Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement
An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan
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.
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?
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 www.angola3news.com 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.