September 14th Statement On Solitary Confinement
Statement to September 14, 2012 New York rally against mass incarceration, solitary confinement and for closing Attica prison
Brothers and Sisters! Mis Hermanos y Hermanas! Comrades!
Thank you all for coming together here.
You may think that you know something about solitary, but you don’t. You may have a loved one in prison who has experienced it, and told you about it.
But still, I say, you don’t know it.
You know the word; but between word and the reality, a world exists.
You don’t know that world.
But the closest we may come is to say it must be like life on another planet. One where the air is different; where the water is different, where wildlife and flora and fauna mean different things.
For, as you know the word torture, you don’t know how it feels.
For solitary is torture.
Official torture. Government sanctioned torture.
Some may call that hyperbole, or exaggeration.
But I’ve lived in solitary longer than many—most, perhaps—Americans have been alive.
I’ve seen men driven mad as a hatter by soul crushing loneliness. Who have sliced their arms until they looked like railroad tracks; or burned themselves alive.
This isn’t something I’ve read about in psychology books, or newspaper reports.
I’ve seen it with these eyes with which I write these words. I’ve smelled the blood. I’ve smelled the nauseating stench of the smoke.
Why? Because human beings are social creatures and solitary confinement kills that which is human within us.
Why did these men do these things (to themselves)?
We can’t really know, but if I could guess I’d say they simply wanted to feel. To feel something. To feel as if they were alive.
I’ve seen men beaten while handcuffed; shocked with Tasers and electrified shields; and gassed with pepper spray—really a form of liquid cayenne pepper, which inflames the eyes, nasal passages and mouth.
As America embarks on its second century of mass incarceration, breaking every repressive record ever made, it’s also breaking every record in regards to solitary confinement: locking up, isolating and torturing more and more people, for more and more years.
As I’ve noted elsewhere (in my Live from Death Row (1995), for example); in 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Medley, Petitioner, 134 U.S. 1601, held that solitary confinement for a man on Colorado’s death row was unconstitutional. In a sense, over a century later, the law has lurched backwards!
Today, such an idea would be laughable, if not unthinkable.
According to some estimates, there are over 100,000 people in solitary across the country (I happen to believe this is a conservative estimate). But no matter the number, the reality is stark: under international law—solitary confinement is torture.
And if it happens to one man, one woman—one child—it is torture nonetheless, and a crime under international law; or, put another way, the law of nations.
That’s because such a policy has one primary purpose—to destroy human beings, by destroying their minds.
Is it cruel and unusual, and thus violates the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Apparently this was so in the 1890s, but not so in the present, probably because of who was in prison then—and who are now.
It may surprise you to know that at the end of the nineteenth century, Blacks were a distinct minority of American prisoners, and while numbers certainly swelled post-slavery (to build the prison-contract-labor industry—really slavery by another name), the biggest bounce in Black imprisonment came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, when Black people, en masse, opposed the system of white supremacy, police brutality and racist juries.
And then—The Empire strikes back!
Indeed, never in the history of the modern world have we seen such a vast machinery of repression, and the U.S. is the world’s undisputed leader in imprisonment of its citizens.
Neither China, Russia nor any other nation comes close.
As scholar/law professor Michelle Alexander had aptly described it, the U.S. has reconstituted the “New Jim Crow.”
And as prison populations explode, the law becomes increasingly more supportive of this repression, and less tolerant of the notion of equal rights, or even equal access to courts.
These factors have continued to be problems irrespective of whether under Republican or Democratic administrations.
For, repression is apparently bipartisan.
But all is not gloom and doom.
People have the power to transform their grim realities.
All they have to do is fight for it.
When people get together—and fight together—they create change.
They make change.
If you want to shut down solitary confinement, you can do it.
You’ve got to organize—and fight for it.
If you find the prison industrial complex intolerable, then organize—and fight it.
This is not Pollyannaish, or pie in the sky.
This is as gritty and as down to earth as spinach.
It’s as real as dirt. As real as steel. As real as blood. As real as life.
Whenever any social advance has happened it’s because people fought for it. Often, against their own governments, for governments ever embrace the status quo.
During the U.S. Civil War, one of Lincoln’s severest critics was Frederick Douglass, the fiery Black ex-slave and abolitionist.
When Lincoln died a few years later, Douglass would both mourn his passing and laud his accomplishments.
It was Douglass who said: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and never will.”
That lesson of our Ancestor is still true.
We must demand what we want—and fight for it!
If we want the closing of solitary confinement, we can make it happen.
If we want people like Delbert Africa, Mike Africa, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, Janet Africa, Phil Africa, Janine Africa, Chuck Africa, Leonard Peltier, Jalil Muntaqim, Ed Africa, or Dr. Mutulu Shakur freed, we can make it happen.
Really. Truly. But we gotta fight for it.
Movements make change.
So let us build such a movement, that it shakes the earth!
Don’t rely on voting, for politics is but the cruel art of betrayal.
Rely on working together and fighting for change.
For “Power concedes nothing without demand!”
Build the Movement!
Let us go forth and make the change we want, for we are the hope of more people than we know—and People make change!
Long Live John Africa!
“Power Concedes Nothing Without Demand!”
Down With Solitary!
Shut Attica Down!
Down with the Prison Industrial Complex!
—PrisonRadio.org, September 5, 2012