Friday, October 07, 2011

Julian Assange: Facing The Future in a US Supermax Prison?

This is the follow on article to the Julian Assange piece below. Its purpose is twofold, to blow away the myth that the sole purpose of supermax facilities is to hold the baddest of the bad, because they are not. Designed with that purpose in mind, undoubtedly, but now employed just as much to punish any inmate, anywhere within the correctional system, who doesn't toe the line.

The other reason for offering this article up, is to highlight the kind of brutal and inhumane punishment that would, not may, await Julian Assange should he ever be extradited to the US, particularly when Assange is given the status of terrorist. And that's not another maybe, believe me, that's a foregone conclusion.

AS the writer notes:

Like Marion and Alcatraz before it, the Florence ADX is likely to hold those imprisoned for their political actions and beliefs: lifelong activists for Puerto Rican independence, Native American sovereignty, Black liberation, and anti-imperialism. The prison system treats these activists with special severity. Despite claims by the Bureau of Prisons that control units are designed for dangerous inmates incapable of coexisting in the general population, political prisoners often face isolation with no disciplinary charges against them whatsoever

Little wonder that Timothy Mcveigh waived his right to appeal and embraced his execution. They strap you to a gurny, they can only kill you once. Spend your life in a supermax, they kill you anew, every day. If you read the complete article, you may understand what I'm talking about. Though I must stress, this is a far milder article than some I could have made use of. See below for others.

Drawings by America’s most isolated prisoner, Tommy Silverstein. More of him and other links below.

Shackled justice: Florence federal penitentiary and the new politics of punishment.

"All of us share a common curse," bemoaned President Clinton as he urged the passage of his fledgling crime bill. "In the most wonderful country in the world, we have the highest violent crime rate, the largest percentage of our people behind bars" (Denver Post, April 15, 1994). As with other U.S. leaders, however, the "New Democrat" president could not be expected to address the fundamental social fissures that simultaneously foster a terrifying plague of violence while building an increasingly policed and criminalized society. Instead, Clinton's quizzical solution to crime and excessive incarceration, as he defines them, has been a retrenchment of the preceding regime - marginalizing still broader sectors of U.S. society and expanding the state's powers of coercion to control those subsequently labeled as criminal.

The overarching effects of this law-and-order strategy toward governance have already been catastrophic. The U.S. imprisons some 560 of every 100,000 citizens and the proportion increases each year (New York Times, October 28, 1994). While critiquing the broad impacts of an increasingly punitive state, however, it is also important to analyze its localized manifestations. It is crucial to study not only the social and political forces behind the new politics of punishment, but also their smaller-scale and largely autonomous institutions. The billions Congress and state legislatures allocate to law enforcement and incarceration create and maintain individual penal institutions, from local jails to federal prisons, each caught within the matrix of the dominant social order. Together they profoundly control the lives of more than 1.5 million individuals, yet they are largely hidden from public view and critique (New York Times, October 28, 1994). One such institution is the newly opened control-unit prison in Florence, Colorado.

The new supermaximum-security prison is actually one of four facilities, which together make up the largest federal prison complex in the United States. When completely filled in early 1995, the entire "campus" will incarcerate some 3,000 inmates in four institutions: a minimum-security federal prison camp, a medium-security federal correctional institution (FCI), a maximum-security United States penitentiary, and an administrative-maximum, control-unit prison (ADX).

It has been an economic boon for economically depressed central Colorado and the prison promises 750 permanent jobs to this small, rural community. Florence has been long strapped by factory layoffs and throughout the 1980s most local families earned less than $15,000 a year (O'Keeffe, 1991a: 1; Bureau of Prisons, 1989: II-40). Already accustomed to a number of state prisons in the area, the town lobbied hard for the complex. A local newspaper poll found 97% support for the project, and despite the area's meager resources, Florence pulled together an attractive incentives package (O'Keeffe, 1991a: 1). Local citizens held bake sales and sold T-shirts, raising $128,000 to purchase land for the economy-boosting site (Denver Post, May 17, 1991). It is not often that a community asks for a prison to be built next door, and as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) scrambled to contain a soaring prison population, it eventually accepted their offer. Construction of the $222 million compound began in 1990 (Denver Post, October 27, 1994). Today Florence's Fremont county boasts the highest concentration of inmates in the United States.

While prison officials and local residents found a convergence of interests in Florence, prisoners and their advocates are not nearly as enthusiastic. Activists for human rights and social justice are especially concerned about the ADX control unit, slotted to become the highest security and most regimented prison in the United States. The Bureau of Prisons designed Florence as a high-tech replacement for its infamous lock-down prison in Marion, Illinois. After a decade of stinging lawsuits and public protest there, the prisoncrats promised a kinder, gentler supermaximum prison in Florence. As the 554-cell men's control unit began to accept prisoners in early December 1994, however, all indications are that the prison will not reform the punitive Marion model of total isolation and sensory deprivation, but will intensify it. For those concerned with social justice, an understanding of the new prison and the gamut of policies it embodies is crucial. Florence represents the cutting edge of U.S. social control. Not only will dozens of incarcerated political activists likely be moved to the prison, but its construction also underlines the government's reaction to infrastructural decay and a growing domestic underclass.

The Marion Model

The Marion model for control-unit prisons originated within the Bureau of Prisons some 30 years ago. At a 1963 conference in Puerto Rico, prison administrators sought to cope with the closure of Alcatraz by dispersing "problem prisoners" throughout the federal system and experimenting with psychological rehabilitation programs (Ward and Carlson, 1994: 3). With the rise of national liberation movements, however, and especially after the Attica uprising of 1971, U.S. power brokers soon missed the ability of Alcatraz to isolate and rigidly control those who most articulately and effectively opposed their role. In an era of Increasing economic stratification and civil disorder, they moved to create embryonic institutions of social control for whatever perilous conditions the future might hold.

At Marion, the Bureau of Prisons began by reconcentrating high-security inmates in a new long-term control unit and forcibly enrolling them in the systematic Control and Rehabilitation Effort (CARE) (Dowker and Good, 1993: 2). With this behavior modification experiment underway, Marion became the "end of the line" for federal prisoners. By the dawn of the Reagan era, when warden Harold Miller assumed the helm, Bureau of Prisons' plans were already underway to convert Marion into a permanent isolation facility (Dunne, 1992: 40). It was a gradual transformation, and as prisoners resisted the erosion of their already limited civil rights, prison administrators justified each new step. After a long 1980 work strike, for example, the Bureau of Prisons permanently closed Marion's prison factory. The atmosphere became increasingly coercive and as guard violence, religious persecution, and other maladies increased, Warden Miller began the final crackdown.(1)

The immediate pretense was a series of murders inside. On October 22, 1980, prisoners in the control unit separately stabbed two guards to death. Four days later, a prisoner was found murdered in his cell (Dowker and Good, 1993: 3). Although two perpetrators were brought to trial and convicted of murder, Miller placed the entire prison under a state of emergency on October 28. The Bureau of prisons transferred riot squads with names like the "A-Team" and "Blue Thunder" from other prisons and a comprehensive shakedown began on November 2 (Dunne, 1992: 52). With every prisoner locked 24 hours a day in solitary cells, guards began a veritable reign of terror more violent than anything since the Attica rebellion. Guards in full riot gear removed their name tags and moved cell by cell through the prison, extracting and beating inmates and confiscating their property (Amnesty International, 1987: 1).

The case of Garvin Dale White is a poignant example. After refusing a rectal examination during the crackdown, he was beaten, forcibly x-ray searched, and locked naked in a "dry cell," with no heat, water, or toilet for four days. He was manacled the entire time (Dunne, 1992:53). Overall, there were 110 complaints of physical abuse filed, none of which resulted in legal or personnel disciplinary action (Ibid.).

After several weeks of total lockdown, Marion settled into its present conditions. It has served as the cutting-edge model for control-unit prisons ever since, dispensing entirely with the seemingly anachronistic rhetoric of rehabilitation and linking punishment to every aspect of prisoners' lives. Today, Marion prisoners spend 23 hours each day in their cells alone. There are limited educational and religious services, no central library, and no job-training program. In the most controlled cell block, inmates are allowed only one 10-minute phone call each month, three showers per week, and they can never move from their cells without shackles and handcuffs. At any sign of resistance, the prison's Special Operations Response Team (SORT) uses "whatever force is necessary" to restore order, including chaining prisoners to their beds for days at a time (ABC's "20/20," 1988). All this is at the cost of $40,000 per prisoner every year. "Marion is an experiment," Chicago Lawyer Jan Susler comments, "to see how much a prisoner can take before he breaks, to see how far they can dehumanize somebody before they completely lose their sanity" (Washington Post, May 28, 1991).

The effects of Marion and other control units on prisoner psychology are predictably profound. As early as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that extended solitary confinement was "infamous punishment," leading to severe mental impairment (Haney, 1993: 5). More recently, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported significant psychological problems after less than two months of solitary confinement. Their observations, made at the Walpole Massachusetts Control Unit, included hallucinations, anxiety attacks, memory and concentration lapses, problems with impulse control, self-mutilation, and other diagnosable disorders (Grassian, 1983: 1450-1454). An Iowa prisoner in his fourth year of segregation wrote, "I remember waking full of stress that the veins in my head were vibrantly muscles having an involuntary spasm" (Stewart, 1990).

Conditions in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California's Pelican Bay prison are so severe that Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian characterizes their effects as a unique illness (Bierma, 1994: 26). In accordance with a federal class-action lawsuit against the prison, Grassian interviewed 50 Pelican Bay inmates last year. He testified that 80% of them suffer from what he calls "SHU syndrome," in which they either become mentally ill once in the unit or their preexisting disorders are severely exacerbated. "Many of the inmates at Pelican Bay were among the most severely ill of people I've encountered in my research and observation," Grassian says. Pelican Bay does not rehabilitate. Instead, Grassian explains, the prison "takes the most out-of-control of the prison population and makes them much more out-of-control by the time they leave" (Ibid.). An isolation prisoner inside the unit writes, "It's like we're dead.... They've taken away everything that might give a little purpose to your life" (Haney, 1993: 5).

The newest facilities are unique in their application of sophisticated technology to control prisoners' routines, movements, and even thoughts more than ever before. At Pelican Bay, for example, electronic surveillance, automatic doors, and intercoms have replaced many guard duties. Silence reigns at the futuristic SHU where prisoners never see natural light and are prohibited from decorating their windowless cells (Weinstein and Cummins, 1993: 39). In a new supermaximum facility run by the State of Colorado, lights stay on around the clock and a single 3.5 inch by 3.5 foot window provides narrow vistas of a brick wall (Daily Camera, 1993).

Of course, it is not only technology that confines control-unit inmates; the threat of physical violence is a constant component in institutions of such rigidity. Inmates can be "extracted" from their cells by SORT teams for any number of reasons, including insolence, excessive noise, refusal to eat, and other infractions. Other times guards may shackle inmates to their beds, and reports of beatings and assaults with rubber-bullet guns are not uncommon (testimony at the National Lawyer's Guild Convention, August 1994). Most attacks result in relatively minor injuries that the prison hierarchy can easily ignore, but occasionally the inherent violence of control units spills beyond the confines of invisibility.

On April 22, 1992, for example, Vaughn Dortch was stripped naked and pulled out of his cell by a Pelican Bay SORT squad. According to court records, prison guards then carried Dortch shackled and gagged to the infirmary where six guards pressed him into a steel tub of scalding hot water for several minutes. Dortch, who is African American, told "60 Minutes" that the guards promised to give him a "Klan bath" and scrubbed him with a bristle brush until his skin started to peel away. "Looks like we're going to have a white boy before this is through," one of the assailants joked. Dortch received second and third-degree burns over 30% of his body (Bienna, 1994: 26).

Even without considering such wanton acts of violence, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned such control units based on their design and purpose alone. In the Pelican Bay case (Madrid v. Gomez), U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled on January 13, 1995, that the California Super-Max violates constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. "Dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that [state officials'] unconstitutional policies leave in their wake," Henderson wrote in his 345-page decision. "The anguish of descending into serious mental illness, the pain of physical abuse or the torment of having serious mental needs that simply go unmet is profoundly difficult, if not impossible, to fully fathom" (Associated Press, January 14, 1995). Despite his harsh words, Judge Henderson's ruling was unfortunately narrow, limiting legal action to ameliorating inadequate medical care rather than addressing the policies of the control unit as a whole. Meanwhile, the Marion model continues to expand rapidly.(2) By 1991, there were control-unit prisons in 36 states, isolating over 18,000 people, and nearly every state has plans for further construction (Daily Camera, August 29, 1993).

The Crime of Punishment

The steady deterioration in U.S. prison conditions has not occurred in isolation. After a decade of Republican rule and economic stratification, it is only natural that the decay and violence on the outside would be magnified within prison walls. Between 1980 and 1990, the richest one percent in the United States saw their after-tax income grow by nearly 90%, while the majority sank into unemployment and growing poverty (Sklar, 1991: 10-12). Such statistics reflect the economic misery of millions of North Americans, sparking the rage and alienation that institutions like Florence scramble to control. As neither Reagan nor Clintonomics care to address this economic underdevelopment, their policies favor social control over social reform.

Reagan launched the "drug war" in the early 1980s and mainstream politicians have jumped on the increasingly coercive bandwagon ever since. Capitalizing on real public victimization, especially that in poor, urban communities, Congress and state legislatures have passed dozens of "get-tough" crime bills, imposing limitations on legal appeals, mandatory sentencing guidelines, more money for police with liberalized mandates, and especially for more prisons. While debating the federal crime package, Senator Joseph Biden described the prevailing zeitgeist: "There is a mood here that if someone came to the floor and said we should barbwire the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I think it would pass" (Denver Post, November 10, 1993).(3)

California alone has enacted more than 1,000 crime laws since the 1970s, and its prison budget now eclipses funding for the University of California system (Denver Post, May 15, 1994). There are now 28 prisons in California, but if the state is to comply with the much touted "three-strikes-and-your-out" legislation, the state will need at least 20 more prisons by the end of the century. If the current incarceration growth rate continues, the state will need an additional 80 prisons over the next 30 years. The cost to California tax payers will be at least $24,000 per prisoner per year after construction costs, some of which will be spent for the entirety of prisoners' lives (Denver Post, May 15, 1994).

The results of this mostly bipartisan crime strategy, pursued through a string of administrations and congressional sessions across the country, are staggering. The United States now incarcerates at a higher rate than any country except Russia, and new crime legislation makes room for thousands more (New York Times, October 28, 1994).(4) Indeed, the medium- and maximum-security facilities at Florence and every new federal prison built are already filled beyond capacity (Bowers, 1993: 7).

This phenomenal growth, almost tripling since 1980, has little to do with crime. In fact, while politicians have polished their cavalier images, crime statistics have generally fallen or remained static. The two-decade National Crime Victimization Survey, for example, indicates a 29% drop in crime across the United States since 1974 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993). For violent crime in specific, the rates have remained relatively flat, certainly representing elevated totals compared to most of the world, but hardly indicative of a new and escalating crisis.

Moreover, contrary to conventional media wisdom, the primary victims of crime have remained constant throughout the shift in U.S. crime policy. The only demographic group to actually suffer an increase in murder and other violent crimes over the last 20 years, for example, are urban teens, especially African American youth (Ibid.). For children, women, and almost everyone else, the most dangerous places in North America are still the home and workplace. There, reported rates of domestic violence, marital and acquaintance rape, and sexual assault and harassment remain epidemic. Domestic violence is the number one cause of injury to women aged 15 to 24, representing an impact greater than that of auto accidents and cancer combined (Denver Post, July 31, 1994). Most socially and environmentally egregious activity, especially that involving legitimized corporate pursuits, is not even defined as criminal.

These domestic and profiteering perpetrators have not been the focus of the anti-crime movement because addressing crime and violence is not its primary objective. Instead, the latest law-and-order regime traces its roots to politics and social control. As Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project reminds us, "the politics of [crime] shows the data don't have much impact on the debate" (Denver Post, May 15, 1994). Yet the rhetoric of obfuscation has proved an incredibly effective political strategy for Democrats and Republicans alike, falsely diagnosing social maladies from painfully real symptoms and deflecting attention from the country's more deep-rooted and tangible concerns.

For people of color and others living in marginalized communities, the fear of crime victimization is compounded by the fear of police forces that function more as armies of occupation than keepers of the peace. People of color are not only the primary victims of crime, they are also the primary targets of the new law-and-order regime. They face discriminatory treatment at every level of the criminal justice system, from police harassment and brutality to racially charged congressional legislation and hostile Supreme Court rulings.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, racial disparity in the judiciary has only deteriorated. In 1984, the average prison sentence was 28% higher for African Americans than for whites. With the escalation of the "drug war," the disparity grew to 49% by 1990 (Meierhoefer, 1992: 20-21). Mandatory sentencing guidelines, ostensibly designed to alleviate such penal subjectivity, have actually exacerbated the situation (McDonald and Carlson, 1993: 177). In 1990, Latino offenders were 28% more likely than whites to receive mandatory sentences (Vincent and Hofer, 1994: 24). Once they are in prison, people of color are the last to leave. African American women, for example, are eight times more likely to be sentenced to prison than white women and they serve 30% more time once inside (Kurshan, 1992: 346).

Such oppressive conditions, both inside and outside the prison system, have always sparked popular resistance that institutions like Florence are designed to control. Like Marion and Alcatraz before it, the Florence ADX is likely to hold those imprisoned for their political actions and beliefs: lifelong activists for Puerto Rican independence, Native American sovereignty, Black liberation, and anti-imperialism. The prison system treats these activists with special severity. Despite claims by the Bureau of Prisons that control units are designed for dangerous inmates incapable of coexisting in the general population, political prisoners often face isolation with no disciplinary charges against them whatsoever. When Silvia Baraldini, Alejandrina Torres, and Susan Rosenberg were sent to the Lexington High Security Unit (a rigid control unit for women isolated 30 feet below ground), prison staff informed them that their pass into the unit was "one way" unless they changed their political affiliations (Rosenberg, 1992: 128).(5) The new Florence ADX warden, Jim Story, admits that prisoners will be sent to the control unit for being the "leader or significant participant in a work or food strike" (Story, 1994a).

The Florentine Solution

Prison officials and their media supporters have tried to distance Florence from its problematic predecessor and accompanying political baggage. Administrative maximum facilities, they say, are an unfortunate necessity, housing only the most "predatory" criminals (Bureau of Prisons, 1992: 1). They offer mostly anecdotal evidence, emphasizing details of proverbial prisoner brutality rather than case studies or statistical data. The Denver Post, for example, introduced the ADX with mug shots of Manuel Noriega, John Gotti, and assorted neo-Nazis and serial killers (Denver Post, May 17, 1992). Thus, prisoncrats leave the impression that only the "worst-of-the-worst" will ever reach the ADX. By concentrating such super criminals in a single prison, a Bureau of Prisons Congressional Affairs memorandum argues, they decrease violence throughout the prison system (Bureau of Prisons, 1992:11-14).

As proof of their benign intentions, the Bureau of Prisons claims that most inmates have been downgraded from Marion since the 1983 lockdown. The 21 original prisoners who still remain, of course, have been locked down now for more than a decade (Ibid.: 9). Contrary to Bureau of Prisons assertions, shipment to an ADX requires less than grisly stardom. In fact, the designation of a prisoner's security level is an arbitrary process, and anyone who antagonizes prison officials, through prison organizing, legal work, verbal defiance, political affiliation, or, more rarely, through actual violence, can be labeled an acute security risk. Dan Dove, Chief of Bureau of Prisons Public Affairs, concedes that there is no judicial oversight in determining who will be sent to the Florence ADX. "Inmates may be represented by a staff member at these hearings," he writes, "but there is no provision for attorney representation" (Dove, 1993: 3). A 1985 congressional report on this wholly internal process determined that 80% of Marion inmates merited a less severe security rating (O'Keeffe, 1991b: 13).

Prison officials assert, however, that Marion is perfectly fair and operates within constitutional guidelines. (They make no mention of international guidelines.) Florence, they say, will be even better. Unlike Marion, the new ADX is designed as a supermaximum prison. Bureau of Prisons literature cites new technology as the key, allowing Florence to function securely without bed restraining loops and standard shackling for any movement. Like Marion, Florence will operate on various security levels, ostensibly allowing inmates to work their way toward release through long-term cooperative behavior (Dove, 1992: 2).(6) During construction, Florence project manager Russ Martin summarized the Florence Renaissance approach: "The entire design of the facility is to create a more humane environment, to take away the dungeon effect" (O'Keeffe, 1991b: 13). Reading Bureau of Prisons media releases, one almost envisions Florence, where cells are "rooms" and inmates work toward completion of their "institutional careers," as a beacon of New Age corrections. October 1993 was even "Hispanic Heritage Month" at the prison (FCI/FPC Florence, 1993: 1).

A glance inside is more reminiscent of the rack. The Florence ADX penitentiary sits in the southeast corner of the four-prison complex. It is an imposing triangle of X-shaped cell blocks, surrounded by double 20-foot fences interwoven with 10 rows of razor wire.(7) Two perimeter roads, 8,000-watt lights, microwave sensors, anti-escape trip wires, and six sniper towers separate the ADX from the other facilities. Prisoners are unlikely ever to reach this dead space since the prison walls themselves serve as the primary perimeter, containing the limited recreation areas and everything else. Guards and visitors enter the prison through a tunnel.

Countering charges of sensory deprivation, Bureau of Prisons officials always note that Marion's cells close with open bars, allowing communication and free air flow (Bureau of Prisons, 1992:4). They have eliminated even this vestige of humanity at Florence. Cells in the six isolation units measure less than 90 square feet each and lock with a solid steel door (Bureau of Prisons, 1994: 2). Each cell contains a three-foot-wide cement bed slab, a concrete stool and desk, a steel sink and toilet, and a three-by-three shower stall. A fluorescent light panel glares from the wall, illuminating other amenities like an electric cigarette lighter, an inmate duress switch (since the cells are essentially soundproof), an air grate, and, in some cells, a small television. Double doors shrink the cells by another three feet, trapping unreachable space between bars and the outer door. Only two window slits allow external light into the cage, one on the steel door staring into the empty hallway and another body-length sliver facing an empty courtyard. The shower, along with food slots in the door, allow for total isolation. Even psychological counseling can be a solitary experience in the ADX. Warden Bill Story promises that health care will be "consistent with community standards" and that those inmates deemed too dangerous to leave their cells can receive religious or psychological guidance from "professional staff" over closed-circuit television (Story, 1994b).

When and if prisoners are allowed out of their cells, they will have little to celebrate. Visits in the control blocks will be tightly regimented and only allowed through Plexiglas dividers. There will be no joint religious services of any faith and educational programs will be restricted beyond GED work (Dove, 1992: 3). Not even demeaning work assignments will break the monotony of isolation for most of the prisoners (Ibid.). In the worst units, inmates will exercise alone in a pod barely twice the size of their cages, some for only five hours per week (Bureau of Prisons, 1994: 3).

Thus, the Florence ADX's very layout determines that it can be nothing but a chamber of sensory deprivation, designed to press inmates to the brink of insanity by its very architecture. Modern electronics allow constant surveillance and supervision while prisoners themselves remain physically invisible, locked away from any direct human view or contact in compartments of solid steel.

Prisoners arriving en masse from Marion are finding many of their worst fears confirmed. While Marion was a uniquely despised locale, some newly arrived prisoners find themselves expressing an ironic and disturbing nostalgia. One prisoner wrote in early January:

It could be said that I've gone from the cauldrons of Hell in Marion right into Hell's fire in Florence. In Marion prisoners had access and gave support to each other. Even though it was limited to the unit, there was solidarity among prisoners. And at least once a week prisoners had access to the yard, where there was grass and from where we could see the forest, birds, and once in a while, a deer. But the Florence ADX is a cement and steel box designed for sensory deprivation.(8)

Though there were just over 50 inmates (out of an anticipated population of at least 484) in the ADX at the end of 1994 and prisoners remain optimistic that Florence guards may prove themselves to be more professional than their Marion counterparts, reports of staff abuses have already surfaced. Prisoners complain of repeated strip searches before and after visits (despite the absence of physical contact with anyone except prison staff), excessive shackling for any movement, and intentional sleep deprivation, with guards waking some prisoners every hour throughout the night. "The reality of sleep and sensory deprivation supersedes anything I've ever seen," writes a new arrival from Marion, "and that includes Pelican Bay."

Trapped in Toxicity

Florence shares not only cruelty with Marion, but also its environmental woes. At Marion, contamination surfaced as early as 1984, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed Crab Orchid Lake, a nearby water source, on its National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup (Rocawich, 1989: 24). Elevated PCBs and other toxins convinced the town to switch to an alternate water supply and guards began carrying bottled water to work (Ibid.). As the prison constituted a "community" of less than 10,000 people, however, it fell outside national safety guidelines. In addition to the PCB's, banned in 1976 because of their excessive toxicity, EPA tests found other carcinogens in Marion's water, including chloroform and trihalomethanes (Berkman and Clapp, 1989: 1). In 1986, chloroform levels were more than a thousand times higher than established safety limits (Ibid.: 2). However, Marion administrators took no action on behalf of the prisoners until 1992, consistently denying any contamination or safety risks (Bureau of Prisons, 1992: 18). Meanwhile, for over a decade Marion prisoners consumed contaminated water every day. Several prisoners and their supporters filed lawsuits against the prison, including Robert Wyler, who has since died of kidney cancer (Ibid.: 2-3).

Marion's history of environmental neglect may foreshadow similar events at Florence. Five miles due west of the new prison complex lies the Cotter Uranium Processing Facility, another EPA Superfund site. Cotter began operating the mill in 1958, processing uranium ore into purified uranium oxide "yellowcake" (Ibid.). Cotter stored the cakes - including original Manhattan Project ore with some of the highest concentrations of Thorium-230 and Protactinium-231 known - in giant, unlined tailings ponds (Dodge v. Cotter, 1991: 3). Later, after the ponds were lined, there were over 70 leaks reported at Cotter between 1980 and 1986 (Colorado Attorney General's Office, 1986: 3-28). Until its suspension of operations in 1987, Cotter accumulated approximately 3.5 million tons of radio-active tailings, storing them over 135 acres near Canon City and Florence (Dodge v. Cotter, 1991: 4).

The surrounding communities suffer contamination both through their water and air. Toxic compounds leak into the underground water supply through the unlined ponds and also into the Arkansas River. According to a state-commissioned investigation, the nearby housing development of Lincoln Park has radioactive levels 2,000 times higher than normal background amounts (Colorado Attorney General's Office, 1986: 4). During the irrigation season, the Cotter drainage spills into the Fremont ditch, floating radioactivity directly toward the Florence water supply (Ibid.: 6-11; 6-18). Studies along the Fremont ditch found elevated levels of molybdenum, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants. Molybdenum levels were even higher than those much closer to the mill site (Ibid.: 6-19). Additional allegations that Cotter may have dumped tailings and other waste down abandoned mine shafts to circumvent federal safety standards raise the specter of even worse contamination, perhaps of the entire aquifer (Cotter v. Dodge, 1991: 6).(9) The Bureau of prisons, final Environmental Impact Statement worries that the prison's water supply may have to be rerouted in the future due to "pollution" problems (Bureau of Prisons, 1989: II-45).

The mill also endangers the surrounding communities and the prison population with airborne particulates. Cotter itself estimates that over 19.9 tons of radioactive dust escaped the plant during each year of its operation. In the arid plains, these particles are especially mobile and the prison lies directly in Cotter's secondary wind pattern, subject to gusts of radium, uranium, thorium, and other grains (Colorado Attorney General's Office, 1988). Cotter's continual negligence, even to the point of spilling tailings from railroad cars in downtown Canon City, has prompted several lawsuits on behalf of the EPA and state and local residents ("EPA Eyes Cleanup of Radioactive Soil," 1991). In 1988, Cotter settled a $550 million government suit out of court and has agreed to finance its own cleanup under state supervision. In February 1994, a federal jury awarded $80,000 to eight Lincoln Part plaintiffs for claims associated with the site (Daily Camera, February 17, 1994). There have been no suits filed on behalf of Florence prisoners and since carcinogens may take years to complete their work, any court action may be long delayed.

That the government has expressed little concern for prisoners' environmental safety (or even that of the guards) should come as no surprise. Dozens of prisons have even worse environmental records. The Michigan State Prison in Jackson, for example, was fined $160,000 for illegally storing DDT and Agent Orange (Elvin, 1991: 13). At the state prison in Florence, Arizona, a visiting room sign warns: "If you are pregnant or of childbearing age, do not drink the water" (Ibid.).(10) In these actions, federal and state prisons only mimic corporate behavior across the country, dumping their waste based on a given community's resources and ability to respond. Consequently, prisoners, people of color, and poor communities like Florence bear the brunt of environmental degradation.

Cracks in the Bastille

Prisoners and prison activists have not accepted human rights violations, racism, and toxic exposure quietly. Only a few months after the minimum security camp opened in Florence, inmates organized a food strike to protest inadequate services at the new prison. The largest disturbance at Florence to date came in late February 1994, when medium-security prisoners rioted for several hours, smashing windows and computer equipment, and setting small fires throughout the building (Daily Camera, March 1, 1994). Prisoners at Florence and other federal institutions warn that overcrowding, continual harassment, and ever-harsher sentencing have pushed prison populations to the brink of explosion.

The tensions of overcrowding and mismanagement have affected prison staff as well. Nineteen Florence employees asked for a federal investigation into racial harassment at the prison in October 1993. Four of the whistle-blowers, all African Americans, have since been disciplined by FCI warden Tom Wooten. Charging the four with dubious rules violations, Wooten placed them on indefinite paid suspension and has refused further comment on the case and other management complaints (Rocky Mountain News, February 27, 1994).

I don't know what to make of this; bizarre, imagination, or a sense of humour? Or none of these.

Controversy has erupted on the outside as well, and organized resistance to prison racism and control units has escalated steadily over the last two years. The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), founded in 1985 to oppose Marion abuses, has shifted much of its focus to Florence and produces information packets and visits Colorado several times. Committee activists visited Pueblo, Colorado, and surrounding communities as early as 1988 to oppose the ADX construction and to network with local human rights activists.

In Colorado, various organizations formed a statewide coalition to oppose control-unit prisons and political imprisonment in 1992. Labeled Abolish Control Unit Torture (ACUT), the coalition publishes a bimonthly newsletter, serves as an information clearing house, and organizes demonstrations, speaking tours, and other community events.

In October 1993, ACUT and the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional Mexicano (MLNM) invited former political prisoner Rafael Cancel Miranda to Colorado to lead a demonstration at Florence. Cancel Miranda, along with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, spent 25 years in the worst U.S. prisons, from Alcatraz to Marion, for a 1954 attack on the U.S. House of Representatives.

Over 300 people converged at Florence on October 23, 1993, for a mass rally and march to the prison gates. In addition to the activists from across Colorado, several vans arrived from Chicago as well, carrying representatives of the CEML, the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and POWs, and relatives of several Marion prisoners. As the demonstration concluded, Cancel Miranda pointed to police and prison guards, urging them to realize their positions as pawns in oppression. "Florence was built for all of us," he said, and "while it stands, none of us are free."

At the National Lawyers Guild 1994 convention in Albuquerque, prison activists from around the country gathered to share information and strategy. Planned for the future is an on-line control-unit information network, long-term research and legal assistance projects, and a national day of action in Washington, D.C., scheduled for July 17, 1995. Working to coordinate the Washington demonstration and to form a comprehensive control-unit monitoring project, organizers held a national conference in Philadelphia in early December 1994. In Colorado, activists kept up the pressure as the ADX opened surreptitiously in early December, holding a large regional rally at the prison gates on December 10.

Resistance to the Florence supermaximum prison will continue as the U.S. prison population swells. It is projected to surpass two million human beings as anti-crime hysteria swings the political mainstream to the racist right. The Florence ADX is the quintessential embodiment of this oppression, destroying individual spirits through isolation terror and locking broad issues of social justice together within its gates. It represents the denial of justice to everyone in the United States - especially people of color and the poor - through environmental destruction and negligence, obfuscation of the real socioeconomic roots of crime, and political violence against those who dare to resist. The fight against Florence, therefore, is more than a struggle for individual human rights and dignity; it is a struggle for our collective survival. As Malcolm X summarized prison politics in the United States, "Don't be surprised when I say I was in prison. We've all been in prison. That's what America means - prison." The Free Library + notes and refs

Solitary: The Works of Tommy Silverstein

America’s “Most Isolated Man” Sues the Bureau of Prisons

Judge tosses suit of inmate long held in solitary Everything you wanted to know about man's inhumanity to man. (both ways I guess)

Confronting Torture in U.S. Prisons: A Q&A With Solitary Watch


Anonymous said...

Minus three point six

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