Odyssey of a Prisoner-Advocate
From Virginia to Texas
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is a prisoner-journalist, political organizer, and advocate. In their attempt to silence him, prison authorities have had him transferred across the country and back again. At each station along the way, he has been subject to abuse from prison staff.
For several years now, Rashid has worked as the main public organizer of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, a small Marxist-Leninist group most of whose members are to be found behind bars. He has also lent his talents to various progressive political movements as an artist, and is a prolific writer on a variety of subjects ranging from Black Nationalism to economics to dialectical materialist philosophy. But if anything has provoked the powers that be, it is Rashid’s documenting of abuse, of beatings and starvation and medical neglect and the mundane cruelty that plays out between captor and captive every day in jails and prisons across America.
From 1995 to 2012, Rashid was held in various degrees of solitary confinement in Virginia, at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion State Prisons. Through clandestine correspondence with other prisoners, he worked to educate his peers while also reaching out to activists on the outside. Many of the notes he passed back and forth with others during this time would form the basis of the book, Defying the Tomb, published in 2010.
In 2011, Rashid wrote a series of articles about a new isolation unit being opened at Red Onion, and about ongoing guard abuse that included a “pain-compliance technique” that involves bending prisoners’ fingers backwards, to the point that they would sometimes break. At the same time, he became well known as the artist who drew the drawing that would serve as an unofficial logo for the historic California hunger strikes that year. When guards retaliated by beating Rashid, dislocating his shoulder and tearing his dreadlocks out from his scalp, outside supporters attempted to mobilize to protect him, while calling attention to the abuses he had been documenting for years. In an attempt to pre-empt an embarrassing situation, the Virginia Department of Corrections had Rashid first transferred to Wallens Ridge—where he was openly told by guards that they intended to kill him—and then, in mid-February 2012, he was moved once again; his new destination: Oregon.
Rashid was moved under the auspices of the Interstate Compact Agreement, an accord between different states that allows them to transfer prisoners to one another. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2006 publication, “Interstate Transfer of Prison Inmates in the United States,” this is generally done to alleviate overcrowding, but also to “reduce the risk [prisoners] pose to the safety and security of their facility operations,” to provide “post-incident or disturbance cool-down,” and “to manage cases of conflict between staff and inmates.” Some states make greater use of the ICA, for instance, in 2005 California had over 500 prisoners being held out-of-state. That same year, at the other extreme, Virginia had only three.
In Oregon, Rashid was released from solitary for the first time in 17 years. The hope was perhaps that this would induce him to be silent, to go along with Oregon’s passing its prisons off as liberal exceptions to the repressive American norm. It did not take long, however, before it became clear that this would not happen, as Rashid began “stirring up trouble” by violating the unwritten rules about different “races” of prisoners not mixing, engaging outright white supremacists in conversation and attempting to win them over to the view that they had more in common with prisoners from the oppressed nations than with their jailers.
Rashid was on an inevitable collision course with the Oregon Department of Corrections, just as he had been in Virginia. In late 2012 he was transferred from the “liberal” Oregon State Penitentiary to the beaver state’s Intensive Management Unit, at the Snake River Correctional Institution.
Located on the Idaho border, the Snake River IMU is a gradated isolation unit, where prisoners are held in conditions ranging from strict isolation, to being able to spend some time with one another in common areas, all depending on their compliance with the prison rules and their “progress” as judged by prison psychiatrists and case officers. As such, each prisoner lives in conditions micromanaged by guards, administrators, and mental health professionals, all with the goal of turning them into someone they are not. Such coercive control constitutes an assault on the psychological integrity of inmates, all in an attempt to reframe solitary confinement in therapeutic terms, as acknowledged by prison officials.
Rashid’s time in Snake River was anything but uneventful. On February 2 he was the victim of drugging by another prisoner, who apparently thought this would be a harmless “prank” to play. The result was a medical crisis that was met with derision, ridicule, and neglect from prison authorities. It was only the mobilization of outside pressure that finally forced Snake River to provide some assistance to a man in serious distress and at risk of dying—for in his altered state, Rashid had swallowed pieces of a broken razor blade, and was subsequently terrified to eat lest food cause the blade to cut him internally. It was nineteen days before he agreed to resume eating, during which time he had to fight to remain under medical observation, despite the fact that he was suffering constant severe abdominal and kidney pains, and was discharging blood in his urine daily. To add insult to injury, the prison administrators took this as an opportunity to classify the entire ordeal as a disciplinary violation, returning Rashid to the conditions of most restrictive isolation, even denying him access to his books or mail from supporters.
Throughout this period, Rashid continued to write, penning multiple reports on conditions at Snake River, the attempted suicides he learned of, and the Orwellian conditions prisoners are subject to in the behavior modification unit. At the same time, with the help of a Portland lawyer who had become involved during the February health crisis, he prepared to file a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections.
As a result of this ongoing activism, in June, Rashid was once again transferred. Oregon had clearly had enough. If the “liberal” carrot had not worked, time to resort to the “redneck” stick. Rashid’s new destination: Texas.
Back to solitary
Rashid arrived in Huntsville, Texas on June 14. In no time at all he found himself in an altercation with guards who insisted on shaving off his dreadlocks. While they managed to get their way, Rashid’s physical resistance was used as an excuse to return him to solitary, this time in the Estelle Unit, where the physical abuse continued.
“Soon as I got here I’m met by another goon squad, then cuffed behind and leg shackled after a strip search. They then took me into an office where the Assistant Warden Wayne Brewer, Major David Forrest and Captain James A. McKee were. When I properly asked Brewer who he was, he barked ‘shut up motherfucker. I’m doing the talking!’ I was then immediately attacked by Forrest and McKee who repeatedly choked and hit me in the face and head, while Brewer went into a tirade of curses and threats to ‘break’ me, ‘kill’ me, etc. When I could breathe I just talked shit back. When they got tired, I was kicked out of the office and taken to a cell by the goon squad, with an injured throat and swollen left jaw. All requests for medical care have been ignored.”
As a result of this beating, Rashid was brought up on disciplinary charges; despite the fact that he indicated that he wished to attend this hearing, he was not allowed to do so. Furthermore, McKee presided as the hearings officer, and so somewhat predictably the guard who had been involved in the altercation found Rashid guilty. McKee similarly presided over Rashid’s security housing committee hearing to determine whether he would remain in solitary. At the next such committee hearing it was Forrest who followed suit. (In case it needs to be added, both men ruled that Rashid should remain in solitary.)
Not surprisingly in a situation where guards act with such impunity, the abuse has continued. Shortly after his transfer into solitary, Rashid asked for the rationale behind constant cell checks—several times throughout the night—which were clearly intended to induce sleep deprivation:
Their response was to tell me they were frequently searching me “because we can,” and used my questioning them as an excuse to attempt to escalate the situation to where force would be justified. [Sergeant Kyle] Nash summoned lieutenant Patrick Eady to the cell who stated outright that they were going to “do this the hard way,” and I’m “not going to like it.” He told the guards to “go suit up,” i.e., put on riot armor, and that he wanted them to take me into the back of the cell and “beat on” me. I’d never refused to submit to the search, only questioned it, so when they returned in riot armor, I went through the strip search, was handcuffed behind and brought out of the cell. At that point, I narrated all that had occurred and Eady’s stated intentions for an audio-video camera that was present and presumably recording. I also stated my need to see medical staff for injuries to my face and throat resulting from the assault on me in the office. Following the search, I was taken inside the cell—out of view of the camera—laid on the floor in back of the cell and hit and kicked in the face and head, which I narrated for the camera to pick up.
Places like the Red Onion, Snake River IMU, and the Estelle Unit exist because they are a logical and inevitable outcome of a society where systemic violence (poverty, racism, colonialism) remains unchecked, and where social control is maintained through both broad-spectrum pre-emptive repression (i.e., the drug war) as well as more selective targeted attacks (i.e., to neutralize “troublemakers.”) It is not surprising that the same violence that prisons maintain in society can also be found in distilled form on the other side of the bars. As Chad Landrum, a revolutionary prisoner in California, has noted, “The prison system is a concentrated expression—a microcosm—of the class, racial, and gender contradictions, symptomatic of capitalist society...”
If places like these “have to” exist in a society like ours, that sorry fact provides a strong argument that we “have to” oppose not only prisons, but also the social system that depends on them. As a communist and a prison activist, Rashid is involved in this struggle. He is deeply committed to making the world a better place, and his political activism is firmly rooted in solidarity with and love for oppressed people everywhere. It is his tireless—and dangerous—work exposing prison abuses and speaking up on behalf of other prisoners that has made him a target from one end of the country to the other.
What can we do?
In early August, Rashid was transferred out of Estelle, to the “super-segregation” Clements Unit. While supporters can only hope that this will indicate an improvement in conditions, the past years’ experiences in prisons across the country offer little cause for optimism.
At this point, the priority is that Rashid receive his personal property, which has still not made it to Texas even months after his transfer from Oregon. This property is necessary for his legal action against the Oregon Department of Corrections, and so the prisoncrats have ample reason to want it to get misplaced.
The Virginia Department of Corrections remains responsible for Rashid’s wellbeing, as well as for making sure he received his property. Rashid is a Virginia prisoner, and his exile to Texas and Oregon before it are clearly the result of VDOC’s ongoing abuse of prisoners, and the role Rashid has played in bringing it to light. Indeed, as mentioned previously, Virginia only sends a very small number of prisoners out of state, so Rashid has clearly been targeted in a very personal way.
Contact the Virginia Interstate Compact Coordinator and inform them that Kevin Johnson has still not received his property from Oregon. Demand to know why. Furthermore, let them know that you are very concerned about his wellbeing, as he was repeatedly assaulted by staff while at the Estelle Unit:
Virginia Interstate Compact Coordinator Terry Glenn, (804) 887-7866.
Please send copies of all protest emails, or reports on your phone calls, to email@example.com
For more information about Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, check out his website at rashidmod.com
Or write him a letter:
Kevin Johnson #1859887
9601 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107
Make sure a first and last name are clearly printed in the return address section of the envelope or your mail will be returned.
Karl Kersplebedeb is based in Montreal, he has been involved in supporting prisoners’ struggles for over twenty years. Through Kersplebedeb Publishing, he also published Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s book Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin Rashid Johnson featuring exchanges with an Outlaw.
A longer version of this article first appeared on the website, Truthout:
—Via Email, August 21, 2013