BREAKING: Pennsylvania legislatures introduce Political Repression bill following Mumia’s Commencement Address

anti speech bill V3

Pennsylvania legislators are trying to stop prisoners from speaking about their ideas and experiences.

Last week, PA Representative Mike Vereb introduced a bill (HB2533) called the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which would allow victims, District Attorneys, and the Attorney General to sue people who have been convicted of “personal injury” crimes for speaking out publicly if it causes the victim of the crime “mental anguish.”

The bill was written in response to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at Goddard College, and is a clear attempt to silence Mumia and other prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. We believe that this legislation is not actually an attempt to help victims, but acynical move by legislators to stop people in prison from speaking out against an unjust system.

While to us this seems like a clear violation of the first amendment, unfortunately the PA General Assembly doesn’t appear to agree, and they have fast-tracked the bill for approval and amended another bill (SB508) to include the same language.

The legislation could be voted on as early as Wednesday. If this bill passes, it will be a huge blow to the movement against mass incarceration.

People inside prisons play a leading role in these struggles, and their perspectives, analysis, and strategies are essential to our work. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who write books, contribute to newspapers, or even write for our Voices from the Inside section would run the risk of legal consequences just for sharing their ideas.

That’s why we are asking you to take action TUESDAY OCTOBER 14 by calling Pennsylvania lawmakers to tell them that prisoners should not be denied the right to speak.

Please call your legislators and demand that they vote NO on HB2533 and SB508. You can look up contact information at

We are also asking folks to call the following Senate leaders and ask them to stop the bill from moving forward:

Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne (717) 787-1349
Senate Minority Whip Anthony Williams (717) 787-5970
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (717) 787-4712
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (717) 787-7683

Check back soon for talking points and call scripts!

See more at:

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Commencement Address to Goddard College – The Transcript

By now you have probably heard the news of – and the threats against – Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Commencement Address to Goddard College. But you may not have been able to read Mumia’s speech. Well, here it is:

Mumia’s address is a testament to critical, couragious, and lifelong education and social justice. It’s also a reflection on how these two fields – these journeys – are inseparable.

You can listen to the speech as you view the slideshow here.

The PDF is also available to read, download, and share.

Call the Warden for Mutulu Shakur

mutuluMutulu Shakur had a stroke at the end of February and is having trouble obtaining the follow-up medical care that he needs. Please call the warden at Victorville and ask that Mutulu receive the medical care that he needs.

People out here I want some contacts, I have not received any consultation on the concerns deriving from the stroke. I understand folks have been contacting the region and central office from medical follow- up which is a required recommendation for after-care. I have a three month widow to medically and therapeutically to solve the residue of the stroke.
Thank you for all you do, I love mother earth too.
Stiff Resistance,
Dr. Mutulu Shakur.




Murder Is Our National Sport

Murder is our national sport. We murder tens of thousands with our industrial killing machines in Afghanistan and Iraq. We murder thousands more from the skies over Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen with our pilotless drones. We murder each other with reckless abandon. And, as if we were not drenched in enough human blood, we murder prisoners—most of them poor people of color who have been locked up for more than a decade. The United States believes in regeneration through violence. We have carried out blood baths on foreign soil and on our own land for generations in the vain quest of a better world. And the worse it gets, the deeper our empire sinks under the weight of its own decay and depravity, the more we kill.

A television camera mounted on the ceiling of a witness room is pointed toward a prison death chamber. (Photo: AP/Danny Johnston)

There are parts of the nation where the electorate, or at least the white electorate, routinely and knowingly puts murderers into political office. Murder is a sign of strength. Murder is a symbol of resolve. Murder means law and order. Murder keeps us safe. Strap the criminal into the gurney. Plunge the needles into veins. Haul away the corpse. It is our Christian duty. God Bless America! And one of the next on the list to be murdered in Florida—a state that has decided, under its new and cynically named “Timely Justice Act,” that it needs to accelerate its execution rate—is William Van Poyck. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. June 12 at Florida State Prison. He is a writer who has spent years exposing the cruelty of our system of mass incarceration. On June 12, if Gov. Rick Scott has his way, Van Poyck will write no more. And that is exactly how our political class of murderers wants it.

“Only God can judge,” Matt Gaetz, a Republican who sponsored the Timely Justice Act in the Florida House of Representatives, said during the debate. “But we sure can set up the meeting.”

Van Poyck, 58, knows what is coming. He has seen it many times before. He chronicles existence on death row in his blog, posted by his sister, Lisa Van Poyck, at, where there is a petition to Gov. Scott asking for a reprieve.

“I wasn’t really surprised when they showed up at my cell door with the chains and shackles,” he wrote his sister May 3. “For the last month or so I’ve had a strong premonition that my warrant was about to be signed, but that wasn’t something I wanted to share with you.”

“Sis, you know I’m a straight shooter, I’m not into sugar coating things, so I don’t want you to have any illusions about this,” he wrote. “I do not expect any delays or stays. This is it. In 40 days these folks will take me into the room next door and kill me.”

“After 40+ years of living in cages I am ready to leave this dead end existence and move on,” he concluded. “I leave with many regrets over the people I have hurt, and those I’ve disappointed, and over a life squandered away. My spirit will fly away hugging all the life lessons learned over 58 years on Schoolhouse Earth and with an implacable determination not to repeat these mistakes the next time around.”

Van Poyck, before the signing of his death warrant and his abrupt transfer to a cell next to the execution chamber, was one of the few inside the system to doggedly bear witness to the abuse and murder of prisoners on death row.

“Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening,” Van Poyck wrote to his sister in 2012. “In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed.”

“Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960?s era hearse I’ve watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population,” he went on. “I’ve seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You’ve already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you’re given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it’s time to die. To me this is cruel and unusual punishment by any definition.”

Van Poyck was convicted in the death of a corrections officer in 1987, although he insists he did not pull the trigger. But even if he did, it does not justify murder in the name of justice. Do we rape rapists? Do we sexually abuse pedophiles? Do we beat violent offenders? Do we strike hit-and-run drivers with a moving vehicle? And what if Van Poyck is telling the truth? What if he did not kill the corrections guard? He would not be the first inmate on death row to die for a murder he or she did not commit, especially in Florida. The state has sentenced more people to death than any other in recent decades. It has executed 75 since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in the 1970s. There have been 24 death row inmates in Florida exonerated—one exoneration for every three executions. Not only might we kill the innocent, we have killed the innocent, as sadly illustrated by contemporary DNA tests that have cleared some of those who were put to death.

“When I heard from Bill’s lawyer about the warrant I lost it,” Van Poyck’s sister told me as she was driving Sunday from Richmond, Va., where she lives, to Bradford County, Fla., to see her brother. “I was on my lunch break. I broke down sobbing and crying. Gov. Scott signed warrants for prisoners who had committed heinous crimes, people who murdered children or serial killers. I thought Bill was safe for a long time. I still have visions of him walking out of there. And now he is in the death watch cell.”

“While he did commit a crime in trying to break a friend out of a prison transport van where his accomplice, Frank Valdes, shot and killed one of the guards, Bill never intended for anyone to get hurt, much less killed,” Lisa said. “I feel that 26 years on death row with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head has been punishment enough for the crime he did commit. I have received so many letters from people saying that his writings, especially his autobiography ‘A Checkered Past,’ have changed their lives. He is not the man he once was. He underwent a profound spiritual conversion. He is a beautiful soul. He deserves [to live].”

In “A Checkered Past” Van Poyck describes his troubled boyhood, including the death of his mother from carbon monoxide poisoning when he was a year old. His father, who worked for Eastern Airlines and had lost a leg in World War II, turned the children over to a series of housekeepers, most of whom were neglectful or abusive. By 11 Van Poyck was in a juvenile home, along with Lisa, who was 12, and a brother, Jeffrey, who was 18. By 17 Van Poyck was in prison for an armed robbery. And then in 1987 he and Valdes attempted to free a friend from a prison transport van in downtown West Palm Beach. A corrections guard was fatally shot, apparently by Valdes, who a dozen years later died after eight prison guards beat him in his cell. Van Poyck’s brother, who is ill with lung cancer, has been in prison since 1992 for a series of bank robberies in Southern California.

Van Poyck has written two novels, “The Third Pillar of Wisdom” and “Quietus.” One of his short stories, “The Investigation,” will be included in an anthology of prison writing edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

“I started working with Bill [Van Poyck] in 2007 in the PEN prison writing program,” said Elea Carey, a short-story author based in San Francisco who was his writing instructor for two years. “There is a sense of isolation in his writing, as if he grew up alone in nature. He defined his experience without anyone around to help him understand it. He often appears as if he was dropped into a foreign land. His sensitivity to others, his compassion, his awareness and his empathy grew with his writing. He moved from his aloneness to grappling with the basics of human relationships.”

“People die every day,” Carey said when we spoke by phone. “I lost my dad in January. I am not afraid of death. I don’t think Bill is afraid of death. I am not shocked that Gov. Scott did this. But I want to do everything possible to stop this from happening. We are asleep as a society. We too do not know what it means to be fully human. This asleepness was once part of Bill’s life. He was asleep, in this way, when he carried out his crimes and committed the wrongs he knows he did. But this unconsciousness is not limited to people like Bill—it is part of all who think it is OK to do this kind of harm to other human beings. I want my government to be above murder.”

Van Poyck has an eye for detail, a terse, laconic writing style and a deep compassion for those trapped in the system. He explores the daily degradation of prison life, a Stygian world where some 50,000 people are held in solitary confinement in supermax prisons or special detention units and where hopelessness and despair threaten to overwhelm those inside.

“Yesterday the prison was locked down all day for the standard ‘mock execution’, the practice run which occurs a week prior to the actual premeditated killing,” he wrote to his sister in February 2012. “For the mock execution they lock down the joint, bring in an array of big wigs, and go through a dry run to make sure the death machine is in working order, everyone on their toes. The big wigs are just voyeurs, here to vicariously kill someone while allowing themselves the bare moral cover of not actually pushing the knife between the ribs. Their minions do the actual dirty deed while they can go home with technically clean hands. These mock executions are as depressing as the real thing, in the sense that it’s dispiriting to watch an entire organization (a prison, with all its constituent parts) so seriously dedicate their time and energies to practice killing a fellow human being, as if this is a good and natural thing to do. It takes some peculiar mental (not to mention moral) gymnastics to justify this to oneself, but we humans have proven ourselves immensely adept at self-delusion and hypocrisy, especially when we bring religion into the equation. We are really, really good at killing others in the name of God. We are a strange species, aren’t we? To those who argue that the death penalty isn’t killing (or murder, which is merely a legal definition) because it is all done ‘according to the law’, I’d remind them that the Nazis did everything they did ‘according to the law’. The Nazis, for all their terrible deeds, were sticklers for following the law; they found their refuge in the law, meticulously following the letter of the law before they enslaved and/or executed their victims. ‘We were just following the law’ is a lame excuse when you are the one writing the laws in the first instance. …”

In prisons, he writes, time merges into a long, seamless monotony broken up by periodic and often explosive acts of tragedy and violence—an execution or death, a stabbing with a “shank,” beatings by the guards, mental breakdowns, rape and suicide.

“The search team came and tore up my cell last week,” he wrote in January 2012. “It was a surgical strike (they came for me alone) and I was later told that ‘someone’ wrote a snitch kite on me claiming (falsely) I had a weapon in my cell. I’m fairly certain it was someone trying to get a DR (disciplinary report) dismissed by dropping a dime on me on the hope they’d shake me down and find something, any kind of contraband, and the rat would then get credit for it. But I had no contraband so the snitch struck out. If the administration had any integrity they’d write the rat a DR for ‘lying to staff.’ I spent several hours putting my cell back in order; it looked like a hurricane came through, all my property scattered everywhere. This is the kind of bullshit you have to put up with in prison; it’s the nature of the beast. Hell, it happens on the streets, too, though. Informants are master manipulators and the police routinely play their game even though they know the rats often fabricate stories and evidence to their own ends. …”

He wrote earlier this year about the rapid decline of another prisoner, Tom, who “just 4 months ago had a hale and hardy soul and “now [is] a mere envelope of cancer-gnawed flesh and bones.” He “was removed from his cell by wheelchair, too weak to offer anything but meager protest, and transferred to the one place he dreaded going to, our notoriously filthy, blood spattered clinic holding cell, consigned to die in pain-soaked isolation. The image of him, barely able to croak a few words, weakly waving goodbye to me, his sunken, lingering eyes reflecting his recognition that he was going to his death, will forever be imprinted on my memory.”

“I confess that it is tiring to be surrounded by so much death—the dead and yet-to-be-dead—these past two decades, a struggle not [to] be drenched in negativity, with precious little to mitigate my disappointments,” he wrote. “Each day requires an act of will to wake up and set myself with a purpose, to believe this mortal life is more than just a play of shadows in a shadow box. …”

“My old pal Tom died on Friday, Feb 8th at 4:10 pm, alone in the clinic isolation cell at UCI,” he wrote to his sister a little later. “I hate that he died alone, locked in a tiny cell with no property (no radio, TV or anything to occupy his mind) and nobody to converse with, just laying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his final escape. His loved ones, who were able to travel from Texas and North Carolina to visit him for three hours just two days before he passed away wrote and told me that he was very weak and gaunt, could not keep down any food or liquids, but was lucid enough for a meaningful visit, though just barely so. Although I know his death was inevitable and imminent, I’m surprised at how much it has affected me. I’ve seen an awful lot of death during my many years in prison (way too much death, in all its myriad variations), including some friends, but Tom’s has knocked the wind out of me. I still catch myself starting to call over to him when I read something interesting or see something on TV that would pique his interest, and I sometimes swear I hear his voice calling me. A part of me is happy for him because I know he’s finally free, but I can’t lie; I really miss him.”

Daniel McGowan Taken Into Custody

Daniel McGowan was picked up this morning from his halfway home in Brooklyn and taken to the federal detention center for processing. No reason is forthcoming yet, but we expect it has to do with his recent article:

Court Documents Prove I was Sent to Communication Management Units (CMU) for my Political Speech

Former political prisoner & environmentalist

I currently reside at a halfway house in Brooklyn, serving out the last few months of a seven-year sentence for my role in arsons credited to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) at two lumber companies in Oregon in 2001.  My case, and the federal government’s rush to prosecute environmental activism as a form of terrorism, were recently explored in the Oscar-nominated documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

What has received less attention, though, is what happened to me while in federal prison.  I was a low security prisoner with a spotless disciplinary record, and my sentencing judge recommended that I be held at a prison close to home.  But one year into my sentence, I was abruptly transferred to an experimental segregation unit, opened under the Bush Administration, that is euphemistically called a “Communication Management Unit” (CMU).  Since August 2008, when I first arrived at the CMU, I have been trying to get answers as to why I was singled out to be sent there.  Only now — three years after I filed a federal lawsuit to get to the truth — have I learned why the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) sent me to the CMU: they simply did not like what I had to say in my published writing and personal letters.  In short, based on its disagreement with my political views, the government sent me to a prison unit from which it would be harder for me to be heard, serving as a punishment for my beliefs.

The first of the two CMUs was opened quietly, without the public scrutiny required by law, in 2006 in Terre Haute, Indiana; the Marion, Illinois CMU followed in 2008.  In fact, at a hearing in my case before I was sentenced, my attorneys argued that giving me the “terrorism enhancement” could result in my designation to a CMU.  How right they were! The units are designed to isolate prisoners from the rest of the prisoner population, and more importantly, from the rest of the world.  They impose strict limitations on your phone calls home and visits from family and friends — you have far less access to calls and visits than in general population.  The communications restrictions at the CMUs are, in some respects, harsher than those at ADX, the notorious federal “Supermax” prison in Colorado.  Also, unlike ADX, they are not based on a prisoners’  disciplinary violations. When my wife and loved ones visited me at the CMUs, we were banned from any physical contact whatsoever.  All interactions where conducted over a telephone, with Plexiglas  and bars between us.  Until they were threatened with legal action, CMU prisoners were only allowed one single 15-minute phone call per week.

This is very different from most prisons.  I started my sentence at FCI Sandstone — a low security facility in Minnesota.  I never received a single incident report the whole time I was there and stayed in touch with my family by phone and through visits.  The importance of maintaining these family connections cannot be overstated.  My calls home were, for example, the only way I could build a relationship with my then two-and-a-half year old niece.   When my family would visit, it was incredibly important to all of us to be able to hug and hold hands in a brief moment of semi-normalcy and intimacy. It was these visits that allowed us to maintain our close contact with each other through a time of physical disconnection, trauma and distress.

What’s also notable about the CMUs is who is sent there. It became quickly obvious to me that many CMU prisoners were there because of their religion or in retaliation for their speech. By my count, around two-thirds of the men are Muslim, many of whom have been caught up in the so-called “war on terror,” others who just spoke out for their rights or allegedly took leadership positions in the Muslim community at other facilities. Some, like me, were prisoners who have political views and perspectives that are not shared by the Department of Justice.

While serving my time I was eager to stay involved in the social justice movements I care about, so I continued to write political pieces, some of which were published on this website.  No one in the BOP ever told me to stop, or warned me that I was violating any rules.  But then, without a word of warning, I was called to the discharge area one afternoon in May 2008 and sent to the CMU at Marion.  Ten days after I arrived, still confused about where I was and why, I was given a single sheet of paper called a “Notice of Transfer.”  It included a few sentences about my conviction, much of which was incorrect, by way of explanation for my CMU designation.  I was provided no other information about why the BOP believed I needed to be sent to this isolation unit.  Frustrated, I filed administrative grievances to try to get the information corrected, and find out how this decision had been made.  When that did not work, I filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.  I got nowhere.  The BOP would not fix the information, and wouldn’t explain why they thought I belonged in a CMU.

So I decided to contact lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, having known their history of strong advocacy on these issues. We brought a federal lawsuit on behalf of myself and other CMU prisoners to challenge policies, practices and our designation to the CMUs. The lawsuit, Aref v. Holder, was filed in April 2010, and challenges the constitutionality of various polices and practices at the CMUs, including the lack of meaningful process associated with designation to the units, and the lack of any meaningful way to “step down” from the units.  The lawsuit contends that this lack of transparency and process has allowed people to be sent to the CMUs based on, for example, their protected speech.  Through discovery in the case, the federal government has finally been forced to hand over previously-unseen memoranda  explaining why I was picked out to be sent a CMU.  Authored by Leslie Smith, the Chief of the BOP’s so-called “Counter Terrorism Unit,” and cataloging in detail some of the things I have said in the past years, they make one thing clear: I was sent to the CMU on the basis of speech that the BOP just disagrees with.

The following speech is listed in these memos to justify my designation to these ultra-restrictive units:

My attempts to “unite” environmental and animal liberation movements, and to “educate” new members of the movement about errors of the past; my writings about “whether militancy is truly effective in all situations”; a letter I wrote discussing bringing unity to the environmental movement by focusing on global issues; the fact that I was “publishing [my] points of view on the internet in an attempt to act as a spokesperson for the movement”; and the BOP’s belief that, through my writing, I have “continued to demonstrate [my] support for anarchist and radical environmental terrorist groups.”

The federal government may not agree with or like what I have to say about the environmental movement, or other social justice issues. I do not particularly care as the role of an activist is not to tailor one’s views to those in power. But as Aref v. Holder contends, everything I have written is core political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.  It may be true that courts have held that a prisoner’s freedom of speech is more restricted than that of other members of the public.  But no court has ever said that means that a prisoner is not free to express political views and beliefs that pose no danger to prison security and do not involve criminal acts.  In fact, decades of First Amendment jurisprudence has refused to tolerate restrictions that are content-based and motivated by the suppression of expression.  And courts have recognized that when a prisoner is writing to an audience in the outside world, as I was, it’s not just the prisoner’s First Amendment rights that are at stake: the entire public’s freedom of speech is implicated.

I do not know what is happening with the men I got to know in the CMUs but I know they are still dealing with everything I had to deal with — isolation from the outside world, strained relationships, always being on eggshells about the constant surveillance and never knowing when they will get out of the CMU.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the BOP is using these units to silence people, and to crack down on unpopular political speech. They have become units where the BOP can dump prisoners they have issues with or whose political beliefs they find anathema. In the months that come, with CCR’s help, I hope to prove that in court and show what is happening at the CMUs. This needs to be dragged into the sunlight.

Follow Daniel McGowan on Twitter:

The Shame of America’s Gulag

If, as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” then we are a nation of barbarians. Our vast network of federal and state prisons, with some 2.3 million inmates, rivals the gulags of totalitarian states. Once you disappear behind prison walls you become prey. Rape. Torture. Beatings. Prolonged isolation. Sensory deprivation. Racial profiling. Chain gangs. Forced labor. Rancid food. Children imprisoned as adults. Prisoners forced to take medications to induce lethargy. Inadequate heating and ventilation. Poor health care. Draconian sentences for nonviolent crimes. Endemic violence.

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

Bonnie Kerness and Ojore Lutalo, both of whom I met in Newark, N.J., a few days ago at the office of American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch, have fought longer and harder than perhaps any others in the country against the expanding abuse of prisoners, especially the use of solitary confinement. Lutalo, once a member of the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers, first wrote Kerness in 1986 while he was a prisoner at Trenton State Prison, now called New Jersey State Prison. He described to her the bleak and degrading world of solitary confinement, the world of the prisoners like him held in the so-called management control unit, which he called “a prison within a prison.” Before being released in 2009, Lutalo was in the management control unit for 22 of the 28 years he served for the second of two convictions—the first for a bank robbery and the second for a gun battle with a drug dealer. He kept his sanity, he told me, by following a strict regime of exercising in his tiny cell, writing, meditating and tearing up newspapers to make collages that portrayed his prison conditions.

“The guards in riot gear would suddenly wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you,” he said when we spoke in Newark. “They had attack dogs with them that were trained to go for your genitals. You spent 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. If you do not have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive psychologically. Isolation is designed to defeat prisoners mentally, and I saw a lot of prisoners defeated.”

Lutalo’s letter was Kerness’ first indication that the U.S. prison system was creating something new—special detention facilities that under international law are a form of torture. He wrote to her: “How does one go about articulating desperation to another who is not desperate? How does one go about articulating the psychological stress of knowing that people are waiting for me to self-destruct?”

The techniques of sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation were pioneered by the Central Intelligence Agency to break prisoners during the Cold War. Alfred McCoy, the author of “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror,” wrote in his book that “interrogators had found that mere physical pain, no matter how extreme, often produced heightened resistance.” So the intelligence agency turned to the more effective mechanisms of “sensory disorientation” and “self-inflicted pain,” McCoy noted. [One example of causing self-inflicted pain is to force a prisoner to stand without moving or to hold some other stressful bodily position for a long period.] The combination, government psychologists argued, would cause victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and accelerate psychological disintegration. Sensory disorientation combines extreme sensory overload with extreme sensory deprivation. Prolonged isolation is followed by intense interrogation. Extreme heat is followed by extreme cold. Glaring light is followed by total darkness. Loud and sustained noise is followed by silence. “The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the existential platforms of personal identity,” McCoy wrote.

After hearing from Lutalo, Kerness became a fierce advocate for him and other prisoners held in isolation units. She published through her office a survivor’s manual for those held in isolation as well as a booklet titled “Torture in United States Prisons.” And she began to collect the stories of prisoners held in isolation.

“My food trays have been sprayed with mace or cleaning agents, … human feces and urine put into them by guards who deliver trays to my breakfast, lunch, and dinner… ,” a prisoner in isolation in the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility at Carlisle, Ind., was quoted as saying in “Torture in United States Prisons.” “I have witnessed sane men of character become self-mutilators, suffer paranoia, panic attacks, hostile fantasies about revenge. One prisoner would swallow packs of AA batteries, and stick a pencil in his penis. They would cut on themselves to gain contact with staff nurses or just to draw attention to themselves. These men made slinging human feces ‘body waste’ daily like it was a recognized sport. Some would eat it or rub it all over themselves as if it was body lotion. … Prisoncrats use a form of restraint, a bed crafted to strap men in four point Velcro straps. Both hands to the wrist and both feet to the ankles and secured. Prisoners have been kept like this for 3-6 hours at a time. Most times they would remove all their clothes. The Special Confinement Unit used [water hoses] on these men also. … When prisons become overcrowded, prisoncrats will do forced double bunking. Over-crowding issues present an assortment of problems many of which results in violence. … Prisoncrats will purposely house a ‘sex offender’ in a cell with prisoners with sole intentions of having him beaten up or even killed.”

In 1913 Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, discontinued its isolation cages. Prisoners within the U.S. prison system would not be held in isolation again in large numbers until the turmoil of the 1960s and the rise of the anti-war and civil rights movements along with the emergence of radical groups such as the Black Panthers. Trenton State Prison established a management control unit, or isolation unit, in 1975 for political prisoners, mostly black radicals such as Lutalo whom the state wanted to segregate from the wider prison population. Those held in the isolation unit were rarely there because they had violated prison rules; they were there because of their revolutionary beliefs—beliefs the prison authorities feared might resonate with other prisoners. In 1983 the federal prison in Marion, Ill., instituted a permanent lockdown, creating, in essence, a prisonwide “control unit.” By 1994 the Federal Bureau of Prisons, using the Marion model, built its maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo. The use of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation exploded. “Special housing units” were formed for the mentally ill. “Security threat group management units” were formed for those accused of gang activity. “Communications management units” were formed to isolate Muslims labeled as terrorists. Voluntary and involuntary protective custody units were formed. Administrative segregation punishment units were formed to isolate prisoners said to be psychologically troubled. All were established in open violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Kerness calls it “the war at home.” And she says it is only the latest variation of the long assault on the poor, especially people of color.

“There are no former Jim Crow systems,” Kerness said. “The transition from slavery to Black Codes to convict leasing to the Jim Crow laws to the wars on poverty, veterans, youth and political activism in the 1960s has been a seamless evolution of political and social incapacitation of poor 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 60 percent of those who are imprisoned are people of color, where students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, where 58 percent of African [American] youth … are sent to adult prisons, where women of color are 69 percent more likely to be imprisoned and where offenders of color receive longer sentences, the concept of colorblindness doesn’t exist. The racism around me is palpable.”

“The 1960s, when the last of the Jim Crow laws were reversed, this whole new set of practices accepted by law enforcement was designed to continue to feed the money-generating prison system, which has neo-slavery at its core,” she said. “Until we deeply recognize that the system’s bottom line is social control and creating a business from bodies of color and the poor, nothing can change.” She noted that more than half of those in the prison system have never physically harmed another person but that “just about all of these people have been harmed themselves.” And not only does the criminal justice sweep up the poor and people of color, but slavery within the prison system is permitted 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. …”

This, Kerness said, “is at the core how the labor of slaves was transformed into what people in prison call neo-slavery.” Neo-slavery is an integral part of the prison industrial complex, in which hundreds of thousands of the nation’s prisoners, primarily people of color, are forced to work at involuntary labor for a dollar or less an hour. “If you call the New Jersey Bureau of Tourism you are most likely talking to a prisoner at the Edna Mahan Correctional Institution for Women who is earning 23 cents an hour who has no ability to negotiate working hours or working conditions,” she said.

The bodies of poor, unemployed youths are worth little on the streets but become valuable commodities once they are behind bars.

“People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work,” Kerness said. “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 to 30,000 dollars 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 which has been a boon to everyone from architects to food vendors—all with one thing in common, a paycheck 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.”

Prisons are at once hugely expensive—the country has spent some $300 billion on them since 1980—and, as Kerness pointed out, hugely profitable. Prisons function in the same way the military-industrial complex functions. The money is public and the profits are private. “Privatization in the prison industrial complex includes companies, which run prisons for profit while at the same time gleaning profits from forced labor,” she said. “In the state of New Jersey, food and medical services are provided by corporations, which have a profit motive. One recent explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America with the federal government to detain close to 1 million undocumented people. Using public monies to enrich private citizens is the history of capitalism at its most exploitive.”

Those released from prison are woefully unprepared for re-entry. They carry with them the years of trauma they endured. They often suffer from the endemic health problems that come with long incarceration, including hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV. They often do not have access to medications upon release to treat their physical and mental illnesses. Finding work is difficult. They feel alienated and are often estranged from friends and family. More than 60 percent end up back in prison.

“How do you teach someone to rid themselves of degradation?” Kerness asked. “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.”

Kerness has long been a crusader. In 1961 at the age of 19 she left New York to work for a decade in Tennessee in the civil rights struggle, including a year at Tennessee’s Highlander Research and Education Center, where Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. trained. By the 1970s she was involved in housing campaigns for the poor in New Jersey. She kept running into families that included incarcerated members. This led her to found Prison Watch.

The letters that pour into her office are disturbing. Female prisoners routinely complain of being sexually abused by guards. One prisoner wrote to her office: “That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers.” Other prisoners write on behalf of the mentally ill who have been left to deteriorate in the prison system. One California prisoner told of a mentally ill man spreading feces over himself and the guards then dumping him into a scalding bath that took skin off 30 percent of his body.

Kerness said the letters she receives from prisoners collectively present a litany of “inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation often lasting years, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism.” Prisoners send her 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.” But the worst torment, prisoners tell her, is the psychological pain caused by “no touch torture” that included “humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat” and “extended solitary confinement.” These techniques, she said, are consciously designed to carry out “a systematic attack on all human stimuli.”

The use of sensory deprivation was applied by the government to imprisoned radicals in the 1960s including members of the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian Movement, along with environmentalists, anti-imperialists and civil rights activists. It is now used extensively against Islamic militants, jailhouse lawyers and political prisoners. Many of those political prisoners were part of radical black underground movements in the 1960s that advocated violence. A few, such as Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, are well known, but most have little public visibility—among them Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Imam Jamil Al-Amin (known as H. Rap Brown when in the 1960s he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Jalil Bottom, Sekou Odinga, Abdul Majid, Tom Manning and Bill Dunne.

Those within the system who attempt to resist the abuse and mistreatment are dealt with severely. Prisoners in the overcrowded Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, staged a revolt in 1993 after years of routine beatings, degrading rituals of public humiliation and the alleged murders of prisoners by guards. The some 450 prisoners, who were able to unite antagonistic prison factions including the Aryan Brotherhood and the black Gangster Disciples, held out for 11 days. It was one of the longest prison rebellions in U.S. history. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed by the prisoners during the revolt. The state responded with characteristic fury. It singled out some 40 prisoners and eventually shipped them to Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a supermax facility outside Youngstown that was constructed in 1998. There prisoners are held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in 7-by-11-foot cells. Prisoners at OSP almost never see the sun or have human contact. Those charged with participating in the uprising have, in some cases, been held in these punitive conditions at OSP or other facilities since the 1993 revolt. Five prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb, George Skatzes and Namir Abdul Mateen—involved in the uprising were charged with murder. They are being held in isolation on death row.

Kerness says the for-profit prison companies have created an entrepreneurial class like that of the Southern slaveholders, one “dependent on the poor, and on bodies of color as a source for income,” and she describes federal and state departments of corrections as “a state of mind.” This state of mind, she said in the interview, “led to Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo and what is going on in U.S. prisons right this moment.”

As long as profit remains an incentive to incarcerate human beings and our corporate state abounds in surplus, redundant labor, there is little chance that the prison system will be reformed. It is making our corporate overlords wealthy. Our prisons serve the engine of corporate capitalism, transferring state money to private corporations. These corporations will continue to stymie rational prison reform because the system, however inhumane and unjust, feeds corporate bank accounts. At its bottom the problem is not race—although race plays a huge part in incarceration rates—nor is it finally poverty; it is the predatory nature of corporate capitalism itself. And until we slay the beast of corporate capitalism, until we wrest power back from corporations, until we build social institutions and a system of governance designed not to profit the few but foster the common good, our prison industry and the horror it perpetuates will only expand.