Kevin Rashid Johnson and Oregon’s Isolation Torture Unit

On the blog Sketchy Thoughts, we read more background information about Virginia prisoner Rashid Johnson, incarcerated in Snake River Intensive Management Unit (IMU).

Please read it here:

sketchythoughts.blogspot.com/2013/02/kevin-rashid-johnson-and-oregons.html

The blog also mentions this article that was published yesterday:

Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confinement Units :

Dear friends of Rashid,
This essay was written by Rashid in November or early December 2012. It was transcribed in mid-December, after which (as per our usual procedure) Rashid was sent a hard copy for final edits, corrections, etc. It was sent it to him more than once and we now believe that he never received it because he usually responds quickly with his final edits, but not with this essay. Therefore, we are now publishing it anyway (without any final corrections he would have made) because it throws a lot of light on the context in which Rashid’s recent crisis has occurred. This should be circulated far and wide.
Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confinement Units

By Kevin Rashid Johnson

Introduction
I am not one prone to fits of temper. But a few days ago I almost lost it. My outrage was prompted by witnessing the steady deterioration of another prisoner, resulting from particularly acute mental torture inflicted in Oregon’s Disciplinary Segregation Units (DSU), which duplicate almost exactly conditions of torture practiced at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, that were outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1800s. [1]
The prisoner, who’d been housed in a suicide precaution cell next to me in the DSU of Oregon’s, Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI), went into an immediate depressed state upon being put into the DSU. Initially, he talked a little. Then abruptly withdrew. He stopped eating, to which the guards were unanimously indifferent. Several taunted him, “if you don’t eat it I will.” He then stuffed toilet paper and the cell’s mattress into the cracks around the edges of the door, apparently to seal off all outside sound and “barricade” himself in.
He blacked out the camera in the cell, and began talking to himself. He sat catatonic in the corner of the cell and naked for days on end. He was confronted only twice by mental health staff who indifferently left his cell when he wasn’t responsive to their half-hearted attempts to talk.
Only after I verbally protested the blatant apathy of mental health and medical staff to his condition, which was obviously due to their collaborating in his mental torture, was a nurse brought to the cell to physically examine him. Whereupon his blood pressure was found extremely low and both the nurse and accompanying guard expressed his mouth and skin showed obvious symptoms of severe dehydration – in addition to not eating, he’d also apparently not been drinking water for several days, although he was supposedly in a “monitored” cell.
The nurse had him immediately taken out of the unit, likely to the medical department since he didn’t return. The next day I was moved to another unit as well. That was on November 14th.
 A High Tide of Suicide
I never learned his full name. The guards and other officials called him only “Acosta” (presumably his last name). In the DSU where we were confined together, there are six suicide precaution cells. I was housed next to one of them.
These precaution cells have in-cell video cameras and prisoners confined to them are generally given only a blue nylon smock-like garment to wear, a nylon blanket, and a mattress. Throughout my DSU assignment at SRCI these cells were always occupied and a constantly changing rotation of prisoners were kept on watch as a result of suicide attempts and ideations. In 22 years of imprisonment, I have never seen such a consistently high and continuous series of suicide cases, which I immediately recognized to result from the extreme sensory deprivation of DSU housing.
 Compelling Idle Minds
Prior to my Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) assignment in February 2012, I’d spent 17 years in solitary confinement, enduring various extremes of sensory deprivation. During that time I witnessed numerous prisoners deteriorate mentally under the conditions of solitary. But in most cases, it took months to years because there was a limited amount of access to in-cell property and one could use the telephone periodically. However, in Oregon’s DSU nopersonal property is allowed, beyond a pen, writing paper, and, if one can afford it and has anyone to regularly correspond with, a few mailing envelopes. One cannot use the telephone to communicate with loved ones at all. One can’t have personal books even. Not even law books.
In DSU a prisoner may only receive up to three novels from a small rolling book cart kept in the unit. Many of which are missing bindings and pages. Such reading per se does little to stimulate the mind and denies one the opportunity and right to select his own subjects and fields of research and study. [2] The three novels may only be exchanged from the cart once per seek.
DSU prisoners are heard frequently complaining that having nothing else to do, they complete novels in two to three days, and are otherwise left completely idle and “bored out of their minds.” Meantime the deterioration sets in: the constant cell-pacing or catatonic states, incessantly talking to oneself, depression, irrational searches for stimulation, and of course, self mutilation and suicide attempts.
 Torture By Design
And ODOC officials know what they’re doing. They consciously use acute sensory deprivation (psychological torture) as a behavior modification technique, with the assistance of mental health staff whose professional role and concern are supposed to be maintaining prisoners in healthy mental states, notaiding in inflicting mental pain and injury on them. This is no different from the doctors and nurses who aided the gruesome medical experiments and tortures of concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany.
Indeed, I was moved from the DSU with the suicide precaution cells, when I spoke out in protest to and against one of the DSU staff, D. Jennings, as she indifferently left Acosta’s cell, asking why she was condoning his and all our mental torture under DSU conditions, referring to the high frequency of suicide attempts in the unit; and citing numerous studies of psychiatric and torture experts on sensory deprivation and its being a known form of psychological torture and one of the most hurtful and damaging forms at that. Her response was to walk away with guards laughing. She then gave me a scornful stare as she left the unit.
I’ve learned from ODOC prisoners, officials and ODOC’s own publicly accessible policies – the Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR’s) [3] – that ODOC officials very deliberately use psychological torture as a behavior modification technique, which is one reason the DSU is designed as it is. Those found in violation of minor or major prison rules are invariably sentenced to months of mental torture in DSU: typically four to six months at a time, which amounts to prolonged torture as a deterrent to rules violations.
Worse still is the ODOC’s Intensive Management Unit (IMU) where I am now confined. A housing status that lasts from seven months to indefinitely, during which a prisoner must pass through four levels – which requires that he reveal his every thought to his torturers.
Those housed in IMU who receive rules infractions are automatically placed on level one for a month, which is even more restrictive and extreme in sensory deprivation than DSU housing. And for every infraction he then receives, his level one assignment is extended. Such conditions often put prisoners struggling to maintain their sanity in a catch-22, where coping prompts resisting their torturing confinement, and that very resistance prompts infractions which intensify and prolong that confinement. [4]
On the level one IMU status, the prisoner may have only one novel per week, and cannot even come out of the cell for fresh air inside the walled-in enclosure, with only a small patch of the sky visible, that passes for an exercise yard.
Then, too, as a Security Threat Management (STM) lieutenant, Schultz, here at SRCI, boasted in my presence on September 18, 2012, he personally imposes indefinite statuses on select IMU prisoners where they are left in completely empty cells all day, given bedding and linen from 10 pm to 6 am daily, and are allowed writing supplies for no more than four hours per day. He actually admitted to me this was torture and violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights, but proclaimed himself immune from all liability (i.e. above the law), because ODOC policy empowered him to do pretty much as he pleases to prisoners as an STM official. [5]
I in turn sent Schultz a written request that same day pointing out that he wasnot in fact immune for violating the law because he believes his policy-making superiors gave him authority to do so. I then pointed out the sort of character he and his colleagues are, who presume to punish others by imprisonment for breaking laws, when they in fact have no respect for the very same laws themselves – and the highest law of the land that they are under oath to uphold at that, namely the U.S. Constitution. And although ODOC rules required that Schultz respond to my request within seven days, he never replied. [6] Yet, he sees to prisoners being tortured for them violating ODOC rules.
One prisoner who’s been confined in the ODOC for some time – Damascus Menefee – informed me of an ODOC scandal a few years back, where it was exposed in the media that several DSU and IMU prisoners had committed suicide, but were not discovered by officials for hours, because guards weren’t tending their posts and refused to make required security rounds in the housing units. As a result, the ODOC installed electronic devices in the DSUs and IMU that monitor and record the guards’ rounds in the units. What was also exposed during this scandal was that the conditions of the DSUs and IMU were causing an extremely high incidence of suicides and suicide attempts in the ODOC. However, nothing was done to change these conditions that still exist, and, as I have observed, continue to drive prisoners at an extraordinary rate into suicidal ideations and actions.
 History Repeats Itself 
As pointed out the DSU and IMU conditions replicate abuses outlawed over a century ago, at the Eastern State Penitentiary, where solitary confinement was first tried as a method of “reforming” criminals, but only proved to drive them insane.
Whereas DSU and IMU level one prisoners are locked in solitary cells with only novels, at Eastern State they were confined in solitary with only a bible to read, where they were expected to ponder and make penance (hence the name “Penitentiary”) for their wrongs. The actual effects of such confinement, as the Supreme Court found, were quite different:
“A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal were not reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of subsequent service to the community.” [7]
Unite to Fight Prison Torture
Today, as the world joins U.S. prisoners in protest against ongoing solitary confinement in prisons across the country – from the United Nations denouncing the practice of torture to mass demonstrations in support of hunger striking prisoners protesting solitary [9] — the ODOC has managed somehow to remain under the radar, where the most intense sensory deprivation is being inflicted on prisoners, and prisoners are literally dying to escape it. [10]
And it’s known torture; of the same sort inflicted in U.S. torture research labs like at Guantanamo Bay, where U.S. military personnel in collaboration with psychiatrists and psychologists, inflicted, studied and refined various methods and effects of psychological torture on detainees (especially sensory deprivation), which came out in the U.S. military torture scandals of 2004 and led to ongoing mass protests to close down Guantanamo. Professor Alfred McCoy also wrote an extensive historical study and exposure of U.S. military and CIA involvement in refining techniques of mental torture for decades.
Experts in the field know very well that sensory deprivation causes suffering and injury at least as extensive and often more severe than physical torture and injury. As psychiatrist and torture expert Dr. Albert Biderman observed:
“The effect of isolation, on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved or deprived of sleep.” [12] Furthermore, studies find that sensory deprivation inflicted in solitary confinement even briefly actually causes physical brain damage.
“EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like-tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward: the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement: without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.” [13]
As said, these hypocrites running the DOC are fully aware of what they’re doing. They know they’re engaged in torture of prisoners as lawless as if they were water boarding and electrocuting us. That they pretend to have a moral authority to punish others for breaking laws they don’t respect themselves is what fueled my outrage, as I watched others around me retreat into insanity, mentally deteriorate and literally resort to self-destruction in efforts to stop their suffering.
Here on the inside, the hypocrisy of those in power is blatant. Because we “in here” so long disconnected from those “out there” are powerless in the face of our armed captors, our torturers feel little need to sugar coat reality and hide their true face as they do with the outside masses.
Here in Oregon the public seems oblivious to the abuses carried out in their names within its prisons; abuses that also unbeknownst to them they stand to suffer from, because these tortured souls around me will be returned back to those communities from whence they left. So for the sake of all concerned, it’s in these communities’ interests to end this prison torture and hold those responsible to account.
Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People
[1] In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160 (1890).
[2] As the courts have held: “Freedom of speech is not merely freedom to speak; it is often freedom to read. . . Forbid a person to read and you shut him out of the marketplace of ideas and opinions that it is the free-speech clause to protect.” King v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 415 F. 3d 634, 638 (2005).
[3] All of the ODOC’s Oregon Administrative Rules can be read at:http://www.arcweb.sos.state.or.us. The OAR’s relevant to this article are OAR 291-011 (Disciplinary Segregation), OAR 291-055 (Intensive Management Unit), and OAR 291-069 (Security Threat Management).
[4] On this phenomenon see, Dr. Atul Gawadne, “Hellhole: the United States holds thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?” The New Yorker, March 30, 2009.
[5] See OAR on STM, op cit. note 3.
[6] Per OAR 291-109-1020 (4) ODOC staff are to reply to prisoners’ written requests (“Kytes”) within seven days.
[7] See, op cit. note 1 on page 168.
[8] On October 18, 2011 UN torture expert, Juan Méndez, denounced U.S. solitary confinement practices as torture and called on all countries to ban its practice except in extremely exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. See “UN News: Solitary Confinement Should be Banned in Most Cases, UN Expert Says,” October 18, 2011.
[9] On July 1 and September 29, 2011 six thousand and 12,000 prisoners respectively in California prisons went on hunger strikes lasting three weeks both times, protesting, among other things, long-term solitary confinement in Security Housing Units. Mass support for these hunger strikes spanned the country.
[10] A prisoner confined next to me, as I write this, witnessed two suicides occurring during or about May and July 2012 at Oregon State Correctional Institutions – Segregation Units, in Salem Oregon. This witness being Zachariah Dickson.
[11] Alfred McCoy, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror”, (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
[12] Albert Biderman, et al, “The Manipulation of Human Behavior” (New York, 1961) p. 29.
[13] Op cit. note 4.

State prisons rethink solitary confinement

This is an article from the Seattle Times:

Washington’s prisons are at the forefront of a new approach to solitary confinement, finding that a new focus on rehabilitation may calm some inmates’ behavior in prison and prevent violence once they are back on the street.

By Jonathan Martin, Seattle Times, January 7, 2013

CLALLAM BAY CORRECTIONS CENTER — Being alone in your own head 23 hours a day in a 48-square-foot poured-concrete cell makes, inmates say, the mad madder and the bad even worse.

“One guy told me he had, like, 15 faces on tissue paper, and he had names on them,” said inmate Michael Richards, who spent about seven of the last 11 years in solitary confinement at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. “He’d say, ‘Hey Bob, good morning.’ He’d talk to them through the day, just to keep that contact, because he couldn’t talk to anyone else.”

For centuries, solitary confinement has been the big stick of prisons, the harshest means to deter rule-breaking.

But the benefits are being reconsidered, and Washington state is at the forefront of a national re-examination. Instead of facing nothing but forced solitude, Washington inmates in solitary units — called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs — are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes, see counselors or hit the gym.

It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one that Washington prison managers say is rooted in data. More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behavior in the prison, and cuts violent recidivism on the streets, experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.

At Walla Walla, hard-core gang members assigned to isolation units are chained to classroom desks for nine hours a week. At the Monroe Correctional Complex, a special unit for inmates with mental illness and traumatic brain injuries — who often end up in solitary confinement — is in the works.

At Clallam Bay, once the so-called gladiator ground of the state prison system, the new approach has slowed a revolving door of hardened inmates who returned, again and again, to isolation.

“Now that we’ve got it up and running, to look at it through the rearview mirror, we wonder why didn’t we do this 10 years ago,” said Assistant Secretary Dan Pacholke, a 30-year Department of Corrections (DOC) veteran.

A failed notion

Solitary confinement’s history is a pendulum swing between concepts of punishment and rehabilitation. It was pioneered in the early 1800s so inmates, alone with just a Bible, could repent. It fell out of favor when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890 found inmates, unreformed, instead grew “violently insane” or suicidal.

It returned to wider use in the 1990s as states, drifting from rehabilitation, built “Supermax” prisons; by 2005, 40 states had at least 25,000 prisoners on lockdown 23 hours a day. A series of recent lawsuits, alleging the practice violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, led to court orders curtailing its use.

Washington avoided such lawsuits but began reconsidering solitary after violent clashes in IMU units at Shelton in the mid-1990s. About 400 of the state’s 17,500 inmates are in such units, which also house death-row prisoners and those in protective custody.

University of Washington professor David Lovell studied solitary confinement in the state under a DOC contract, and found the isolated inmates were most often gang members serving long sentences for violent crimes. Up to 45 percent were mentally ill or had traumatic brain injuries.

And once in solitary, they stayed in — for nearly a year, on average — because prison staff were reluctant to send likely violent inmates back into the general population.

Those who were released often returned, after committing new assaults on corrections officers or other inmates.

Most disturbing, Lovell found a quarter of inmates were released to the streets directly from solitary confinement. Unaccustomed to human contact, they were more prone to quickly commit new violence.

Despite those findings, Lovell, now a criminal-justice analyst in California, said inmates in isolation “are not permanently dangerous.”

“What we found most surprising was how intact many of them were” even after months of solitude, said Lovell. “It shows you that people can get used to anything. I’m not sure how heartwarming that conclusion is.”

“Time to jump”

Roy Marchand, serving 10 years for manslaughter, did 27 months in isolation, but lasted just 30 days before getting into a fight and going right back.

“The minute you think it’s disrespect time or what not, it’s time to jump, because usually the one who jumps first gets on top,” he said.

Life in solitary is spare: no personal effects except what can be posted within a 12- by 18-inch space on the wall; meals slid through a door; and one hour a day for showering or for exercise in a small, walled yard, with two officers in escort.

At Clallam Bay, the path out of isolation runs through the color-coded tiers of the Intensive Transition Program (ITP), housed since 2006 in a unit originally built for juveniles.

About 30 inmates, all volunteers, agree to a nine-month program stocked with coursework such as “moral recognition therapy” and “self-repair,” gradually earning more freedoms.

“Someone needs to say, “I want this,’ ” said IMU supervisor Steve Blakeman, bald and weathered, a corrections officer out of central casting. “The novelty of living in a box has worn off.”

Isolation has a purpose, Blakeman said, comparing it to the “adult version of having to stand in the corner.” But Lovell’s data — especially on the recidivism for those released directly to the street — was important, Blakeman said.

“These are the guys who are going to be in the grocery-store line next to your daughter one day,” he said. “This is an ethic and legal responsibility we have to the community.”

The four-step program starts in an unusual classroom: a row of steel cages, inmates chained to floor-mounted chain hooks beneath metal desks. Earnest Collins, a 24-year-old serving a life sentence for murdering a SeaTac cabdriver, volunteered after two fights earned him trips to solitary.

The program, he acknowledged, also would allow him more visits with his toddler-aged son. Family visits are highly restricted while an inmate is in isolation.

Collins insists he is “open” to change, reading, at Blakeman’s suggestion, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

“I wish life were like ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ ” said Collins, recalling a 2004 movie about a man using supernatural power to alter past events. “I wish I could go back.”

Before the program started, inmates released from isolation returned more than 50 percent of the time. Since then, 131 inmates have graduated; 107 have not returned.

“It works because it’s rational for someone to choose to live in a way that doesn’t have them locked in a hole,” said Lovell. “If you give them the choice, it’s a rational decision to make.”

Mental plight

In prison lingo, they are called “dings” — inmates suffering psychotic episodes, banging on sinks, smearing feces on themselves and their walls, shouting in their solo cells. Inmates with mental illness have historically clustered in isolation units, sometimes because of their behavior, sometimes voluntarily checking into protective custody.

Clallam Bay’s ITP has two staff psychologists, one of the biggest added costs.

Pacholke, the assistant DOC secretary, said the planned isolation unit at Monroe for inmates with mental illness or traumatic brain injuries will include group mental-health care, a result of work with disability advocates. “You want to somewhat create a safe harbor,” he said.
Read the rest here:

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2020081649_prison08m.html

WA Prisoner wins PEN Writing Contest: Walla Walla IMU

Voices from Solitary: Walla Walla IMU
August 28, 2010

Arthur Longworth was awarded First Place in memoir in the PEN American Center’s 2010 Prison Writing Contest, for his piece about life in solitary confinement in the Intensive Management Unit, or IMU, at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Longworth provides this biography on the PEN website: “I am a forty-five year old state-raised prisoner. And, I will not be silent. Most of the time I have spent at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, WA—which is also the subject of my essay. Entering the prison with only a 7th-grade education, I taught myself to write by reading books from the prison library. I work as a Spanish language translator.”

The bread is moving. A small piece broken off of what was pushed through the narrow cuffport to me earlier that morning. A horde of tiny red ants have surrounded it, are beneath it, hefting it up on little ant shoulders as they struggle to carry it back to where they live, a crack in the concrete floor a short distance away. Their task appears impossible. But the bread, I know, will soon make it to the crack. It always does.

Why do I do this? My mind searches for an answer as I continue watching the ants, looking down at them from where I sit cross-legged on the cell floor in stinking orange coveralls. Because they’re living beings? In some way like me?

Another question rises in my mind, piqued by the ones before it. “I am still alive, aren’t I?” And as ridiculous as the question seems, it holds my attention because it’s hard for me to be certain of anything in this place anymore. I haven’t spoken in months. What do I actually have to verify that I am still alive? A heartbeat? It strikes me that someone dead may still perceive his heart as beating. Breath? Dead people probably think they’re breathing too.

I look at the heavy steel cell door beside me. That is something—what keeps me sealed inside this concrete box, this IMU cell. If I am no longer alive, would it still do this to me? God, I hope not. I motherfucking hope not. The thought scares me. Deepens despair. Hell, in my mind, not the fiery nether world of Christianity. How can I adopt an abstract when I know something worse, a thousand times more concrete?…

Read the rest here.