[News] Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement, , --An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Feb 15 10:58:31 EST 2013

*Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement*

*--An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan*

/By Angola 3 News

To Purchase the book, click *here!* 

Author and longtime activist Nancy Kurshan's new book, entitled /Out of 
Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons/ 
has just been released by the Freedom Archives 
<http://www.freedomarchives.org>. Kurshan's book documents the work of 
The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which she co-founded in 
1985 as a response to the lockdown at the federal prison in Marion, 
Illinois. It quickly turned into a broader campaign against control unit 
prisons and human rights violations in US prisons that lasted fifteen 
years, until 2000. The following excerpt from /Out of Control /details 
CEML's origins:

*/(beginning of direct quote)/*

/I had been living in Chicago for about a year when I heard the news 
that two guards had been killed by two prisoners in the U.S. 
Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, 350 miles south of Chicago. Although 
it was an isolated incident with no associated riot conditions, the 
prison was immediately placed on lockdown status, and the authorities 
seized on the opportunity to violently repress the entire prison 
population. For two years, from 1983 to 1985, all of the 350 men 
imprisoned there were subjected to brutal, dehumanizing conditions. All 
work programs were shut down, as were educational activities and 
religious services./

/During the initial stage of this lockdown, 60 guards equipped with riot 
gear, much of it shipped in from other prisons, systematically beat 
approximately 100 handcuffed and defenseless prisoners. Guards also 
subjected some prisoners to forced finger probes of the rectum. Random 
beatings and rectal probes continued through the two-year lockdown. 
Despite clear evidence of physical and psychological brutality at the 
hands of the guards, Congress and the courts refused to intervene to 
stop the lockdown.../

/...Although the terrible conditions at the prison were striking, what 
drew us to Marion in particular was the history of struggle of the 
prisoners and their allies on the outside. When the infamous Alcatraz 
was closed in 1962, Marion Federal Penitentiary was opened and became 
the new Alcatraz, the end of the line for the "worst of the worst."/

/In 1972 there was a prisoner's peaceful work stoppage at Marion led by 
Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda. In response to this 
peaceful work stoppage, the authorities placed a section of the prison 
under lockdown, thus creating the first "control unit," essentially a 
prison within a prison, amplifying the use of isolation as a form of 
control, previously used only for a selected prisoner. That was 1972. /

/At this time, in 1985, after two years of lockdown, they converted the 
whole prison into a control unit. Importantly, because Marion in 1985 
was "the end of the line," the only "Level 6" federal prison, there were 
disproportionate numbers of political prisoners---those who were 
incarcerated for their political beliefs and actions. These included 
people such as Native American Leonard Peltier who had spent years there 
until recently, and now (in 1985) Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli 
<http://www.sundiataacoli.org/> and Sekou Odinga 
<http://www.thetalkingdrum.com/bla1.html>, Puerto Rican independentista 
Oscar López Rivera 
<http://boricuahumanrights.org/free-oscar-lopez-rivera/>, and white 
revolutionary _Bill Dunne <http://4strugglemag.org/tag/bill-dunne/>_. 
These were people we knew or identified with, activists of the 1960s and 
1970s incarcerated for their political activities. Marion, like its 
predecessor Alcatraz and its successor ADX Florence, was clearly a 
destination point for political prisoners./

*/(end of direct quote)/*

Kurshan writes that during the 15 years of work, "CEML led and organized 
hundreds of educational programs and demonstrations in many parts of the 
country and tried to build a national movement against 'end-of-the-line' 
prisons. Along the way the Committee wrote thousands of pages of 
educational and agitational literature and pioneered new ways of 
analyzing and fighting against this national quagmire that morphed into 
the proliferation of the 'prison industrial complex.'"

Out of Control's online version 
features several dozen links to the literature CEML created, as well as 
further documents, pamphlets, audio and video segments. Asked to 
spotlight a few of her favorites, Kurshan recommended: /The Myth That 
the Pelican Bay Control Unit Has Reduced Violence/ 
a 1995 issue of the CEML's newsletter Walkin' Steel 
the U.N. Standard Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 
<http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/treatmentprisoners.htm>, Bill Dunne's 
1988 34-page handwritten article about Marion 
and an article by Kurshan herself, entitled /Women and Imprisonment in 
the US: History and Current Reality/ 

In this interview, Nancy Kurshan discusses her new book and covers a 
variety of topics, including the growth of solitary confinement and its 
relation to mass incarceration, the connection between US militarism 
abroad and domestic prisons, concluding with the lessons that today's 
human rights activists can learn from the history of the Committee to 
End the Marion Lockdown.

*_Angola 3 News:_* /Your new book chronicles fifteen years of organizing 
against control unit prisons, from 1985-2000. Can you begin the 
interview by explaining exactly what a control unit prison is?/

*_Nancy Kurshan:_* There are at least 2 ways to answer that question. 
One is to describe the daily workings. The other is to elucidate the 
underlying dynamics.

There are variations from prison to prison, but generally speaking, a 
control unit prison is one in which every prisoner is locked away in 
their own individual box about 23 hours a day under conditions of severe 
sensory deprivation. The prisoner eats, sleeps and defecates in the 
windowless cell. Meals come through a slot in the door. In some cases 
the prisoner may be out of the cell a couple of times a week for 
exercise, but in other circumstances the exercise area is even more 
limited and is attached to the cell itself. Most control unit prisons 
have little access to education or any recreational outlets.

Usually, control units severely restrict the prisoner's connection not 
just with other prisoners, but with family and friends in the outside 
world. At Marion, only family members could visit, upon approval, and 
only for a small number of visits per month. The amount of time allowed 
per visit was severely restricted, and there was no privacy whatsoever 
and no contact permitted between prisoner and visitor. Visiting took 
place over a plexiglass wall and through telephones. Guards were always 
within earshot. The prisoner had to be searched before and after, 
sometimes cavity searched. The visitor had to undergo a body search as 
well. The prisoners were brought to the visit in shackles.

Regarding the underlying dynamics, the intent is to make the prisoner 
feel that his or her life is completely out of control. That is not an 
unintended consequence. The purpose of the control unit is to make the 
person feel helpless, powerless and completely dependent upon the prison 
authorities. The intent is to strip the individual of any agency, any 
ability to direct his or her own life. A control unit institutionalizes 
solitary confinement as a way of exerting full control over as much of 
the prisoner's life as possible.

There is no pretense that this is a temporary affair. Instead it is 
long-term, severe behavior modification, and it is the most vile, mind & 
spirit-deforming use of solitary confinement. Control units represent 
the darkest side of behavior modification. Inside a control unit, the 
prisoner usually has no idea how long he or she will be there. It is an 
indeterminate sentence, and usually the rules or guidelines for exiting 
are unclear at best and impossible to comprehend at worst. It is a hell 
without any apparent end.

Being sent to a control unit prison is tantamount to torture, as 
acknowledged by many human rights organizations 
including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Prisoners are 
held under conditions that today are not considered 'humane' even for 
animals. They are an extreme abuse of state power.

The existence of the control unit also functions to control other 
prisoners who are in the general population. This is as important to the 
system as the impact on those actually in the control unit. The fear of 
imprisonment in this worst of all prisons is meant to scare all 
prisoners into tolerating intolerable conditions. The word 'Marion' was 
meant to strike cold fear into the hearts of prisoners throughout the 
federal prison system.

*_A3N:_* /You write that "not only did federal control unit prisons 
proliferate, but now virtually every state system in the country is 
capped off by a control unit. Whether they are called Control Units, 
Supermax, SHU (Secure Housing Unit), ADX (Administrative Maximum 
Facility), a skunk by any other name still stinks." Can you tell us more 
about how control unit prisons and solitary confinement in US prisons 
evolved since the mid-1980s when you began your work?/

*_NK:_* When we began our work, Marion was the only control unit prison 
in the federal system, and there were none in the state systems. At the 
outset, the prison bureaucrats proclaimed that the control unit would 
allow the rest of the system to run more freely since it would remove 
the 'bad apples' from the system and concentrate them in the control 
unit. We countered that argument by predicting that the control unit 
would serve as an anchor, dragging the whole system in a more repressive 

Activists were able to accomplish a significant victory early on. The 
strength of the women political prisoners incarcerated in the* 
*Lexington Control Unit 
along with a mass national and international campaign in concert with 
legal action, forced the Feds to close the Lexington Control Unit for 
Women in 1988 just two years after it opened.

But over the years, many state 'prisoncrats' came to Marion to see the 
control unit. As the years went on, most states built control units or 
modified existing institutions to accommodate control units. And, of 
course, the feds, in response to our criticisms of Marion, claimed that 
the problem with Marion was that it was not built to be a control unit. 
So they built a bigger and 'better' control unit in Florence, Colorado. 
This demonstrates that unless the ideology changes, they will respond to 
criticism by morphing one way or another, but never really moving in a 
progressive direction.

Long term solitary confinement has become a pillar of their 
'correctional' policy. However, it seems that two serious challenges 
have developed. First, this form of imprisonment is expensive and our 
society is running out of money, thanks in part to our bloated military 

Secondly, in some places like California, prisoners have stood up in the 
thousands and said: "We won't take it no more." There have been hunger 
strikes of 6,000 or more prisoners and support on the outside that has 
helped give voice to their grievances (read coverage of the strike by 
Angola 3 News: 1 
In response to hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, the New York Times in an 
editorial on August 1, 2011 entitled "Cruel Isolation," 
lamented that "For many decades, the civilized world has recognized 
prolonged isolation of prisoners in cruel conditions to be inhumane, 
even torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it. Even at Abu Ghraib in 
Iraq, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and physically abused 
systematically and with official sanction, the jailers had to get 
permission of their commanding general to keep someone in isolation for 
more than 30 days."

Prisoners around the country are attempting to cast light on the 
situation, but they can only do so much from inside. And let's face it, 
despite Albert Hunt's article in the NY Times on Nov. 20, 2011 entitled 
"A Country of Inmates 
that "With just a little more than 4 percent of the world's population, 
the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the planet's prisoners and has more 
inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined," this situation 
is not even on the national agenda. I listened to Obama's State of the 
Union speech last night, and nowhere did I hear a mention of the fact 
that we are a country of inmates, disproportionately Black and Hispanic.

Unfortunately, economic concerns always trump the moral. The Governor of 
Illinois recently announced the closing of Tamms Prison, the state's 
control unit prison that we fought so hard against in the 1990s. On the 
heels of that decision, they have also announced that an Illinois prison 
that has been vacant, will now be sold to the feds, and part of it will 
be a new control unit prison 
The same Senator Dick Durbin 
who recently held hearings to look into solitary confinement 
on June 19, 2012 has heralded this deal, as it will bring more jobs to 
the community of Thomson where unemployment is high. The employment of 
some seems always to trump the concern about human rights for others. 
/(see the last question for more about Durbin)/

*_A3N:_* /How has the rise of solitary confinement and control unit 
prisons related to the mass incarceration policies and escalated 
criminalization of poverty that began in the 1970s, and have now given 
the US the highest incarceration rate and more total prisoners than 
literally any other country? 

*_NK:_* Both come out of a profoundly racist ideology that blames the 
victim and refuses to deal with the structural challenges and fault 
lines of our society. We have never really dealt with the legacy of 
slavery. We have not dealt with the immigration challenge. We have not 
dealt with the lack of jobs at a living wage. Rather we have met the 
challenge of a huge under-reported unemployment problem with an 
imprisonment binge.

The binge does not affect all sectors of the population equally. No, the 
prisons are overflowing disproportionately with Black and Latino 
prisoners. Albert Hunt wrote in "A Country of Inmates" that "more than 
60 percent of the United States' prisoners are black or Hispanic, though 
these groups comprise less than 30 percent of the population." One in 
nine black children has a parent in jail!

Our prisons have no real plans for 'rehabilitation.' That would require 
a restructuring of society, a real jobs and education program--one that 
we need now more than ever but that is not on the horizon. In fact, the 
jobs program that we do have has been building more prisons located long 
distances from the urban centers that most prisoners call home and offer 
jobs to a totally different sector of the population. The imprisonment 
binge has served to get largely young men of color off the streets, 
warehousing them to prevent any disruption that might come from millions 
of unemployed men of color out on the pavement.

In the 1960s there was mass unrest in this country with urban centers 
going up in flames. We can trace the connection between that and the 
beginning of massive incarceration.

Of course, Black people have also historically led the way in 
challenging injustice, which makes them a force to reckon with. The 
Attica prison struggle of 1971 was a watershed where prisoners stood up 
and said: "We are men. We will not be treated like beasts." When the 
tear gas and bullets cleared, men were dead. Control units try to 
prevent that kind of camaraderie and resistance from developing. This 
makes it all the more amazing that prisoners at Pelican Bay could 
organize a massive hunger strike.

In 1975 the right-wing ideologue and Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington 
wrote The Crisis of Democracy, a report for the Trilateral Commission 
<http://www.chomsky.info/books/priorities01.htm>, in which he argued 
that there was too much democracy and things needed to change. Well, 
things have changed. And now the leading 'democracy' in the world is 
also the largest incarceration nation.

*_A3N:_* /You write that the CEML's 15 years of work is "the story of 
one long determined effort against the very core of the greatest 
military empire that has ever existed on this planet." Then in chapter 
two, you write that "in this day of debate about Guantanamo and Abu 
Ghraib, it is absolutely essential to realize that a direct line extends 
from U.S. control units to these so-called 'enhanced interrogation' 
centers throughout the world." Why do you make this connection with the 
struggle against US militarism abroad?/

*_NK:_* The connection has always been there because we live under one 
system, and that system has a domestic side and an international side. 
But they are really just two sides of the same coin. I write in my book 

*/(beginning of direct quote)/*

/[There was a] 1962 Bureau of Prisons (BOP) meeting in Washington, DC 
between prison officials and social scientists. Billed as a management 
development program for prison wardens, it coincidentally took place the 
same year the BOP opened Marion. Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT, a key player 
at that meeting, had written previously in a book entitled Coercive 
Persuasion about 'brainwashing' of Chinese Prisoners of War (POWs). In 
the meeting he presented the ideas in a paper entitled "Man Against Man":/

/"In order to produce marked changes of attitude and/or behavior, it is 
necessary to weaken, undermine, or remove the supports of the old 
attitudes. Because most of these supports are the face-to-face 
confirmation of present behavior and attitudes, which are provided by 
those with whom close emotional ties exist, it is often necessary to 
break these emotional ties. This can be done either by removing the 
individual physically and preventing any communication with those whom 
he cares about, or by proving to him that those whom he respects are not 
worthy of it, and, indeed, should be actively mistrusted. . . I would 
like to have you think of brainwashing, not in terms of politics, 
ethics, and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human 
behavior and attitudes by a group of men who have relatively complete 
control over the environment in which the captive populace lives." 
(Berrigan, p.6 

/Along with these theories, Schein put forward a set of 'practical 
recommendations,' that threw ethics and morals out the window. They 
included physical removal of prisoners to areas sufficiently isolated to 
effectively break or seriously weaken close emotional ties; segregation 
of all natural leaders; spying on prisoners, reporting back private 
material; exploitation of opportunists and informers; convincing 
prisoners they can trust no one; systematic withholding of mail; 
building a group conviction among prisoners that they have been 
abandoned by or are totally isolated from their social order; using 
techniques of character invalidation, i.e. humiliation, revilement and 
shouting to induce feelings of fear, guilt and suggestibility; coupled 
with sleeplessness, an exacting prison regimen and periodic 
interrogational interviews. /

/So-called 'brainwashing' strategies that involved physical as well as 
psychological abuse were being adopted from international arenas and 
applied inside U.S. prisons. Now, in 2011, similar strategies, honed in 
Marion and its progeny, are being employed around the world in the 'war 
against terrorism.' /

*/(end of direct quote)/*

The lines between domestic and foreign are becoming increasingly 
blurred. The U.S. is now willing to assassinate American citizens in its 
war on terror. The planned new prison in Illinois which will house a 
control unit that was blocked for a while by a Republican who feared 
foreign 'terrorists' would be housed there.

The so-called "criminal justice system" is really another manifestation 
of militarism. It's frightening to think of how many jobs in our society 
are tied to either the military or to prisons, and how that shapes 
peoples' mentality.

*_A3N:_* /About publishing the book, you write that "if current and 
future activists who stand in opposition to what Malcolm X called the 
'American nightmare' can benefit from reading this and can move ahead 
with some greater insight and effectiveness, then it was all worth it." 
What lessons did you learn that can be applied to today's growing 
movement opposing solitary confinement in US prisons?/

*_NK:_* The underlying ideology has to be challenged because if that 
doesn't change, the rulers will tweak this or that to their 
conveniences, they may make some small changes, or even do the right 
thing at any given moment, for the wrong reason. But things will revert 
toward repression.

Also, studies don't necessarily change things. Pressure, both legal and 
activist, does. Hearings can be a step in the right direction but they 
can also be a smokescreen to lull people into believing something is 
being done. Or they can be a rubber stamp for some negative 
developments. For instance, the BOP has apparently just recently agreed 
to undergo a "comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of 
solitary confinement in the nation's federal prisons." The assessment 
will reportedly be oriented toward reducing the population of 
"segregated" prisoners. It is to be conducted by the National Institute 
of Corrections, an agency of the BOP! That is something to be watched, 
but skeptically.

Listen to prisoners. Trust what they tell you about prison conditions. 
Support their efforts to change their situation. Help their voices reach 
the outside world.

Work with everyone who is willing. We don't have to all agree but we 
have to respect each other. Do not let the authorities demonize some 
activists and bestow accolades on others. That is the old divide and rule.

*_A3N:_* /With this insight in mind, let's take a closer look at the 
recent work 
Senator Dick Durbin 
from your home state of Illinois, which you mentioned earlier. The past 
hearings and upcoming review may present as an opportunity to make 
prison authorities at least somewhat more accountable. Strategically 
speaking, how can anti-solitary activists best use this moment?/

I don't mean to be writing off Durbin. Those kinds of allies are 
important. The pressure he has brought to bear with these hearings seems 
great, and certainly the reduction in the number of prisoners being held 
in solitary is important. I just don't know why Durbin has to support a 
Control Unit in the planned new federal prison in Illinois. I would 
encourage people to question him about that.

I once talked to both Rep. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin 
when he was no longer in office and Rep. Pat Schroeder who was still in 
office at the time, and they both described how difficult it is to take 
decent stands on criminal justice issues. Schroeder pointed out that 
even nighttime basketball was a difficult sell, let alone issues 
regarding Control Units.

So I think it's important for people to keep pushing. Don't lay back and 
expect the politicians to stick their necks out with no backup. They 
will not. But when you find an ally, work them him or her. Allies like 
that don't come along that often. We couldn't have gotten the toxic 
water changed at Marion without Kastenmeier's assistance.

Just keep pushing and don't compromise your own principles.

*/--Angola 3 News is a project of the International Coalition to Free 
the Angola 3. Our website is www.angola3news.com where we provide the 
latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media 
projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 
3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement 
as torture, and more./*

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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