

Caldwell clearly states that he has every intention of appealing the District Court’s decision to the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit: “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again.” Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is ”overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong.”

These statements belie the fact that much of the evidence that led to Wallace and Woodfox’s conviction has since been called into question. In particular, the primary eyewitness was shown to have been bribed by prison officials into making statements against the two men. (For more details on the case, see our earlier reporting in Mother Jones, here, here, here, and here.) The two men believe that they were targeted for the murder, and have been held in solitary for four decades, because of their status as Black Panthers and their efforts to organize against prison conditions. (The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, convicted of a separate prison murder, was released after 29 years in solitary when his conviction was overturned in 2001).

But Caldwell’s most controversial assertion is that Wallace and Woodfox’s conditions of confinement over the past 40 years do not qualify as solitary confinement:

Contrary to popular lore, Woodfox and Wallace have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system. They have been held in protective cell units known as CCR. These units were designed to protect inmates as well as correctional officers. They have always been able to communicate freely with other inmates and prison staff as frequently as they want. They have televisions on the tiers which they watch through their cell doors. In their cells they can have radios and headsets, reading and writing materials, stamps, newspapers, magazines and books. They also can shop at the canteen store a couple of times per week where they can purchase grocery and personal hygiene items which they keep in their cells.

These convicted murderers have an hour outside of their cells each day where they can exercise in the hall, talk on the phone, shower, and visit with the other 10 to 14 inmates on the tier. At least three times per week they can go outside on the yard and exercise and enjoy the sun if they want. This is all in addition to the couple of days set aside for visitations each week.

These inmates are frequently visited by spiritual advisors, medical personnel and social workers. They have had frequent and extensive contact with numerous individuals from all over the world, by telephone, mail, and face-to-face personal visits. They even now have email capability. Contrary to numerous reports, this is not solitary confinement.

Caldwell’s description does not, in fact, refute the fact that the two men are held for 23 hours a day in closed cells that measure approximately 6 x 9 feet–smaller than the average parking space. CCR, or Closed Cell Restricted, is the Louisiana prison system’s euphemism of choice for solitary confinement.

In addition to challenging their convictions, Wallace and Woodfox have filed a civil suit in federal court, arguing that their 40 years in solitary confinement violate the U.S. Constitution. Their lawyers argue that both have endured physical injury and “severe mental anguish and other psychological damage” from living most of their adult lives in lockdown. According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Even the psychologist brought in by the state confirmed these findings.

In his statement, Caldwell warns that if they win their civil suit, “these convicted murderers…could possibly receive money and a change in their housing assignments.” Any move out of solitary has been firmly opposed by the warden of Angola, Burl Cain. In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”

Caldwell himself has even more vociferously opposed releasing the men from solitary. An ambitious Democrat-turned-Republican known for his Elvis impersonations, Caldwell took office in 2007 and was reelected in 2011. He has characterized the Angola 3 as political radicals and called Woodfox “the most dangerous person on the planet.”

In the fall of 2008, after Woodfox’s conviction was overturned for the second time, a federal court judge ordered him released on bail pending the state’s appeal. Caldwell opposed the release “with every fiber of my being.” Woodfox planned to stay with his niece, but his lawyers uncovered evidence that the state had emailed the neighborhood association of the gated community where she lived to say that a murderer would be moving in next door. Caldwell soon convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to revoke Woodfox’s bail. He also brought Woodfox’s habeas case to the full Fifth Circuit, which reversed the lower court ruling and reinstated his conviction.

Now that a federal judge has ruled, for the third time, that Woodfox did not receive a fair trial, Caldwell apparently feels the need to reiterate his position. “Let me be clear,” his statement concludes. ”Woodfox and Wallace are GUILTY and have NEVER been held in solitary confinement” (emphasis in the original).

Robert King: End 41 years of cruel & inhuman solitary confinement for the Angola 3's Albert Woodfox
Photo of Robert H. King
**Please support Albert Woodfox by sending an email to Attorney General Caldwell, via Amnesty International's online action page!

My name is Robert H. King. I was released on February 8, 2001 after spending 31 years in prison - 29 of them in solitary confinement at the infamous Louisiana State Prison also known as 'Angola'.

Confined there with me were Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, the other two friends who make up 'the Angola 3'. Herman and Albert have now spent 41 years in prison. And though they are no longer housed at Angola, both remain in solitary confinement at another prison - a punishment Amnesty has described as 'cruel, inhuman and degrading'.
Prior to and since my release from prison, I have continued to campaign to free Herman and Albert. Last week, that campaign took a huge step forward with the ruling by a federal district court that there was racial discrimination in the selection of the jury foreperson prior to Albert's re-trial in 1998.

Louisiana's Attorney General has already filed his intention to appeal this against this ruling. But he can still do the right thing and end four decades of injustice by letting the ruling stand, clearing the way for Albert to be re-tried or simply walk free at last.

Photo of Albert Woodfox
I know what being locked up in that cramped, dark cell does to a man, and I fear for my friend Albert whose physical and mental health is failing. The sense of how cruelly and unjustly Albert and the rest of us were treated still burns as strong as ever - as does my will to end their ordeal.

This isn't the first or even the second time Albert's conviction has been overturned. Previously judges have cited racial discrimination, misconduct by the prosecution and inadequate defense in their rulings. There is also troubling evidence that a key eyewitness against Albert had been bribed, and no physical evidence linking him to the murder has ever been found.

However, I also know how many of you share my sense of injustice and that we can count on your ongoing support. When I spoke to Albert last week he asked me to pass on his gratitude to his 'legions of supporters' across the world.

Wednesday, April 17 will mark the 41st anniversary of our incarceration in Angola. Please help ensure that this year it is a day of hope - or even freedom - for my friend, Albert Woodfox.

Photo of King's release in 2001.
Power to the people!

As ever,

Robert H. King

The only freed member of the Angola 3

Amnesty Intl urges State of Louisiana to not appeal Albert Woodfox's overturned conviction
(From the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3: In
response to Judge Brady's ruling this week that overturned Albert
Woodfox's conviction for a third time, Amnesty International has
released a new statement calling on the Louisiana Attorney General to
not appeal Brady's ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court. The complete
Amnesty statement is reprinted below. Once again, we want to thank A3
supporters for all of the help in getting us this far. This is now a
critical moment and in the coming days we will keep you updated on
further developments

(The full text of Amnesty's statement is below.)


AI index: AMR 51/010/2013

27 February 2013

USA: Amnesty International urges State not to appeal as Albert Woodfox’s conviction overturned again

Amnesty International is urging the Attorney General of Louisiana not to
appeal a federal court ruling overturning the conviction of Albert
Woodfox of the ‘Angola 3’ for the second-degree murder of a prison guard
in 1972. This case, litigated for over four decades, has raised serious
human rights concerns.

In his ruling on 26 February, which followed an
evidentiary hearing in May 2012, District Judge James Brady of the US
District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana found that racial
discrimination lay behind the under-representation of African Americans
selected to serve as grand jury forepersons in the jurisdiction in which
Albert Woodfox, who is African American, was retried after his original
conviction was overturned in 1992.

Judge Brady found that the State had failed to meet its burden “to
dispel the inference of intentional discrimination” indicated by the
statistical evidence covering a 13-year period from 1980 to 1993
presented by Albert Woodfox’s lawyers. The State, Judge Brady found, had
failed to show “racially neutral” reasons to explain the
under-representation of African Americans selected as grand jury
foreperson during this period.

Albert Woodfox was convicted in 1973 along with a second prisoner,
Herman Wallace, of the murder of Brent Miller. This conviction was
overturned in 1992, but Albert Woodfox was re-indicted by grand jury in
1993 and convicted again at a 1998 trial, and sentenced to life
imprisonment in 1999. In 2008 a US District Court ruled that Albert
Woodfox had been denied his right to adequate assistance of counsel
during the 1998 trial and should either be retried or set free.  The
court also found that evidence presented by Woodfox’s lawyers of
discrimination in the selection of the grand jury foreperson warranted a
federal evidentiary hearing. While the State appealed the District
court for a retrial – and won, yesterday’s ruling from the evidentiary
hearing, once again sees the conviction overturned.

The organization has repeatedly expressed concern that many legal
aspects of this case are troubling: no physical evidence links Albert
Woodfox and Herman Wallace to the murder, potentially exculpatory DNA
evidence was lost by the State, their conviction was based on
questionable testimony – much of which subsequently retracted by
witnesses, and in recent years, evidence has emerged that the main
eyewitness was bribed by prison officials into giving statements against
the men. Both men have robustly denied over the years any involvement
in the murder.

Albert Woodfox, now 66, has been held since his conviction over 40 years
ago in solitary confinement. The extremely harsh conditions he has
endured, including 23 hour cellular confinement, inadequate access to
exercise, social interaction and no access to work, education or
rehabilitation programmes have had negative physical and psychological
consequences. Throughout his incarceration he has been denied any
meaningful review of the reasons for being kept in isolation; and
records indicate that he hasn’t committed any disciplinary infractions
for decades, nor, according to prison mental health records, is he a
threat to himself or others. Amnesty International has repeatedly called
on the authorities that both he and Herman Wallace be removed from such
conditions which the organization believes can only be described as
cruel, inhuman and degrading.

That Albert Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned again gives weight
to the organization’s concerns that the original legal process was
flawed. Amnesty International urges the State desist from appealing this
latest ruling.

(PHOTO: Albert Woodfox, right, with Herman Wallace, left)

Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement
Buy the new book Out of Control here.

Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement
--An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan
By Angola 3 News

Author and longtime activist Nancy Kurshan’s new book, entitled Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, has just been released by the Freedom Archives. Kurshan’s book documents the work of The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which she co-founded in 1985 as a response to the lockdown at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. It quickly turned into a broader campaign against control unit prisons and human rights violations in US prisons that lasted fifteen years, until 2000.  The following excerpt from Out of Control details CEML’s origins:

I had been living in Chicago for about a year when I heard the news that two guards had been killed by two prisoners in the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, 350 miles south of Chicago. Although it was an isolated incident with no associated riot conditions, the prison was immediately placed on lockdown status, and the authorities seized on the opportunity to violently repress the entire prison population. For two years, from 1983 to 1985, all of the 350 men imprisoned there were subjected to brutal, dehumanizing conditions. All work programs were shut down, as were educational activities and religious services.

During the initial stage of this lockdown, 60 guards equipped with riot gear, much of it shipped in from other prisons, systematically beat approximately 100 handcuffed and defenseless prisoners. Guards also subjected some prisoners to forced finger probes of the rectum. Random beatings and rectal probes continued through the two-year lockdown. Despite clear evidence of physical and psychological brutality at the hands of the guards, Congress and the courts refused to intervene to stop the lockdown…

…Although the terrible conditions at the prison were striking, what drew us to Marion in particular was the history of struggle of the prisoners and their allies on the outside. When the infamous Alcatraz was closed in 1962, Marion Federal Penitentiary was opened and became the new Alcatraz, the end of the line for the “worst of the worst.”

In 1972 there was a prisoner’s peaceful work stoppage at Marion led by Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda. In response to this peaceful work stoppage, the authorities placed a section of the prison under lockdown, thus creating the first “control unit,” essentially a prison within a prison, amplifying the use of isolation as a form of control, previously used only for a selected prisoner. That was 1972.
At this time, in 1985, after two years of lockdown, they converted the whole prison into a control unit. Importantly, because Marion in 1985 was “the end of the line,” the only “Level 6” federal prison, there were disproportionate numbers of political prisoners—those who were incarcerated for their political beliefs and actions. These included people such as Native American Leonard Peltier who had spent years there until recently, and now (in 1985) Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli and Sekou Odinga, Puerto Rican independentista Oscar López Rivera, and white revolutionary Bill Dunne. These were people we knew or identified with, activists of the 1960s and 1970s incarcerated for their political activities. Marion, like its predecessor Alcatraz and its successor ADX Florence, was clearly a destination point for political prisoners.

Kurshan writes that during the 15 years of work, “CEML led and organized hundreds of educational programs and demonstrations in many parts of the country and tried to build a national movement against ‘end-of-the-line’ prisons. Along the way the Committee wrote thousands of pages of educational and agitational literature and pioneered new ways of analyzing and fighting against this national quagmire that morphed into the proliferation of the ‘prison industrial complex.’”

Out of Control’s online version features several dozen links to the literature CEML created, as well as further documents, pamphlets, audio and video segments. Asked to spotlight a few of her favorites, Kurshan recommended: The Myth That the Pelican Bay Control Unit Has Reduced Violence, a 1995 issue of the CEML’s newsletter Walkin’ Steel, the U.N. Standard Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Bill Dunne’s 1988 34-page handwritten article about Marion, and an article by Kurshan herself, entitled Women and Imprisonment in the US: History and Current Reality.

In this interview, Nancy Kurshan discusses her new book and covers a variety of topics, including the growth of solitary confinement and its relation to mass incarceration, the connection between US militarism abroad and domestic prisons, concluding with the lessons that today’s human rights activists can learn from the history of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown. You can purchase Out of Control from Freedom Archives here.

Angola 3 News:         Your new book chronicles fifteen years of organizing against control unit prisons, from 1985-2000. Can you begin the interview by explaining exactly what a control unit prison is?

Nancy Kurshan:        There are at least 2 ways to answer that question. One is to describe the daily workings. The other is to elucidate the underlying dynamics.

There are variations from prison to prison, but generally speaking, a control unit prison is one in which every prisoner is locked away in their own individual box about 23 hours a day under conditions of severe sensory deprivation. The prisoner eats, sleeps and defecates in the windowless cell. Meals come through a slot in the door. In some cases the prisoner may be out of the cell a couple of times a week for exercise, but in other circumstances the exercise area is even more limited and is attached to the cell itself. Most control unit prisons have little access to education or any recreational outlets.

Usually, control units severely restrict the prisoner’s connection not just with other prisoners, but with family and friends in the outside world. At Marion, only family members could visit, upon approval, and only for a small number of visits per month. The amount of time allowed per visit was severely restricted, and there was no privacy whatsoever and no contact permitted between prisoner and visitor. Visiting took place over a plexiglass wall and through telephones. Guards were always within earshot. The prisoner had to be searched before and after, sometimes cavity searched. The visitor had to undergo a body search as well. The prisoners were brought to the visit in shackles.

Regarding the underlying dynamics, the intent is to make the prisoner feel that his or her life is completely out of control. That is not an unintended consequence.  The purpose of the control unit is to make the person feel helpless, powerless and completely dependent upon the prison authorities. The intent is to strip the individual of any agency, any ability to direct his or her own life. A control unit institutionalizes solitary confinement as a way of exerting full control over as much of the prisoner’s life as possible.

There is no pretense that this is a temporary affair. Instead it is long-term, severe behavior modification, and it is the most vile, mind & spirit-deforming use of solitary confinement. Control units represent the darkest side of behavior modification. Inside a control unit, the prisoner usually has no idea how long he or she will be there. It is an indeterminate sentence, and usually the rules or guidelines for exiting are unclear at best and impossible to comprehend at worst. It is a hell without any apparent end.

Being sent to a control unit prison is tantamount to torture, as acknowledged by many human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Prisoners are held under conditions that today are not considered ‘humane’ even for animals. They are an extreme abuse of state power.

The existence of the control unit also functions to control other prisoners who are in the general population. This is as important to the system as the impact on those actually in the control unit. The fear of imprisonment in this worst of all prisons is meant to scare all prisoners into tolerating intolerable conditions. The word ‘Marion’ was meant to strike cold fear into the hearts of prisoners throughout the federal prison system.

A3N:   You write that “not only did federal control unit prisons proliferate, but now virtually every state system in the country is capped off by a control unit. Whether they are called Control Units, Supermax, SHU (Secure Housing Unit), ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), a skunk by any other name still stinks.” Can you tell us more about how control unit prisons and solitary confinement in US prisons evolved since the mid-1980s when you began your work?

NK:     When we began our work, Marion was the only control unit prison in the federal system, and there were none in the state systems. At the outset, the prison bureaucrats proclaimed that the control unit would allow the rest of the system to run more freely since it would remove the ‘bad apples’ from the system and concentrate them in the control unit. We countered that argument by predicting that the control unit would serve as an anchor, dragging the whole system in a more repressive direction.

Activists were able to accomplish a significant victory early on. The strength of the women political prisoners incarcerated in the Lexington Control Unit, along with a mass national and international campaign in concert with legal action, forced the Feds to close the Lexington Control Unit for Women in 1988 just two years after it opened.

But over the years, many state ‘prisoncrats’ came to Marion to see the control unit. As the years went on, most states built control units or modified existing institutions to accommodate control units. And, of course, the feds, in response to our criticisms of Marion, claimed that the problem with Marion was that it was not built to be a control unit. So they built a bigger and 'better' control unit in Florence, Colorado. This demonstrates that unless the ideology changes, they will respond to criticism by morphing one way or another, but never really moving in a progressive direction.

Long term solitary confinement has become a pillar of their 'correctional' policy. However, it seems that two serious challenges have developed. First, this form of imprisonment is expensive and our society is running out of money, thanks in part to our bloated military agenda.
Secondly, in some places like California, prisoners have stood up in the thousands and said: “We won’t take it no more.” There have been hunger strikes of 6,000 or more prisoners and support on the outside that has helped give voice to their grievances (read coverage of the strike by Angola 3 News: 1,2,3). In response to hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, the New York Times in an editorial on August 1, 2011 entitled “Cruel Isolation,” lamented that “For many decades, the civilized world has recognized prolonged isolation of prisoners in cruel conditions to be inhumane, even torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it. Even at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and physically abused systematically and with official sanction, the jailers had to get permission of their commanding general to keep someone in isolation for more than 30 days.”

Prisoners around the country are attempting to cast light on the situation, but they can only do so much from inside. And let’s face it, despite Albert Hunt's article in the NY Times on Nov. 20, 2011 entitled "A Country of Inmates, that “With just a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined,” this situation is not even on the national agenda. I listened to Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, and nowhere did I hear a mention of the fact that we are a country of inmates, disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Unfortunately, economic concerns always trump the moral. The Governor of Illinois recently announced the closing of Tamms Prison, the state’s control unit prison that we fought so hard against in the 1990s. On the heels of that decision, they have also announced that an Illinois prison that has been vacant, will now be sold to the feds, and part of it will be a new control unit prison. The same Senator Dick Durbin who recently held hearings to look into solitary confinement on June 19, 2012 has heralded this deal, as it will bring more jobs to the community of Thomson where unemployment is high. The employment of some seems always to trump the concern about human rights for others. (see the last question for more about Durbin)

A3N:   How has the rise of solitary confinement and control unit prisons related to the mass incarceration policies and escalated criminalization of poverty that began in the 1970s, and have now given the US the highest incarceration rate and more total prisoners than literally any other country?

NK:     Both come out of a profoundly racist ideology that blames the victim and refuses to deal with the structural challenges and fault lines of our society. We have never really dealt with the legacy of slavery. We have not dealt with the immigration challenge. We have not dealt with the lack of jobs at a living wage. Rather we have met the challenge of a huge under-reported unemployment problem with an imprisonment binge.

The binge does not affect all sectors of the population equally. No, the prisons are overflowing disproportionately with Black and Latino prisoners. Albert Hunt wrote in "A Country of Inmates" that “more than 60 percent of the United States’ prisoners are black or Hispanic, though these groups comprise less than 30 percent of the population.” One in nine black children has a parent in jail!

Our prisons have no real plans for 'rehabilitation.' That would require a restructuring of society, a real jobs and education program--one that we need now more than ever but that is not on the horizon. In fact, the jobs program that we do have has been building more prisons located long distances from the urban centers that most prisoners call home and offer jobs to a totally different sector of the population. The imprisonment binge has served to get largely young men of color off the streets,  warehousing them to prevent any disruption that might come from millions of unemployed men of color out on the pavement.

In the 1960s there was mass unrest in this country with urban centers going up in flames. We can trace the connection between that and the beginning of massive incarceration.

Of course, Black people have also historically led the way in challenging injustice, which makes them a force to reckon with. The Attica prison struggle of 1971 was a watershed where prisoners stood up and said: “We are men. We will not be treated like beasts.” When the tear gas and bullets cleared, men were dead. Control units try to prevent that kind of camaraderie and resistance from developing. This makes it all the more amazing that prisoners at Pelican Bay could organize a massive hunger strike.

In 1975 the right-wing ideologue and Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington wrote The Crisis of Democracy, a report for the Trilateral Commission, in which he argued that there was too much democracy and things needed to change. Well, things have changed. And now the leading ‘democracy’ in the world is also the largest incarceration nation.

A3N:   You write that the CEML’s 15 years of work is “the story of one long determined effort against the very core of the greatest military empire that has ever existed on this planet.” Then in chapter two, you write that “in this day of debate about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, it is absolutely essential to realize that a direct line extends from U.S. control units to these so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ centers throughout the world.” Why do you make this connection with the struggle against US militarism abroad?

NK:     The connection has always been there because we live under one system, and that system has a domestic side and an international side. But they are really just two sides of the same coin. I write in my book:

[There was a] 1962 Bureau of Prisons (BOP) meeting in Washington, DC between prison officials and social scientists. Billed as a management development program for prison wardens, it coincidentally took place the same year the BOP opened Marion. Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT, a key player at that meeting, had written previously in a book entitled Coercive Persuasion about ‘brainwashing’ of Chinese Prisoners of War (POWs). In the meeting he presented the ideas in a paper entitled “Man Against Man”:

“In order to produce marked changes of attitude and/or behavior, it is necessary to weaken, undermine, or remove the supports of the old attitudes. Because most of these supports are the face-to-face confirmation of present behavior and attitudes, which are provided by those with whom close emotional ties exist, it is often necessary to break these emotional ties. This can be done either by removing the individual physically and preventing any communication with those whom he cares about, or by proving to him that those whom he respects are not worthy of it, and, indeed, should be actively mistrusted. . . I would like to have you think of brainwashing, not in terms of politics, ethics, and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behavior and attitudes by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captive populace lives.” (Berrigan, p.6)

Along with these theories, Schein put forward a set of ‘practical recommendations,’ that threw ethics and morals out the window. They included physical removal of prisoners to areas sufficiently isolated to effectively break or seriously weaken close emotional ties; segregation of all natural leaders; spying on prisoners, reporting back private material; exploitation of opportunists and informers; convincing prisoners they can trust no one; systematic withholding of mail; building a group conviction among prisoners that they have been abandoned by or are totally isolated from their social order; using techniques of character invalidation, i.e. humiliation, revilement and shouting to induce feelings of fear, guilt and suggestibility; coupled with sleeplessness, an exacting prison regimen and periodic interrogational interviews.  

So-called ‘brainwashing’ strategies that involved physical as well as psychological abuse were being adopted from international arenas and applied inside U.S. prisons. Now, in 2011, similar strategies, honed in Marion and its progeny, are being employed around the world in the ‘war against terrorism.’

The lines between domestic and foreign are becoming increasingly blurred. The U.S. is now willing to assassinate American citizens in its war on terror. The planned new prison in Illinois which will house a control unit that was blocked for a while by a Republican who feared foreign ‘terrorists’ would be housed there.

The so-called “criminal justice system” is really another manifestation of militarism. It’s frightening to think of how many jobs in our society are tied to either the military or to prisons, and how that shapes peoples’ mentality.

A3N:   About publishing the book, you write that “if current and future activists who stand in opposition to what Malcolm X called the ‘American nightmare’ can benefit from reading this and can move ahead with some greater insight and effectiveness, then it was all worth it.” What lessons did you learn that can be applied to today’s growing movement opposing solitary confinement in US prisons?

NK:     The underlying ideology has to be challenged because if that doesn’t change, the rulers will tweak this or that to their conveniences, they may make some small changes, or even do the right thing at any given moment, for the wrong reason. But things will revert toward repression.

Also, studies don’t necessarily change things. Pressure, both legal and activist, does. Hearings can be a step in the right direction but they can also be a smokescreen to lull people into believing something is being done. Or they can be a rubber stamp for some negative developments. For instance, the BOP has apparently just recently agreed to undergo a “comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons.” The assessment will reportedly be oriented toward reducing the population of “segregated” prisoners. It is to be conducted by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the BOP! That is something to be watched, but skeptically.

Listen to prisoners. Trust what they tell you about prison conditions. Support their efforts to change their situation. Help their voices reach the outside world.

Work with everyone who is willing. We don’t have to all agree but we have to respect each other. Do not let the authorities demonize some activists and bestow accolades on others. That is the old divide and rule.

A3N:   With this insight in mind, let’s take a closer look at the recent work of Senator Dick Durbin, from your home state of Illinois, which you mentioned earlier. The past hearings and upcoming review may present as an opportunity to make prison authorities at least somewhat more accountable. Strategically speaking, how can anti-solitary activists best use this moment?

NK:     I don't mean to be writing off Durbin. Those kinds of allies are important. The pressure he has brought to bear with these hearings seems great, and certainly the reduction in the number of prisoners being held in solitary is important. I just don't know why Durbin has to support a Control Unit in the planned new federal prison in Illinois. I would encourage people to question him about that.
I once talked to both Rep. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin when he was no longer in office and Rep. Pat Schroeder who was still in office at the time, and they both described how difficult it is to take decent stands on criminal justice issues. Schroeder pointed out that even nighttime basketball was a difficult sell, let alone issues regarding Control Units.

So I think it's important for people to keep pushing. Don't lay back and expect the politicians to stick their necks out with no backup. They will not. But when you find an ally, work them him or her. Allies like that don't come along that often. We couldn't have gotten the toxic water changed at Marion without Kastenmeier's assistance.

Just keep pushing and don't compromise your own principles.

--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

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