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The National StopMax Campaign Conference

By: 
Andalusia Knoll
Date Published: 
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The hole, control units, SuperMax Prisons, Segregated Housing Units, administrative segregation, maximum security, and solitary confinement are all terms or euphemisms used to describe the stark reality of an estimated 30,000 people in the United States who live in concrete cells, smaller than your average bathroom, for 23 hours a day. With their lives on lockdown, these prisoners are deprived of educational programs, adequate physical and mental health services, and have little contact with their families or other inmates. Just as the wholesale incarceration of 2.3 million prisoners in the United States is a relatively new pandemic, the grossly inhumane practice of long-term solitary confinement has also grown exponentially over the past 20 years.

In late May of 2008, hundreds of former prisoners, their families and loved ones, civil rights lawyers, and prison activists gathered in Philadelphia at the Stop Max Conference hosted by the American Friends Service Committee. Denouncing control units as human rights violations and utterly failed policy, they strategized about how to put an end to solitary confinement.

Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, a former black liberation political prisoner who served 15 years in Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois, spoke on a panel of survivors of solitary confinement about the political origins of the modern day control unit. “The [government] had lost control of the prisons in the mid-to-late 1960s; the revolutionary movement had taken the prisons. When they resorted to the control unit it was an expression of defeat,” says Ervin.

The first control unit opened in Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1972, and now over 44 states have their own SuperMax facilities. What was once a temporary punitive measure is now implemented as a long-term method of control, with some people confined to over 25 years in 23 hour-a-day lockdown. The Survivors Panel illuminated the tenacity of the human spirit, with each panelist detailing the brutal conditions they endured and how their experiences have fueled their struggle to stop the wholesale warehousing of human beings in our nation’s correctional facilities.

Former political prisoner, Robert King Wilkerson, said that outside support and mental fortitude allowed him to survive 29 years in solitary confinement in Angola Prison in Louisiana. “Even though I was in prison, prison wasn’t in me, and I was not gonna allow it to get in me. I would not allow myself to be institutionalized. Don’t get me wrong – I was not trying to minimize the impact of solitary confinement. It is cruel, it is brutal, the soul cries. How can you define how the soul cries? But at the same time I have to maintain control in spite the fact that I am allegedly ‘controlled.’”

Family networks

Dr. Stuart Grassian – a psychiatrist at Harvard University Medical School – says it has been proven that solitary confinement itself can cause prisoners to be in an agitated, hallucinatory, confused, psychotic state – often a violent or suicidal state. Gail Muhammed – Stop Max organizer and CEO of the prisoner support network Women Who Never Give Up – says with prisoners placed in such mental isolation, outside support plays a crucial role in their daily survival. “The role of the family is so important to the sanity of that loved one who is incarcerated. Our imagination is great and sometimes the only means of survival is to visualize themselves at home, and the only way they can do that is if they stay connected to who is at home,” says Muhammed.

Theresa Shoats – daughter of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoats – says that outside support also plays a vital role in prisoners’ physical well being as many are denied access to adequate medical services. To address these medical crises she has co-founded the Families and Friends of Prisoners Emergency Response Network (FFP-ERN), to provide immediate help and comfort to loved ones and friends, as well as to hapless prisoners, who find themselves in emergency situations. On a larger scale the network seeks to “expand the network of people who can work together to stop the criminal justice system from isolating and dehumanizing any of their loved ones and friends.”

Reclassifying confinement

Control Units have been referred to as a “prison within a prison” yet prisoners neither appear before a judge nor jury before receiving a sentence that dooms them to solitary. Instead, prison authorities use arbitrary guidelines to isolate them for administrative or punitive causes, or if they deem that someone is a member of a Security Threat Group – a vague prison term for gangs. Control Unit critics say the “security threat” label is often applied based on ones’ racial identity or outspoken criticism of prison policy.

Jim Austin with the JFA institute – a corrections policy research agency – has worked with the Ohio and Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC) to clearly define what behavior warrants detention in solitary confinement. With these new documented classifications, Mississippi has reduced the number of people in the administrative segregation units from over 1000 down to 130. “We did this by basically requiring the state to be very specific about who would go into those units and how long they would stay. We have done this without jeopardizing the safety of staff or the other inmates,” says Austin. Austin is currently working to implement similar policy changes in other states.

Security reduction

Prisoners have also been able to implement similar policy changes through individual lawsuits. StopMax participant Hakeem Shaheed was confined in a segregated housing unit in Marion for 10 years for a bogus incident report he received after he criticized prison conditions in the federal prison at Terre Haute, Indiana. Following the September 11 attacks, he says that guards started harassing Muslim inmates, that he was severely beaten, and had his Koran thrown on a spit-stained floor.

Shaheed brought a lawsuit against the DOC, which led to the removal of nine guards, and Marion was eventually reduced from a maximum- to medium security facility. “My case of having being tortured, and the amount of news media that came on it broke the back of Marion’s tradition of abusing, torturing, and in some cases – it is alleged – murdering inmates,” says Shaheed.

The StopMax Conference culminated in regional breakout sessions with coalitions forming to terminate solitary confinement. Attendees vowed to continue their work with a wide range of tactics including waging legal battles and supporting prisoners through outside networks. A coalition of Pennsylvania organizations said they would work to prevent the construction of a new SuperMax prison in their state while drawing attention to the cases of prisoners suffering abuse within the state’s control units. Many agreed that this campaign was one step towards working towards a world free not just of solitary confinement, but also of prisons at large.

For more information about solitary confinement and the campaign to end it in your area visit the American Friends Service Committee.

Andalusia Knoll aims to shed light on the horrors of the prison industrial complex and resistance to it by reporting for the worker-run collective Free Speech Radio News and collaborating with incarcerated artists for the Prison Poster Project. She lives in Philadelphia where she works with the Prometheus Radio Project to help people start community radio stations.