UNLOCK THE BOX! CONFERENCE BUILDS STRUGGLE TO SHUT DOWN CONTROL UNITS
Activists representing numerous organizations, former prisoners and family members came from across California to attend an organizing conference on control units in U$ prisons hosted by the United Front to Abolish the Security Housing Units (SHU).
Experience with promoting the event only underscored the need to have better access to independent media. We salute Indybay.org and their Enemy Combatant Radio program for promoting Unlock the Box. However, MIM Notes was the only newspaper advertising the conference. The larger alternative papers in the area prioritized their free listing space to things like nudists for peace and the Exotic Erotic Ball blood drive. Although organizers had a hard time getting mainstream or even alternative media to advertise the conference, it was featured on KPFA’s 6 o’clock news that evening in a piece that included interviews with MIM and RAIL activists.
The day long conference opened with an overview of prisons and control units by a MIM activist, some poetry and essays by a prisoner, and a rousing speech from a member of the Barrio Defense Committee who talked about the classification of her son into the SHU for his organizing work.
The MIM activist placed control units in the context of the criminal injustice system as a whole. This country has the highest imprisonment rate in the world with more than 2 million people in prison. As of December 2002 the imprisonment rate was 701 per 100,000 people. The numbers become even more frightening when broken down by race:
- Whites: 353 per 100,000
- Latinos: 895 per 100,000
- Blacks: 2,470 per 100,000
South Africa under Apartheid was internationally condemned as a racist society. But the United $tates makes the Apartheid regime look good when you consider that the imprisonment rate of Black adult men in South Africa in 1993 was 851 per 100,000 while the imprisonment rate of Black adult men in the United $tates under George Bu$h in 2002 was 7,150 per 100,000.
But even with all these people locked up in prison, statistics show clearly that prisons don’t stop crime. As imprisonment has increased since the 1970s, government defined criminal activity has remained relatively stable. So why all the prisoners? The answer is social control. Prisons are a tool of social control.
The problem the imperialists have with using prisons as a tool of social control is that they have also become a breeding ground for resistance of the very system they were meant to enforce. Within prison, people completely uneducated and politically unaware are put in a position that encourages them to think about the system that locked them up. Extreme repression, overt racism, slave labor, mail censorship, and in many cases imprisonment of innocent people are among the realities they face. In general population (where prisoners interact with one another on a daily basis) there is the opportunity to discuss this system with others and to organize resistance.
The uprising in Attica prison in 1971 was a good example of this organized resistance that prisoners were able to pull off because of their interactions with one another. The system fears this kind of organizing and needs a tool within the prisons to stop prisoner activists from educating and organizing others.
Better defined as a prison within a prison, control units are used to defeat prisoners’ revolutionary attitudes, organization, militancy, legal and administrative challenges, and anything else the prison administrators deem objectionable.
A past warden of Marion IL, one of CONFERENCE BUILDS CONTROL UNIT STRUGGLE the first Control Unit prisons, stated: "The purpose of the Marion control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in society at large." This is exactly what control units are used for.
Control units have serious mental and physical health consequences for prisoners locked in them. Fundamentally they are a form of torture. A prisoner in the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay prison in California, described his conditions in August of this year: "I am currently housed "indefinitely" in this prisons’ Security Housing Unit (the SHU), which is an old typical isolation unit. It’s a unique and stark environment of physical limits, visual sterileness and sensory deprivation. I live in a 8-by-12 ‘windowless’ cell nearly around the clock. There are no jobs, programs or human contact of any kind. Once a day, my remote controlled cell door slowly grinds open allowing 60 minutes alone in a near-by walled in courtyard which is nothing more that a larger cell than the one I already live in."
A member of the Chicano Mexicano Prison Project spoke at the conference, focusing on prisons as a tool of national oppression. In California, Mexican prisoners make up an overwhelming portion of those locked up in Security Housing Units. This is not an accident; it is a direct result of the criminal injustice system targeting oppressed nations. In 1998 (most recent statistics available) the CDC reported that 34% of the population in all CDC institutions was Latino, and 31% was Black. 82% of those in SHUs were non-white, and 52% of those in SHUs were Latino. This compares to a California population that was 32% Latino, and 7% Black in 1998. Half of all SHU victims are put there via a classification system based on supposed evidence of gang membership. Under this system, signing a "get well" card, talking to another prisoner in the yard, or even just speaking Spanish can get you classified as a gang member. They also use confidential informants who have a strong incentive to make up evidence to get themselves released from the SHU. Prisoners cannot challenge this information.
In a recent issue of MIM Notes one prisoner in California wrote:
My ethnicity is Hispanic. When I arrived in the DOC I was asked by a C.O. if I was ‘a Northern Hispanic or Southern Hispanic.’ I said ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ Then I was asked what city I was from. I stated Salinas, CA. It was then that I was classified as a Northern Hispanic. Now I’m labeled as a Northerner, which is a gang member from the prison/street gang Norteños. At that particular point in time I had no idea what that was or what I was about to experience behind these walls. The Southern Hispanics are classified/labeled Sureños, another prison/ street gang. The DOC [Department of Corrections] currently has the Northern and Southern Hispanics on a 24 hour, 7 day a week lockdown. We are getting no visits from our families, no exercise outside our cells, and no State-issued hygiene.
A speaker from the Revolutionary Anti- Imperialist League made connections between the war on gangs within U$ borders and the so-called war on terrorism the United $tates is waging all over the world. This comrade stressed the connections between comrades struggling against control units in the United $tates and the outrage in the Middle East about prisons like Abu Ghraib. (See Shutting Down Control Units and the World Revolution.)
A member of the African People’s Socialist Party gave an inspirational talk about the importance of fighting to shut down the Security Housing Units as a part of the fight to dismantle the entire oppressive system of imperialism, stressing organization and consistent work. The United Front to Abolish the SHU has been doing monthly protests around California for almost two years now. The effect is that people are getting to know us and know what we are trying to do and we are laying the groundwork for a potentially powerful movement.
The afternoon was spent in break out groups where conference participants worked together on action plans to work with prisoners, work with family members of prisoners, and organize actions to shut down the control units.
The working groups came up with a number of concrete action plans with volunteers to work on each idea. One topic that came up in all of the working groups was the need to help people visit family members, friends and comrades in prisons. This work helps the families while also helping prisoners stay sane and giving us a way to reach out to people on the outside by filling a need in the community. Comrades in California who are interested in such a program for themselves or their family should get in touch. The United Front also hopes to come out with a newsletter for prisoners and their allies on the outside that would provide information about how to fight the injustice system, resources upon release, legal aid and recent changes in the system.
In addition, volunteers made plans for future demonstrations and petition drives using more creative tactics. Finally, we are following up with the conference and building on these plans on November 5th, with a meeting from 11-2pm in San Francisco at 2955 18th Street and a rally to follow.