Maximum security prisons have become common in the U.S. – countless
cages housing … people, who rarely if ever see daylight or other
The recently exposed tortures by American troops at Abu Ghraib prison
in Iraq were part of a long history of prison brutalities in America’s
torture chambers. In fact, among the torturers,there were prison guards
transferred directly from U.S. prisons where similar tortures are inflicted
on their captives.
The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prisoner
Project, Elizabeth Alexander, accused U.S. governments of honing torture tactics
in American prisons before they were implemented in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba. “If you look at the iconic pictures from Abu Ghraib,” she
told reporters, “you can match up these photos with the same abuses at
American prisons, each one of them”.
Then there’s extraordinary “rendition,” the secret transfer
of so-called terror suspects into the custody of other nations – including
Egypt, Jordan and Syria – where physical and psychological tortures are
used to gather intelligence, and to keep detainees away from any judicial oversight
(“USA below the radar: Secret flights to torture and ‘disappearance'”,
April 2006 Amnesty International).
American torture chambers necessarily include death rows. It is surely torture
to have impending execution hanging over one’s head for years on end.
Just this month, at San Quentin – where over 650 await state murder – a
death row prisoner committed suicide (S.F. Chronicle, 12/2/06).
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2003, reported that of over 3,300 condemned
prisoners, 267 had their death sentences overturned or removed, 60 percent
from Illinois where the governor commuted all 155 death sentences after learning
of the innocence of a dozen or more prisoners slated for death.
In a national study by Hayes and Rowan in 1988 of 401 suicides that took place
in U.S. jails in 1986 — one of the largest studies of its kind — two
out of every three people who committed suicide were being held in a control
unit. In one year, 2005, a record 44 prisoners killed themselves in California
prisons alone; 70 percent of those suicides occurred in segregation units (Thompson
From 1995 to 2000, the daily count of people in disciplinary segregation increased
68 percent – a rate of growth more than double that of the prison population
overall. Some 80,000 people were confined in lockups, only a fraction of all
those in high-security control units or supermax prisons (BJS 1998, BJS 2004).
In the words of prison chaplain Sister Antonia Maguire, prisoners are treated
like “animals, without souls, who deserve whatever they get.”
Endless stories of “appalling, sadistic treatment inside America’s
own prisons” were uncovered during a four-month investigation, culminating
in a video report titled “Torture Inc.: America’s Brutal Prisons,” produced
for BBC Channel 4 last spring. “Abu Ghraib ... was simply the export
of the worst practices that take place in the domestic prison system all the
Deborah Davies notes: “It’s terrible to watch some of the videos
and realize that you’re not only seeing torture in action but, in the
most extreme cases, you are witnessing young men dying. ... Savaged by dogs,
electrocuted with cattle prods, burned by toxic chemicals, does such barbaric
abuse inside U.S. jails explain the horrors that were committed in Iraq?”
“ In one horrific scene, a naked man, passive and vacant, is seen being
led out of his cell by prison guards. They strap him into a medieval-looking
device called a ‘restraint chair.’ ... Sixteen hours later, they
release him. ... And two hours after that, he dies from a blood clot. The tape
comes from Utah – but there are others from Connecticut, Florida, Texas,
Arizona – more than 20 cases of prisoners who’ve died in the past
few years after being held in a restraint chair.” Amnesty International
has called for banning its use and the use of tasers, responsible for at least
70 more deaths.
To expose the corruption and brutality of prison officers in Florida, Frank
Valdes started writing to local newspapers. To shut him up, a gang of guards
stormed into his cell, broke almost every one of his ribs, punctured his lung,
smashed his spleen and left him to die.
Several of the guards were later charged with murder, but the trial was held
in their home town where nearly everyone works for the five prisons which ring
the town. The jury foreman was a former prison officer. The guards were all
acquitted, and the warden has been promoted. He’s now in charge of all
the Florida prisons.
Also videotaped are two California whistle blowers.
Leaving a note calling for an investigation into the 2002 Folsom riot saying “the
job killed him,” Capt. Doug Piper committed suicide less than a year
after he tried to quash the filmed melee by closing the yard. Piper was stopped
by his superiors who had released rival prison gangs together in an obvious
set up. He was subsequently “treated like a traitor” by the other
Salinas Valley whistle blower Donald Vodicka, who “broke the code of
silence,” lost his job, his career, his finances, friends and relatives,
wears a bulletproof vest and carries a concealed weapon. He was interviewed
on camera at an undisclosed location because he’s on the run in fear
for his life.
Even politicians have been targeted for inquiring into whether a code of silence
is protecting corrupt officers and victimizing whistle blowers. California
state Sen. Gloria Romero and others have received threats and intimidation
by the powerful prison-guard “gang,” who refer to themselves as “the
Described as one of the harshest juvenile facilities in the country, the notorious
junior prison at “Chad” is the scene of a savage, on-camera beating
of two wards of the California Youth Authority (CYA). The BBC video pictures
the prolonged brutality and tours the CYA “prison,” where youngsters
were shackled and locked up 23 hours a day, with tiny cages for classrooms
and an outdoor cage for recreation.
The British investigators also collected horrific photographs taken
by prisoners’ lawyers.
One shows a man with a huge patch of raw skin over his hip. The guards use
fire extinguisher-size canisters of pepper spray resulting in prisoners having
second degree burns all over their bodies.
In a piece titled “California’s Prison Crisis 2006: Is the System
Beyond Help?” Barbara Christie writes: “Alarming cries are being
heard up and down the state these days: Prisons near 200 percent capacity!
Recidivism rate at nearly 70 percent! Shocking reports of violence, abuse and
neglect! Virtually no rehabilitation, treatment or education programs! ‘Life-threatening’ conditions
place prison healthcare system in federal receivership! Entire prison system
under threat of federal takeover! These words are coming from not only inmates’ families,
but from journalists, oversight organizations, university research centers,
and numerous advocates for criminal justice, prison and parole reform.”
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with 5,000
prisons and jails nationwide. China holds 500,000 fewer prisoners than the
U.S., with four times the population. A brand new report brings the U.S. to
7 million people in prison, on probation or parole, or one out of every 32
“ Confronting Confinement” by the Commission on Safety and Abuse
in America’s Prisons (June 2006) notes, “Over the course of a year
13.5 million people spend time in jail or prison, and 95 percent of them eventually
return to our communities. ... High rates of disease and illness among prisoners,
coupled with inadequate funding for correctional health care, endanger prisoners,
staff and the public. As a result of poverty, substance abuse and years of poor
health care, prisoners as a group are much less healthy than average Americans.
Every year, more than 1.5 million people are released from jail and prison carrying
a life-threatening contagious disease. At least 350,000 prisoners have a serious
Capturing the degree of failure in California, Dr. Joe Goldenson noted, “There
are facilities with four or five thousand people that only have two or three
doctors.” Some physicians are operating on a license that restricts their
work to prisons because they are deemed unqualified to provide care in the
The radio program Prison Focus recently reported over the last 30 years the
California prison population has grown 800 percent and the system has expanded
from 12 penitentiaries to 33 with 173,000 prisoners – a figure that can
be at least doubled by those on probation or other forms of penal control.
It includes 11,600 women, 80 percent of whom are mothers. At Central California
Women’s Facility (CCWF), women are living eight to a cell designed to
hold four, a torture in and of itself.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported in an article last May titled “Babies
Behind Bars,” more than 300 babies will be born this year – one
almost every day – as the state prepares to open its first prison nursery.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to create community-based alternatives
to mass incarceration so that the idea of babies behind bars will shock us, not
pacify us,” said Donna Willmott of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
in San Francisco,
One young mother described her childbirth experience shackled to a bed rail.
Her “most vivid memory is humiliation” and “the fleeting
sensation of cuddling my newborn,” whisked away by a social worker. “I
cried every single day for a month,” she said. Where are the Madonnas
to look out for these babies?
Women prisoners are statistically much less prone to violence, more likely
to have been victims of sexual abuse, and much more likely to be the sole parent
to their children. What’s happening to their children is yet another
indictment of this torture-happy system.
Overcrowding has caused many prisons to operate on continual “lockdown” status,
meaning that a “shockingly high” percentage of inmates are confined
to their cells around the clock. While on lockdown, prisoners do not receive
therapy, recreation time, educational programs or other services and are released
only for an occasional shower. California’s prisons are operating at
double, triple and in some cases more than five times the original capacity,
as in High Desert State Prison at Susanville. More than 17,000 inmates are
housed in areas not designed as sleeping quarters, including hallways and gymnasiums
with at least 1,500 sleeping in triple-decker bunks.
In Los Angeles, a lawsuit by the ACLU prompted a U.S. district judge to remedy “almost
unspeakable conditions” in county jails, where up to 60 men were housed
in holding cells designed for 20, and prisoners had to take turns standing
because there was no room to sit or sleep. “Inmates, particularly pretrial
detainees who are imbued with presumption of innocence, deserve better than
to be housed in a system which has defaulted to the lowest permissible standard
of care,” the judge said (L.A. Times 10/28/06). In fact, 62 percent of
jail prisoners have not been convicted of a crime.
Incarceration is not just about slave labor and the prison industrial complex
(to be addressed in another part of this series). A majority of prisoners are
just being warehoused in torturous conditions for profit – and for social
and population control along economic and ethnic or “racial” lines.
(There’s one human race.). But classism and White supremacy are alive
and well. Removing the reproductive years of young Black and Brown captives
precludes reproduction, divides families and destroys poor communities.
The United States spends more than $60 billion annually on so-called corrections.
Between 1995 and 2003, the fastest growing age bracket of state and federal
prisoners was 55 and older – at an annual cost estimated to be three
times that for younger prisoners: $69,000 per year, compared with $22,000.74
(Greene and Roche 2003).
More recent reports tally the annual cost per prisoner at about $30,000, doubled
or tripled by segregation, age or infirmity.
As of June 2005, there were 6,397 prisoners age 55 and older in California
prisons unequipped to deal with their health needs. The California Legislative
Analyst’s Office projects their numbers will increase to 30,200 by 2022.
Since they have the lowest arrest and recidivism rates, why doesn’t the
state release these seniors who pose almost no risk to society? By so doing,
the state could have saved $9 million in 2003-2004!
Instead, to relieve prison overcrowding, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has issued
an emergency proclamation to transfer prisoners to privately-run facilities
in other states. California is poised to sign three- to five-year contracts
for 2,200 beds at private prisons in Oklahoma, Indiana, Arizona and Tennessee.
An additional 19 states have expressed an interest in housing California’s
felons, representing a total of about 10,000 beds in private and government
facilities. It’s obvious prisoners have become chattel, worth tens of
thousands of dollars per person.
Prisons are already located hundreds of miles from their homes. Sending prisoners
out of state would virtually eliminate family and friends’ visits and
further subject them to unmonitored abuse.
While demagogic politicians campaign on platforms of lock ‘em up and
throw away the key, and most prisons are about punishment, a Zogby International
poll released in April 2006 found 87 percent of Americans favor rehabilitative
services for prisoners as opposed to punishment only. However, as you may have
noticed, politicians are beholden to the corporations who fund their campaigns,
not the people.
Reports cited herein, such as “Confronting Confinement,” advocate
reform of the prison system. As George Jackson wrote, “Fascism has temporarily
succeeded under the guise of reform.” I and many others advocate the
abolition of prisons and jails per se and abolition of the death penalty. Naturally,
the question that first comes to mind is, “What about the dangerous criminals?”
Aside from the fact that the most dangerous criminals are in the White House,
there are known to be locked mental health facilities that provide humane treatment
to sick prisoners who pose a danger to society. We should capture the Capitol
Hill Gang ASAP and lock them into one.
After decriminalizing drugs for which the vast majority of ordinary people
are imprisoned, we could convert prisons and jails into various institutions
for mental and physical therapy, rehabilitation and education: hospitals, counseling
and drug treatment programs, trade schools, community colleges and universities.
Of course, that would take a revolution. But as the martyred Jonathan Jackson
once wrote, “If there’s a big job of growing to do, the sooner
begun, the sooner done.”
“ People who come out of prison can build up the country.
“ Misfortune is a test of people’s fidelity.
“ Those who protest at injustice are people of true merit.
“ When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out.”
– Ho Chi Minh
Email Kiilu Nyasha, Black Panther veteran and revolutionary journalist,
at [email protected].
Author’s note: This report is just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve had to cut so much of the information I’d gleaned
doing the research into U.S. gulags to curb length. So this paper
is just the first part of a series I’m pulling together. The
next segment will focus on the history of U.S. prisons and the rise
of the prison industrial complex. I’m hoping this series will
be a wake-up call to the general public as well as the Movement that
we must take action against the terror of a growing police state – and
Part 2 will appear in two weeks in BC.
This article originally appeared in the San
Francisco Bay View. To reach the Bay View, email [email protected].