Out of Control: A 15-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons
by Nancy Kurshan
Freedom Archives, 2013
web book available here
"All human activity is collective - a combination of the work and inspiration shaped by those who came before us and those who labor with us." - Nancy Kurshan
Nancy Kurshan does an excellent job of highlighting the significance of a 15-year struggle of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) from 1985-2000. This struggle was initiated to end the lockdown at Marion Federal Prison, located in the state of Illinois, which morphed into one of Amerikkka's earliest and most notorious control units and isolation-based torture chambers. At its core, the book illustrates countless examples of mutual aid and cooperation, along with emphasizing the importance of having clearly established goals and objectives that can be reasonably achieved.
As with any struggle that is geared towards movement building, CEML began with the idea of a few individuals; founding members Nancy Kurshan, Jan Susler, and Steve Whitman initially just wanted to educate the people by exposing to the public the systemic practices of social, political, economic and racial injustices that are inherent in the prison system, and how these contradictions impact and affect our communities. It wasn't long before their work took on a life of its own, that was molded by their relentless strategical planning and organizing.
Unbeknownst to many in society, solitary confinement units were originally modeled after the diabolical techniquest of the mad scientist, Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT. He provided a blueprint on how to break and brainwash the Chinese prisoners of war in his book Coercive Persuasion. Nancy Kurshan excerpts a passage from Schein's article "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."(p. 12)
This history gives relevant context to the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation's (CDCR) gang validation policies/practices, and in particular to CDCRs newly-created step-down program (SDP). The SDP is where we prisoners have been targeted and persecuted with the same purpose and objectives that Schein had in mind — to break and brainwash us! It must be noted that Pelican Bay's counter-intelligence unit (Institution Gang Investigators — IGI), has successfully destroyed the only real outside support I had. They falsely accused my beloved lil sista of promoting gang activity via a letter she sent me to tell me that Black Panther Party members were going to be attending and supporting a community event that was being held on my behalf to raise awareness about my status as a political prisoner and forthcoming parole board hearing.
Instrumental in CEML's successful grassroots organizing were several key factors:
1) They made a point of not just jumping into activities but rather committed fully to doing the groundwork necessary to make events successful. This allowed them to preserve and maximize their limited resources. For example, they would initiate plans 3, 6, or 12 months in advance, containing specific objectives that they wanted to achieve in their line of work.
2) Their collaborative work with political prisoners such as Sundiata Acoli, Oscar López Rivera, Alejandrina Torres, Bill Dunne, Safiya Bukhari, Hanif Shabazz Bey, Carlos A. Torres, Silvia Baraldini, and Susan Rosenberg, which later included the prisoners who were also being subjected to various human rights abuses. CEML members were able to learn first hand of the contradictions that plagued Marion Prison and others like it, thus equipping CEML with the necessary tools to achieve their objectives, while providing substantive support to prisoners. Pivotal in this exchange was CEML including the prisoners in the decision-making process when strategizing for a particular action and/or a community event.
3) CEML understood the importance of having organizational infrastructure. They constantly distributed pamphlets, leaflets, flyers, brochures, and other propaganda-based materials via the workshops, seminars, and study groups they held, to educate the people about their line of work. This ensured the basis of clearly-defined organizational expectations being set forth, which made it easier for CEML to receive support from the community.
4) CEML did not limit the focus of their primary objective to just ending the lockdown at Marion; they also instituted additional campaigns that became interconnected to their pursuits. For example, the prisoners at Marion were being forced to drink, shower, and wash themselves in toxic, polluted water. The exposure of this contradiction brought about outrage from the environmentalists, and allowed CEML to forge a united front with them.
And so I close with a clenched fist salute to Nancy Kurshan and the entire CEML staff for a job well done - but more importantly, for having the wherewithal to share their struggle and life experiences with the people. I urge people to read and study Nancy Kurshan's book Out of Control and build upon the framework that she has provided us. The book is available online at: www.freedomarchives.org.
CLASS="no-indent">MIM(Prisons) adds: We agree with this writer about the value for activists in the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown's (CEML) summary of their 15-year history. Out of Control provides valuable historical documents and analysis on the development of control unit prisons in the United $tates and their use for social control, as well as organizing lessons from fifteen years of CEML activism dedicated to fighting the torture units. By linking to historical documents, the online version of this book provides a particularly useful resource and should serve as an example to other activists about the importance of not just doing our organizing work, but of documenting and summing up our lessons for the future. (Quotations below will reference chapter numbers because the online book does not have page numbers.)
In this book we learn that CEML was the original source for some of the critical statistics we still use today about the disparity in incarceration of New Afrikan people in the United $tates. And based on their correct understanding of the use of prisons as a tool of social control targeting oppressed nations, and the use of control units to target revolutionary activists, CEML correctly predicted the dramatic expansion of the prison population and of control unit prisons. CEML's analysis of the criminal injustice system in the United $tates lines up well with our own:
"[W]e realized that there was virtually no connection between crime and imprisonment. Rather, imprisonment was being used as a method of social control for the most rebellious segments of society, in this case Black people and other people of color.
"We reasoned and asserted that just as prisons were to control rebellion in society, control unit prisons were to control other prisons, and that the 'holes' or 'boxes' within control unit prisons were used to control control unit prisons, etc. Just boxes stuffed in boxes."(ch. 29)
CEML was initiated by Nancy Kurshan and others, coming out of movements such as the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. Kurshan summarizes their view on organizing: "In our corner of the movement, we felt we had a particular responsibility to organize other white people to fight racism and injustice."(ch. 4) MIM(Prisons) agrees with some of the theory behind this approach, in particular the idea of focusing on the needs and goals of oppressed nations' struggles for self-determination within the United $tates. Kurshan writes: "We thought it was important not to compete with the self-organization of people of color, and everything we did was in close consultation with activists in those communities. In addition, we tried to support the agendas that were developed by those activists."(ch. 4) Kurshan goes too far into identity politics in some of her statements, as it is critically important not to abdicate leadership to others simply based on their nationality, but rather to look for correct political line. However, the real problem with this idea of organizing white people to fight racism and injustice was found in CEML's incorrect analysis (or lack of analysis) of classes within the United $tates. Talking about "racism" rather than "national oppression" is indicative of this mistake.
The United $tates is a society based on national oppression with the white nation in power and the oppressed nations facing dramatic disparities in education, housing, income and of course imprisonment. Further, the United $tates is a wealthy imperialist country where the vast majority of citizens enjoy class privilege. And so when we look at who we want to organize we need to first understand what their class and national interests are in the status quo. Those suffering national oppression have an interest in changing the status quo but they still benefit from class privilege just by virtue of their U.$. citizenship. And those benefiting from national oppression (the predominantly white Amerikan nation), and enjoying wealth from the exploitation of the global proletariat, have a strong class and national interest in upholding the status quo including the oppressive criminal injustice system.
And so strategies like the one CEML undertook in Tamms, Illinois to organize the community incorrectly tried to pose the opposition to the prison in the economic interests of the community members: "When it looked like the small southern Illinois town of Tamms might be the site of the new control unit prison, Erica, Leila, and Joey traveled to Tamms to speak with members of the community regarding the nefarious nature of these control units. They distributed literature debunking the notion that the prison would provide locals with an economic shot in the arm."(ch. 22) In reality prisons often provide economic help for the communities where they are built in the form of new jobs and spending. We should take on the nefarious nature of control units without misrepresenting the economics of prisons and the interests of those employed or potentially employed by the prisons. In 2013 Tamms was closed for budget reasons and the guard's labor union delayed the closure with a lawsuit allegedly over safety concerns.
Kurshan explains CEML enjoyed only small victories while facing defeats in all of their larger goals. Our understanding of national oppression within the United $tates helps us see why we are unlikely to win big victories for the oppressed while the imperialists are still in control. Further, CEML put too much faith in their ability to impact Congress, although CEML did recognize that politicians would not take action without outside pressure:
"Our focus on Congress was never exclusive, because we realized that only through grassroots activism — people in the streets — could we hope to get any action from the politicians on these issues. We had to build a movement of people to challenge the dominant ideology regarding imprisonment."(ch. 21)
Ultimately to win this battle against control units and the criminal injustice system we will need to dismantle the capitalist economic system itself. CEML did not put their work in that context and so were not pushing forward the important work of building towards communist revolution. Only with a dictatorship of the proletariat in power will we be able to make fundamental changes to Amerika's injustice system.