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Member Newsletter: Breaking Through Secrecy That Enables Abuse Of Prisoners

Editor’s Note

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Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan is a prisoner in Ohio, who is currently on death row in connection with the 1993 rebellion known as the Lucasville Uprising, which began as a protest by Muslim prisoners against an attempted forced medical procedure by prison officials that violated their religious beliefs.

Journalist and publishing editor Brian Sonenstein recently wrote a comprehensive report with updates on retaliation Hasan has faced for supporting the national prison strike that largely unfolded between August 21 and September 9. He was banned from using email and the phone for a year, and a disciplinary body denied his appeal.

We asked Brian to provide some deeper insights on Hasan and the prison’s punishment against him.

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Hasan had all phone and email communications banned for a year. That leaves snail mail and visitors as his connection to the outside world, but those will be heavily restricted too. How important is it to a prisoner’s health to maintain a connection to the outside world?

In the past few years, there has been a growing pile of research validating what families and incarcerated people have said for years: that maintaining contact with people on the inside is essential for health, morale, and for reducing the chance that a person will return to prison after they’re released.

Incarceration is an incredibly isolating, oppressive, and traumatizing experience. Having meaningful connections on the outside is important to helping a prisoner survive their time. It helps them mobilize support networks outside to defend from abuse or get treatment they may need. It helps them stay involved and invested in the lives of their family members and friends on the outside. Once they’re out (and most prisoners do get out eventually), having that network is essential in helping a person reintegrate into society.

It really is in everyone’s best interest that we not only allow but help facilitate the maintenance of those connections, instead of putting up obstacles to communication at seemingly every turn.

Prison authorities do not seem to distinguish between nonviolent direction and rioting. They seem to treat work stoppages like rioting. Why is this a problem?

To understand why this is a problem, we first need to understand why prisoners protest.

Redressing abuse, neglect, or mistreatment has never been easy in prisons, but it’s been especially difficult since the late 1990’s. Grievance systems within prisons (where prisoners can lodge complaints, have them heard, and remedied) are slow and rarely yield results. Sometimes, they lead to retaliation. They’re generally ineffective red tape that insulate corrections departments from legal liability. Prisoners generally have to exhaust these systems before they can sue in court (assuming they can represent themselves or can afford an attorney, which very few can).

The 1997 Prison Litigation Reform Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, was specifically designed to limit prisoners’ ability to sue corrections departments. It coincided with a drastic decline in prison conditions and a rise in incarceration and overcrowding. And it’s been wildly successful at limiting prisoners ability to remedy their complaints in court: between 1997 and 2012, the rate at which prisoners filed civil rights lawsuits dropped by around 60 percent nationwide.

Because prisoners lack a meaningful way to address their very real and often life-and-death needs through systems, one of the only other options they have is to leverage their power—namely their labor and their money—through protest.

However, it is literally codified into the rules that govern state prisons that organizing and demonstration are prohibited activities. In some cases, the rules sanction rioting and organizing/demonstration by equally severe measures.

“The interest of order and security” is used broadly to justify and maintain oppressive conditions and restrict the exercise of rights. So when prisons conflate nonviolent direct action and violent rebellion, it is an attack on one of the only other ways—outside of rioting—that prisoners have to reject their treatment.

It means disproportionately harsh responses to those daring to resist their exploitation. And that crackdown has a chilling effect on other prisoners in the short term, but contributes to a tinderbox atmosphere that often results in rioting and other violence. We as a society should abhor how prison officials respond to prisoner speech and organizing the same way we do when it happens to protests on the street.

A number of visitors were banned from visiting Hasan. How does the prison justify these bans and was any due process followed at all?

This is another example of where “the interest of order and security” are used broadly in service of retaliation. In the case of Hasan’s visitors, the prison employed vague but scary-sounding allegations, using decontextualized or exaggerated information, to bar people from visiting or putting money on people’s’ accounts because it might “disrupt” prison operations.

The “due process” is just as pathetic and ineffective as it is for prisoners’ grievances. Hasan’s visitors weren’t notified they had been banned from visiting and in some cases even made it into the visitation room and were sitting there visiting with him before they were ejected from the building.
When they did get a letter in the mail, detailing the absurd reasons why people would be banned, they were given deadlines to appeal that had already passed by the time the letter arrived in their mailboxes. Those who appealed anyway saw their restrictions upheld arbitrarily.

The one visitor who put an attorney on the case, who called the prison and demanded their visitation rights be reinstated, was successful in overcoming this bullshit. But few people have the time, resources, and courage to really fight back against prison officials—and officials know that.

You tried to obtain documents to help you cover Hasan’s case as it unfolded in real time, but Ohio prison officials refused to release key documents. How did these officials thwart journalism?

The situation with transparency and prisons is so terrible it’s absurd. On the one hand, there are ridiculous exemptions to state open records laws. For example, Ohio prison officials refused to provide any part of the phone transcripts from which they cherry-picked quotes to claim Hasan was fomenting riot.

How is anyone supposed to evaluate the tone, context, and intent in which these statements are made? They want the public to take their word for it.

Then, there’s the fact that officials often simply don’t acknowledge your requests at all. Or they take weeks or months to do anything with them.

Prison officials can also be pretty talented when it comes to paperwork, filling it out in narrow, vague, or misleading ways so as to diminish its usefulness in reporting.

In one recent experience I had, when I was attempting to obtain a few weeks of emails and memos regarding water quality in Oregon prisons, officials demanded I fork over more than $4,000 to get the documents.

These are some of the hoops journalists have to jump through to get valuable primary source materials out of prisons. Prisons play these games because they know the majority of journalists don’t have the time, resources, and patience to play the game with them.

In reality, journalists need to do a better job of pooling our resources and power to really challenge this opacity and demand change. It’s unacceptable.

What is the effect of prison secrecy on prisoners who deserve fairness and justice in disciplinary proceedings?

The effect is to reinforce the secrecy of prisons, which contributes to the power and impunity of corrections officials and the degradation and abuse of prisoners.

If journalists can’t meaningfully investigate conditions in prisons, we can’t take that information from institutions that are so far out of the public view and share it with people on the outside. This diminishes or complicates the ability of our communities to organize and challenge those conditions.

Much of the secrecy prisons demand is totally unnecessary. In some ways, it’s not that different than the issues of extreme secrecy and overclassification when it comes to national security issues. Corrections officials are trying to reinforce their ultimate and unquestioned authority over people, who they do not believe have any right to object.

All of this contributes to the distance the public has from prisons and prisoners, too, which allows these atrocities to continue and feeds peoples apathy and prejudice toward the plight of prisoners.

FBI seal. (Photo by groovysoup on Flickr)
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