Why Are US Prisoners On Strike?

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Prison Bars

Throughout the summer, we’ve watched in horror as multiple wildfires across the globe burned their way through villages, towns and surrounding areas. Strong winds quickly spread wildfires in Greece forcing people to flee into the safety of the sea and an estimated 94 people lost their lives. Thanks to two dry summers, wildfires ripped through Sweden and jolted fire departments used to dealing with summer barbecue fires into life. In the British Columbia territory of Canada, this year’s wildfires are now the second worst in the region’s history - narrowly beaten by last year’s fires - and in early August a fire in California doubled in size making it the worst blaze in the state’s history.

As fire departments in various countries struggle to extinguish the flames and limit their reach multiple resources have been provided by various allied nations. Sweden received military assistance from France as well as water bombing equipment from Italy and additional firefighters from Germany, Denmark and Poland. Italy, along with Romania, Spain and Croatia dispatched firefighting planes to Greece while Macedonia offered financial help. The United States requested experienced firefighters from Australia and New Zealand to help tackle the Californian wildfires but they are also using other resources much closer to home in the form of more than 2000 prisoners including 58 youth offenders.

Inmates assisting in firefighting efforts are not a new thing in the state of California. In 1945, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) expanded forced labour camps to include firefighting. In order to qualify for the current inmate firefighting programme inmates must have a “minimum custody” sentence, must not be convicted of crimes such as arson or rape, must have no active warrants and should have no medical issues. Each inmate is individually assessed to ensure they will be team players and will not engage in any violence.

Their roles are to cut bush and trees to reduce the spread of fire as well as maintain hiking trails and clear flood channels and storm drains. In exchange for their services, they are paid $2 a day and $1 an hour if fighting an active fire; they can also have time cut from their sentences. Such a low wage isn’t uncommon for inmates regardless of what job they’re doing - the average wage is 14 cents an hour- and this wage combined with other factors have resulted in a call for prisoners to strike from August 21st until September 9th.

The dates for this year’s prison strike are no coincidence as September 9th marks 47 years since the Attica Prison takeover in Attica, New York. The Attica takeover was a result of inmates becoming increasingly frustrated with starvation, overcrowding and a distinct lack of medical care that they were forced to endure while serving their sentence. Prior to the takeover, a group called the Attica Liberation Faction provided a list of demands to the commissioner of prisons.

The demands were simple: the inmates wanted better working and living conditions along with a change in medical aid but the state of New York chose to ignore the list and punished anyone in possession of it with 60 days in solitary confinement and tightened up prison conditions. Despite the requests being ignored the inmates were not discouraged and eventually found the opportunity to take over the prison and hold guards hostage. Officers were on the scene from day one but negotiations quickly broke down and by day five the order was given: take back Attica Prison from the inmates regardless of how you have to do it. 

In the 30 minutes that followed the order 128 men were shot and 29 prisoners were killed. Those that did survive the extreme brutality - which included being forced to crawl through glass while naked, have lime juice squeezed into their wounds and being forced into drinking officers’ urine - were denied medical attention.

While the Attica takeover ended with multiple casualties the current prison strike is using peaceful methods to make their cause known. Inmates in at least 17 states are refusing to work, going on hunger-strike, holding sit-ins and are staging a boycott of commissaries. Collectively, the inmates are striking for a list of 10 demands put forward by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak but each prison can put forward their own demands as and when they see fit. The 10 demands are:

- State prisons to receive more funding to provide better rehabilitation programmes
- The end to denying imprisoned humans access to rehabilitation programmes
- Immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing and parole denials for people of colour and an end to people of colour being denied parole if the victim/s of the crime are white (a particular problem in southern states)
- Immediate improvements to the overall conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognise the humanity in imprisoned men and women
- Rescinding of the Prison Litigation Reform Act allowing inmates a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
- An immediate end to prison slavery. Inmates must be paid the minimum wage of their state or territory for their labour
- Pell grants to be reinstated in all US states and territories
- Rescinding of The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act so incarcerated humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting people of colour
- Voting rights to be reinstated for all US citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees and so-called “felons”

Despite the demands being reasonable requests and the strikes largely remaining peaceful the punishments inmates are facing for their pleas remains in line with American’s long history of physical and mental torture of incarcerated individuals. Inmates organising the strikes have been placed in solitary confinement, are denied clean clothes and a shower and have been transferred to a different prison entirely. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group officers are now threatening to obtain a court order to force feed inmates who are currently on hunger-strike. In a system designed to provide punishment over rehabilitation and freedom of expression these unfair and immoral disciplinary acts are not unexpected.

While prisons are doing everything they can to keep information about the strikes from travelling to the outside world communication is being maintained by activists and sympathisers. Acts of solidarity including fireworks being set off outside a juvenile detention centre, marchers banging drums, banner drops and graffiti in support of the strikes have been carried out by members of the general public but, despite the public signs of unity, the prison strikes are mostly flying under the radar while inmates actively involved are deliberately hidden out of sight. 

Very few mainstream media outlets have reported on the strikes and the majority of outlets that have covered the strikes have only focused on the beginning. Thankfully, multiple Twitter accounts dedicated to prison rights and others that were created solely for the purpose of promoting and discussing the strikes are continuing to keep the dialogue going.

The effective denial of publicity in the mainstream media makes it very easy for the narrative to be manipulated should anyone choose to do so. In the aftermath of the Attica prison strikes, the inmates were portrayed as the sole instigators of the violence and were frustratingly denied the right to tell the stories of the heinous acts of brutality that were carried out until 2000. It wouldn’t be a shock if this happened again.

While it’s easy to forget about people incarcerated and to wonder why they should be entitled to liveable conditions and a fair wage for their labour, a true test for humanity is how we treat our most vulnerable and our perceived criminals. Are we still willing to throw all of these human beings into squalid conditions in hopes that it will turn them into productive members of society when all of the evidence says otherwise? After decades of what should be simple requests to implement and would result in positive changes in the majority of prisoners, it’s time we stop ignoring what goes on behind prison walls and realise that the current US prison system doesn’t work. How can we ever expect anyone to reform when we won’t even treat them like the human beings they are?

Should We Ban The Use Of Solitary Confinement?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Kalief Browder

If you have ever been to New York, you probably have fond memories at the top of the Empire State Building or on the ferry to Liberty Island. You’ll have strolled through Central Park, paid your respects at Ground Zero and taken in a Broadway show. If you ventured out of the city, it was to go to Niagara Falls or maybe over to Rutherford, New Jersey to watch either a NY Giants or a NY Jets football game. What you more than likely ignored was the prison located on the island between Queens and the mainland Bronx. You maybe didn’t see it; you may have thought it was nothing more than a shipping yard. What you didn’t realise was that prison is Rikers Island, a notoriously dangerous prison full of violence, inmates awaiting trial and a significant number of cells used for solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is a punishment that has been used in the western world since the 1700s. The disputed origin of solitary confinement comes from the Quakers; they believed that putting prisoners in stone cells with nothing but a Bible would help them repent, pray and find introspection. In April 1829, the United States moved forward with an experiment based on the Quakers idea of solitary confinement. The experiment was to be carried out in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and by October 1829, Charles Williams – dubbed Prisoner Number One – was sentenced to 2 years solitary confinement with labour for burglary. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the prison and described it as “the system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…” By 1913, solitary confinement was abandoned at Eastern State Penitentiary and it became a regular prison.

While Eastern State Penitentiary ended the use of solitary confinement in the early 1900s, the practice quickly spread throughout the rest of the United States and also Europe. By the 1960s, the United Kingdom was experiencing a large increase in both prisoners and the use of solitary confinement largely thanks to the Irish Republican Army and their commitment to violent resistance. Isolating prisoners from fellow inmates was supposed to stop prison violence and also help reform inmates but multiple studies into the effects of solitary confinement show that the positive impact solitary confinement was supposed to have has yet to occur.

During the 1950s, University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow placed rhesus monkeys in segregation. The monkeys were kept in a custom-designed solitary chamber with sloped sides that made escape impossible. The monkeys would start to display signs of deprivation within the first few days. They would cower in their cage, rock back and forth uncontrollably and mutilate themselves. When they were eventually allowed near fellow monkeys, they could no longer function socially and would either be scared or violent. In 1951, researchers at McGill University carried out a similar experiment on male students. They were to be kept in a small room containing nothing but a bed and were made to wear goggles, earphones and gloves to limit senses. The study was to last for 6 weeks but no participant made it beyond seven days. The majority of the male students lost the ability to think clearly about anything and some started to hallucinate.

The effects of solitary confinement on prisoners are no different to the effects it had on the rhesus monkeys or McGill University experiment participants. Prisoners subjected to isolation in small cells for 22 or 23 hours a day typically show signs of isolation syndrome; the symptoms of which include depression, anxiety, anger, paranoia, psychosis, cognitive disturbances, self-harm and suicide. Inmates start to lash out as they struggle to cope with the symptoms and some prisoners resort to cutting themselves in order to feel like they’re in control of what’s happening to them. It’s not uncommon for correction officers to extract prisoners covered in their own blood from their cells.

Despite the United Nations warning that more than 15 days in solitary confinement is torturous for inmates, plenty of countries will allow prisoners to remain in segregation for a longer period of time. England, Wales and Poland allow prisoners to remain isolated for up to 28 days, in France and Estonia it's up to 45 days and prisoners in Ireland can find themselves in solitary confinement for up to 60 days. In the United States however, very few states have a set limit for how long inmates can be held in isolation for. During a prisoner’s time in solitary confinement, the symptoms of isolation syndrome quickly set in and it is often extremely difficult for prisoners to integrate back into both general population and everyday life should they be released from prison.

When Kalief Browder was finally released from Rikers Island after spending an estimated 800 days in solitary confinement, he was extremely paranoid that people were trying to get to him and he struggled to silence the voices in his head. He had already attempted suicide multiple times while being held in solitary confinement and he tried again a few more times when he was finally released from Rikers Island. Kalief took his own life on June 6th 2015, he was 22-years-old. Richard Stahursky, an inmate held in Maine State Prison, was allowed back into general population after spending years (he believes it to be around 9 years) in solitary confinement, his mental state was too far gone for him to be able to function appropriately. Stahursky, a victim of a child abuse, stabbed a convicted child abuser 87 times before casually walking over to a corrections officer and asking to be handcuffed. Stahurksy has since been sentenced to life in prison.

Devon Davis lived in isolation for 1001 days in the North Carolina prison system. When he was finally released, he went back to a family he barely knew and struggled to adapt. He was convinced his mum was trying to poison him, he was adamant people would track the phone he was given and, after just a few weeks of being back in the outside world, he had cut his mother and brother out of his life. The only help Davis received from the justice system was in the form of $45, a month’s supply of medication and a lift to his aunt’s house.

Sadly, Browder’s, Stahursky’s and Davis’ stories are all too common. It’s estimated that 20% of prisoners in the United States suffer from a serious mental illness but inmates held in segregation are often denied appropriate medical and mental health care. Anthony Gay, a prisoner held in Tamms Correctional Center in Illinois, spent 7 years in solitary confinement and during that period, his mental health deteriorated rapidly to the point where he mutilated himself on a regular basis and even cut off his own testicle and hung it from a string on his cell door. Rather than provide the correct care for Anthony Gay, he was given a 99 year sentence for multiple assaults against guards. These assaults included throwing feces and urine which is a common occurrence for prisoners held in solitary confinement. Gay has since won the appeal to have his new sentence overturned and is eligible for release in August this year. Tamms Correctional Center closed in 2013.

In 2005, 70% of the forty-four prisoners who committed suicide in California state prisons were in solitary confinement and a 2007 study examining attempted suicide in prison showed solitary confinement is a major factor in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (Solitary Watch Fact Sheet 2011). Despite the proof, the response to mass incarceration and the violence that can ensue in prisons is to isolate prisoners perceived to be a problem and ignore them for as long as possible. While in solitary confinement, poor treatment towards inmates goes undetected. Prisoners can be starved of food and water, be repeatedly beaten and left to die by prison guards without anyone noticing.

In September 2013, Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill prisoner of Rikers Island, was kept in an isolated cell in the mental observation unit. During the week he spent alone in his cell, Ballard was denied medication and was ignored by the guards that walked passed his cell. When Ballard was finally acknowledged, he was found unconscious on the floor; he was naked, covered in his own feces and his swollen, infected genitals were tied in a rubber band. Bradley Ballard died in hospital a few hours after he was found.

Just a few months later, a homeless ex-marine Jerome Murdough was found slumped in his segregated cell also in Rikers Island. Carol Lackner, the guard on duty, had falsified reports to show she had been patrolling the area where Murdough was being held every 30 minutes. In reality, Lackner had not visited Murdough or other inmates for around 4 hours and during this period, an equipment malfunction caused Murdough’s cell to overheat. He suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was on medication that made him more sensitive to heat. Murdough literally baked to death in his cell and his family weren’t informed of his death for 30 days.

While the use of solitary confinement in U.S prisons is rampant, President Obama took some steps to address the issue. In 2016, he passed an executive action that limits how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement for a first offence, stops juvenile offenders held in federal prison from being isolated and banned isolation as punishment for low-level infractions in the federal prison system. He also introduced new measures to provide better treatment for mentally ill prisoners; something that has the potential to help around 10,000 inmates. Despite the changes, solitary confinement is still being used for situations where medical intervention would be significantly more beneficial.

Although President Obama prohibited the use of solitary confinement in certain cases, his actions do not address segregating inmates in other situations. In Tennessee, the “safekeeping” law that has virtually gone unchallenged since 1858, allows inmates awaiting trial to be transferred from county jail to state prison where they can be held in solitary confinement before going to trial. The argument for this is county jails do not have the ability to provide appropriate care for inmates suffering from mental illnesses, contagious illnesses or are pregnant. Inmates suffering from mental illnesses are supposed to receive appropriate care after being sent to state prisons but they’re often left in solitary confinement and rarely, if ever, get to speak to a mental health professional. As of February this year, two Senate state committees will be looking into Tennessee’s safekeeping law; it is currently unknown what, if any, the changes will be.

Despite the majority of western countries taking steps to ensure solitary confinement is an extreme last resort, the United States is trailing behind. Earlier this year, the British Appeals Court refused to extradite accused hacker Lauri Love to the U.S after deciding the U.S prison system would not provide the appropriate medical care for Love’s physical and mental conditions. U.S prison officials had promised to place Love in solitary confinement should he begin to display any signs that he was contemplating suicide but this is ultimately the reason why the British Appeals Court refused to extradite Love. The court agreed that suicide prevention programs in the United States are more likely to increase the likelihood of suicide.

There is an overwhelming and ever-growing amount of evidence that proves solitary confinement does not work but we still allow the practice to continue. A prisoner with mental health issues should not be deemed “problematic” and hidden away, an infraction should not result in a prolonged trip to segregation. Depriving inmates of human contact, stimulation, appropriate medical attention and even their own medication is inhumane, ineffective and immoral. We cannot expect anyone who has experienced solitary confinement to integrate back into society without additional support; we cannot place anyone in isolation and expect them to reform. Solitary confinement is not, and will never be, the answer and it’s time we banned it completely.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Over the last few months, very few art exhibitions have caught my eye. As my taste in art twists into something completely unrecognisable from just a few years ago, I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated with the exhibitions that make it to Scotland. While I always appreciate talent when I see it, I long for something with significantly more substance than another gallery wall covered in large polka dots. When I find myself jaded with the selection of art on offer, I pay a visit to Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross and marvel at the level of talent and patience required to create such an extraordinary painting.

After all these years of staring at Christ of Saint John of the Cross, I’ve been oblivious to the fact Salvador Dali became a household name after creating textiles for New York based Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics. I’ve only ever known him as a painter but the Artist Textiles exhibition at the New Lanark Visitor Centre introduced me to a whole new world of his creations.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol

While the New Lanark World Heritage Site is home to recreations of millworkers’ homes from the 18th century, historical functioning machinery and incredible views of the River Clyde, it also features a wide variety of exhibitions all year round. Until April 29th, New Lanark is playing host to over 200 rare pieces from the likes of the aforementioned Salvador Dali, pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, Cubism co-founder Pablo Picasso and Fauvism frontrunner Henri Matisse. Despite my taste in art gravitating more towards politically inspired pieces, I will always welcome the chance to gaze upon the works of the masters.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Pablo Picasso Spanish Bullfighter jacket

As soon as you walk into the building containing the Artist Textiles exhibition, you’re met with a flood of colour courtesy of designs by artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. Printed material decorate the walls while mannequins model dresses, skirts and a rather fetching Pablo Picasso waterproof jacket that wouldn’t be out of place in the muddy fields of a music festival. The exhibition is perfectly laid out which allows you to view each piece without the intrusion of the bright and often busy work of art next to it. The designs are all accompanied by a few sentences about the history and creation of the work but chances are, you won’t be able to drag your eyes away from any of the displays to actually read the words.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Pablo Picasso monochromatic jumpsuit with textiles from the 1960s

While the exhibition is fairly small, my other half and I spent two hours fully immersing ourselves in each piece. We often found ourselves wandering around displays a few times before moving on to the next part to ensure we had really taken it all in. It was the Pablo Picasso display that continued to capture my other half’s attention; he’s always been a huge fan of Picasso's art but has never been blessed with the privilege of standing in front of original pieces. Picasso’s work features prominently throughout the entire exhibition. His monochromatic design adorns a jumpsuit placed in front of two of his prints from the 1960s; one bold and colourful, one understated and geometric.

It’s not difficult to pick out the rest of Picasso’s designs once you’ve familiarised yourself with just one of his creative explosions. The entire section dedicated to him follows a natural progression from designs that wouldn’t look out of place in a primary school classroom to more sophisticated yet simple drawings of bullfighters and art inspired by Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Andy Warhol ice cream and lollipop prints on clothing.

While my other half was engrossed in the large Picasso section, it was the Andy Warhol designs that drew me in. Admittedly, I’ve never been a huge fan of Warhol’s work. My first real introduction to his art was through studying art at college. Thanks to computer software, changing photos into a typical Andy Warhol style before tracing and painting them was just a little too easy for my class and was often encouraged by our lecturers. This gave me the impression that Warhol’s work, and the entire pop art movement, was based on simplistic, straightforward lines and colour but, when you really break things down and eliminate the technology we have today, things are not as basic as my younger mind would have had me believe. The Warhol designs featured in the Artist Textiles exhibition proves how wrong I was.

The Warhol prints on display are predominately brightly coloured and, dare I say, childlike. When I initially noticed the clothing behind the glass window, I assumed they were multi-coloured patterns made up of triangles, it wasn’t until I got closer that I realised that they were in fact, beautifully bold ice cream cones and lollipops that made me crave artificially flavoured food from my childhood. While the vast majority of the pieces in the exhibition feature an abundance of colour, Warhol tops them. Each design is instantly recognisable as the work of Warhol and has given me a whole new appreciation for not only his talent but the movement he played a huge role in.

Artist Textiles Exhibition: Picasso to Warhol. Salvador Dali silk printed scarves.

While I came to the Artist Textiles exhibition expecting to pay a significant amount of attention to the Salvador Dali designs and learn more about a man I admire, I ended up walking away with a new found love of a style I once resented. Salvador Dali’s attention-grabbing silk scarf designs received my praise and admiration but it was Warhol who provided me with a new perspective. There are many highlights throughout the exhibition but ultimately, it was the bright colours and obscure patterns that won me over.

Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with the New Lanark Visitor Centre.

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