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No separate justice

Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary Photo: Lucy Duncan / AFSC

Bonnie Kerness presented this talk at a vigil at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on May 4th, 2015 in New York City. - Lucy

In the mid 80’s I received a letter from Ojore Lutalo who had just been placed in the Management Control Unit at Trenton State Prison. He asked what a control unit was, why he was in there, and how long he would have to stay. We knew little of control units, except for the 1983 lockdown of the Marion Federal prison and what we learned from the many prisoners who reached out to the AFSC to mentor those of us trying to give voice to what was and is happening. It would be almost a quarter of a century before the Department of Corrections acknowledged that he needed to remain in isolation due to "radical views and ability to influence others."

We began hearing from prisoners throughout the US saying that they were being held in extended isolation for political reasons. We heard from jailhouse lawyers and prisoner activists, many of whom were Muslim, who found themselves targeted and locked down in 24/7 solitary confinement.  The AFSC began contacting people inside and outside the prisons to collect testimonies of what was going on in those units. We had no idea who and how many people were experiencing no touch torture, what the conditions were in those units, and how many control units there were.

The thread that binds all of the testimonies we received is that they were and are from men, women, and children who are being held in isolation: management control units for US political prisoners, isolation units for people in immigration detention facilities, special needs units for those diagnosed with mental illness, security threat group management units for purported gang members, and in the past decades, communications management units for those of Islamic faith.

Solitary cell at Alcatraz by George Oates

Control units first surfaced during the 60’s and 70’s when many in my generation genuinely believed that each of us was free to dissent politically. In those years, people acted out this belief in a number of ways: Native peoples contributed to the formation of the American Indian Movement dedicated to self-determination, Puerto Ricans joined the movement to free the island from US colonialism, Whites formed the Students for a Democratic Society, and blacks and whites worked in the southern Civil Rights movements. This was a time that the New Afrikan Independence Movement reasserted itself, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed. This was also a time when there was a distinct rise in the prisoner rights movement.  Nightly television news had graphic pictures of State Troopers, Police, the FBI, and the National Guard killing our peers, which led to underground formations such as the Black Liberation Army. 

The government, in response to this massive outcry against social inequities and for national liberation, utilized Counter Intelligence Programs called COINTELPRO conducted by a dozen federal agencies, which had as an objective the crippling of the Black Panther Party and other radical forces. Over the years that these directives were carried out, many of those young people were put in prisons across the country. Some, now in their 60s and 70s are still there.   

For those of us who have been in the struggle for decades, the deliberate use of long term sensory deprivation for political purposes is haunting. People that we’ve known, worked with, and loved have been held in this way.  If I had the time, I could chant the names of those that the US Counter Intelligence Program of the 1970’s and 80’s tried to bury alive. These prisoners - some of whom have died, many of whom are Islamic, and hundreds of others – haunt the spaces of every control unit, supermax prison, communications management unit, and special housing unit in the country. No matter what name they are given, their purpose is the same as in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, or Guantanamo – the breaking of minds.

Bonnie Kerness at MCC vigil

In an article some years ago, Afsheen Shamsi of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that their coalition “is upset over what it says is increasing surveillance in mosques." She said the group “reflects the concerns of Muslims who have grown tired of being stopped at airports, constant questioning, and relentless security years after the attacks of 9/11."

One evolution of control units called “security threat group management units” is particularly egregious, because it is the government which gets to define what a “security threat group” is. According to a national survey done by the Department of Justice and the Departments of Corrections of Minnesota and Oregon, all Asians are labeled as gangs, which Minnesota further compounds by adding all Native Americans. New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania go on to list various Islamic groups as gangs. Because of my own background, I am very mindful of who is called a “security threat group." The progression of the use of isolation is more recently known as “Communications Management Units” in federal prisons, designed to restrict the communication of imprisoned Muslims with their families, the media, and the outside world. This treatment of prisoners is replicated in US secret prisons throughout the world where almost all of those captured are people of color.

The 2006 report, “Out of The Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization,” by George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, stated that the “potential for radicalization of prison inmates poses a threat of unknown magnitude to the national security of the United States," noting that “every radicalized prisoner becomes a potential terrorist threat.” The report states that it focuses “in particular on religious radicalization in conjunction with the practice of Islam."

Solitary cells at Alcatraz by Selbe 3

For those of us monitoring US prisons over decades, the targeting of radicalization, the targeting of specific groups, and the surveillance and infiltration of those groups feels very familiar. There can be no doubt that Islam is being targeted. In the case concerning four Islamic men, known as the Newburgh 4, the judge herself noted that “’Equal Justice Under the Law’ are words that can be found on many courthouses, but far too often, where it applies to the socially and or politically marginalized, these are words devoid of meaning."

The US government, which has moved from the 1970’s illegal Counter Intelligence Programs to the currently legalized Office of Homeland Security, continues to lock down people for their beliefs and is still seeking to identify those who have the potential to politically radicalize others.  After 9/11 and after each Homeland Security Code change, Prison Watch was flooded with calls from people reporting Islamic loved ones being removed from general population and placed in isolation. I have no doubt that Islam itself is suspect to the US government, and that any Muslim, no matter how law abiding, is suspect. Our work today needs to be embedded in struggle against this system and its continued use of isolation as a tool of behavior modification and religious and political repression.

Vigil at MCC in New York

You cannot give me a reason for the testimonies that have come into the AFSC from isolation units, including Communications Management Units. You cannot give me a reason for Ojore spending 22 years in NJ’s Management Control Unit. You cannot give me a reason for the use of isolation in immigrant detention facilities. This all violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – all of which the US has ratified.

The AFSC recognizes the existence and continued expansion of the penal system and these conditions of confinement as profound spiritual crises. It is a crisis which legitimizes torture, isolation, and the abuse of power.  From Lynne Stewart, who was a 73 year old lawyer accused of assisting an imprisoned Muslim, to the use of isolation for imprisoned Muslims, US policies at home and abroad are fostering international criticism. These policies have nothing to do with safe and orderly operation of prisons and everything to do with the spread of a culture of retribution and dehumanization. The restriction of civil rights is something we can and should debate regularly as a society. The violation of human rights (and fundamental human decency) simply is not negotiable. Not in our name will we allow this separate kind of justice to continue.


About the Author

Bonnie Kerness has been an anti-racist activist since she was 14, working at the University Settlement House as a volunteer on issues of housing, neighborhood and gangs. In 1961, at the age of 19, she moved to Tennessee to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. In Memphis she was trained as a community organizer by the NAACP.

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