California Solitary Success
Four years after over 6,000 California prisoners united in the first of three mass hunger strikes protesting the torture of long-term solitary confinement (among other things), a major achievement has been won. In a federal class action lawsuit brought on their behalves, Ashker v. Governor of California, it was found that solitary confinement constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, California prison officials must now release over 2,000 prisoners from solitary, many of who have been held indefinitely (some for decades), for alleged gang affiliation.
I received this news during early September 2015 with a smiling heart, since I’ve been writing for many years about the torturous effects of solitary,1
and personally know and have witnessed its hardships, because I’ve lived for over 20 years in solitary myself.
From the outset, I – individually and as a member of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter – supported the California struggle. I drew the logo that came to represent the hunger strikes. I wrote about them,2 and helped spread word amongst other prisoners in the states where I was confined, encouraging them to also join. As a result, many prisoners in my home state of Virginia participated, several of who were consequently transferred out-of-state as I had been. Also, many participated in Oregon, where I was transferred to in 2012 and held for a year, up until shortly before the third hunger strike began in July 2013,
My efforts and involvements in Oregon contributed to my abrupt transfer, yet again, this time from Oregon to Texas in June 2013, just a month before 30,000 prisoners went on that third strike.
Upon my arrival in Texas, I was met with immediate violence at the hands of ranking Texas prison officials, who assured me I’d be broken or killed. I was promptly thrown into solitary for resisting that violence, where I’ve since remained.
Solitary in Texas
Decades ago Texas adopted a California-style policy of indefinitely segregating prisoners for ‘confirmed’ gang affiliation. The ‘confirmation’ process is completely arbitrary, and cannot be challenged at all. Prisoners are ‘confirmed’ upon little or no evidence, often based on just the statement of another prisoner or official who may for whatever reason just want the targeted prisoner removed from general population.
Conditions in Texas’ solitary are worse than California’s. The federal courts have actually found solitary in Texas to be the worst in the entire U.S., and that it invariably causes its victims mental damage – not only exacerbating the problems of the already mentally ill, but also impairing those of sound mind.3 Remnants of that culture and attendant mentalities still remain.
Not only has solitary confinement in Texas been found by the courts to be the most tortuous and dehumanizing in the U.S., its entire system has been found to be Amerika’s most abusive.4 So many outrages prevail here one hardly knows where to begin. At the TDCJ prisons I’ve been confined to, I’ve witnessed routine beatings of prisoners – once witnessing guards bring an already unconscious prisoner into my assigned pod and then beat him bloody for over five minutes (while he was still unconscious!) with ranking guards looking on.5 I’ve witnessed guards routinely throw the entirety of prisoners’ personal belongings away, or confiscate them for completely fabricated reasons. I’ve seen prisoners starved for weeks on end. I’ve seen guards kill prisoners. I’ve both witnessed and endured being compelled to drink contaminated water, receiving grossly non-nutritious meals, denied medical care for acute medical problems, and on and on. All with a green light and/or cover-ups from officials at the highest ranking administrative levels.
Hope for change lies in only two areas for us – generating outside exposure and support, and building unity amongst ourselves. And one serves and helps advance the other.
At my prompting I was able to get a number of Texas prisoners subscriptions to Ed Mead’s Rock! newsletter, through which I hoped to see them unite with and gain inspiration from the words and examples of California’s struggling prisoners. Unfortunately, the TDCJ is one of the only U.S. prison systems that forces all of its prisoners to work, but doesn’t pay them even a pittance. Most also have no outside financial help, and even for those who do receive a little, we are not allowed to mail stamps to outside sources. Therefore they couldn’t support their subscriptions with donations of money or stamps to Ed. So, to both our disappointment, Ed couldn’t afford to keep the Texas subscriptions going and was forced to terminate them. Those who did briefly receive Rock!, however, were encouraged by its content and the example of California’s prisoners, especially their unity and agreement to end hostilities among themselves.
I therefore conclude this with a call to all activists, the public at large, and all who have worked in solidarity with California’s prisoners. Texas prisoners need help! We need support toward building a broad-based outside-to-inside support structure for Texas prisoners who are presently suffering all the same outrages and abuses as California’s prisoners have been struggling and won recent grievances against. This initiative should be linked up with that supporting California prisoners – Texas and California have Amerika’s two largest prison populations – with an eye to extending its reach to all prison systems across Amerika. California has set the precedent that should inspire and benefit prisoners everywhere. If solitary is unacceptable there, it’s unacceptable everywhere!
Dare to Struggle, Dare to win!
All Power to the People!
- Kevin “Rashid” Johnson “Amerikan Prisons Are Government Sponsored Torture,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 2007), rashidmod.com/?p=113; Johnson, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika,” Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 11, no. 2 (March-April 2011) (The version printed in Socialist Viewpoint is a condensed version, the original, full-length article can be read at rashidmod.com/?p=119); Johnson, “Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confinement Units,” Rock! Vol. 2, no. 4 (April 2013), also San Francisco Bay View, Vol. 38, no. 4 (April 2013) p. B10, rashidmod.com/?p=405; Johnson, “Solitary Confinement is Known Torture: Yet Officials Pretend Not to Know and Play the Debating Game to Curb Protest and Continue the Practice in U.S. Prisons,” Prison Focus, No. 40 (Summer 2013) pp. 1-2, also Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July/August 2013) p. 51; Johnson, “U.S. Prison Practices Would Disgrace a Nation of Savages: Texas – A Case on Record,” Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January/February 2014),p. 51, Rashid.com/p?=1007; Johnson, “Wasted Minds: An Insider’s Look at the Torturous Effects of U.S. Solitary Confinement,” (August 2013), rashidmod.com/?p=899; Johnson, “What Would Compel a Man to Try to Cut His Own Face Off?,” Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 15, No. 1 (January/February 2015) p. 65. [↩]
- Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “What is the Meaning of The California Prisoners Hunger Strike?” San Francisco Bay View, Vol. 36, No. 11 (November 2011), also Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 11, No. 6 (November/December 2011) p. 59, rashidmod.com/p?=308. [↩]
- As the Texas federal courts have found, “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 . . . ” Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 85s, 907 (S.D. Tex. 1999).
About 80% of the prisoners housed in my solitary cellblock are indefinitely segregated because of alleged ‘confirmed’ gang affiliation. My neighbor, Matthew Salazar #1052313, has been held in solitary for this reason for thirteen of his fifteen years imprisoned in Texas.
Their only hope of eventual release is to apply to participate in the GRAD (Gang Renunciation and Disassociation) program. Texas prison officials emphasize that participation in this program is a privilege. Just to get enrolled, a prisoner must jump through a series of hurdles and weather repeated harassments and meticulous property searches (including having all papers and correspondents’ addresses, etc. scrutinized and often recorded) by GI (Gang Investigation) officials who operate inside the prisons with the greatest impunity. Another condition for enrollment is – just like in California – that the ‘confirmed’ prisoners identify other prisoners as gang affiliates. Participation in GRAD therefore places one in danger, since any participant or graduate of the program is instantly tagged by others as a snitch. One must therefore either endure the permanent torture and mental damage inherent in Texas’ solitary confinement (often upon a false ‘confirmation’), or become a known snitch.
Texas Prisoners Need Help!
Upon my transfer to Texas, I immediately set about working to expose those around me to the California prison-based struggle and the growing movement on the outside against solitary, which they needed to tap into. Getting them involved has proven a difficult undertaking, largely because Texas prisoners are deeply apolitical and pessimistic about possibilities for change or gaining broad outside support.
They’ve been left isolated and led astray all too long and often, living under the most arbitrarily abusive conditions, and face severe reprisals for the smallest shows of united resistance against abuse.
Texas prison officials work consciously to keep its segregated prisoners politically backward, divided and isolated from public support. Texas courts – since the death of its one favorable federal judges, William Wayne Justice – are extremely hostile towards Texas prisoners, and there exists virtually no willing outside legal or organized public support for them that understands the nature and workings of the prison system.
Very little consciousness-raising literature is allowed into the prisons and illiteracy is high. There are no Texas-based prisoner-oriented media like California has long had, such as California Prison Focus and San Francisco Bay View newspapers, or former political prisoner Ed Mead’s self-published newsletters like Prison Art, Rock!, Hunger Strike Support, etc. which played decisive roles in raising California prisoners’ consciousness, and getting their voices and views shared across the broader prisoner body and out to the public, and ultimately overcoming the divisive prisoner culture that California officials cultivated and kept embroiled in violent conflicts.
In fact, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) [sic!], is the only prison system I know of that publishes its own monthly newspaper, called The Echo, that uses prisoner “staff writers” to proselytize prisoners with the administration’s happy slave and pro-pig indoctrinations. The paper, which has been in publication since 1928, is dutifully delivered ‘free’ to every prisoner in Texas.
I’ve encountered many Texas prisoners who see the need for and want change; there is just so little faith in the possibility, or even in themselves as potential agents of change. Most who I’ve struggled to inspire feel that ‘other’ places are different. That what happened in California for example, could never happen in Texas. But I know different. I witnessed that it took decades of struggle, by folks like Ed Mead via media he’s published or edited, to finally open the eyes of many of California’s prisoners to how they were being divided, used, manipulated and exploited by prison officials to their own collective disadvantage. This prompted a series of early attempts at unity, which grew until it converged in the epic hunger strikes and finally on agreement by all the previously warring prisoners (except those most deeply in pawn to prison officials) to end all hostilities across the entire California prison system and jails.
I’ve seen that sort of pessimism here in Texas before. I experienced, struggled with and to some degree overcame it while I was confined in Virginia, and then in Oregon. It’s actually typical of those, who by nature of oppressive conditions such as imprisonment, are conditioned to think individualistically and see themselves as absolutely powerless, unable to overcome cultural and other long-standing divisions, publicly abandoned and despised, and subject to the absolute impunity of officials who are perceived as sole ‘legitimate’ power-holders. But it’s been this way for so long in Texas that prisoners can see it no other way. Many are actually afraid to, like slaves cowed by generations of incessant brutality. Actually, this is their condition – literally.
California, however, has a long history and tradition of prisoner activism. In fact it was a center of the 1960s-1970s prison movement that served as a catalyst and inspiration to the broader outside social movements of that period. Not so in Texas. During and well after the 1960s-1970s, prisoners across Texas were actually running the prisons for officials with terror and wanton violence as a formal policy of the TDCJ. ((For an extensive analysis of the operations and uses of inmate guards (aka “building tenders” or “turnkeys”), and it’s being outlawed by the federal courts, see, Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980). [↩]
- See, Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Supp. 2d 855 (S.D. Tex. 1999); Ruiz v. Johnson, 154 F. Supp. 2d 975 (S.D. Tex. 2001); also my discussion and analyses of these findings in, “U.S. Prison Practices Would Disgrace a Nation of Savages,” op. cit. note 2. [↩]
- The victim of this attack was Dante Roberts #698422. The assault occurred at Estelle Unit in Huntsville, TX on August 7, 2013. [↩]