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A profound spiritual crisis: Prison voices call for change

Chain Gang Women by Ojore Lutalo
Chain Gang Women by Ojore Lutalo Photo: AFSC / AFSC

Note: Bonnie Kerness presented this talk at the Woodrow Willson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in March. Her talk was one of a number of events organized around the exhibition of Artwork by Prisoners featuring the collages of Ojore Lutalo.  The announcement of the exhibit said,"Ojore, once a member of the Black Liberation Army, was incarcerated in the Trenton State Prison from 1986 though 2009. Lutalo was in the management control unit (solitary confinement) for 22 of the 28 years and kept his sanity by a strict regime of exercise in his tiny cell, writing, meditating and tearing up newspapers to make collages that portrayed his prison conditions." Ojore began a long time correspondence and friendship with Bonnie, who runs the Prison Watch Program out of AFSC's Newark office. Bonnie has been a long term and outspoken advocate for the end of solitary confinement.   - Lucy

Ojore Lutalo with collage

My early observations of oppression in this country began when I was 12 watching television and seeing children of African descent my age in the South being hosed by police and bitten by dogs for trying to go to school. I spent 10 years in the civil rights movement, then moved north and began working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the social action arm of the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—who have a 300-year history of dealing with human rights issues with prisoners.

I serve as a human rights advocate on behalf of men, women, and children in prison throughout the U.S., coordinating Prison Watch for AFSC in Newark. Many of the men, women, and children that I take testimony from call their imprisonment “the war at home.”  

In the criminal justice system, the politics of the police, the politics of the courts, the politics of the prison system, and the politics of the death penalty are a manifestation of the racism and classism that govern the lives of all of us.

Forced labor

Every part of the U.S. criminal justice system falls most heavily on the poor and people of color, including the fact that slavery is mandated and institutionalized in prisons by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. constitution, which reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.

While most of us don’t give this amendment a second thought, it is at the core of how the labor of slaves was transformed into what people in prison call neo-slavery.

The use of prison labor occurs throughout the country and is an integral part of what we have come to know as the “Prison Industrial Complex.” If you call the New Jersey Bureau of Tourism, you are likely talking to a prisoner at the Edna Mahon Correctional Institution for Women who is earning 23 cents an hour. Involuntary forced labor in prisons is real for more than 2 million men and women.

How do corporations profit from the school-to-prison pipeline?

Bonnie Kerness with event attenders

African descended, Latino, and Aboriginal young people tell us that the police feel like an occupation army in their communities. They speak about school systems being used to feed young people of color into youth detention, jails, and prisons, where those bodies are suddenly worth a fortune. 

People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. I’ve come to believe exactly the opposite—that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy. How is it that a 15-year-old in Newark—who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college— can suddenly generate $20,000-$30,000 a year once trapped in the criminal justice system?

The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, the court and police systems has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy that has been a boon to everyone from architects to food vendors, all with one thing in common: a pay check earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business, and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.  

There is no contradiction that prisons are both hugely expensive and very profitable. Just like with military spending, the cost is public and the profits are private. Privatization in the Prison Industrial Complex includes companies that run prisons for profit while, at the same time, gleaning profits from forced labor. In the State of New Jersey, food and medical services are provided by corporations with a profit motive. One recent explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) with the federal government to detain close to 1 million undocumented people. Using public monies to enrich private citizens is capitalism at its most exploitative.

I want to share the voice of one young woman who said, “I was 12, so they put me in isolation. I heard children screaming. I saw boys get strung out on meds. They make you take sleeping stuff in needles. They used pepper spray on this girl who was fighting directly in her mouth and she couldn’t breathe. They kept hitting her. We told them that she had asthma, but they wouldn’t listen.”

The U.S. spends less than any other industrialized nation on nurturing its children. In spite of dismal poverty rates, violent juvenile crime has been declining for years. Yet at least 43 states have passed laws making it easier for children to be tried as adults. We can’t escape the similarities with chattel slavery here as well. Not only are these mostly black and brown children taken from their families, they lose any chance for a future of their own choosing.

Torture is everyday reality in prison

Collage by Ojore

The voices of adult prisoners are haunting. A social worker at Utah State Prison wrote, “John was directed to leave the strip cell and a urine soaked pillow case was placed over his head like a hood. He was walked, shackled and hooded to a different cell where he was placed in a device called ‘the chair’….he was kept in the chair for over 30 hours, being forced to urinate and defecate on his own hands, which were tucked under him.”

Women who contact AFSC describe conditions of confinement that include enduringsexual abuse by staff. One woman said, “That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers.” Some of the most poignant letters I get are from prisoners writing on behalf of the mentally ill—like the man in California who spread feces over his body. The guards’ response to this was to put him in a bath so hot it boiled 30 percent of the skin off him. 

These past years have been full of complaints from prisoners and their families, describing inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation often lasting years, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality, and racism. I have received vivid descriptions and drawings of four and five point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains.

Often the worst torment people testify to is the psychological assault of “no touch torture,” which can include humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat, extended solitary confinement including other forms of intentional placement situations.

This is a systematic attack on all human stimuli.

Control units and prolonged isolation

How they lived squeezed together by Ojore Lutalo

In the mid 1980’s, AFSC received a letter from Ojore Lutalo who had 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. Some of the answers to those questions would unfold over the next quarter of a century that we monitored and advocated on behalf of Ojore.

“How do you describe desperation to someone who is not desperate”? began one letter to me from Ojore, who went on to depict everyone in the Control Unit  being awakened by guards dressed in riot gear holding barking dogs at 1 a.m. every other morning. Once awakened, the prisoners were forced to strip, gather their belongings while feeling the dogs straining at their leashes snapping at their private parts. He described being terrorized and intimidated, and the humiliation of being naked not knowing whether the masked guards were male or female. If we think back to slavery and to images of the civil rights movement, we know that dogs have been used as a device of torture for hundreds of years in the U.S.

Ojore spent 22 years, day after day, week after week, and year after year in NJ State Prison’s Management Control Unit, without being charged with any infraction. I challenge my intern students to spend four hours in their bathroom, and they don’t make it.

Ojore not only made it; he managed to create, mentor, and teach through what he called “propaganda,” which he would send out to me to share. His social and political commentary on prisons, what was happening to him, and his refusal to be silenced by the horror of his circumstances taught all of us. Ojore’s process of creating collages was to assemble headlines, pictures, and graphics from what few newspapers, magazines, and catalogues he was allowed. No scissors were permitted in his cage, so he folded, tore and glued the pieces of paper that formed his commentary.

Prolonged solitary confinement in the form of control units, security threat group management units, special needs units, and communications management units has been a long time concern for many prison activists. Control units surfaced during the 1970s. It was during the tumultuous years of the civil rights era, when large numbers of activists found themselves in U.S. prisons. Sensory deprivation was used with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Independentistas, members of the American Indian Movement, the Chicano movement, white anti-imperialists, civil rights activists, and members of the Black Liberation Army. In later years, we found jail-house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prisoner activists placed in extended isolation.

Current efforts to expand the solitary confinement population involve the alleged spread of gang problems in the U.S. AFSC began receiving letters from people in street organizations placed in units called Security Threat Group Management Units, complaining of extreme isolation, brutality, and racial profiling. The physical and chemical abuse in gang units is infamous to those of us who monitor the torment that these young people of color experience daily.

The progression of the use of isolation is most recently known as “Communications Management Units,” which are specifically designed to restrict the communications of imprisoned Muslims with their families, the media, and the outside world. This treatment of Islamic prisoners is replicated in U.S. secret prisons throughout the world, where almost all of those kept in such places are people of color.

Re-entering a world in which you’re not meant to succeed

Back after 28 years by Ojore Lutalo

In a system where 95 percent of prisoners return to our communities, the impact of prison practices is felt far beyond prisons. Dealing with these issues of cruelty isn’t just a matter of human decency. Serious public health issues concerning prisoners coming out abound with mental and physical issues, including Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis, HIV, mental illness, and symptoms related to post traumatic stress disorder.

For more than 25 years, I have counselled people re-entering society from prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities. The prognosis for staying out of prison is poor, with over 60 percent of people returning. 

Prisons are often traumatizing places in the lack of feeling, concern, and opportunities for self-improvement. Facing the complex issues of reunification of families at the same time as learning how to build a life make re-entry an incredibly difficult period. How do you teach someone to rid themselves of degradation? How long does it take to teach people to feel safe, a sense of empowerment in a world where they often come home emotionally and physically damaged and unemployable? There are many reasons that ex-prisoners do not make it; paramount among them is that they are not supposed to succeed.

The war at home

After Trayvon by Ojore Lutalo

The conditions and practices that the imprisoned testify to are in violation of The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination—all international treaties which the U.S. has signed. U.S. prison practices also fit the UN definition of genocide, which with this country has a long history.

If we dig deeper into U.S. criminal justice practices, the political function they serve is inescapable. Police, the courts, the prison system, and the death penalty all serve as social control mechanisms. The economic function they serve is equally chilling. Just as in the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people dependent on bodies of color as a source for income. 

The transitions from slavery to Black Codes to convict leasing to the Jim Crow laws to the wars on poverty and political activism have been a seamless evolution of political and social incapacitation of the poor and people of color. The sophisticated fascism of the practices of stop and frisk; charging people in inner cities with “wandering,” driving, and walking while black; zip code racism—these and many other de facto practices all serve to keep our prisons full.

In a system where over 60 percent of those who are imprisoned are people of color, where 58 percent of African youth are sent to adult prisons; where black and brown women are 69 percent more likely to be imprisoned, the concept of color blindness doesn’t exist.

Over 40 years ago, George Jackson noted: “The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds and hundreds of prisons, and thousands and thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace….the law and everything that interlocks with it was constructed for poor, desperate people like me.” Despite years of legislative work, laws have changed nothing for the better. We now have more repressive laws, more societal surveillance, and more tyrannical prisons. 

The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions. It is also a state of mind. That state of mind led to Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo, and what is going on in U.S. prisons right this moment.

You cannot give me a reason for the testimonies of the men, women, and children that come into my life every single day. You cannot give me a reason for what happened to Ojore. It has been one of the privileges of my life to know both Ojore and Judy Vazquez, who had the courage to reach outside the prison walls to testify what was happening to them.

I’ve been part of the struggle for civil and human rights for over 45 years. My soul is haunted by what I read in my daily mail. We need to alter the very core of every system that slavery, white supremacy, and poverty has given birth to, especially the criminal justice system. The U.S. must stop violating the human rights of men, women, and children. We need to decriminalize poverty, mental illness, and homosexuality. We must alter the 13th Amendment and change the racial and economic profiling of arrest and sentencing practices, and stop the use of “no touch,” physical, and chemical torture.

AFSC has always recognized the existence and continued expansion of the penal system as a profound spiritual crisis, one that allows children to be demonized. It is a crisis that legitimizes torture, isolation, and the abuse of power. It is a crisis that extends beyond prisons into school and judicial systems.

I know that each time we send a child to bed hungry, that is violence. That wealth concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of many is violence. That the denial of dignity based on race, class, or sexual preference is violence. And that poverty and prisons are a form of state-manifested violence.

Until we recognize that the system’s bottom line is social control and creating a business from bodies of color and the poor, there can be no societal healing from what many consider this domestic war.

We need to rekindle a national movement against torture and prisons among people who do not believe that over 2 million men, women, and children need to be imprisoned to make the rest of us feel safe. 

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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