This article first appeared in Socialism and Democracy, no. 43 (March 2007)
Most people don’t quite relate US prisons to government-sponsored torture. We can thank the mainstream corporate media and politicians for this. Since the 1960s and 1970s they’ve persistently projected the false image of US prisons as resorts where criminal predators eat chips, lift weights, and watch videos all day, much like the images given of slavery as an experience that Black folks actually enjoyed. These false images are sustainable because the real world of prisons is a hidden one, concealed behind walls and razor wire, inaccessible to the public.
There’s also a connection between prison and slavery. The plantation system actually merged with the penitentiary system after the Civil War and the torture and savagery, especially beatings, remained a mainstay. In fact at the end of the Civil War slavery was for the first time authorized by the US constitution in the 13th amendment, which authorized the government to treat convicts as slaves. So the newly “freed” Blacks were simply targeted with criminal prosecutions and then placed right back into bondage to serve as contract laborers, on chain gangs, and on prison plantations. Today, in a mad rush to find cheap labor, corporate Amerika looks to prisons to serve as a source of free labor pools. But let’s look at torture.
Brutality and torture are the common features of US prisons. Nothing coming out of GuantánamoBay or Abu Ghraib has matched the images that showed the savage torture of prisoners following the Attica uprising in 1971. And what about California’s Corcoran state prison where guards set up fights between prisoners, gambled on the outcomes and then shot the prisoners for fighting? Some 43 were shot and 8 killed just between 1989 and 1994. Others were shot and killed with no justification. Then there’s the decades-long torture of some 135 New Afrikan (Black) males inside “Area 2” of Chicago’s jail. The exposure of the false confessions resulting from this torture led to the removal of 164 men from Illinois’s death row and, in four cases, the granting of full pardons. These are documented situations.
As during slavery, sexual abuse by officials in US prisons is prevalent. There has long been a nationwide scandal surrounding women prisoners being raped by male guards. Then there’s the sexual humiliation attendant to abusive strip searches, which are often accompanied by degrading verbal abuse. All this is exacerbated by complete denial of voluntary heterosexual relations. And there’s a genocidal component to this and to the vast targeting of virile-aged youth of color for lengthy imprisonments where they cease to be able to reproduce – and in an environment where HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis abound while preventive aid is nonexistent and medical care substandard to nonexistent.
But there’s a higher grade of torture. After World War II western governments established an aversion to physical torture, which they embodied in the charter and treaties of their newly established United Nations. This was brought on by the embarrassment and guilt of the Allied Western nations who had stood by passively while the German Nazis tortured and conducted gruesome experiments on Jews and other Germans (disabled people, dissidents) as well as Slavs, Poles, and Gypsies. On account of this, the newly established CIA became very interested in developing less physically evident methods of mentally breaking and brainwashing enemies. As a result, the CIA and the Defense Department funded several studies with independent, Harvard University, National Institute of Mental Health, and other psychiatrists and psychologists.
These studies led to breakthrough developments in the art of torture that focused primarily on psychological methods and produced revolutionary effects with a consistency never seen before under physical torture. What the CIA learned was that states of mental disorder, collapse, capitulation, and psychosis could be produced in a victim by use of seemingly benign and harmless methods, namely, sensory deprivation and “self-inflicted pain,” coupled with attacks on cultural sensitivities and personal phobias.
Sensory deprivation alone proved effective against and torturously traumatic to its victims. As CIA researcher Dr. Albert Biderman discovered, “the effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved, or deprived of sleep.” He found that normal brain function was severely impaired if a person is deprived of the complex sensory stimulation of normal social environments. In fact, the CIA’s Harvard psychiatrists found that “sensory deprivation can produce major mental and behavioral changes in man,” and produces psychosis more naturally and consistently than drugs and physical torture. The equally effective opposite extreme to sensory deprivation is sensory overload, where the victim is bombarded with loud noises, bright light, noxious odors, etc.
The CIA embodied the findings of these and other studies in its 1963 torture manual “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation,” where it confirmed that:
- the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress;
- the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects;
- the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and
- some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.
The second feature of mental torture the CIA developed was “self-inflicted pain,” where the victim is forced to remain in physically and/or mentally painful positions and conditions (called “stress positions”), which he is told will end upon his cooperation with his captors. This causes the victim to feel he is the cause of his own pain, thus making him the master of his fate. So long as he resists, he will suffer, but as soon as he cooperates his sufferings will instantly stop.
The last two methods, which were developed later, target the victim’s cultural sensitivities and personal phobias: for example, destroying, degrading, or flushing a Muslim detainee’s Qur’an, forcing him to commit acts that violate his religion like engaging in or simulating homosexual acts, masturbating in front of “strange” women, also exposing him to things he fears like dogs, etc.
These four techniques were apparent in the photographic images coming out of US military prisons at GuantánamoBay and Abu Ghraib. Prisoners hooded, goggled, ear-muffed, and gloved to shut out sensory stimulation; having their senses assaulted with loud noises and music; being forced to remain in painful positions (kneeling or standing at length, forced to keep arms outstretched), etc. Those who saw some of the images of such techniques saw nothing alarming because there was no evidence of physically damaging brutality. However, all who have made expert analyses comparing psychological and physical torture have unanimously found psychological torture the worse of the two, because it causes more severe mental damage, is hard to prove, and has longer-lasting effects.
But what many who saw those images coming out of the US military prisons also did not recognize was that they were seeing a stark reflection of conditions and practices occurring every day inside prisons across Amerika.
The Amerikan reformers who first devised the penitentiary believed that criminals could be “reformed” through solitary confinement, labor and religious indoctrination. The use of solitary confinement and isolation – sensory deprivation – began at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1820s. But what was actually discovered was that conditions of sensory deprivation in isolation caused mental deterioration and psychosis. Leading writers like Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin upon touring the penitentiary spoke out against its conditions of mental torture. As Dickens observed, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” The US Supreme court ultimately ruled such solitary confinement mentally destructive and outlawed it. However, the practice along with physical brutality persisted inside the hidden confines of US prisons.
The brutalities of the US prison system became public knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the activism and literature of a broad prison movement and eloquent writings like those of George L. Jackson, Field Marshall of the Black Panther Party. Prisoners’ views were being widely published and the Attica uprising, sparked by inhumane and oppressive prison conditions and the assassination of Jackson by prison guards, exposed in shocking images the oppression and brutalities of US prisons.
The official response was to suppress prisoner literature, to eliminate or restrict college and writing courses, to outlaw prisoners’ profiting from their writings, and to eliminate prisoner-oriented media. This effectively depoliticized prisoners and allowed officials and the mainstream media to wage a racist campaign to demonize prisoners’ image and isolate us to eliminate public awareness and support. Meantime, measures were taken to kill the revolutionary activist spirit in prisons, to remove and isolate the politically conscious and advanced prisoners, and incite the remainder into internal violence and division. Only months after Attica, officials opened the first control unit in the US prison in Marion, Illinois, within which torture became institutionalized with clear political objectives.
As former Marion warden Ralph Arons stated in federal court: “the purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in society at large.” (Note his emphasis on mere thoughts of fundamental change, not actions, and not only inside the prisons, but also in society at large.) But US leaders deny political imprisonments or persecution of political dissenters and opponents. Since Marion opened its Control Unit in 1972, control units and supermaxes have swept the country, with most located in isolated rural white communities. In these high security environments, torture of prisoners along the lines of the CIA model is a common feature.
All US supermaxes and control units practice sensory deprivation – isolation and solitary confinement 23½ hours per day in cells the size of a bathroom, minimal human interaction, little to no change in scenery, limited property access, and minimal contact with family and friends. Sensory shock and overload is also inflicted as prisoners are housed next to or near others with mental disorders or whom guards incite that scream, rant, bang, flood, throw body waste, don’t bathe, etc. “Self-inflicted pain” is also a common practice in control units. Prisoners are routinely shackled and handcuffed or restrained to cell bunks in cramped and uncomfortable positions without meals and left to urinate and defecate on themselves and lie in it for hours to days; they’re left hours to days in bare cold cells with little to no clothing; subjected to destroyed property; denied meals and privileges like outside exercise and showers; placed under high control; or forced to abandon or snitch on political or gang affiliations, etc. (Many simply remain in these units indefinitely out of official spite, for no reason at all, or for being inclined to complain or litigate against or publicly expose abusive treatments and conditions.) They are made to feel that their discomfort is their own fault for failing to cooperate and will cease upon their finally giving in.
Attacking prisoners’ cultural sensitivities and personal phobias is the norm also, especially in that most of the control unit and supermax prisons are located in remote rural white-populated areas, whereas the prisoners are primarily urban people of color. This racial and cultural divide itself generates official insensitivity and intolerance to the prisoners’ cultural interests, and causes prisoners to suffer acute cultural shock. Male prisoners’ senses of masculinity are routinely targeted with provocative remarks, etc.
While seemingly benign, this combination of psychological techniques has proven revolutionary in its consistency in crushing prisoners’ wills. I have personally witnessed this result among those confined in supermax prisons with me. The rate of attempted and successful suicides is unprecedented compared with “normal” prison environments. I witnessed four attempts in my own 22-bed unit in less than two months – two in one night.
Most of those who’ve endured supermax confinement for a year or more, I’ve observed, suffer a distinct regression into paranoia, irrationality, grandiose and persecutory delusions, childish attention-seeking behavior, reduced impulse control, hyper-sexuality, reduced ability to concentrate or maintain organized thoughts, compulsive and irrational searches for stimulation, gratification and attention, etc. Many deteriorate to the point of eating and smearing feces on themselves and their cells, rambling to themselves, screaming and ranting day and night, throwing feces on others (especially on other prisoners under guard encouragement), etc. All are simply left untreated except for being prescribed antipsychotic drugs (which many don’t take), which further damage the brain and have dangerous side-effects. All are treated by guards with violence, abuse and disciplinary measures, often being left propertyless indefinitely inside empty cells – further sensory deprivation.
US prisoners are being treated in ways developed for use against so-called “enemy combatants” whom the US government sees as having no political rights. In reality, US prisoners have no recourse against being mentally tortured. This was assured by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which bars prisoners from suing their abusers for mentally torturing them.
Not only do I witness these methods and their sobering and heart-rending effects on the human psyche, but I have been and am a victim of them. My only advantage, I believe, is in knowing and understanding the methods, being conscious to counter their effects, and having a strong constitution. Indeed, during the summer of 2006, in response to my work in exposing the brutalities at this prison and refusing to back down in other political work I’ve been involved in with outside people, guards twice electro-shocked me with a 50,000-volt electric stun belt.
During and since World War II US officials have learned that torture is best carried out in the dark and in ways that avoid proof and attention. The norm is therefore to deny the practice publicly, to couch it in seemingly harmless forms, but continue to plumb it of all its benefits in hidden and veiled practice. Its victims are the poor and powerless. That’s me and potentially you.
Torture is an official part of US foreign and domestic policy under its federal and state executive powers. It’s simply politically incorrect to allow this fact to be exposed to the public. When abuses and torture come out, damage control has blame placed on low-level officials as “renegade” and “rogue” soldiers or police or prison guards, whereas clearance for these practices goes up to the highest levels of command. This has proven to be the case in the scandals surrounding tortures at Abu Ghraib, with those soldiers targeted for prosecution who were reckless enough to allow practices of torture to come out. As Scott Morton of the New York Bar Association found after interviewing soldiers involved in the scandal, “the highest profile cases in which the severest sanctions are sought consistently involve those soldiers who … permitted photographic evidence of the crimes at Abu Ghraib to become public knowledge.” As Morton concluded, “it wasn’t the abuse of prisoners which was being punished, but the fact that the military, and particularly [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, has been embarrassed by these matters becoming public.” This is the reality across the political spectrum, and no more than in US prisons. In fact, it was only in 1994 that the US ratified the UN convention against torture, which bars both physical and mental torture. However, US officials specifically exempted the US government from the language that forbids mental torture, and “reserved” the “right” of the president to override laws and treaties that forbid physical torture.
There is a need for us to move collectively against this reality of routine torture specifically and the slave status of US prisoners in general. The alternative is to sit in relative isolation, each of us, and permit the outrages to continue and increase, which they will, until no one will be left unaffected. Ninety-five percent of those imprisoned in Amerika will return to society at some point, and most of them in a more damaged state then when they came to prison. It’s likely some of them will be living near or with you.
A movement is under way to amend the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery in all its forms. The New Afrikan Black Panther Party—Prison Chapter supports this movement. We also promote transforming the iron houses of oppression into schools of liberation. To end torture, all power must be in the hands of the people!
 As Angela Y. Davis points out, “[I]t is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on [Black] women [during slavery] exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped…. Rape was a weapon of domination, a weapon of repression, whose covert goal was to extinguish the slave women’s will to resist, and in the process, to demoralize their men. […] Slavery relied as much on routine sexual abuse as it relied on the whip and the lash…. Sexual coercion was … an essential dimension of the social relations between slavemaster and slave.” Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983), 23f, 175.
 On the prevalence of rape in Amerikan prisons, see the detailed summary in Gary Hunter, “Guards’ Rape of Prisoners Rampant, No Solution in Sight,” Prison Legal News, vol. 17, no. 8 (August 2006), 1-13.
 See UN documents including: UN Charter (1945); Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture (1994).
 My account of CIA methods draws on Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), esp. ch. 2 (“Mind Control”).
 McCoy, 33, quoting from Albert D. Biderman and Herbert Zimmer, eds., The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1961), 29.
 The Supreme Court found that solitary confinement had severe debilitating effects on its victims. It stated: “A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to remove them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were generally not reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890).
 Charles Dickens, American Notes (1842) (New York: Fromm International, 1985), 99; quoted in Control Unit Torture (a pamphlet by prison writer Frank J. Atwood).
 Stephen Whitman, “The Marion Penitentiary – It Should Be Opened Up, Not Locked Down,” Southern Illinoisian, August 7, 1988, p. 25.
 Many modern courts have found the same conditions and injuries to prisoners from confinement in modern control units as did the high court of 1890 in the Medley case (note 5). See e.g. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. supp. 1146 (1995): “[M]any, if not most, inmates in SHU [Special Housing Units] experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU.” This court concluded that confinement under such conditions “may press the outer bounds of what humans can psychologically tolerate…. The psychological consequences of living in these units for long periods of time are predictably destructive, and the potential for these psychological stressors to precipitate various forms of psychopathology is clear cut.” Another court found that “isolating human beings from other human beings year after year or even month after month can cause substantial psychological damage, even if the isolation is not total.” Davenport v. DeRoberts, 844 F. 2d, 1310, 1313, 1316 (1989).
 In the case of Madrid v. Gomez (1995), Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, conducted in-depth studies of 50 Pelican Bay control unit prisoners and found that 40 had suffered mental impairment and injury as a result of control unit confinement. He handed his findings over to federal and state officials. The official response to Grassian’s exposé on control unit torture was to push through Congress the PLRA, which effectively denies the victims any legal remedy for mental injuries, unless they can show a prior physical injury resulting from the mental torture – even though mental torture by definition, nature, and design produces no physical injury which precedes psychological injury. See 42 United States Code, Section 1997(e).