October 28th and 29th 2011 at Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg

Seven inches of snow did not prevent forty two of the sixty registered to attend the First PA Conference Against Torture. Sixteen brave folk drove through sleet, snow, rain and fog over the mountains from Western PA at 6:00am on Saturday morning.

Friday night Dr. Kate Porterfield gave a talk, that was open to the public, on the “Phobia of Hope: Reflections from a Psychologist in Guantanamo”. Kate is a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and has a long history of working with people who have experienced trauma and torture. In recent years she has spent hundreds of hours at Guantanamo Bay evaluating and getting to know a number of the prisoners especially Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad. She spoke of the impact of the incarceration on Omar and Mohammed, both of whom were juveniles when they were confined to Guantanamo.  After that many years in Guantanamo there is a fear of doing anything which will raise the expectations of release. Sometimes it is easier just not to hope. The poignant moment for everyone was when she shared a message from Omar Khadr thanking us for caring.

The format of the conference reflected the interconnectedness of the issues. Prisoners in US prisons experience many of the same trauma, fears and feelings of lack of powerlessness as people incarcerated at Guantanamo. It was also clear that we are looking at an environment of acceptance of torture in our country, torture in our prisons and torture in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Saturday we revised the schedule in order to get people home before the snow became too deep. Instead of workshops each presenter presented to the full group. This had the advantage of exposing everyone attending to the breadth of the issues, giving better understanding of the similarities in prison abuse everywhere and a better understanding of the impact on people of such abuse and incarceration.

Kate Porterfield shared her expertise in working with people who have been traumatized in prison and detention centers. Her presentation was very helpful in giving advice on the barriers that might be faced for anyone doing this work and strategize that might help.  A slide show of her talk is on our website www.panetworkaginattorture.org.

Using a couple of quiz exercises John Humphries from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, focused the attention of the conference on the concerns of torture by our Government. We acknowledged that work already being done by a number of the participants and explored possible actions.

King Downing, American Friends Service Committee’s Program Analyst for Healing Justice, followed this up with a brain storming session on what we can do to address the injustices of our prison system here in this country. He showed the excellent Stop Max video on solitary confinement that the AFSC developed. This can be viewed on our website.

By the end of the conference we had an extensive list of possible actions for addressing both US sponsored torture and torture and abuse in our prisons. Positive ideas for actions included a training in Pittsburgh in the spring for working with traumatized people, participating in the National Day of Action Against Guantanamo in Washington DC January 11th 2012 and a campaign to develop legislation to restrict prolonged isolation in PA prisons.

Next steps will be to bring together a steering committee to plan the campaign to restrict prolonged isolation in PA prisons. Sandy Strauss will be contacting those registered to see who is interested in being part of such a committee.