You know something is deeply wrong when people want to be transferred to death row.
Four prisoners in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary have launched a hunger strike to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement. The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. For over 17 years, they have been held in 23-hours-a-day solitary lockdown. On Monday, the four began refusing to eat meals until they are moved out of solitary confinement and onto death row, where they say they will get better treatment.
That passage above is from the intro to Amy Goodman's interview with historian and prisoners' rights activist Staughton Lynd, who says:
[T]hese men are being held in total social isolation, where they can never be in the same space as any other human being except a prison guard, because it’s feared they would once again exercise their charismatic talents and lead some sort of uprising. But as Bomani again emphasizes whenever we speak with him, how is his ability to touch the hand of his eight-year-old niece a security threat? We feel the isolation is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the more so because you can see the usual punishment by looking at the man in the next visiting booth.
The Bradley Manning case has brought attention to the form of torture known as solitary confinement. Some people here and elsewhere have responded (not unreasonably) by saying, Now you care about solitary? Now that a white solider faces these conditions, you care about solitary?
But we can and should speak out against solitary confinement regardless of its victim. It doesn't matter who the prisoner is, or what he/she has done: long-term solitary, Super-Max style, is wrong. Manning's struggle against brutal treatment is the same as that of the men in Ohio, and it should be our struggle as well.
Here's Dr. Atul Gawande, also at Democracy Now, discussing solitary in the context of the Manning case.
I was interested in whether it really was torture, and I was interested because this has become, I think, a generationally defining question for us. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, solitary confinement was very unusual. Today, we have over 50,000 people in long-term solitary confinement in our American prisons now. You know, in states like New York— it’s across every—red and blue states. We have—New York has over eight percent of its prison population in long-term solitary confinement. A large proportion—some think a majority—are not there for violent offenses, either. It’s a method of control that we regard as increasingly routine. And so, what my puzzle was, is it torture, or is it not?
And what I looked back to was the experience and the literature, which is much richer, around what hostages and prisoners of war—our Vietnam veterans, for example—experienced when they went through solitary confinement. And what’s found is that people experience solitary confinement as even more damaging than physical torture.
I suppose many Americans feel that these people deserve what they're getting, as if anyone deserves to be tortured. And I suppose many Americans feel that we're keeping ourselves safe by treating prisoners brutally, whether those prisoners are Muslim terrorist suspects in Afghanistan or white whistleblowers in a CIA brig or men locked away in American prisons.
Paul Rosenberg, who directed me to this story, writes:
This is an abominable state of affairs. We are, in effect, conducting ourselves like a nation of monsters, without really meaning to, or realizing what we are doing. Indeed, if anything we think we are protecting our loved ones--even though we are not. It is not any sort of inner monstrosity on our part that is responsible for this state of affairs. Rather, it is some sort of second cousin to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." The evil here is perhaps best thought of as the Biblical sin of sloth: we cannot be bothered to make the effort necessary to challenge our own assumptions, to disbturb our own ease with things as they are.
On January 6, Iman Siddique Abdullah Hasan (convicted as Keith LaMar), a leader of the Sunni Muslims and a negotiator for prisoners during the 1993 rebellion, will join the hunger strike. Though negotiations over the rebellion -- during which hundreds of prisoners protested their conditions -- resulted in the avoidance of a massacre, Hasan was rewarded with a death sentence. Jason Robb, an Aryan Brotherhood leader who was also a negotiator during the uprising, will begin refusing meals on January 9, and Namir Abdul Mateen (aka James Were) will join the strike to the extent that his health allows. Despite their seemingly disparate affiliations, the men have maintained a strong sense of unity ever since the 1993 rebellion.
A fifth man sentenced to death after the uprising, George Skatzes, is being housed at another prison.
In recent years, key witnesses have recanted testimony about Shakur, Hasan, Mateen and Robb’s roles in the Lucasville rebellion. Attorney Staughton Lynd has found proof that their convictions were based on the accounts of witnesses who were given reduced sentences in exchange for committing perjury.
UPDATE II. Change.org has a petition on this issue: Remove the Lucasville Four from solitary confinement.