Written by Neelam Sharma using material submitted by Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, a political prisoner currently held in Easter Correctional Facility Napanoch, NY and Bonnie Kerness, associate director of the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey, a prisoners’ rights advocate for the past 20 years.
The African slave trade of 16th-18th century did not appear suddenly overnight; it grew over a period of time driven by the “economic interests” of merchants and businessmen; and it was sanctioned by their representatives in government. This is precisely the process that is unfolding today with the creation of a “prison industrial complex” on a scale never before seen. There are two very disturbing aspects of the growth in this “new industry”: the contracting out of penal institutions to business interests, and the increasing use of physical and psychological torture on prisoners as a form of “control”.
Ten years ago there was just five privately run prisons in the country, housing a population of 2000. Today, 20 private firms run more than 100 prisons with about 62,000 beds. That is still less than 5 per cent, but the industry is expanding fast, with the number of private prison beds expected to grow to 360,000 during the next decade. Already 28 states have passed legislation making it legal for private contractors to run prisons; more are expected to follow suit. Companies like Goldman Sachs and Co., Prudential Insurance Co. of America, Smith Barney Shearson Inc., and Merrill Lynch and Co., are among those competing to underwrite prison construction with private, tax-exempt bonds (where no voter approval is required). Why such a scramble for these contracts? Consider the growth of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the industry leader whose stock price has increased from $8 a share in 1992 to about $30 today, and whose revenue rose by 81% in 1995 alone. The Nashville-based CCA, which runs 46 penal institutions in 11 states, controls roughly half of the industry. It took ten years for the company to reach 10,000 beds; it is now growing by the same number every year.
The Triangle of Interest
On May 12 1994 the Wall Street Journal featured an article entitled: “Making Crime Pay-Triangle of Interest Created Infrastructure To Fight Lawlessness-Cities see Jobs; Politicians see a Popular Issue and Businesses Cash In- The Cold War of the 90’s”. In other words, the media creates a climate of fear about rates of crime, politician’s campaign on this issue demanding new legislation and get tough measures like “three strikes”; businesses step in to snap up the lucrative prison contracts. Of course, it is precisely big business and their representative in government who control the media.
This “Triangle of Interest” has set the stage for the resurrection of slavery in America since this peculiar institution was never in fact abolished. From the time it was written, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is popularly known to have abolished “involuntary servitude” and “chattel slavery” of Africans, has had an exception clause: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This clause has been consistently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, meaning that prisoners are to be considered no more than “slaves of the state.”
A Social Environment That Creates Criminals
It was this same clause in the 13th Amendment that was used, after the emancipation of African slaves, to sentence Africans who were once slaves, to new forms of slavery. In a new book called Prison Writing in 20th Century America, the editor H. Bruce Franklin begins with an Autobiography of an Imprisoned Peon. A brief extract from this essay, which was originally published in 1904, shows clearly how slavery was continued using the exception clause. “One of the usual ways of securing laborers for a large peonage camp is for the proprietor to send out an agent to the little courts in the towns and villages, and where a man charged with some petty offenses has no friends or money the agent will urge him to plead guilty, with the understanding that the agent will pay his fine, and in that way save him from the disgrace of being sent to jail or the chain gang! For the high favor the man must sign before hand, a paper signifying his willingness to go to the farm and work out the amount of the fine imposed. Every year many convicts were brought to the Senator’s camp!” The writer, who to this day remains anonymous, goes on to explain that most of those “convicts” had been “set-up for the crimes” they were convicted of with the collusion of state officials, plantation owners and paid “agents” in the African community.
What is different about the situation existing today? High proportions of people of color are filling this country’s prisons for drug-related crime, specifically offenses related to crack-cocaine. The truth about the U.S. government’s complicity in introducing crack cocaine into the Black neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, through its agency the CIA, is only now emerging. Since the release of Gary Webb’s articles in the San Jose Mercury-News in 1996, detailing how the CIA used the Nicaraguan Contras to flood the Black communities with cheap drugs, the CIA has consistently denied these allegations. However, in July of this year, CIA officials spoke anonymously to reporters about an internal agency report relating to these charges. It is interesting what one of them said, “In some cases, we knew that the people we were dealing with would not qualify as Vienna choirboys, but we dealt with them nonetheless because of the value they brought.” It is also interesting that this 2-volume report is still classified.
The Criminalization of Youth of Color
This is simply one method that has been used by those with power to criminalize poor and oppressed people, especially young males of color, but increasingly also women of color. Some of the processes used to create entire communities of “criminals” are very subtle; this subject could warrant an entire article by itself. But a measure of how successful these attempts have been is the acceptance of prison as a part of life among large sections of our youth. While Black people, conservatively, comprise only 12.5% of the entire US populations; we make up 48% of the prison population. The fastest growing ethnic group being imprisoned today is people of Mexican descent. This country imprisons more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation: 1.7 million people are currently in state and federal prisons. This number does not reflect those in children’s facilities, immigration detention center, or county and city jails.
Could it be that these figures in some way reflect a growth in crime? Well, none other than the FBI recently reported that crime in America is in fact decreasing (the one exception is crimes of violence by police officers!). The truth is that to be profitable private prison firms must ensure that prisons are not only built but also filled. Experts in the “industry” claim that 90-95 % capacity is needed to guarantee the hefty rates of return required luring investors. Prudential Securities, for example, issued a wildly bullish report on CCA a few years ago, but cautioned, “it takes time to bring inmate population levels up to where they cover costs. Low occupancy is a drag on profits.”
Businesses and Politicians – “Working” Together
It is hardly surprising that all the major firms in the field have hired big time lobbyists to push for the type of “get tough policies” needed to ensure their continued growth. When it was seeking a contract to run a halfway house in New York City, Esmore (the number 3 firm in this new industry) hired a former aide to State Representative Edolphus Towns to lobby on its behalf. The former aide won the contract, as well as the support of his former boss, who had been an opponent of the project. In 1995, the chairman of Wackenhut (which has a third of the “private prison market”) testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee urging support for amendments to the Violent Crime Control Act. The amended provisions of the Act subsequently passed, authorizing the expenditure of $10 billion to construct and repair state prisons.
CCA has been especially adept at expansion via “political payoffs.” The first prison the company managed was the Silverdale Workhouse in Hamilton County, Tennessee. After Tennessee Commissioner Bob Long voted to accept CCA’s bid for this project, the company awarded Long’s pest control firm a lucrative contract. When Long decided the time was right to quit public life, CCA hired him as a lobbyist. The company has been a major financial supporter of Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor, and failed presidential candidate. In one of many “sweetheart” deals, Lamar’s wife made more than $130,000 on a $5,000 investment in CCA. Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter is another CCA stockholder; he is quoted in the company’s 1995 Annual Report as saying “the federal government would be well served to privatize all of their corrections.”
The young male of color who is worth less than nothing in this economic system is suddenly worth between $30-60 thousand dollars a year in the “justice” system. About three-quarters of new admissions to American jails and prisons are men of African and Mexican descent. Jerome Miller, a former youth corrections officer in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, says, “The race card has changed the whole playing field. Because the prison system doesn’t affect a significant percentage of young white men, we’ll increasingly see prisoners treated as commodities. For now the situation is a bit more benign than it was back in the 19th Century, but I’m not sure it will stay that way for long.”
Controlling These New Slaves
In July of this year, a judge in California ordered a defendant in her courtroom to be zapped with a “stun belt” because he would not keep quiet when told. In a September 13th 1997 People’s Weekly World article by Julia Lutsky entitled “Torture in America,” the writer describes stun belts. “A relatively new restraint device is the stun belt, in use since 1993. It delivers an eight second 50,000-volt shock to the prisoner’s kidney area, often leaving him writhing in pain on the floor. Some states are considering it as a possible alternative to chaining work gangs. It leaves prisoners free to move about, and can be activated by a guard from 300 feet away. Stun belts are currently used in the federal prison system, the US Marshall’s Service, over 100 county agencies and the corrections facilities of 16 states.” The nonchalant use of this device in a courtroom against someone who was no physical threat whatsoever merely reflects the increasingly common use of such means of torture within the prisons.
There are also “stun guns,” “tasers” and “electric riot shields,” which like the belt are all electronic shocking devices. In 1996, the Phoenix New Times reported the death of inmate Scott Norberg at the Maricopa County Jail. Allegedly, he died while fighting with officers who were attempting to confine him in a “restraint chair,” while strapping a towel around his mouth to “keep him from spitting.” During the struggle, Norberg was shocked multiple times with stun guns. Inmates who witnessed his death estimated that he had been shocked between 8 and 20 times. Guards estimated the number of shocks between two and six. An examination of Norberg’s corpse, commissioned by his family, puts the number at 21.
Donald Blosswick, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah, contends that the design of the “restraint chair” is unsafe, because it forces prisoners into a stressful position and does not include directions to move the prisoners’ limbs regularly. Richard Swart, a social worker incarcerated at a Utah State Prison, provided testimony for another inmate. Scotty Lee Yocham. He wrote: “Yocham was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine soaked pillowcase was place over his head like a hood. (He) was then walked, shackled and hooded to a different cell where he was placed in a device called ‘the chair’. The ‘chair’ is a restraint device designed for mentally ill persons who pose a significant danger of harming themselves or others. The inmate is stripped nude, placed in the chair with their buttocks several inches below their knees. The arms and legs are then cuffed or shackled to the legs of the chair to prevent the inmate from moving. The design of the chair forces the inmate’s back against the chair. Mobility is almost non-existent. The inmate cannot relieve himself without soiling himself. He is left uncovered and unprotected, in pain, and shackled. Yocham was kept in the chair for over 30 hours.”
The Colorado ACLU is engaged in a federal suit against the El Paso County Jail concerning the death of a prisoner who was strapped to a device known as the “restraint board.” This board is 7 feet long and 1 foot wide. Prisoners are strapped face down in seven places from the ankle to the head-making movement impossible. The inmate in question, Michael Lewis, died on February 7, 1998, after being strapped to the board for several hours for the second time that day. The lawsuit alleges that several hundred prisoners have been strapped to the board in the last few years, some for as long as 12 hours. The ACLU alleges, “the restraint board is a terrifying experience that causes pain, psychic pain, mental distress and physical injuries.”
Another restraint device is “the motorcycle.” Its use has been reported by prisoners in South Carolina being held in isolation units. It is similar to the “board,” in that prisoners are strapped down at several body points. However, the use of this particular board is accompanied by a motorcycle helmet, which is placed on the prisoner’s head to prevent the prisoner from repeatedly and deliberately banging it.
The use of “pepper spray” is perhaps one of the most frequently reported methods of torture. Ronnie Stewart, prisoner at the Arizona State prison in Florence states: “The use of pepper spray and beatings is a part of everyday life within the system here at the Special Management Unit #1 if it is not being sprayed directly on you, then the entire wing is being sprayed. This has occurred 3 times in the past 2 weeks. It is not uncommon for the officers to use up to eight cans on a single inmate. I myself was sprayed and it was about 10 hours before I was allowed to wash off the chemical agent. This resulted in burns and blisters to my arms, face, chest, and feet. For the entire 10 hours, it felt like I was being boiled alive. When you are forced to stand in the sun with no shelter the sweat from your body continues to reactivate this chemical agent so that you remain in extreme pain the entire day.”
Reports of the use of these various devices of torture within the prisons are coming almost exclusively from prisoners being kept in isolation, which in itself is increasingly used as form of control and torture. In two landmark decisions U.S. judges have recently sentenced people to life in solitary confinement, perhaps marking a new era in the use of “sensory deprivation” as a condition of imprisonment. These sentences reflect the U.S. criminal justice policy, which increasingly encourages the use of “control units,” “security housing units,” and “super-max” prisons.
The first official “control unit” was opened in Marion Federal Prison in Illinois in 1972. It was a “behavior modification” experimental unit. Other similar units began opening in state prisons across the country around the same time. In 1983, the entire prison at Marion was “locked down” (an action in which all prisoners are locked in cells 24 hours a day without human contact) in response to an isolated incident of violence. This lock-down has never been lifted. In 1995, a new federal high tech prison in Florence, Colorado, took over the “mission” of Marion; according to authorities, it houses the “most predatory” prisoners in the U.S. Prisoners are kept in nearly total isolation for years; there is little intersection with anyone other than prison staff. Visits and telephone calls from family and friends are severely restricted, as are educational, recreational, and religious services.
Currently over 40 states throughout the country have adopted the federal model of control units; these often take the form of “supermax,” or “maxi-maxi” prisons. While specific conditions in these units vary, their goal is to “break” prisoners through spiritual, psychological, and/or physical breakdown. Supporters of these units claim they are necessary to deal with “hardened criminals.” In fact, the development of control units can be traced directly to the years of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements when many activists found themselves in prison. The use of sensory deprivation as a form of behavior modification was extensively used on members of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and American Indian Movement, as well as white political activists, jailhouse lawyers, Islamic militants and prison activists.
In recent years, the rapid growth of these “control units” has been accompanied by an insane duplication of their controls and restrictions. For example, when a control unit prisoner leaves his cage, he is strip-searched, even when he has only been in contact with prison staff. Oscar Lopez, a Puerto Rican political prisoner, reported being searched rectally 3 times returning; one time he hadn’t been in the direct company of anyone else for months. Increasingly, mentally ill prisoners are being put into isolation rather than receiving the treatment, they need. In New Jersey, there is the documented case of Frank Hunter, who died in an isolation unit after being forced to commit sexual acts for food; he didn’t know who or where he was when he died.
How will a government, which today sanctions such barbaric conditions within its prisons, take seriously a demand that it apologizes for past atrocities, never mind repairing the damage? A distinguishing feature of the trade in Africans, which first brought Black people to this continent, was that the slave was seen as a “commodity”, nothing more than “chattel” to be used for profit. Today, would-be profiteers rub their hands in glee when they see the potential profits to be made from this modern version of the slave trade, as characterized by a headline in USA Today: “Everybody’s doin’ the Jailhouse Stock.” The forces that seek to benefit from this new slave trade have formed a “triangle of interest.”
The time has arrived for African-Americans, and all poor and oppressed people, to form our own “circle of interest.” It is only by putting aside our differences, our egos and our sectarian interests, and concentrating on the commonality of our oppression, that we can wage an effective resistance to this new effort to enslave us. Certainly there can be no doubt that today, more than ever, the poverty and oppression within our communities is inextricable linked to the situation in the prison system. We cannot successfully challenge either one without challenging the other.
“The difference between successful and unsuccessful movements is in the people who lead them. Successful ones are led by persons gifted with a delicate balance of both mental and physical forcefulness. Brains are useless without the nervous equipment and the muscle required to execute their orders.” -George Jackson, Field Marshall, BPP