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OUT OF CONTROL: A 15-YEAR BATTLE
AGAINST CONTROL UNIT PRISONS

 

29. CONCLUSION

October 27, 1997 demonstration at Marion.

When the three of us started this work in 1985, we did so because we believed that the United States government was perpetuating a horrible injustice on the men who were imprisoned at the United States Penitentiary at Marion. We were all frantically busy with much other political work, with families, and with sustaining our own marginalized lives. Just a big educational program, we said, and then we would get back to our regular, already overburdened, lives. Ha! Little did we realize what lay in store for us for the next 15 years, as we learned more and as the country became more and more reactionary.

As the work progressed, we were motivated by several factors. First was a humanitarian concern for those being tortured in control unit prisons. As the years went by and we were able to document what was happening, it was clear that conditions at Marion and other control unit prisons could only fairly and fully be called torture. Even Amnesty International, which would rarely criticize the U.S., reached this conclusion. Much of what horrified the world under the administration of Bush II was initiated and institutionalized at USP Marion and other control unit prisons. As we exposed the brutality of the U.S. prison system, we also believed that we were revealing the abuse of state power, a very important task in and of itself given the near universal acceptance of such abuse.

Second, we soon realized that even more was at stake—we came to understand that if Marion were left unopposed, more would follow. We referred to this as the “proliferation of the Marion model,” and, as we saw this poison spread, we became more and more alarmed. We used different formulations to talk about this phenomenon. Marion was created as the only prison in the country with a level 6 security rating. “Give us this,” they said, “and the prison system would become safer.” “No” we said, “give them this and soon we will have a level 7 prison and then a level 8 prison, etc.” “In fact,” we said, “if this continues, our children will be fighting against level 10 prisons.” The response of the Bureau of Prisons was to remove security ratings for the prisons! That’s how they dealt with that problem—rename it and deny it and the path will be cleared for the proliferation of these units.

As I noted above, we were painfully and unfortunately correct about this. Not only did federal control unit prisons proliferate, but now virtually every state system in the country is capped off by a control unit. Whether they are called Control Units, Supermax, SHU (Secure Housing Unit), ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), a skunk by any other name still stinks. As I write these words in 2011, I have just come across a Wikipedia article that reveals that prison authorities are still screwing around with names: “Although the facility no longer operates as a ‘supermax’, the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion is now home to one of two known ‘Communication Management Units’ in the federal prison system.”

A third motivating factor emerged as we came to understand the continuum of social control and repression that the prison system helped shape. As our reading about and understanding of the prison system intensified, we realized that there was virtually no connection between crime and imprisonment. Rather, imprisonment was being used as a method of social control for the most rebellious segments of society, in this case Black people and other people of color.

We reasoned and asserted that just as prisons were to control rebellion in society, control unit prisons were to control other prisons, and that the “holes” or “boxes” within control unit prisons were used to control control unit prisons, etc. Just boxes stuffed in boxes. For example, Rafael Cancel Miranda was not at all violent in prison. But he was a dignified prison leader and that made him a threat, which in turn got him sent to Marion. Sundiata Acoli was not even a federal prisoner (he was a prisoner of the state of New Jersey) and yet he got sent to Marion. Alan Berkman was incarcerated at Marion despite a seriously debilitating cancer.

The fourth motivating factor occurred when they created the control unit prison for women in the basement of Lexington prison and women’s groups and LGBTQ groups across the country joined the battle.

Finally, from the start the work was led by nationalist Black/New Afrikan and Puerto Rican organizations that we respected. If they were all in, then so were we.

For all of these reasons, and many more, that first event led to 15 years of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown—15 years of demonstrations with bus caravans that lasted 48 hours, and 15 years of paying for all of this out of our own pockets, with little enough in them to begin with.

But, as far as I am aware, no one ever doubted our mission or regretted our work and frequently magical moments entered our lives: dinner with Lolita Lebrón or Judge Bruce Wright, weekends with Mort Sobell and Dave Dellinger, demonstrating alongside Josefina Rodriguez and Rafael Cancel Miranda, and yes, visiting in prison with Alejandrina Torres and Sundiata Acoli. One time I recall picketing at USP Terre Haute in the rain. I was soaked to the core, my feet hurt, and I just wanted to get the hell home and rest. By coincidence, Rafael was walking beside me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said “Thanks for making this happen. It’s great to be here, isn’t it?” And I knew for sure that it was indeed great to be there – soggy and all.

Several factors converged and led to the demise of CEML. The government, both federal and states, with their infinite resources, was fiercely expanding the prison system generally as well as control unit prisons. With less than a dozen people, CEML was running this way and that, sticking our thumbs in the dike in the face of Florence, Westville, Tamms, and the racist imprisonment binge. Our own weakness was further highlighted by the fact that several of us at the center of the work were growing older and no longer had the kind of energy or stamina that allowed us to burn the candle at both ends.

In the end, CEML closed up shop after sustaining many losses and a few small victories. We left behind us many lessons and a lot of printed words and photographs. The purpose of this document, which has taken a year to assemble, is to share all of this with you in the hopes that we can all keep struggling against U.S. injustice and, most specifically, against the racist and brutal horror that is the U.S. prison system. The Marion Prison Rights Project and other such groups set the stage for the work of CEML. We hope that our efforts, in turn, planted seeds that contributed to the work of current prison activists and that this documentation will plant further seeds in cyberspace that will be of assistance to future activists.

 


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